Tag: Myanmar

The Importance of Being (Pragmatically) Earnest

Photo courtesy of the Guardian UK.

When engaging with policy audiences and organizations, how can one be truthful when telling the whole truth may be counterproductive?

This post is part of an occasional series discussing the ethical dilemmas that arise when academics engage with policymakers and the broader public. This series is part of the Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility project of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy, which seeks to make ethical considerations an integral part of policy-relevant research and engagement. The program develops knowledge around, and informs the practice of, responsible engagement so that future generations of academics can engage in the policy world with confidence and clarity. This program is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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Nuclear Myanmar

A recent credible report by the Democratic Voice of Burma that North Korea may have assisted Myanmar’s junta to acquire nuclear weapons technology has raised concerns at the international and regional levels.

Myanmar is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but it is technically exempt from IAEA inspections. If it is in fact pursuing a nuclear weapons program aided by North Korea, it would represent one more nail in the coffin of the non-proliferation regime.

The US response has been limited so far, most likely due to the fact there are potentially more pressing violations of the NPT in the Persian Gulf. However, Senator Jim Webb, the chair of the Foreign Relations panel on East Asia, cancelled his scheduled trip to Myanmar last week. The US approach to this development will most likely continue the establishment pattern of seeking to isolate and impose sanctions rather than engaging in a dialog with this repressive regime.

From a regional strategic perspective, a nuclear armed Myanmar would be a serious concern for India. The prospect that India would be surrounded by an axis of three nuclear powers is a major challenge to India’s ambition of transcending its regional shackles.

If Myanmar is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, it is most likely intended to deter America rather than India.  (The project may also be intended to ensure the domestic longevity of the regime.) India and Myanmar are not enemies. While Indian influence in Burma pales relative to China, India has been engaging with the regime for years and it has achieved a measure of cooperation in building a “land bridge” from Imphal to Mandalay which is designed to facilitate trade and help India police its troubled Northeast region (currently the road only extends to Kalewa, which is still 482km from Mandalay).  Nevertheless, India will have to look at capabilities rather than just intentions.

Similarly, Myanmar’s neighbors in Southeast Asia, several of which are closely tied to the US, might also feel threatened by a nuclear armed Myanmar. The issue has already created a stir in ASEAN circles.  At the Shangri-la Dialog last week, Myanmar denied to the Singaporeans that it was pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

In any case, if the allegations are true, Myanmar is clearly in the very early stages of its program and it does not have sufficient delivery mechanisms even if they were to develop a nuclear weapon in the future. Experts also doubt that Burma has the economic resources and scientific resources to sustain this program.

Of course, one is reminded of similar arguments about Pakistan’s technical and economic ability to acquire a nuclear weapon, but as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s prophetically quipped, “… we will eat grass or leaves, or go hungry, but we will get one [nuclear bomb] of our own.” Where there’s a will, there’s a way…


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.


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