Written by U Ne Oo on 1999-09-17

#1. Effectiveness of Sanction,

Constructive Engagement and Other initiatives

I have dispute with Prof. Steinberg's conclusion of "nothing works with Burmese junta iese junta including initiatives by non-governmental organisations and United Nations". This conclusion is a rather superficial for a man of his stature. On the effectiveness of "Sanction" and "Constructive Engagement", I have less reason to dispute. However, with regards to UN initiatives, one needs to note that there is a lack of substantial pressure, such as from UN Security Council taking on Burma agenda. Oppression in Burma and situation of refugees are disturbing. But, for some reason, we've never been able to attractattract attention of UN Security Council. Are we talking about UN humanitarian initiatives ? Nothing of substance has been done by UN in this regards.

On the other hand, the UN General Assembly has been too slow to act upon many things we have requested. Sure, no one, including Americans, like to send their boys to faraway country such as Burma. Then, this could be compensated if we have properly constructed resolution passed by UN General Assembly. Otherwise, we will have to put up with sanction, sanctions and more sancore sanctions but nothing else.

As an activist, I do not like economic sanctions. But, because of lack of other forms of leverage (require substantial political commitment by international community) myself have joined in the "sanction-band-wagon" in early 1998.

Given that the rationale for sanction is to weaken the government apparatus, I think we can now make even more justified call for economic sanction on Burma. Firstly, this is because every decent businesses have already left Burma and imposing international banonal ban on new investments is quite timely. Existing businesses, of course, should find some ways to work with the parliamentarians.

I had reservation in earlier years to call for economic sanction on Burma because it poses unfair burden on Burmese people. My perceived rationale for economic sanction, rightly or wrongly, was weighted as of creating dissent on the government (not necessarily of weakening government apparatus) by the population concerned, which leading up to violent overthrow of the government. Fortunatelytunately, it is proven that, despite current level of economic hardship experienced by the Burmese people, no signs of civil unrest. My estimate is that the Burmese people cannot get poorer than the current situation. It means that, any sanction we impose now, its effect would be all for SPDC/SLORC. In this regards, ASSK's comment is quite noteworthy.

# 2. Opposition NLD creates conditions the military cannot accept

I think, here, too, Prof. Steinberg is making an unfair judgment. The opposition NLD does n does not intentionally create conditions the Burmese junta cannot accept. On contrary, the NLD has given all necessary concessions, including ASSK to stay out in initial talks (before that Burmese junta was complaining about this poor-man Michael Aris, too). Whatever way around the junta choose to argue, the fact remains that unacceptable condition for Burmese junta is the result of May 1990 General Election.

#3. The role of Civil Society in a struggle for democracy

This philosophy of "Civil Society first, Demst, Democracy second" essentially is that of "Constructive Engagement". In "Constructive Engagement", free market and economics incentives are utilised the governments to make reforms. At the same time, it expects a "democracy-minded middle class" to emerge from the population. The "Civil Society first, Democracy second" philosophy is the most gentle variety of the "Constructive Engagements". In worst case scenario, its contexts could be interpreted to sound like some colonial educators who said, "the Burmese population have to bee to be brought to the level of civilisation that fit to enjoy Her Majesty Government". That sort of attitude is quite patronising to the Burmese. Like that of Australians, anyone is welcomed to help Burmese people in a forthright and straightforward manner: but no patronising please!

I think the task of encouraging civil society in Burma is certainly important. However, we must not confuse such issue with replacing a dictatorial government with a popularly elected one. Since societies tends to move slowly, even in the case of case of Burmese having a government that allows civil and political freedom, time taken to absorb various aspects of democracy and democratic rules, including development of civil society, can be many years. Closest example of that are the Philippines, Thailand and Taiwan: we begin to see in those societies totally free press, independent judiciary and a healthy mix of political, non-governmental and human rights organisations have emerged. What we need in Burma is the back bones of democracy -- press freedom and a repd a representative government. Starting from that, various aspects of democracy should have to be built.

Some academics seek to blame Burmese society for being too "authoritarian- structured" that it couldn't foster a democratic rule. On this line of discussion, one might look at Prof Pye or Prof Mg Mg Gyi's books (if you were to look at those book and make judgment on Burmese politics, the Burmese may well have to wait democracy for another 200 years!!). I don't see any difference amongst societies of those countries wities with ourselves. We can also look at India as example for our democratic inspirations, too.

My understanding about the emergence of a democratic rule is that it should be based on the ability of political movement and its leadership. On the subject of emergence of a popularly elected government, it is wrong to focus on the development of civil society as a substitute to the political movement. In other words, inspite of deficiencies within society, the politics must find its way through in establishing a democratic rule. So,le. So, the solution to the confused academics is simple: believe in the Burmese democracy leadership; believe in Aung San Suu Kyi; trust them and help them. We will certainly get there to democracy.

#4. Effectiveness of a Human Rights Commission within Burma

Even in Australia, the Human Rights Commission, along with other human rights NGOs and activists, are frequently cited as "paper tigers". The HR Commission here doesn't appears to have the power to make a binding-rule on its own. It does have the power topower to investigate human rights complaints "freely" (I put it in quote because the Commission investigation depends on government fundings too). But, in the end, the Commission has to relied upon the judiciary-- i.e. independent from the government, of course. This is the only mean for HR Commission here to get a ruling on matters. The Constitution here does not include the bill of rights.

For some results, the Human Rights Commission here seems also relied upon the press, NGOs and GONGOs (Government Owned Non-Government Organt Organisations). From these advocacy groups and through the public, the Commission's concerns are brought to bear upon the decision makings of the parliament. In addition, the Commissioner here can talk freely to any MPs and Government Ministers, I suppose.

