Friday, May 30, 2008

Post-cyclone Politics

Post-cyclone Politics

Friday, May 30, 2008

When Cyclone Nargis ravaged Burma, it did not spare political prisoners. The notorious Insein Prison, where hundreds of political prisoners are locked up, was one of the hardest-hit sites in Rangoon.

The wind uprooted trees, rain flooded prison cells, and electricity was cut. Many prisoners, wet and cold, began screaming in the dark. The storm’s wrath triggered a riot and guards started shooting. Criminal prisoners in one ward set the building on fire, causing smoke to fill neighboring prison cells.

Suffering from an eye-infection, the most prominent jailed student leader, Min Ko Naing, was choking from the smoke and his eyes were burning. Some of his fellow inmates had passed out. A few sympathetic prison guards managed to push aside fallen trees that blocked the entrances to the cells and moved the political prisoners to the prison’s hospital.

"Min Ko Naing and many other political prisoners in the cells could have died from smoke if the rescue had been delayed," said Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner who heads the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPP).

There are no official figures for how many prisoners died and were injured during the havoc, but the AAPP believes at least 36 prisoners were shot to death.

In the cyclone’s aftermath, many political prisoners who had family living in the storm-stricken areas learned they had lost family members. One political prisoner, Thiha Thet Zin, was told that eight of nine family members, including his parents, grandmother, a son and siblings, were swept away with the storm. His wife was the only survivor.

In fact, what happened in Insein Prison during the killer storm could be seen as a microcosm of Burma's political landscape.Since Cyclone Nargis, which claimed 134,000 deaths and at least 1 million homeless, the world has seen that the unwillingness of the Burmese junta’s disaster response is antamount to a “crime against humanity."

The cyclone has placed the country in a defining moment with inevitable political consequences, but just how events may play out is anybody’s guess.

"Things will not return to a status quo," said Priscilla Clapp, a US diplomat who served as Chief of Mission in Burma from 1999-2002.While the military tries to exploit the world's generosity, it will also ensure that the cyclone will not have any effect on its "road map to a discipline-flourishing democracy.""The rush to complete the referendum and declare victory was a defensive move, in recognition that the whole scheme could be derailed by the storm if it was not wrapped up immediately," said Clapp.

Unbelievably, the junta claimed that the constitutional referendum was approved by 92 percent of the voters. "I think the whole business of the ‘road map’ is no longer relevant in Burmese politics after the cyclone," said Moe Thee Zun, a well-known former student leader. "The most important thing we need to watch is how Nargis will test the army's loyalty to the leadership and expose dissension within army."

Some observers, perhaps wishfully, believe that the regime's failed response could weaken the junta, especially Snr-Gen Than Shwe. Significantly, the junta’s current public failure follows its ruthless crackdown on the "Saffron Revolution" last September.

"We have heard that there are considerable tensions within the military," said David Steinberg, a Burma expert at Georgetown University. "But I don't know whether the tension is strong enough to split the military and at what level it exists, and whether it is a high enough level to threaten the present leadership. If change comes, it has to come from within the military itself."
Many military observers doubt that Than Shwe would be challenged by his immediate subordinates. Change after his death is a more likely scenario, they say. However, many opposition leaders prefer to place their hopes for change on public actions. They say that unless a mass movement challenges the corrupt military leadership, divisions in the military will not surface.

"Whether or not the military will take sides with the public is the defining issue in Burmese politics," said Po Than Gyaung, a spokesman for the Communist Party of Burma. "A mass movement is the most likely trigger for change within the military."

However, there are few public signs that the junta has been weakened by either the people’s uprising or the cyclone’s aftermath. The regime sits on more than $4 billion in foreign exchange reserves and earns more than $150 million a month in natural gas sales. Observers say it is unlikely any government money will be used for humanitarian aid or reconstruction. The regime donated US $ 4.5 million immediately after the cyclone, but the money largely came from donations by regime supporters.

On the other hand, Burmese civil society clearly has been weakened, both physically and psychologically. The economy will suffer for an extended period of time. On the Cyclone Nargis frontlines, many ordinary citizens responded to the call for aid, but their efforts cannot replace the need for a professionally organized, long-term relief effort. A significant portion of the country could experience food shortages, say UN agencies.

Though people are angry with the junta, the grip of fear appears to be stronger than anger and any attempt at mass action in the near future most likely would end up in abortive protests and violence. In addition, the role of the opposition will continue to be marginalized as long as leading figures such as Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Ko Naing remain in detention or unless a new community-based leadership emerges out of the cyclone relief efforts.

