Burma/Myanmar and the Dilemmas of U.S. Foreign Policy

By Steinberg, David I. | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Burma/Myanmar and the Dilemmas of U.S. Foreign Policy


Steinberg, David I., Contemporary Southeast Asia


Prologue

Burma/Myanmar(1) presents problems - problems of analysis and even data. Statistics are often whimsical, events are sometimes opaque, the complexity of the past clouds our thinking, information is filtered through skewed political lenses, propaganda is rife, and the future presents conundrums even for participants in the drama, let alone observers on the periphery.

Burma/Myanmar is still, in spite of some openings, closed and secretive, where knowledge and information are power and are not readily shared, and where to understand these dynamics expatriate Burmese and foreigners are often reduced to reading the Yangon tea leaves, much as old China-watchers in Hong Kong or those Kremlinologists of yore were reduced to doing. The dangers of analysis are obvious; this is art, not science, not even social science. And as we all know, art is in the eyes of the beholder, so disagreement with any interpretation is inevitable because we all know what we like in art even though we cannot define it.

However murky our crystal ball may be, the importance of attempting to predict the future becomes critical so that present policies may deal with future realities. Dante Alighieri in the Divine Comedy, however, consigns soothsayers and their ilk to one of the lower circles of hell, although political predictions today are a growth industry. The future of Burma/Myanmar may not equate to the present, but the present will endow the future with detritus that the poor, damned prognosticator ignores at his or her peril. History may not repeat itself but it often rhymes, as Mark Twain quipped.(2)

Introduction

The past year has been a gestation period of continuing, intensified confrontations between the Myanmar military authorities (now known as the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC), and Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD). What may be born from this heightened, painful labour is problematic. It is over a decade since the March 1988 student demonstrations began, for completely apolitical reasons, a dispute between students and a teashop owner that descended into violence. The ensuing upheaval, reflecting the intense and pent-up economic and political frustration of much of the population, soon spread to the general urban populations and continued for months, with loss of life estimated in the thousands until the coup of 18 September 1988, which brutally suppressed dissent. What we have witnessed in the past year is but a continuation of this prolonged struggle, albeit in somewhat different contexts, but no less potentially bloody and critical.

If the foreign observer is frustrated by the political stasis and the paucity of balanced and nuanced information that seem all too evident in and about Myanmar, consider for a moment what all those involved must feel in relation to the current situation. The State Peace and Development Council which was formed in November 1997, the reincarnation of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), must also be frustrated. In spite of joining ASEAN in July 1997 and the very modest additional legitimacy that derived from that membership, a legitimacy that the regime evidently sought and that the United States strove to deny, the military's primary objective in seeking affiliation was likely the expected inflow of foreign investment from member states. This has been denied to it, not because the ASEAN states would not take advantage of the opportunities in Myanmar if they could, but because of the unfortunate timing of the Asian financial crisis that has undercut the capacity of businesses in those states to invest.(3) Myanmar, probably unexpectedly to its delegation, was the obvious target of a liberalized Thai Foreign Ministry resolution, through ASEAN, to explore the internal affairs of member states, a heretofore inappropriate ASEAN consideration. The SPDC must also be frustrated by the reluctance of the multilateral financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, to provide badly needed assistance; they have been prompted to withhold support in large part by the United States, whose sanctions on new investments are probably more of a moral than an economic force. …

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