MYANMAR: Beyond the Reach of International Relief?

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

MYANMAR: Beyond the Reach of International Relief?


Bruce Matthews

"Like my own people in neighbouring Tibet, you suffer under an oppressive regime beyond the reach of international relief." These words addressed to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi by the Dalai Lama on her 55 th birthday provide a focus to the myriad challenges that confronted Myanmar in 2000.1 They point to the sombre life-style of a people who, though not starved or enslaved, survive in what is largely a subsistence economy, for the most part in an atmosphere of political resignation and uncertainty.2 The lack of a rule of law means that anyone can face arbitrary and capricious treatment. There is no press freedom and no right of assembly. Isolated for decades from the outside world, it can rightly be claimed that many in Myanmar are "psychologically paralyzed ... living without even realizing that their thinking is being damaged by the military government".3 Except for the efforts of a few international relief organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (such as the UNDP, World Vision, Médecins sans Frontières), no external aid of consequence is available to make the lot of the average citizen easier. Loans and grants for some grass-roots projects and technical assistance have been extended by Japan, India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore. However, it has been thirteen years since any leading funded programmes from multilateral institutions (like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, or the Asian Development Bank) have been forthcoming, nor are they a likely prospect in the near future.

It could be argued that "international relief" is more than just a monetary phenomenon. There is also the matter of moral and political support that comes from the world beyond. In this case, Myanmar, like Tibet, is a cause célèbr e. Its situation also presents a dilemma to those in the international community who would like to see a new Myanmar take its rightful place as a modern nation in the region, and the world at large. So-called "soft" and "hard" options based on strategies such as constructive engagement and economic sanctions continue to bedevil any consensus. An agile military government prolongs its power by careful exploitation of this lack of international agreement, as well as balancing its vital relationships with China, India, Pakistan, Thailand, and ASEAN. Indeed, no longer is Myanmar the "hermit kingdom". The controlling junta plays a few of its diplomatic options with consummate skill, and can count on sufficient external support (particularly from China, and increasingly from India) to survive indefinitely, albeit in reduced circumstances.

There are other forces at work, however --- democratic, economic, internal and external --- that suggest a future identified by military rule is by no means a surety. …

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