The prospect of growing community-based leadership is a possibility, but it is not likely to yield any immediate political impact. More importantly, such new initiatives can be nipped in the bud by the regime's repression and intimidation.

At the same time, the UN has proven to be unresponsive to the idea of its "responsibility to protect" principle.

The West will continue to champion the cause of democracy in Burma in moral and rhetorical terms, but it is likely to act only in the most practical terms, relying largely on cooperation and pressure from China and Asean.

Meanwhile, the regime clearly sees the likelihood of international humanitarian aid as a "jackpot,” and will try to include only enough relief workers to keep the flow of aid and reconstruction money coming.

The fate of the Burmese people and the political prisoners in Insein Prison remain in limbo. While there are no immediate signs of political storms brewing, we know the water is always rough and there are few safe harbors in Burma.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Bangkok Post, Perspective >> Sunday May 18, 2008


In the history of humanitarian intervention, unilateralism is far more common than UN-led multilateral action. US-led Western countries must act now to save lives in Burma, writes MIN ZIN

Since security is all about preventing any major threat to human life, the effect of the deadly cyclone that hit Burma on May 3 must be seen from a serious human security perspective. However, the Burmese military junta is far from comprehending such a humane concept.

The tragic toll exacted by Cyclone Nargis could exceed 100,000 deaths and a million homeless, according to aid agencies. There has been nothing like it in Burmese history, neither during colonial rule nor in the country's civil war.
However, the country's ruling junta has blocked foreign relief workers from bringing much-needed aid to survivors.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon clearly said that "Myanmar cannot do it alone" in setting up major logistics operations to deliver supplies to the most affected areas. Ban said much needs to be done, immediately.

However, the head of the Burmese Navy, Rear Adm Soe Thein, told Adm Timothy Keating, commander of the US Pacific fleet, that the basic needs of storm victims were being met and that "skillful humanitarian workers are not necessary."

According to several reliable sources in Rangoon, Burmese Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein, told a meeting of business people on May 12 that no foreigners were being allowed into the hardest-hit Irrawaddy delta region.

"Thein Sein said 'No foreigners, no cameras!"' said a well-known journalist in Rangoon.

Many foreign aid workers, including volunteers from "friendly" Asian countries, are being asked to stay away from actual aid distribution.

"We can't go to Pathein (Bassein), capital of the delta region," said a Thai non-governmental organisation aid worker. "Even relief trucks were stopped on the way down to the delta and had to drive back to Rangoon."

Moreover, several reports confirmed misuse of international aid. Supplies were reportedly ending up in military warehouses, local markets and the homes of police and members of pro-government civilian groups, instead of reaching starving and disease-stricken survivors.

As another storm front heads towards Burma's already devastated coastal areas, bringing heavy rain and strong winds to add to the misery of cyclone survivors, the regime's increasing restrictions on international aid workers are now tantamount to a "crime against humanity."

A humanitarian catastrophe is escalating for 2.5 million survivors who live in Burma's "rice bowl", and for whom aid must be viewed in the perspective of long-term rehabilitation and rebuilding.

However, the inability of the regime to respond to the cyclone crisis is now self-evident and clearly demonstrates that Burma is a failed state.

The devastation caused by the cyclone will very likely have immense social and political consequences. The limited or inequitable distribution of assistance and outright bullying by government "thugs" could outrage discontented victims and lead to social unrest and even violence.

Responsibility to Protect

Whether or not the cyclone disaster could lead to political change in Burma depends on intermediary linkages - the leadership of opposition activists and public influences such as Buddhist monks - that could connect the disaster to mobilisation of discontented groups.

Meanwhile, the international community has shown its generosity in helping the people of Burma.

France suggested invoking a UN "Responsibility to Protect" provision to deliver aid to the country without the regime's approval, although that possibility was rejected in the Security Council by China, Vietnam, South Africa and Russia.
However, in the history of humanitarian intervention, examples of unilateralism such as Kosovo in 1999 are far more common than UN-led multilateral action. Burma should now be added to this history.

Since the ideal scenario of UNSC-endorsed intervention was not possible, US, France, Britain and other like-minded countries should take the lead as the situation in Burma is extreme enough to justify international humanitarian intervention.

Even Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group, an organisation that usually promotes a policy of engagement with the junta, recently wrote that "if the intransigence of the Burmese generals continues, it is a very real issue whether in the name of humanity some international action should be taken against their will - like military air drops, or supplies being landed from ships offshore - to get aid to the huge numbers who desperately need it right now, in the inaccessible coastal area in particular."

