by Amartya Sen
It is difficult for me to talk about Burma without a deep sense of nostalgia. My earliest memories are all of Burma, where I grew up between the ages of three and six. My father was a visiting professor at the Agricultural College in Mandalay, on leave from Dhaka University. My first memory of striking natural beauty is that of sunrise over the Maymyo hills seen from our wooden house at the eastern edge of Mandalay.
Protest Against the millitary Leadar Gen. Than Shwe of Myanmar ~ in Colombo, Sri Lanka ~ Nov 2009 ~ VikalpaSL
It was a thrilling sight even for a young boy. My first recollections of warm human relations stretching beyond my own family are also of kindly Burmese society. Mandalay was a lively city in the 1930s, and Burma a magically beautiful country. The richness of the land and the enormous capacity of the Burmese people to be happy and friendly shone brightly through the restraining lid of British colonialism.
After a short period of independence from British rule and a brief experience of democracy, Burma has been in the grip of a supremely despotic military rule for almost half-a-century now. The country is now one of the absolutely poorest on the globe. Its educational and health services are in tatters. Medicine is difficult to get, and educational institutions can hardly function. There is viciously strict censorship, combined with heavy punishment for rebellious voices. The minority communities—Shans, Karens, Chins, Rohingyas and others—get particularly cruel and oppressive treatment.
There are shockingly plentiful cases of arbitrary imprisonment, terrifying torture, state-directed displacement of people, and organised rapes and killings. And when the population faces a catastrophe, like in the hurricane Nargis in May 2008, the government not only does not want to help at all, its first inclination is to ban others in the world from helping the distressed people in the country.
The military rulers have renamed Burma as Myanmar, and the renaming seems perhaps understandable, for the country is no longer the Burma that magnificently flourished over the centuries. New Myanmar is the hell-hole version of old Burma.
What is striking is that tyranny has grown steadily in Burma precisely over the decades in which democracy has made major progress across the globe. One of the foundational questions is how has the long process of the Burmese descent into hell been possible in a world that has been moving exactly in the opposite direction. What does it tell us about global relations?
Individuals and groups act on the basis of reasoning in undertaking reflected actions. These reasonings often go by the name of “incentives”. When we are concerned with changing behaviours and policies, we have to examine carefully what incentives the different agents involved—the Burmese government, the citizens, the neighbouring countries and the world at large—have in contributing to changing things in Burma.
First the Burmese government. If one thing is clear from the experiences of the past, it is that the military rulers in Burma see the division between “we”—the rulers—and “they”—the people—to be an almost unbridgeable gap. The control of news and the censorship make open public discussion impossible. If democracy is “government by discussion”, as John Stuart Mill made us understand, there is an uncrossable barrier as things stand in Burma.
Does the Burmese government have any reason to remove or relax this barrier? It is hard to think that there is an endogenous force in that direction. What about exogenous influence? The pressure for this is unlikely to come from Burma’s powerful neighbours—China in particular but also India and Thailand (more on that presently)—but with the fears and anxieties that the Burmese government often displays, the global community can do something here, if they include the subject of censorship and news control among the conditions to be negotiated in any negotiation between the Burmese government and, say, the United Nations. It is not enough for weak-voiced UN emissaries to assure us that the Burmese government has promised to lift the harshness of the regime, and it is not adequate for the ASEAN leaders to announce cheerfully that they gave the Burmese leaders “an earful”. There is a real need for insisting on concrete steps, with effective arrangements for verification and assessment.
There is much evidence that the Burmese military rulers are concerned about world opinion. This brings us to the peculiar issue of the elections that are being planned for November 7. Why do the military rulers want this? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the only reason is to whitewash the regime in the eyes of the world. If they have no serious reason to change things in Burma now, they will have no more—indeed even less—reason to do anything positive later, after a bewildered world, fed by well-meaning but confused hopes of the supporters of this phoney election, sees a pre-arranged victory of the regime in the elections to be some kind of an endorsement of the misery that is Myanmar today. It is important to bear in mind that Burma has had an election earlier, in which the restraints were far less than they are for this year’s planned voting. On May 27, 1990, voters, even though pressed to vote for the regime (with the opposition facing many constraints), gave a decisive defeat to the regime.
The National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi got 392 of 485 seats, with the militarists—Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party, now renamed National Unity Party—getting only 10. The electoral result was, of course, ignored altogether by the military regime, which continued its fierce domination over Burma, keeping Suu Kyi and many other leaders in confinement most of the time.
The regime has learned something from that experience. Military dictators are not always particularly intelligent in their thinking, but it would strain one’s credulity severely to think that the military rulers of Burma have not based their new arrangements for the upcoming elections, with reserved seats for the military rulers, with prohibitory exclusion of real opposition, with forbiddance of open discussion, and keeping the leaders of opposition totally confined, in a reasonably cogent way from their brutally limited perspective.
