Myanmar: On Claiming Success
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Myanmar: On Claiming Success


By DAVID I. STEINBERG Wednesday, January 18, 2012


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The world, and especially the Burmese peoples, have seen many positive changes in their society over the past year. Now, in the light of these encouraging events, the world is beating a path to Myanmar’s [Burma's] doorstep. Some of those in the past have had rigorous negative opinions, ones they did not fail to share with all those around and about, and especially with those in policy positions. They wanted regime change as they believed there was little hope of progress under any military-dominated regime.

Some felt there should be no negotiations—even contact—with a corrupt, venal Burmese military, and that sanctions should squeeze the military junta until it cried Uncle (Sam). Many are now applying for visas. We hope that they will all be granted, and that they can find hotel rooms in Yangon.

And now from all sorts of foreign sources will come the barrage of claims that it was their policies that have brought about such changes in Myanmar. If it had not been for sanctions, opprobrium, invective, UN resolutions, restrictions on trade, discouragement of investment, warnings against tourism, vilification of those advocating dialogue, and a myriad of other restrictions and negative views on what was often described as a ”pariah” or “rogue” regime, the argument goes, these changes would not have taken place. So we, the foreigners, are the heroes.

This is the height of hubris. Yes, we know well the human rights abuses in that state, its sorry economic policies and incompetent implementation, its Potemkin-village-like-system of disguising reality, its manipulation of statistics to hide mal-administration. Yet to claim that foreigners have effectively controlled change or could force improvements in that sorry state is remarkably grotesque.

We all know that organizations or individuals, public or private, that have programs or projects like to claim success for their endeavors. Such efforts are individually or institutionally satisfying, stroking the personal or collective egos, and often resulting in raising more monies for further such exploits.

To make such claims, however, is to deny the acumen and capacity of the Burmese people. Yes, they have been oppressed, and their occasional outward expressions of discontent have been brutally suppressed. They have tolerated much, and seem to have had a long fuse and have not exploded as often as they might have given their provocations, perhaps because of the karmic belief that evil rulers with get their just desserts in future incarnations. To make such claims is also to deny that however grammatically singular the word “military” may be, it is in reality plural.

There always have been those within the rigid military system who thought of the plight of the people, as there have been “thugs” interested in self-aggrandizement. As one highly placed Burmese colonel who was a cabinet minister said, “We were taught that this uniform, this gun, came from the people, but we have forgotten that.” To deny the essential humanity of all this admitted elite is singularly inept.

Openings within the pervasive power system in Myanmar have allowed those concerned with their own society to advocate change and reform. After a half-century of repression, such progress is likely to be halting and asymmetrical, and it will only take place at a pace that the society can handle, if it is allowed to do so. For the world to deny the reality of such attempted changes is, in effect, to subvert them. Yet for foreigners to attempt to control, take over, and claim credit for progress is an equally effective method to diminish their effectiveness.

Foreigners should remember how marginal they really are—in spite of their military power, economic penetration, and propinquity or distance. Those for or against sanctions, for or against dialogue, or for or against engagement are bit players in the Burmese drama, in which the past or present villains and the present heroes are Burmese of all ethnicities and persuasions. We wish them well.

David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. His latest volume (with Fan Hongwei) is “Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence” (March 2012).

COMMENTS (18)
 
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Cane Wrote:
29/01/2012
The westerners are opportunity seekers. Shall we trust them?

Remember who colonized Burma for more than 100 years. Remember who let the military regime for more than nearly 60 years.

Remember they are now in Burma not to help Burmese people but for their own interests.


the Burman Wrote:
26/01/2012
Very typical of the West....claiming success on all these puny ineffective things that they did without understanding the souls and minds of the people of Burma.

Oo Maung Gyi Wrote:
23/01/2012
Professor Mr. Steinberg is too early phrasing Burma on success. We Burmese peoples have to go certain period of time to establish full democracy in the country. America is coming to Burma due to North Korea starnge relation with Burma and China influencing Asia region has to make power balance. Burma on the path of democracy of democracy is not a wonderful thing, because soon after the Burmese independence Burmese peoples had established democracy and our Tamadaw is anti-communist till today. China communist party and Maozitong gave advice to Ne Win to establish one party system which was totally failier and Ne Win order his subordinates Khin Nyunt and Than Shwe to make coup along Gen.Saw Maung. That was the reason Burma became rouge state in the eye of international community. Please note that.

Moe Aung Wrote:
21/01/2012
"Many are now applying for visas. We hope that they will all be granted, and that they can find hotel rooms in Yangon."

Who's we? You and fellow travelers? You and your military buddies?

Foreign (Western govts) pressure and popular struggle - the two are by no means mutually exclusive. Surely you don't need to be reminded Prof that they are normally known as external and internal destructive elements. They did it because they could, and they do it because they can whatever they decide, but they are not immune to pressure.

Your goodwill for Burma certainly is appreciated but your pontification and prescriptions taken with a pinch of salt. Hopefully you won't have to eat your own words later.

Bilal Raschid Wrote:
21/01/2012
This is typical David Steinberg, trying to obliquely take credit, while vilifying all others whose work truly pressured the junta to bring about the changes.

