A new way is needed to help Burma’s people
November 18, 2008
Humanitarian aid will at least improve the daily lives of the Burmese.
THE SENTENCING of more than 30 Burmese dissidents to up to 65 years in prison for their part in last year’s anti-Government demonstrations sends a strong message to pro-democracy campaigners inside Burma and their supporters abroad. And the message is simple: no amount of internal agitation or external pressure is going to deter the country’s armed forces from perpetuating their rule through the creation of a military-dominated parliament in 2010.
Since 1988, when Burma’s armed forces crushed a pro-democracy uprising and took back direct political power, different strategies have been tried to persuade them to return to the barracks.
The US and EU countries have taken the hardest line, condemning the regime and imposing tough economic sanctions.
Others, like the ASEAN members, have pursued “constructive engagement” in the hope that quiet diplomacy and trade would encourage political and economic reforms.
The UN has tried to act as an honest broker, by promoting reconciliation between the regime and the opposition movement, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Given the dearth of reliable information about Burma, it is hard to say exactly what impact these strategies have had. It is self-evident, however, that they have all failed to achieve their stated aims.
The military regime has not collapsed, nor handed over power to a civilian administration. In fact, it is probably stronger now than at any time since 1988.
Nor is there any sign that the generals are prepared to bow to international opinion and free Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.
Indeed, the greater the pressure exerted against the regime, the more determined it has become to resist what it calls interference in Burma’s internal affairs.
As long as the Burmese armed forces remain united and loyal, it is difficult to see how the regime can be removed from power. There have been reports of dissension in the ranks and some high-profile dismissals, but so far military discipline has held firm.
The opposition movement is weak and divided, and the few remaining insurgent groups pose no military threat. Despite the fears of
the generals, and the hopes of their opponents, no country is going to invade Burma to restore democracy. And the regime has enough powerful friends to survive economic sanctions and Security Council resolutions.
So what can be done? The international community cannot agree on a strategy.
The UN seems powerless. Even Burma’s friends, like China, have limited influence with the generals, who jealously guard the country’s independence.
The harsh reality is that there are few options against a regime that refuses to observe customary norms of behaviour, puts its survival before the welfare of its people and is protected by its allies.
Symbolism is important in international politics, but we also have to be pragmatic. There needs to be a new approach.
Countries such as Australia must keep faith with the Burmese people, who have clearly demonstrated their desire for a democratic government. It is important that Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners are released. And the regime must not be allowed to think it has escaped scrutiny. At the same time, a way needs to be found to help those in dire need. Thanks to decades of inept military rule, Burma suffers from major problems in areas such as health, education and social welfare.
This is where the international community can do something concrete to assist the Burmese people.
The regime has made the delivery of humanitarian aid very difficult. It imposes onerous conditions on providers, restricts access to those in greatest need (including the ethnic communities) and siphons off foreign aid for its own benefit. Formal contacts with the regime can be seen as granting it a legitimacy it does not deserve.
These may be the costs, however, that the international community has to pay to help alleviate the suffering of the Burmese people. It is a price most of them would count as cheap, if it meant an improvement in their basic living conditions.
Since cyclone Nargis hit Burma in May, more than 45 non-government organisations have been working in the country, providing aid at the grass-roots level. They are being helped by numerous local groups. Also, the tens of thousands of Burmese refugees in neighbouring countries are crying out for more assistance.
Instead of looking for new ways to punish an entrenched and nationalistic regime, a more constructive approach might be to provide increased humanitarian aid to those communities, both inside and outside Burma, which desperately need help.
The signs are that change will come slowly to Burma. Also, it will have to come from within the country and involve the armed forces, something that Aung San Suu Kyi herself recognises. It may take a new generation of military officers more tolerant of political diversity, or even a Gorbachev-like figure prepared to overturn the system that created him.
That is small comfort to the Burmese people, who have already been waiting 46 years for another democratic government. But until that day dawns we can at least make a greater effort to improve the quality of their daily lives.
Dr Andrew Selth is a research fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University.