Tag: Burma

Why not invade Burma?

With the unfolding of the humanitarian tragedy in Burma following the cyclone, people are once again (re)learning how awful that regime is (by one popular account, the 3rd worst dictatorship in the world—don’t laugh, even Drezner loves the list).

Back in The Day, when the Axis of Evil (you remember that—Iran, Iraq, North Korea) came out, I used to go through a little exercise with my students called what makes a country Evil? In particular, I would ask them why not include Burma on the list? An “evil” regime by all accounts that is certainly not friendly to the US, but it gets nary a mention by the President. In fact, he seems to have sub-contracted Burma policy to the First Lady.

The Junta is supremely isolationist, concerned with its own hold on power, but largely staying out of world affairs. As far as we know, they don’t really involve themselves in the wild world of weapons of mass destruction or international terrorism. They generally don’t bother the US, and as a result, we generally don’t bother them.

One might even ask, why not invade Burma? After all, they do have a civil society looking to engage in a democratic transition, a relatively peaceful religious community, and a leader in waiting (with a Nobel no less). They even have some natural gas that is supposed to be valuable.

Interestingly enough, given the Junta’s poor performance after the cyclone and steadfast refusal to accept the international aid offered, a French proposal emerged to force aid into the country. The idea was quickly rejected, but it was revealing in that it showed just how limited international influence can be on a stubborn regime with little connection to the rest of the world, absent the threat of military force.

From the Junta’s perspective, as many have noted, this whole situation is a danger. The poor response to the disaster threatens their legitimacy on the eve of a sham vote to legimate their hold on power. However, allowing in hundred of international aid workers and thousands of tons of international assistance is also a danger, in that it not only questions the legitimacy of the government, unable to care for its own people, it also creates a social structure outside of government control. Aid distribution networks, moving materials and information, are the very sorts of civil society that a totalitarian regime must quash to prevent opposition movements from capitalizing on these tools to further threaten the government. An interesting point of reference are the North Korean famines of the mid 1990’s. After severe weather (and poor government planning and response) wiped out crops, the country had no food. It too resisted offers of assistance, similarly threatened by the potential ‘contamination’ to its domestic society that international aid workers and distribution networks might bring. North Korea eventually did get some aid, but much of it came in the context of the nuclear negotiations and subsequent Sunshine diplomacy with the South.

In that case, two things were important. First, the US led the international response. Fully engaged in the process, the US was able to lead the international community in negotiating with the DPRK. The US is again playing a lead role in Burma, but is somewhat, shall we say, distracted by Iraq, Afghanistan, and the whole GWOT thing. Second, North Korea and the US were engaged in a larger game at the time, the nuclear negotiations, and that provided an opening for the food aid. The DPRK was already trying to extract some sort of payment from the US, and the US had several things it wanted from the DPRK. So, food aid could enter into the discussion at some point. Burma has nothing we want, really, and we have had nothing substantive to say to them in quite a while.

So, unless the US and the “international community” want to force their way into Burma to deliver a planeload of high energy biscuits, there is unfortunately very little they can do to get aid to those in need. It reaffirms the importance of the state—even a weak state such as Burma—to set its own tone for its domestic affairs when the big boys of the neighborhood (China, the US, the EU) are unwilling to play hardball.

Moral of the story: if you’re evil, we’ll go to the mattress to take care of business. If you’re just plain bad, you’re probably in the clear.


Update on Burma

The government crackdown on democracy protesters continues in Burma. The official death toll is nine, including a Japanese photo-journalist, but opposition sources claim that the true number is many times higher. One report I heard claimed that there are over 100 bodies in hospital morgues, and more bodies in the streets. It is also becoming increasingly difficult to get good information about what is going on. The junta has realized the effect of the dramatic photos being electronically sent out of the country and has been actively working to sever internet and telephone connections to the outside world. Internet cafes have been closed, and the main internet service provided has been raided by government troops. There are also reports that troops are actively targeting anyone carrying a camera. Hundreds, maybe thousands of monks have been arrested, and those protesters who remain in the streets are now overwhelmingly civilians.

There are unconfirmed reports of “unusual” troop movements in Yangon. A caller to this morning’s Diane Rehm Show, who claimed to have sources on the Thai-Burmese border, asserted that the wife of one of the junta leaders has been spirited out of the country (to a hotel in Dubai) and that the army has split into two factions, pro and anti-regime. There are also reports that there is disagreement among the leadership over the crackdown. The Irrawady News Magazine has a running account on its homepage; the site is very slow, probably due to heavy traffic.