BH Wrote:
21/01/2012
This article could have been interesting had Dr.Steinberg not had to resort to an empty sophist argument which his usual critics would find hard to contest. Instead of vague nods to 'Burmese people', it would have been interesting to read about what, if not sanctions, brought about this sudden policy volte-face in Steinberg's opinion, because it most certainly was not popular pressure. I happen to agree that sanctions were not primarily responsible for this shift (at least not if one considers the alternative scenario of engagement, which I believe would have brought earlier and more sustainable political reform). Scholarship on the politics of the tatmadaw is sparse, and it would be interesting to see a study exploring the internal shifts in power which brought reform. It will also be interesting to see whether these reforms last, which is by no means a fait accompli, due to the fact -in my opinion- that the impetus for change sprang from a rearrangement of power in the tatmadaw.

Tom Tun Wrote:
20/01/2012
Mr. Steinberg,

So, where do you stand now? You wrote about Burma very often, so you are one of the foreigner in the foreigners group that you are criticizing. It is not fair that you are critisizing someone else and not by yourself. Isn't it ego that you particularly describe in your writing? There is a Burmese saying "If you are pointing one finger at other people, there are four fingers pointing at yourself". Please write something useful.

Terry Evans Wrote:
20/01/2012
We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others, the same word many mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name - liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names - liberty and tyranny

KML Wrote:
19/01/2012
I am confused with “On Claiming Success”. Is it the success of the military junta or the NLD or the ethnic minorities or the general population of Burma? Who should claim the success first? Please clarify. No one can claim any form of success yet. This little window of opportunity for reform is not a matter of success or failure. It is an essential element for the country and is long overdue. The process is still at the beginning and there are a lot of challenges ahead.

Overpraising one , undermining another, upgrading the power and down grading the majority .. during BSPP regime. However, Burmese are well versed with such tactics. Academic analysis must always be with critical analysis rather than superficial bubbling. All claims mentioned with inverted comma in this article are valid and need to address properly. It is not “Burmese drama” but due course of the peace or reform process.

I am afraid this type of comments will harm ongoing negotiations and reform process.

tocharian Wrote:
19/01/2012
"Angst vor China" is the real reason that is leading to "reforms" in Burma. I wouldn't call it a success yet. It's a very difficult road ahead and The CUNNING Evil Empire (the Red Dragon next door) will strike back.
ASSK wrote about "Freedom from Fear". I think the real book that nobody dares to write about is "Freedom from Fear of the Chinese". Maybe I should do it!

khar Wrote:
19/01/2012
Burmese government can't be judged by actions it takes that do not threaten the immense power and wealth its military rulers and their associates accumulate illegally at the expense tremendously outrageous suffering of its citizens. Lets see these evil wolves are still for the reform when they will have to contest in 2015 election when there's a good chance that they could lose power with all the rest that comes with it.

skt Wrote:
19/01/2012
I thank Professor Steinberg for his ability to understand and express his sentiments on what is happening in Myanmar. Those who claim responsibility for bringing about these changes through their advocacy for sanctions, restrictions on trade, discouragement of investment, warnings against tourism, UN resolutions against regime etc. , should realize that changes now taking place would have taken place a long time ago if the military cared.

As Prof. Steinberg implied, it is the acumen and capacity of the Burmese people from all sections of the society that brought about the changes, not the ‘foreigners heroes’ who claim credit for the evolution of this process.

KML Wrote:
19/01/2012
“Some felt there should be no negotiations—even contact—with a corrupt, venal Burmese military,…. Many are now applying for visas..”

I doubt this statement. People of Burma want out of the wood by any means.. but… Is there any genuine olive branch offered by the regime prior to President U Thein Sein? Burmese people are not that stupid. If the regime comes one step forward, the Burmese people normally come ten steps forward.. Burmese were one of the most humble people ( in politics) that gave way to successive dictatorships. Burmese are still humble but I hope President U Thein Sein will not breach the trust of them.

kerry Wrote:
19/01/2012
The real heroes are the Burmese people and their very highly regarded, democratically-inclined leaders, and every brave person who stayed constant in their heart on the side of truth and freedom.

Everyone else globally did their best, to support and assist, some tirelessly and many unpaid.

K.M. Aung Wrote:
19/01/2012
I send my warmest wishes to all the Burmese citizens too. The road to democracy is long and hard but I hope President Thein Sein will start using the country's vast wealth on improving Burma's infrastructure, health and education for its countrymen, women and children. On another note, I would like to quote what General Aung San once said, "Not Five but Ten Commandments shall be violated if the army gets involved with politics."

Alice U-Mackey Wrote:
19/01/2012
Yes, indeed! 'The Burmese of all ethnicities and persuasions' in and outside Burma and 'those concerned in their own society to advocate change and reform' inside Burma, faced with adversities, angst and frustrations, are the true unsung heroes, past and present.

kothi Wrote:
19/01/2012
David, you rock! I have ever seen of your witty diatribe like this piece before. "Some felt there should be no negotiations—even contact—with a corrupt, venal Burmese military, and that sanctions should squeeze the military junta until it cried Uncle (Sam). Many are now applying for visas. We hope that they will all be granted, and that they can find hotel rooms in Yangon"

Roland Watson Wrote:
19/01/2012
On the contrary, developments in Burma, which hardly constitute success, are all about foreign influence. The U.S. finally got interested, due to the security issue posed by the military dictatorship's cooperation with North Korea. It then offered the junta a deal: We will accept substituting 'peace' for 'freedom,' if you end the cooperation, release dissidents, stop attacking the ethnic minorities, and give Daw Suu a role. You can stay in power. Then we can be business partners. Freedom can wait.

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