However, a few top UN humanitarian officials including John Holmes, under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, still place their hopes on negotiations with the junta.

The military, which is well experienced in defusing international pressures, will, of course, make nominal gestures and on-and-off concessions in order to divide international public opinion and strategy.

The most demonstrative example is the regime's "selective opening up to international staff" as the junta invited its immediate neighbours - China, Bangladesh, Thailand and India - to send 160 international workers to join the relief effort.

Although the invitation has yet to yield results, the message itself could create ultra-optimism among the regime's international cheerleaders, including Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who went to Burma on a mission to persuade the generals to allow international relief workers but returned empty-handed.

Samak said on his return: "From what I have seen I am impressed with their (Burmese military's) management."
The UN secretary-general, at least, appears to grasp the gravity of the situation.

"Even though the Myanmar government has shown some sense of flexibility, at this time, it's far, far too short," Ban said. "The magnitude of this situation requires much more mobilisation of resources and aid workers."

Use 'all means' to aid

Junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who has sole responsibility to make any decision in autocratic Burma, remains indifferent to international concern, and even ignored attempts by Ban to contact him. He also snubbed Samak, who met only Burma's prime minister, and is likely to ignore an upcoming "coalition of mercy' from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and a visit by the UN humanitarian chief.

Although the junta will continue to refuse to open up the country to a full-scale relief effort, this doesn't mean that all diplomatic efforts should be set aside. It is a reminder, however, that the international community must use "all means" to get aid through to cyclone victims, as EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has advocated.

Meanwhile, some US congressional leaders are organising a letter to President Bush urging him to "work with the British, French, German, Danish and other supportive and regional governments to immediately intervene in the Irrawaddy delta region to provide urgent life-saving humanitarian aid to the survivors of Cyclone Nargis". However, initial enthusiasm of the White House interventionist approach appeared to dwindle after the junta authorised entry of five US Air Force C-130 flights but still restricted foreign aid workers' involvement in actual delivery.

In the aftermath of the cyclone, Burmese exiles in the United States staged a demonstration outside UN headquarters in New York, chanting: "UN waits. Burma lies. How many people have to die?" The chanting expressed the desperate frustration of cyclone survivors in their home country. Good intentions and endless calls to do something must be supported by concrete actions to stem the rising death toll. The time is way overdue. Although the road ahead is rocky and the White House may be wavering to make a moral decision, US-led Western countries must take action now to save lives.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Further Stormy Prospects for Burma

News Analysis, Irrawaddy Online, Saturday, May 10, 2008

Further Stormy Prospects for Burma


Since security is all about preventing any major threat to human life, the effect of the deadly cyclone that hit Burma last Saturday must be seen from a serious human security perspective. However, the Burmese military junta is far from comprehending such a humane concept.

The tragic toll exacted by Cyclone Nargis could exceed 100,000 deaths and a million homeless, according to a US diplomat. There has been nothing like it in Burmese history, neither during colonial rule nor in the country’s civil war. Some older residents of Rangoon say they have seen nothing like it since the city was severely bombed in World War II.

Many aid agencies worry that disease and starvation will claim thousands more lives in the next few days. World Food Program spokesman Paul Risley said aid agencies normally expect to fly in experts and supplies within 48 hours of a disaster, but nearly a week after the cyclone the Burmese authorities are still refusing to let foreign relief workers in.

Although the regime says it welcomes all forms of international help, in reality it only accepts donations of cash or emergency aid such as medical supplies, food, clothing, generators and shelters. A foreign ministry statement on Friday said: "Myanmar (Burma) is not ready to receive search and rescue teams as well as media teams from foreign countries." The military even deported some aid workers on Wednesday.

The junta said it can deliver foreign aid "by its own labors to the affected areas."According to a reliable source, it was junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe who decided to bar international aid workers, although there had been a signs of initial flexibility from Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein and the foreign ministry.

The source added that Than Shwe believes he has already distributed 5 billion kyat (4.5 million dollars), which he mostly extorted from Burmese businessmen as "donations", and he also has more than US $30 million from international assistance pledges. He then decided to use his own Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and army to distribute aid.

"What Than Shwe doesn’t understand is that his $4.5 million can only be used for food for 12 days, and all the promised dollars from the world may not come if the international experts are not allowed into the country," said Win Min, a Burmese analyst in Thailand.

