International Affairs Forum:
Myanmar's ruling junta is refusing to allow foreign military helicopters into the country to help distribute aid, despite it adding greatly to the cost of assistance, according to the U.N. World Food Program. Why is it continuing to refuse outside help?
Prof. Helen James:
They're not refusing help but they're certainly refusing any action which might infringe on their sovereignty. And military helicopters bring up a sensitive issue. Recently, for example, although the Chinese government has accepted Japanese experts to help with the quake situation, they also would not allow Japanese military planes to fly over their territory, given the historical sensitivities. Similarly the Myanmar government has historically based sensitivities about foreign military coming within their area of sovereignty, and I think some Western nations don't appreciate those sensitivities sufficiently. There are quite a number of Western aid workers and experts who have had their visas approved and are working in the country in the normal manner. So, in effect, the government don't feel they need military based personnel. This would be an infringement of their sovereignty.
State media has said the junta refused to allow U.S. ships to dock because it feared a U.S. invasion for its oil deposits. Do you think the junta really believes this might happen?
No. I don't believe that at all. I think, however, that the government is very protective of Myanmar's sovereignty, as any country would be. As I cited in the Chinese example, they too are very protective of their sovereignty and very conscious of historical sensitivities. And Myanmar has in its history had foreign warships appear off its sovereign borders several times in the past, prior to being invaded during colonial times, so these sensitivities are very real.
Do you think the cyclone has done any lasting damage to the junta's hold on power?
No, I don't think it has at all. I've read a number of articles about this and I think they're all very ill-founded and represent a very poor understanding of the country and especially the dynamics of power in the country, and very little understanding of the way the country operates. They also misunderstand the numbers game. The Myanmar military is somewhere around half a million strong. And given the way the population is dispersed around the country and the differences between North and South, I don't think the damage done in the Delta will have any long-lasting effects at all on the government's power.
Despite the cyclone, the junta went ahead with a referendum on a new constitution, and claimed it had a 92 percent approval rate. What do you make of this figure and the timing of the referendum?
Well I think we'd all be rather amused by the figure, if it weren't so sad, really. Given that the four southern regions that were most affected by the cyclone were also the most populous, it would certainly be more than one percent of the population living in those divisions. So, even if every single adult within the four southern divisions were able to vote, it would amount to more than one percent. The mathematics just don't stack up. I think if the figure were going to be a little bit jimmied, so to speak, different numbers should have been chosen because these are not credible. But, nevertheless, it's not realistic to think there was ever going to be any other result than an officially proclaimed affirmative vote. Anybody who expected a very large "no" vote was not being realistic.
In regards to the timing of the vote, the dates for the referendum were set some time ago. And the coincidence of the cyclone couldn't have been predicted when the dates were set. But equally, once those dates were set there was never going to be any way that the government would alter them; that's not the way they think or operate. So even though we might think it's extremely strange to proceed with the referendum given the tragedy of the cyclone, on the other hand when you look through the mindset of the junta, it's not surprising that they proceeded with the referendum.
The other issue is that only four of the 14 divisions of Myanmar were affected by the cyclone, so from the perspective of the government situated in the North, the referendum would be carried out in the majority of the 14 divisions. I think it must've been extremely difficult for the referendum to be voted on in the four southern divisions on the day that they did and certainly very difficult for anyone to sensibly cast a vote, but that's the way the government operates.
You mentioned the "mindset" of the government. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
Well, when the government makes a decision, they tend to stick to it. There's a fairly inflexible type mindset I would say. Having made a decision, they proceed on it. And this goes with the type of government it is.
As I look over the political culture and the development of the country, since probably about the 9th century, I've come to the conclusion that even through their monarchical phases it was essentially a very militaristic culture, that is the elite political culture. Each one of their dynasties was founded by a successful general. When you read through different phases of their history and read about their military war machines as they operated in the 15th-18th centuries in southeast Asia, it was a time when they were at the peak of their power. It was a society geared toward military warfare. In fact, the society was divided into military and non-military classes.
I've come to the conclusion that the traditional Myanmar society has been in the past organized according to that type of military culture. In recent times, since 1962 particularly, the successive governments have had a cultural policy of reinvigorating and trying to restore their indigenous history and cultural identity. And I think that may be behind the particular mindset of this government.
