Oct 13, 2012

Myanmar - Ethnic key to US role in Myanmar

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After dubious performances in post-war Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States now has the opportunity to demonstrate in Myanmar what has been learned at a great price in both these countries.

All three countries share one distinct feature: they are highly diverse ethnic societies that demand their ethnicity be both valued and balanced.

The question now is whether the US government truly understands the game to be played in Myanmar in a context rich in human factors and abundant in strategic implications.

Myanmar's critical position for giving China access to the Indian Ocean is also of strategic importance to the US. The US has shown a strong willingness to engage President Thein Sein's reformist government, though there are nagging issues that have compelled the US Congress to leave certain sanctions in place.

Still the Barack Obama administration has been positive and solution-oriented in response to the various reform gestures, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners, a loosening of media censorship and allowing for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League Democracy to take seats in parliament. The question now is whether the US is on the right path for enduring progress, particularly considering America's past history of getting it wrong when it comes to dealing with ethnic matters in diverse societies.

The United States famously read the people wrong in Vietnam and Somalia, both countries where it intervened through military means. Carrying over its Cold War diplomacy, the US has found it expeditious to engage at nation state-to-nation state level, while often ignoring the unpleasant human conditions on the ground. In this regard, both Iraq and Afghanistan have been wake-up calls, providing evidence that an approach focused on empowering central governments and strong armies alone is poor policy.

The present danger in Myanmar is that the US and other Western nations have focused solely on the figures of Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, both of whom dominated the limelight during recent trips to the US. By contrast, ethnic minority groups, including the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Mon, and Shan, have received comparatively scarce attention and have generally been relegated to the margins of US and European engagement initiatives.

Minority ethnic groups, most of which have been disempowered, oppressed and impoverished by a succession of repressive military regimes for the past six decades, now find themselves at a significant disadvantage in bringing critical facts to the fore.

Part of their challenge is fear of being perceived as obstructionist in the eyes of the international community in light of recent conciliatory gestures offered by Thein Sein. The groups also lack single charismatic or compelling leaders, such as Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, to capture the imagination of global audiences.

But as US and other Western governments lock in policies, programs and commercial relations in Myanmar, they risk overlooking crucial ethnic issues that will ultimately make or break their engagement initiatives.

Plight and power

First, Burman ethnics in power have convinced the world that non-Burman ethnics are a minority in Myanmar. In fact, non-Burman ethnics may well make up over 50% of the population, their ancestral lands cover most of the country's borders and international trade routes, and contain much if not most of Myanmar's natural resource wealth. This wealth has been the basis of Burman-dominated governments power past and present.
A succession of repressive regimes counted anyone who was Buddhist as Burman - a practice that has allowed ethnics to become characterized as a minority factor in Myanmar. Ethnic plights are now often portrayed as if they are lingering peripheral issues pertaining only to a few hold-out recalcitrants. The reality is that ethnics constitute the single most important power block to be engaged for future durable peace and stability in Myanmar.

It should be appreciated that ethnic resistance forces have by some estimates an impressive record of killing Burman soldiers at up to 100:1 ratios in the field. This is testament to freedom fighters defending families, ancestral lands and cultures. This grassroots resilience is something the US and its allies have experienced at a bloody cost in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. In the end, it may well be that human resolve will outlast the dominant military and logistical capacities of the nation state in Myanmar.

Second, the ethnic Burman-led army of Myanmar has been the enduring tool of repression for decades, stealing ethnic ancestral lands rich in natural resources. This practice is still going on, as up to 120 government army battalions attack Kachin villages in northern Myanmar at a horrific human toll. In spite of this, the US government has apparently been dealing with Myanmar defense officials discussing the prospect of future military-to-military relations.

Long-standing crimes against humanity and current attacks by the Myanmar government's army are disturbing facts that remain unaddressed by Western governments keen to engage Thein Sein's supposed new democratic order. The fact that the Kachin were the most devoted ally to America during World War II makes this silence all the more dishonorable. The fact that Thein Sein is seemingly unable to control his generals in the field should be of great concern to US and European governments.

Third, the Burmans have used ceasefires with ethnic groups as a badge of honor and indication of their supposedly progressive intentions. The international community logically equates ceasefires with good news. The reality is that while appearing positive, ceasefires are often used to (1) divide ethnic unity one ethnic group at a time, (2) enable the Burman-led army to strengthen all its forward bases and outposts on stolen ethnic lands, (3) allow the army to concentrate forces to attack remaining ethnic resistance forces and villagers and (4) enable the Burmans to use ceasefires to threaten ethnics they will be perceived as impediments to internationally backed peace processes.

The Burmans have avoided dealing with the major pan-ethnic political-military alliance, the United Nationalities Federal Council, as they prefer to cut deals with ethnic groups on an individual basis to prevent ethnic unity and power in negotiations. This divisive process is now ongoing with ethnic Karens, a tactic that has caused a deep rift among Karen leaders while Burman-led armed forces reinforce their forward basing in Karen State. All this has been deftly masked from international sight.

Fourth, the West has become fixated on and somewhat entangled in the human-rights and political complexities of Myanmar. In this context, Thein Sein has convinced the US and Europe that reform is complex and will take time and that by lifting their economic and financial sanctions they can help to accelerate the process. His big hand-wave gestures of releasing political prisoners have resonated well with the West, and Suu Kyi now effectively functions as a poster child for Burman-led democracy. Yet neither politician has taken a clear and consistent stand on how to empower oppressed ethnics.

This all masks arguably the most important issue in Myanmar today: equitable land reform. Ethnic lands stolen by Burmans are now the basis of Myanmar's economy. Not addressing this issue, while incrementally lifting sanctions and granting legitimacy to the ethnic Burman-dominated government, will provide power and momentum to Burman reformists and old guard oppressors alike. This is double jeopardy for ethnic peoples, who remain ever on the outside of the equality equation in Myanmar.

The unfortunate reality in Myanmar today, as in the past, is that ethnic peoples as a political, economic and military power force are still a source of fear to Burman elites, whether they are reform-minded or staunchly old guard. It is now regarded as bad form to mention this fact in the face of the honorable reform efforts of Thein Sein and his quasi-civilian, Suu Kyi-endorsed regime.

Yet this uncomfortable fact remains and must be addressed if there is ever to be lasting peace and stability in Myanmar. As the US continues to experience in Southwest Asia, the game to be understood, played and sustained is one of fostering a dynamic balance among all stakeholders in any given society.

We now live in a time in which the nation state cannot afford to create losers, as so-called "little-men losers" across Northern Africa and the Middle East have toppled governments in rapid succession.

This is no less the case in Myanmar, where ethnic groups have unambiguous permanence, posture and power. Washington would be well advised to take a more balanced approach to engagement and development in Myanmar and one more inclusive of ethnics, or risk a repeat of the interventions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tim Heinemann

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