Moreover, Burmese businessmen cannot afford to donate much more cash, and overworked Burmese doctors have run out of resources.

Non-government organizations (NGOs) and international non-government organizations (INGOs) within Burma, who had to sign memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with the regime to begin their projects, defining the nature of their work and their areas of operation, have now found themselves restricted by those same MOUs.

Since many NGOs do not have projects in the Irrawaddy delta, they are not allowed to do any aid work in the devastated region since they were not authorized to do so in their MOUs.

According to inside sources, NGOs are now trying to work under the UN's umbrella in order to reach into the delta.
Meanwhile, the military and its thuggish USDA members are intimidating private donors who provide rice and clothing to cyclone victims in the suburban townships of Rangoon. Many donors are reportedly being asked to hand over their relief supplies to local USDA members for them to supervise distribution.

"Instead of protecting the people, the military and its thugs are looting from us," said one businesswoman.
Some sources closed to the military suggest that world leaders—particularly those from China, India and Thailand, and even US President George W Bush—should tackle Than Shwe directly as the junta leader’s subordinates might not be giving him a full picture of the crisis.

This approach appears to be based on a false assumption, however—namely, that dictators allow themselves to be manipulated by their subordinates.

Nor could this approach work in practice. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently spoke directly to Than Shwe and called on him to postpone the constitutional referendum and "focus instead on mobilizing all available resources and capacity for the emergency response efforts."

Than Shwe ignored him and decided to go ahead with the referendum to approve a constitution that will allow the perpetuation of military rule in the country. For Than Shwe, regime security is more vital than human security, although people are dying in massive numbers.

One military source said that Than Shwe stopped the planned dispatch of troops to the disaster zones in the wake of Cyclone Nargis because he wanted them to guarantee the security of the referendum.

The inability of the regime to respond to the cyclone crisis is now self-evident and clearly demonstrates that Burma is a failed state.

The devastation caused by the cyclone will very likely have immense social and political consequences. The limited or inequitable distribution of assistance and outright bullying by government "thugs" could outrage discontented victims and lead to social unrest and even violence.

Whether or not the cyclone disaster could lead to political change in Burma depends on intermediary linkages—the leadership of opposition activists and public influencers such as Buddhist monks— that could connect the disaster to mobilization of discontented groups.

Meanwhile, the international community has done its best to help the people of Burma.

France suggested invoking a UN "responsibility to protect" provision to deliver aid to the country without the regime's approval, although that possibility was rejected in the Security Council by China, Vietnam, South Africa and Russia.
A top US aid official said the US may consider air-dropping supplies for survivors even without permission from the junta, though geopolitical considerations make such action difficult. The junta agreed to allow a single US cargo aircraft to bring in relief supplies, but it isn’t clear how the aid will be distributed.

Eventually, Than Shwe may negotiate with UN aid agencies to conduct limited distribution work inside Burma in order to prevent direct intervention by the US and other western countries. Some inside sources indicate that a few top brass officials, including Gen Thura Shwe Mann, the third most powerful man in the military hierarchy and a former regional commander of the Irrawaddy delta, persuaded Than Shwe to cooperate with the international community.

Of course, Than Shwe will delay permission as long as possible since he likes to show who’s in charge. Meanwhile, people will continue to perish hourly.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Burma's Political Transition Needs People Power

Irrawaddy Online, Thursday, May 1, 2008

Burma's Political Transition Needs People Power


The notion of political transition initiated by a country’s elite has been a dominant discourse in Burmese politics since the late 1990s. The model advocates that a peaceful transition can be facilitated by negotiations between the regime’s “doves” and opposition moderates. It would involve the opposition initiating a concrete proposal to the military in order to persuade the latter to sit at the negotiating table.

This political strategy gained currency in the early 2000s since it coincided with the political ascendancy of former Intelligence Chief Gen Khin Nyunt. At the time, talks between opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta seemed to offer a glimmer of hope. However, simultaneously, the opposition movement was losing its strength in "people power" campaigns, such as the unsuccessful Four Nines (September 9, 1999) Mass Movement, and in armed struggles due to ethnic armies signing ceasefire agreements and the fall of the Karen National Union stronghold in 1992.

Any optimism in Burmese politics is never sustained for long. However, the transitional model remained popular as the only way out for the Burmese people. Proponents claimed there was "No alternative!"

"Many diplomats who we met always encouraged and even pressured us to initiate a proposal to the regime," said Nyan Win, a spokesperson for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). "In fact the party has always called for dialogue and has always been ready to negotiate."

