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Tuesday, October 16

A crash course on Burma's post-colonial history

In a mere five paragraphs Thant Myint-U, author of River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma (one of the few modern histories of Burma) and a grandson of U Thant, outlines how the military became the state in Burma. His short history forms the basis of his argument that sanctions and any attempt at regime change won't change anything in Burma.
When Burma (renamed Myanmar by the junta) achieved independence from Britain in 1948, the country was already at civil war. A widespread communist insurgency attempted to seize power, the army splintered along ethnic lines, and much of the countryside fell under the control of local militia. The then-democratic government barely survived. In the early 1950s, Chinese nationalist forces, supported by the CIA, marched in from the east (remnants of the armies of Chiang Kai-shek), and in the 1960s, Beijing backed a massive new communist rebellion.

To fight these different foes, a big military machine grew up, which soon outclassed and outgunned every other part of the nascent state. By 1962, the army took over entirely. At its head was Gen. Ne Win, tyrant, playboy, numerologist and onetime post office clerk, a tough-talking, Japanese-trained soldier who would wield absolute power for the next 30 years.

His "Burmese way to socialism" quickly ran the once-promising economy into the ground. He nationalized all industries, banned international trade and investment, expelled nearly half a million ethnic Indians and stopped accepting foreign aid. He shut off Burma from the rest of the world but made an exception for himself, hobnobbing with British aristocrats in London, shopping in Geneva and (for a while, perhaps not long enough), traveling regularly to Vienna to consult the well-known psychiatrist, Dr. Hans Hoff.

Burma is about the size of France and Britain combined, with a population of more than 50 million, stretching from the eastern Himalayas 1,000 miles south to sun-drenched beaches along the Andaman Sea. About two-thirds of the people are Burmese Buddhists; the rest belong to dozens of other ethnic and religious groups. Members of the army under Ne Win began to see themselves as Burma's saviors -- from foreign aggression and internal fragmentation -- looking backward to the glory days of Burmese warrior-kings and tapping into Burmese nationalism's more xenophobic strains.

The country only began to crawl out of its isolation in the early 1990s, when the regime finally began to welcome foreign trade and investment back to the country and asked for help in reforming the economy. As important, the army agreed to cease-fires with nearly all the various rebel armies. But all this came at the same time that Burma's new democracy movement -- headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of a revered hero of the Burmese independence movement who had been assassinated -- was pressing hard for political change. The West began to impose sanctions to support her position, pushing the generals back into their shell.(1)
So what does the author recommend the international community do? He writes that meaningful help will require
[An] acceptance that long-distance condemnation and Western economic sanctions don't mean much to the half-century-old military regime, a regime that has long been comfortable in isolation and needs only a modicum of money and trade from the outside world.

It will require a realization that Burma sits right in the middle of Asia's economic miracle, that harnessing Burma to that rapid change is the surest way to raise up living standards, and that access to Western markets and Western ideas will make all the difference in determining whether the Burmese become equal partners of China and India or merely the providers of cheap labor and raw materials. And it's only when the Burmese ruling elite are exposed to the world that they will see a need to mend their ways.(1)
1) Saving Burma the right way, The Los Angeles Times
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