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).