In early 2006, the NLD proposed a transitional plan urging the junta to convene parliament with the winners of the 1990 elections in return for giving the regime recognition as an interim executive power holder. Though the party's call for a negotiated transition was rejected by the regime, the opposition forces—including the 92 MP-elects from the 1990 election and notable veteran politicians—continued to offer flexible transitional packages to the junta. None of them worked.

The proponents of the transition model often downplay the role of public action and mass movement. Some believe it will not happen because more than 20 percent of the population has been born since the uprising in 1988 and are therefore much less affected by the people’s power movement of those times. Others worry that mass movement could be counterproductive to a possible negotiated transition—often the momentum of a protesting crowd will spiral out of control and threaten the careful process of negotiation. They all conclude that the army doesn't respond to public pressure.

Then, all of the sudden, the September protests broke out. The so-called “experts” and “policymakers” failed to see it coming. In the wake of the crackdown, UN-led mediation efforts were revived and Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his generals, once again, were called on to sit at the negotiating table. And once again they declined.

The question now to the advocates of the elite-driven transition model is what to do when the regime refuses to negotiate with the opposition? What it is to be done when the military insist on a referendum to approve a constitution that will allow the perpetuation of military rule in the country?

Almost all supporters of the model say the people of Burma must accept whatever offer the junta makes. They say "something is better than nothing." Some suggested using the generals’ flawed model of democracy as a starting point from which to pursue a more acceptable long-term solution.

"We must give consideration to possible generation change within the military," said Harn Yawnghwe, a well-know lobbyist and director of the Brussels-based Euro-Burma office. "The new blood of the army must have options available on the table when their time comes. This constitution and referendum, though they are flawed, can give reform options to a new generation of military officers. It will create a new dynamic for the country to get out of the current deadlock."

That’s why many advocates of the elite-initiated transition advise the Burmese public to accept the constitution and hope it will lead to amendments with the objective of the military's gradual withdrawal from politics at a later period.
Tun Myint Aung, a leader of 88 Generation Students group, disagrees.

"It is such disgraceful advice. The so-called experts and policy makers are pushing our people to live in slavery," he said from his hideout in Burma. "We do not accept the military's constitution; not because we don't want gradual transition, but because the constitution is too rigid to make any change possible. The military holds a veto over any amendments."

Critics said it is now clear—after a series of rejected proposals from oppositions groups and the UN—that rather than political carrots, it is much more likely that effective public action will compel the new military generation to choose the path to reform.

"Unless a mass movement challenges the corrupted military leadership, divisions within the military will not surface," said Kyaw Kyaw, head of the Political Defiant Committee under the National Council of Union of Burma, the umbrella opposition group in exile. "Besides lacking local and international legitimacy, the corrupt leadership is now losing its loyalty from within military ranks since the September protest. In a historical Burmese context, public action, or mass movement, has played a decisive role ever since the struggle for independence to the 1988 democracy uprising to the monk-led protests last September. It will continue to do so until we gain a genuine resolution."

In fact, only when mass movement with strategic leadership rises up against the current military top brass, then the elite’s calculations, regime defection and international pressure will become relevant issues in facilitating a negotiated transition. In other words, political transition is not likely to take place within a framework of proposed constitutional means. Even amendments to the constitution with the hope of gradual reform will not be possible within a military-dominated parliamentary debate. It will happen only when the people challenge the status quo with public pressure.
However, although mass action is believed to be necessary to bring about change in Burma, its inherent dangers mean the possibility of its success remains a big question.

"The calls for public action are getting louder since the prospect of elite-initiated negotiation became impossible," said Nyan Win. "If the regime rigs the referendum result, it could spark mass protests."

A recent history of democratization shows that vote-rigging and stealing elections create favorable conditions and the opportunity for the outbreak of a democratic uprising or, in a worst case scenario, violence.

In fact, vote rigging might not only trigger public outrage in Burma, but also test the loyalty of the regime's staff. It could create divisions and weaken the standing of Than Shwe, who is solely responsible for the decision to move ahead with the unilateral implementation of the current political process by ignoring the UN's call for inclusiveness.
Whether or not public action leads to a negotiated transition depends on the opposition's leadership. No process of democratization has evolved purely and solely from a civil movement or people’s uprising.

It would nevertheless be shortsighted to exclude the role and power of the people in a Burmese political context where elite-driven transition is no longer relevant.