MAUNG ZARNI

In a week’s time, US President Barak Obama is scheduled to visit Asia’s - and perhaps the world’s - hottest destination: Myanmar. He should “see” the ugly realities of the country’s reforms that lie just beneath their surface and hear the cries of the wretched of Myanmar, such as the Muslim Rohingya and the Christian Kachins. These days, Myanmar’s coming out party is the talk of the town since President Thein Sein’s government has embarked on reforms, ending the country’s international pariah status and half-century of isolation, both self-imposed and externally-maintained.

The generals’ rule since 1962 has resulted in policy-induced poverty, prolonged internal conflicts and international isolation, with devastating societal consequences. Despite its firm grip on power, the generals never really felt either secure or confident about their reign. They have always felt they are riding on the back of an angry and wounded tiger.

Through their eyes, reforms - and bringing on board Aung San Suu Kyi, their long-time nemesis - is the last resort both for themselves and the society at large. This is the existential background against which changes in Myanmar need to be understood.

As a welcome gesture, just about every leader of both the “free world” of the West and “un-free and semi-free worlds” of the East have hurried their way to Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s purpose-built capital replete with North Korean-designed underground tunnels and bunkers. The freshly re-elected US President Barak Obama will top this list of international visitors who have thrown their weight behind the generals’ reforms, with the Lady’s blessings.

COLLECTIVE FUTURE

OF MYANMAR

What really triggers these changes is as important to understand what prospects - and challenges - lie ahead. Further, what real-world impact are these unfolding reforms having on the lives of the public, ethnic majority Bama and non-Bama ethnic minorities such as the Kachins in the North, the Rohingya in the West, the Shans and the Karens in the East?

Historically, it was the generals’ fear of the loss of their half-century grip on power and wealth that led to state-ordered chronic waves of bloodbaths since “8.8.88 Popular Uprising” when the entire nation rose up against the one-party military dictatorship of General Ne Win. In 2012, nearly a quarter century after the country’s greatest revolt in modern history, it is again the same fear factor that has propelled the generals to make moves: Reform the institutions and reform the way they rule the population.  Shwe Mann, Speaker of the Lower House, reportedly admitted the generals’ collective fear. Within an hour of his meeting with the visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the parliament in December last year, the former third most powerful general in Than Shwe’s ruling council was telling the Myanmarese journalists, “We do not want to end up like the Arab dictators. One day they were very powerful. The next day they died ignoble deaths.” 

Of course, Washington’s new strategy of “pivoting” back to Asia has also made it possible for the generals to come out of their bunkers, literally and figuratively. The Americans wanted the Myanmarese to walk away, as much as geo-strategically possible, from Beijing’s embrace. The Myanmarese, on their part, are grateful to Washington in helping wean them of China’s international protection, ironically, against Washington’s perceived attempts at regime change in Myanmar. This is a classic geo-strategic symbiosis that is looking increasingly promising for the Myanmarese and the Americans.

NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES OF THE GENERALS’

REFORMS

As a matter of fact, the reforms are contradictory, reversible and fragile. They are confined to such narrow domains as freedom of speech, new business and investment law. That is, the areas important to middle class Western liberals and attractive to venture capitalists and corporations. Further, reform moves bypass active conflict zones, strategic buffer areas and resource-rich virgin lands.

Curiously, both the origin and tail of China’s 2,800-plus kilometre-long twin pipeline bear witness to the unfolding violence: Ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in the coastal region where the pipelines begin and the hot war against the Kachins in the Sino-Myanmar highlands of Northern Myanmar. To date, close to an estimate 100,000 Rohingyas have been caged in new UN-financed refugee camps on the west coast while roughly the same number of Kachins in the North have fled the war on their ancestral highlands. On the eastern side of Myanmar along Thai-Myanmar borders, donor agencies, for instance, Britain’s Department For International Development (DFID) and the host country of Thailand are preparing to repatriate another 150,000 Karen and Karenni war refugees back to their regions, despite the absence there of either a meaningful and functioning ceasefire or lasting peace.

More ominously, many international agencies and national governments by and large view this ugly side of development - ethnic, class and provincial conflicts, large scale displacement, pervasive land confiscation, absence of human and food security, growing income disparity, etc - as the necessary cost locals must bear if they are to enjoy projected fruits of developmental reforms in some distant future. Here, the prevailing two-fold ideology of unfettered development and “sustainable economic growth” is at work.

Even the country’s iconic politician Aung San Suu Kyi, who has never set foot on active war zones of ethnic minorities, lacks any empirical understanding or experience to truly appreciate the negative consequences of the generals’ reforms she is helping market in Western capitals with great success.

NEW ERA OF REFORMS AND BUDDHIST RACISM

The regime’s pursuit of peace with armed ethnic resistance communities warrants a closer scrutiny than has been subject to. While running the country that has not seen real peace since independence from Britain 60-plus years ago, the generals talk the talk of peace, but do not walk the walk.

Take, for instance, its hyped-up ceasefire talks with two of the country’s oldest and most resolute revolutionary organisations - the Karen National Union in Eastern Myanmar and the Kachin Independence Organisation in Northern Myanmar. The widespread perception among the Kachin and Karen negotiators, and respective communities, is that the reformist government is more intent on imposing peace on its own terms, more or less. Naypyidaw is far more interested in exploiting natural resources in minority regions and securing strategic and commercial routes there than discussing seriously about the root cause of the country’s ethnic rebellions, namely political autonomy founded on the principle of ethnic equality.  Upon a closer and honest look, Myanmar’s extraordinary reforms begin to lose their lustre.

There is no denying that the country’s quasi-civilian government has ushered in a new era of reforms. However, the types of reforms that President Thein Sein - an ex-general and a figurehead - is pursuing are the ones that will protect the military’s core interests above all else. At heart, the reforms are largely geared towards creating a “late developmental state” along the lines of Vietnam and China, a benign Leviathan that will secure the generals’ electability on the basis of its economic performance and along popular “Buddhist” racism. When the illiberal society’s deeply ingrained racism thunders the traditionally liberal discourses of human rights, democracy and multi-culturalism go muted.

The current reform movement therefore lacks any real potential to result in a new democratic polity which will build, and in turn feeds off, a new and sustainable economic system. Sadly, the West and the rest alike are choosing to overlook the apparent pitfalls of Myanmar’s reforms, ignoring the cries of the wretched of a new Myanmar.                                 –Aljazeera