Doing Something about Black Friday
By Donald M Seekins Friday, September 19, 2003

(Page 2 of 3)

Popular resentment may build support for political change—which, judging by the large crowds who risked the authorities’ wrath by going to hear Suu Kyi’s during her up-country visits, is already huge. But it is undeniably true that the SPDC does what it likes, regardless of what the people think. Ma Thanegi, who made waves in 1997 when her essay "The Burmese Fairy Tale" was published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, but it rather aptly: "you would deliberately make us poor [by imposing sanctions] to force us to fight a revolution?" While I differ with Ma Thanegi on the source of Burmese poverty—it has been the result of SPDC incompetence and greed, rather than sanctions—the pro-sanctions crowd, in an oddly Kantian sort of way, seem to see sanctions as morally good in themselves, regardless of the consequences. But if you accuse them of moral absolutism, they point to a misty apparition, "South Africa," where an evil regime was, not self-evidently, toppled by worldwide sanctions in the 1980s. Close study of the situation in Burma since 1988 suggests that neither sanctions nor "constructive engagement" have had much impact on the SPDC’s behavior. As more time passes, this fact becomes more apparent. In other words, had the international community acted more decisively at the end of the 1980s, when the junta was still relatively vulnerable and disorganized, sanctions might have had some impact. The SPDC has managed to evade the consequences of sanctions by cultivating close economic ties with all its Asian neighbors—not just China, as many believe—while opportunistically taking short-term advantage of constructive engagement. After Black Friday, no one could argue that either sanctions or engagement has led to a real and sustained improvement in the junta’s treatment of the democratic or ethnic minority opposition. During the early and mid-1990s, many observers saw Burma’s future in terms of Suharto’s Indonesia, where an authoritarian state had successfully promoted economic growth through globalization and close ties with the West and Japan. But Black Friday suggests that in 2003, the "North Korean model" may be more appropriate. Lurching from one economic crisis to another, including a famine that has killed at least a million people, North Korea’s Stalinist elite manages to survive, and even thrive. How? North Korea gets by on what it can extract from the desperately poor local population, limited trade and financial support from neighboring countries, and dirty deals selling drugs and weapons abroad. Although Burma’s food security situation is getting worse, largely because of poor distribution, the country’s agricultural potential is far greater than North Korea’s, meaning that self-sufficiency in necessities is a viable option. Moreover, Burma’s economic ties with neighboring Asian countries are excellent, and it has one of the world’s largest drug export economies, with at least indirect pay-offs to the junta. Even if all major countries adopt toughs sanctions like the US, this is no guarantee that Than Shwe and his fellow generals won’t find ways of surviving and clinging to power like Kim Jong-il. Indeed, the fears engendered by global hostility play into the regime’s hands. Pyongyang has been in a state of war since 1950, and in the face of recent American pressure has stepped up hysterical preparations for an Armageddon-like showdown, apparently including the development of nuclear weapons. It’s unlikely the SPDC will get a hold of nuclear bombs any time soon, but it is preparing the people for confrontation with the "neo-colonialists." More than 12 million people have been recruited into the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), and according to a recent report in The Irrawaddy, the junta is ordering civil servants and their families to undergo military training. President Bush’s sanctions may look tough, but Than Shwe can probably tough it out. The shift from an "Indonesian" to a "North Korean" model, a process that seems underway even if the SPDC doesn’t describe it in those terms, reflects the ascendancy of "hard-liners" over "moderates" inside the military elite. Latest evidence of this is the "demotion" of Gen Khin Nyunt from SPDC Secretary One to Prime Minister, which is a ceremonial post. Over the past few years, it has become apparent that the long underestimated SPDC chairman Than Shwe has succeeded to the late Ne Win’s position as "Number One." Whether he can fill the wily Ne Win’s boots remains another matter. Described as stubborn, unimaginative and highly conservative, Than Shwe, through his patronage of the USDA, is said to be the mastermind behind Black Friday. He’s also unenthusiastic about economic engagement with the outside world, preferring a return to some variant of the Ne Win-era autarky. He dislikes Suu Kyi intensely, reflected in his heavy-handed treatment of her supporters. What, then, can the international community do? First, moral and material support remains imperative, as well as continued efforts by the UN and other international organizations to investigate and publicize the SPDC’s human rights abuses.

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