Myanmar's Human and Economic Crisis and Its Regional Implications

By Matthews, Bruce | Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Myanmar's Human and Economic Crisis and Its Regional Implications


Matthews, Bruce, Southeast Asian Affairs


"Quite so!", said one of the retired professors from behind a cloud of cheroot smoke. "My Western friends always ask me, 'Why are the Burmese so cynical?' I reply that there isn't any single reason to be cynical. But in these prevailing conditions there is absolutely no reason for optimism."

(Emma Larkin, Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop [London: John Murray, 2004], p. 30)

Myanmar is a leading example of what represents, at least by some definitions, a failed state: tyrannically governed by a military junta whose sullen leaders are seldom seen in public, with a downtrodden, impoverished, and dispirited citizenry - most of whom struggle to survive, at best with the most basic standard of living.1 Except for the swollen hierarchy of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), upper elements of the armed forces (SitTat or Tatmadaw) and crony businessmen (including an increasingly self-evident resident Chinese population), the people of Myanmar experience few of the comforts and advances of the modern world. The unloved governing military junta, in absolute power under one name or another since 1962, prevails only because of the authority of the gun, and obliging neighbours on all sides eager to partake of Myanmar's still abundant natural resources at fire-sale prices.

But Myanmar's internal situation has deep geopolitical ramifications. Emanating from this wounded nation are huge and problematic challenges for the region. There is evidence to suggest that despite periodic state efforts to eliminate the production of opium poppies, Myanmar remains one of the world's largest producers of heroin and amphetamines - most of which is consigned for international delivery through India, China, and Thailand. This, combined with what amounts to an uncontrolled HIV/AIDS epidemic, arguably makes Myanmar a threat to regional security.2 Perhaps even more destabilizing is the steady wave of despairing people aiming to escape, particularly through the border region with Thailand, a phenomenon which will only increase as Myanmar's economic and political instability continues unabated.3 This has become a serious problem for Myanmar's five neighbouring countries, and for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to which Myanmar has belonged since 1997. ASEAN has met with no success in persuading Myanmar to reform its polity, to free Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and to make a reasonable attempt to join the modern world.4 Likewise, the United Nations has failed in its efforts to bring about human rights reform. Elsewhere, in the European Union, the United States, and Canada, economic embargos remain in place, though with little consequence.5

This article sets down the background for what confronts the international community as it comes to grips with Myanmar's increasingly maverick - and dangerous - situation. I first focus on Myanmar's internal situation. I review something of the command structure of government and the armed forces, which is crucial to an understanding of Myanmar's domestic state of affairs. I reflect as well on the much-diminished prospects of the National Eeague for Democracy (NED) and on the role of Buddhism as it finds its place in a frayed society and troubled polity. Second, I examine current geopolitical ramifications that flow from Myanmar's internal struggles. This includes the mission of ASEAN as it now wrestles with the dark side of its unfortunate partnership with Yangon; the challenge before the United Nations as fresh attempts are made to bring Myanmar's human rights crisis before the Security Council; and the economic and strategic concerns of China and India, which help keep an unreformed SPDC in power. In conclusion, I ask what might be the prospects for a future Myanmar if its conditions become so intolerable that they provoke insurrection, political implosion, and a breakup of the state - or, less likely, international intervention. …

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