And I do think also that there is insufficient appreciation in western cultures of the way their mindset works. I think it would be helpful to try to get an understanding of the dynamics behind it and to realize that it's not helpful to have warships appear off the sovereign borders and it's not helpful to have namecalling in the international arena. But it is helpful, as the UN Secretary General did, to go and seek an audience and hold discussions. Negotiations and consultations is really the only way to approach the government or have any chance at improving the situation in the country. And not just with the recent cyclone, but from this point onwards in terms of little by little being able to affect measures to alleviate the poverty and help to rebuild the society.
I think in all of that it's essential to observe "proper behavior," if I can use that term. The appearance of warships has all the parameters of bullying, and they don't respond well to bullying, their perception of bullying. In 1998 I think it was, they rejected the offer of $20 million of assistance from the World Bank because it had conditions attached. The then Foreign Minister's famous statement was, and I quote, "that's like offering peanuts to monkeys and saying dance. And we're not monkeys. We won't dance." The Myanmar government can't be bribed, they can't be bought in such a publicly offensive manner. If the international community follows proper formalities as the UN Secretary General did, then there's a much greater chance of getting things like aid, assistance, and foreign workers in there and of getting cooperation from the government in terms of longer term assistance to the country.
And I do think that the first move needs to be made by the international community, specifically by the Western powers in terms of cutting the Gordian knot. Sanctions as we know are totally ineffective, quite useless. And to persist with them really only entrenches the current paradigm of power. If anybody is going to be intelligent and magnanimous and if anybody really wants to have a situation where the people of Myanmar can be helped, I think the West needs a major shift in its policies towards the country. Otherwise things will simply go on as they are. And as we all know, Myanmar's neighbors are there to help anyway and they accept help from their neighbors because they are perceived to be friendly- friends who don't bully or posture.
The situation where the French and US warships were turned away could have been expected. I was saying to friends recently, if a stranger turned up at my door and demanded entry I wouldn't let them in either.
So you think the way to affect change in Myanmar is through negotiations with the government. You do acknowledge then that change needs to happen with the government?
I think everybody does. But repeating it, having the good Secretary of Defense in Bangkok making statements to that effect is not going to bring about change. The government now is actually more entrenched than ever. The best chance they had of any kind of internal reform came to an end in 2004 with the displacement of the reform group. And in the last four years the situation hasn't improved. Unless the international community changes its position, nothing will happen. China and Russia are certainly supporting the country, as are its neighbors. And I believe that will go on and the government will remain in power and that incremental change at the edges will probably proceed in tandem with China's own evolution. The West has absolutely no leverage whatsoever now.
What do you think are the prospects for Aung San Suu Kyi's release?
I think there's very little chance for any change. There's very little chance of her being released and very little chance of her party ever forming a government. I'm sorry to be pessimistic, but I'm a realist. Again, I think it's very sad but I think it's the result of policies that have been pursued over the last decade. And, in my view, if some of the positions hadn't been taken she would have had a much better chance of some type of position in a situation of shared power.
What certain areas of the West need to come to grips with is that any type of movement or change in the situation in Myanmar has to take into account a role for the military in any future government because they are actually the power brokers. They hold power, like it or not, and in their perception they don't need to share power. So it's only people in the West saying they must share or get out of power or turn over power to Aung San Suu Kyi. In their view they don't need to share or turn over power to anybody else. So, if the West (by which I mean the US and UK) had truly some years ago wanted to see a resolution to the situation, to see Suu Kyi in some form of power, they needed to pursue different policies altogether and not the policies of confrontation that they have pursued. Confrontation doesn't get you anywhere in the end.
So you don't think there's anything the international community can do now to affect change in Myanmar?
Not particularly, no. It needs to be very slowly, incrementally, and definitely via negotiations and consultations. I have great respect for the UN Secretary General who has worked with ASEAN and been quite central to getting assistance to the cyclone victims. ASEAN knows also it's essential to negotiate and consult and as I said the UN Secretary General has made a real effort to deal with the government and I hope his efforts bear fruit in the longer term because I think he's absolutely right. There is at the moment a small base from which further developments may grow if there's goodwill on both sides. That goodwill will be really contingent upon some of the extreme positions the West has assumed in the past being ameliorated.
Helen James is an associate professor (adjunct) at the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute, The Australian National University, and author of "Governance and Civil Society in Myanmar: Education, Health and Environment" and "Security and Sustainable Development in Myanmar," both published by Routledge.
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