In situation of Burma, operation of a Human Rights Commission may be considered effective if it has (1) the rights to investigate any human rights complaints (2) the rights to disseminate freely about the human rights information. But, it will be a waste of time to expect expect Burmese junta to set up an "independent" human rights commission.

#5. Accommodating International Assistance to Burma

Given that the elected representatives in the form of CRPP being recognised properly, any Japanese or Americans or Europeans or Australians can explore whatever assistance or developmental issues they desire (we would need plenty of that, wouldn't we). But, nobody, including United Nations, should try to cleverly "cut-the-deals" with Burmese junta -- it will not help Burmese peoplee people and will amounts to a simple short sightedness.

Recent ICRC operation in Burma was the junta's initiative. We are not overly critical to ICRC visits, even it is not being our initiative: we do trust the integrity of ICRC. Unfortunately, ICRC do not share their prison visit information to the public. But we now atleast know 18,000 possible political prisoners in Burma.

#6. Military junta may use Australia's human rights initiative as propaganda

On the other hand, the visit by Australian Human Rights Rights Commissioner or initiatives to join up Asia-Pacific Human Rights Forums should not be claimed, especially at the UN General Assembly, as a positive step made on human rights. We've got to remember that the UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur, including ILO Commission of inquiry, are not allowed to visit Burma for 3-years now. Urgent and immediate cooperation to UN Human Rights mechanisms must be demanded of the Burmese junta.

Finally, everyone has the right to talk to Burmese junta as long as one knows what one is doing.s doing. But no one should waste the time of Burmese people who are under severe repression.

With best regards, U Ne Oo.


16 September, 1999 by David I. Steinberg


Can anything alleviate Burma's political and economic problems? Foreign countries and groups hnd groups have tried contrasting approaches. The United States is trying to strongarm the military into honouring the results of the 1990 election. Until it does, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on new investments. But while this focus on democracy is morally appealing, it is unrealistic. At the other extreme, Asean, which admitted Burma to membership in 1997 over strong U.S. objections, has been trying appeasement, though its "constructive engagement" is nothing more than a euphemism for exploiting economic opportunities. Both i Both initiatives, along with others involving nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations have failed.[#1.]

At first brush, future progress seems equally doomed. The State Peace and Development Council, the latest incarnation of Burmese military rule, is unlikely to make the changes necessary to ensure progress on democracy and economic reforms. It has no intention of loosening control; its leaders find anathema the idea of sharing power with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition National Leonal League for Democracy. Meanwhile, as the military refuses to negotiate with the opposition, and as the opposition itself creates conditions the military cannot accept, a stalemate ensues, forcing Burmese to continue to suffer in misery.[#2.]

Into this have come the Australians with a proposal seeking both change in Burma and dialogue with the military. In early August, the Australian commissioner for human rights, Chris Sidoti, travelled to Rangoon to discuss with military authorities and the opposition the po the possibility of establishing an independent Burmese Human Rights Commission. The initiative, linked to the seven member Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions, is modeled on the Indonesian human rights commission that began work under adverse conditions -- long before President Suharto's fall. On behalf of the secretariat of the forum, Sidoti invited Burma to attend its meeting in Manila this month. He also made two suggestions for cooperative action: training Burmese government officials in human rights and ts and a joint project on access to healthcare.

Surprisingly, the authorities welcomed this initiative, going so far as to call Sidoti's visit both fruitful and successful. In addition, the opposition, expected to oppose any engagement with the military and which would have been understandably doubtful of the initiative's potential effectiveness, proved less critical than anticipated. While this may not amount to concord, it remains true that no other initiative has ever elicited this level of approval from both sides.

A Burmese organization of whatever stripe -- political, social or economic civil society destroyed, institutions exist only to serve state goals, or if not then they are under strict surveillance. Thus, despite the initial guarded approval of the Australian proposal, it would seem doomed to failure. But then, note that the needs of Burmese society are ever growing even as the government has neither the competence nor the ability to deliver. Thus, as the as the population becomes more exposed to new ideas -- through the Australian initiative itself -- and as the regime begins to recognize its limitations, it is possible that state control over any group deemed not overtly political will gradually erode. This will herald the reintroduction of facets of civil society, and even perhaps a modest pluralism. The Australian initiative, thus, is potentially the start of a tortured, tedious process, without which only stasis can be expected to reign. [#3.]

Even if the commhe commission were to be established, its effective operation likely will be delayed. Still, the very existence of a body to which human rights protests can be lodged -- if not yet acted on -- can begin an incremental process towards change. Many say that such a commission would only serve as a propaganda tool for the military, as well as prove ineffective.[#4,#6]For the near term, they are likely to be right, But neither Burmese nor foreigners are fools and over the longer term the military will not be able to keep up ep up the propaganda charade. Indeed, it is best to remember that the initiative represents only a modest first step in engaging the military -- a "toe in the water," as Sidoti put it. Others worry that the Japanese, for example, may follow up on this to renew major economic assistance. But this underrates donors' understanding of the dynamics of power in Burma and the lack of economic reforms urgently needed before assistance may be employed effectively.[#5.]

Australia, a mid-sized power, has taken a step the ma the major powers have been reluctant to take. It should be complimented. Even if this initiative proves less successful than intended, or even fails, the effort is nonetheless noteworthy and important. What Australia has done is to show a way to deal with Burma that involves neither confrontation nor appeasement, but rather engagement. Further engagement along this line may be the only way to wrench Burma out of its political and economic morass.

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