Much seems to rest on where China chooses to put its weight. Few expect that China would support the democracy movement, but given the importance of economic ties to the west, they may be reluctant to support the regime if it engages in a Tiananmen-style massacre–both because of the bad publicity associated with its support for the junta and for the inevitable comparisons (like the one I just made).



After nine days of mass, peaceful protests in Myanmar, the crackdown has begun. Government troops have beaten demonstrators and fired tear gas and live bullets. The government currently claims that there has been one death and three injuries; independent accounts confirm the death of at least one monk. There are unconfirmed reports of as many as six protesters killed. There are also reports that hundreds of monks have been arrested around the country.

Nevertheless, the demonstrations continued on Wednesday, despite the imposition of a curfew and a ban on gatherings of more than five people. The BBC reports that at least 10,000 protesters took to the streets today, including a large contingent of civilians.

There are numerous photos are available here, at a blog titled Ko Htike’s Prosaic Collection; the author seems to be a medical worker in a Yangon hospital, though most of the blog is written in Burmese.

The Washington Post’s story on the crisis contains some interesting details about attitudes within the Burmese military:

The soldiers who put down [the 1988] uprising had been transferred to Rangoon from outlying areas because of fears that the city’s regular garrison would not move against civilians. According to Maung, there were signs that similar hesitations are arising in the Burmese military this time.

A declaration from a group calling itself the People’s Patriotic Armed Forces Alliance was circulated among exile groups. In it, the authors depicted themselves as military officers and called on fellow officers to disobey if ordered to fire against protesting monks, students or democracy activists.

“On behalf of soldiers, we the People’s Patriotic Armed Forces Alliance seriously and categorically warn the SPDC’s top brass that if they solve the present situation with violence rather than seek peace, divergences would emerge inside the armed forces and defiance or mutiny would break out,” the statement said.

Maung said there was no way to judge the authenticity of the statement or how many officers it represented. But he added that someone identifying himself as a Burmese intelligence officer had posted comments on an exile blog Wednesday morning saying similar sentiments have emerged in Burma’s internal security services.

Seeking to play on the doubts, protesters sat in front of soldiers in the street and chanted, “People’s soldiers, our soldiers,” according to reports received by exiles.

Whither goest the military, goest the revolution. Bringing in soldiers from outside to suppress unrest is a well-used tactic. The soldiers who put down the Tiananmen Square protests were brought in from the provinces; during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, troops were brought into Kiev from Crimea.

If the protesters can turn the military, then there perhaps there really will be a revolution. They don’t have to participate–just choose to sit it out. But if the military is willing to follow the orders to shoot, there is little chance that the protests will successfully oust the regime.


Photos from Myanmar

Source: Mandalay Gazette

The revolution may not be televised, but you can rest assured that it will be blogged. The large scale protests continue, despite yesterday’s threats. The ruling military junta has banned foreign journalists, but the locals are snapping photos and emailing them to the western press. There is a great collection at Mandalay Gazette, a Burmese language paper based in California. Photos continue below the fold.


A revolution in Myanmar?

I’ve been trying to follow what’s going on right now in Myanmar. I know pretty much next to nothing about Myanmar, other than it used to be Burma, but it certainly looks like a people-power revolution is in progress. Thousands of Buddhist monks have taken to the streets and the government has been reluctant to crack down, perhaps hoping that if they just ignore them, the demonstrations will lose steam. Instead, the opposite seems to be happening: momentum appears to be gathering and the crowds are growing larger by the day. The protests are also spreading to cities besides Yangon (Rangoon).

A couple months ago, I wrote that one of the things that can produce a crisis in an otherwise stable authoritarian regime is an exogenous economic shock. That seems to have been the trigger here: unrest first surfaced after the government was forced to sharply raise fuel prices in mid-August: diesel prices doubled, while the cost of compressed natural gas quintupled. Consumer prices, naturally, also jumped, and public transit was disrupted.

The first wave of protests against the fuel price hike were organized by dissidents who were promptly arrested. However, beginning in late August, the protests were joined by Buddhist monks, who generally enjoy a high level of social deference in Burmese society. Although there have been some repressive moves made towards the monks, the government seems reluctant to engage in a crackdown against a group with such high social capital. Monks were even permitted to march to the home of democracy activist (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Aun San Suu Kyi and engage in prayer with her; it was her first public appearance in over four years. Nevertheless, today the regime has started to talk tough, threatening to take action if senior clerics don’t put a stop to the actions of their followers.

A violent crackdown, sadly, remains the most likely outcome of the current crisis. Nonetheless, many are hoping that if the student activists and the monks can maintain a united front, the protests will reach the sort of critical mass where ordinary people start to join in, and the regime will no longer be able to hold on.


© 2021 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