Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Myanmar's International Relations Strategy: The Search for Security

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Myanmar's International Relations Strategy: The Search for Security

Article excerpt

Introduction

Myanmar's overarching search for national security is both political and economic, reflecting its tortuous modern history, colonial experience, and legacy of civil conflict since 1948, when the insurgencies of every major ethnic minority except the Chin erupted, just as the newly independent state came into existence. Then, in 1988, as the state was emerging from 26 years of socialism and seeking to engage with the international market economy, international economic sanctions designed to undermine the regime and the state made that search for security problematic. In this sense, Myanmar reflects the prevailing liberal/constructivist view of security in the Asia-Pacific which privileges economic development, political stability and social well-being more than the traditional militaristic Western approach of the realist paradigm, (1) although Southeast Asian governments, including Myanmar, are inclined to revert to the realist balance-of-power paradigm when taking measures to ensure that no regional hegemon can emerge. From time to time, this approach is apparent in their international policies towards China, Japan and the United States. Thus, it appears that Myanmar's spate of diplomatic initiatives since the 25 August 2003 top structure changes, put in place to divert international criticism following the 30 May 2003 incident at Depeyin, are the latest in a series of strategies designed to deliver regime and state security to Yangon. The important correlative of human security is yet to achieve prominence in state discourse.

Since becoming a full member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July 1997, Myanmar's domestic policies have been channelled towards convincing the international community that the concerted domestic reform programme underway in various sectors will accelerate opening the economy to full market status, and that this will in turn eventually lead to pluralistic governance. These objectives were reiterated in the 30 August 2003 plan announced by newly elevated Prime Minister, General Khin Nyunt. His colleagues amongst the heads of government at the 9th ASEAN Summit held on 7-8 October 2003 in Bali were prepared to accept this plan, with its notable use of the term, "disciplined democracy", intended to serve as a contrast to what the Myanmar leadership perceives as the "undisciplined democracy" of the 12 years of the era of Parliamentary Democracy (1948-58, 1960-62). The Prime Minister's plan was perceived as the most positive approach to come out of Yangon for some time, and which could deliver the democratic governance said to be desired by all parties--the government, the opposition, the minorities, and the international community. The diplomatic initiatives accompanying both the plan and the government's responses to imposition of further sanctions by the United States following the tragic 30 May incident at Depeyin in Upper Myanmar, recognize that Myanmar's overarching search for security must be pursued on both the political and the economic fronts. (2) In response to political tensions after the Depeyin incident, the fragile economy faltered; citizens experienced further deprivation and the government's hold on power appeared shaky. Drastic measures were required to prevent a lurch into that instability which Myanmar's neighbours feared could be detrimental to the region as a whole.

It is an article of faith amongst Southeast Asian demi-democracies (3) that state security and economic prosperity go in tandem; state-led economic development has been a feature of Southeast Asian governance since emerging from the colonial era. However, Southeast Asian governments are also conscious that economic development alone does not keep authoritarian governments in power, a fact made plain by the demise of the Soeharto regime in Indonesia, and previous authoritarian governments in Thailand and the Philippines. The "dictator's dilemma" has always been how to achieve regime legitimacy and state security through economic development which fosters the growth of pluralistic alternate centres of power which may eventually challenge the authoritarian centre for control of the political life of the country. …

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