What, then, can the world do? Nothing perhaps is more important right now than global public discussion on the real nature of the electoral fraud. The expressions of pious hopes that things will change after the elections are totally contrary to reasoned analysis of what is going on in Burma, despite what the apologists for the regime are trying to put into the domain of public understanding. A propaganda victory for the regime by muddying the water for democracy can put things back hugely, for the real battle that has to be waged for the long-suffering Burmese people at large, of all ethnic groups within the country.
Organisations like the Human Rights Watch, and many analysts of Burmese affairs, have called for a United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burma. The need for making some announcement at this time is extremely strong. If the elections go ahead, with the world in a kind of penumbra of confounded hope, which may not be realisable but which would appear expectable, it would be very hard to go for what would look like a very impatient step. The call “let us watch and see what happens in the elections” will, it is fair to guess, then be replaced by a new call of “give them time”. This will be nothing short of continuing the suffering and oppression of the Burmese people for a long time to come. The time for an announcement, or at least serious indications, about a commission of inquiry for Burma is right now.
Can the world do anything unilaterally? This brings me to the subject of sanctions and embargoes. If the reasoning presented so far is correct, then it is right to expect that the regime would worry least about those embargoes that harm the general population, and most about those that affect their own interests. What is needed is identification of targeted sanctions aimed at the interests of the rulers, and the replacement of general restrictions—like those on garment exports from Burma—that can hurt the population.
So what are these more specialised restrictions? At the top of the list must be an embargo on arms and armaments of all kinds, and the removal of any military assistance that the Burmese government get in a direct or an indirect way. Similarly, financial restrictions can impact on those trades in which the regime leaders are themselves particularly involved. This is a large list, varying from particular minerals and gems to oil and gas, and there would obviously be a strong need for examining the pros and cons of each of these putative candidates for restriction, taking into account the impact of the contemplated actions both on the general population, which has to be avoided as much as possible, and on the tyrannical leaders, who are the beneficiaries to be aimed at.
Travel bans on individuals running the regime are also among the important areas of action that can be contemplated. Some of the top leaders of the military regime are eccentric enough to have no interest in travel outside Burma, but many of the active operators are interested in being able to move freely across the world, which can help them to get specialised medical attention, and also allow them to conduct business profitable to themselves and to the regime.
What about the responsibilities of particular countries, rather than of the world at large? The roles of the neighbours are particularly important. The Chinese government has done business with the regime for a long time and has provided indirect patronage to the regime. And given its veto power in the Security Council, its support is especially important for the Burmese rulers.
To emphasise the special role of China is not, however, any reason for not scrutinising the roles of other countries in the region, particularly India and Thailand. Both these countries have extensive business relations with Burma, seek trade agreements from the regime, and—in the case of India—also get Burmese help in dealing with some rebellions in the northeastern region that borders on Burma and from where the rebels tend to move and seek shelter and support from within Burma. At one level, it is not hard to see why India and Thailand, in addition to China, have been tolerant of the Burmese regime and indeed supportive of it. And yet the violation of political morality in these relations is extraordinarily acute and palpable. I have to say that as a loyal Indian citizen, it breaks my heart to see the prime minister of my democratic country—and one of the most humane and sympathetic political leaders in the world—engaged in welcoming the butchers from Myanmar and to be photographed in a state of cordial proximity.
Public discussion on the Burmese situation and on India’s Burma policy has been conspicuous by its near absence in India. This is not because there is any kind of governmental restriction on such discussion, or any fear of public penalty for expressing disapproval of India’s stand on Burma. The newspapers are quite ready to carry any such critique, and I know from my own personal experience that when I expressed my total disagreement with the Indian government’s policy on Burma at a public meeting chaired, as it happens, by the prime minister himself, the papers were perfectly willing to report fully my concerns. The problem arises rather from a change of the political climate in India in which narrowly defined national interest—or what is taken to be national interest—gets much loyalty, and in which India’s past propensity to lecture the world on global political morality is seen as a sad memory of Nehruvian naivety. It is worth remembering that after the military takeover of Burma, the government of India did for a great many years provide support to the democracy movement in Burma, and particularly to Aung San Suu Kyi, who also happens to be a graduate of Delhi University, before she went to Oxford. As India redefined itself, partly in imitation of China, the country has increasingly been dominated by much narrower national concerns than those that moved Gandhi and Tagore and Nehru.
If there is going to be a change here, the best hope for it in India lies certainly in arousing public interest in this issue. And here too global public discussions can make a big difference, since they do get attention in discussions within India as well. The findings of a United Nations Commission of Inquiry on the happenings in Burma could make a substantial difference to the political dialogue within India.
Three final observations. First, it is hard to persuade governments like India, Thailand, or for that matter China, that their policies regarding Burma are valuationally crude and gross, if the western countries, which are sharp on rhetoric in denouncing Myanmar’s rulers, do not do what is entirely within their power to do with their own Burmese involvement. Several European countries as well as countries elsewhere have strong business relations with Burma, for example, extensively in oil exploration and use. At a different level, neither the European Union, nor the United States, nor indeed Switzerland, Australia or Canada, has used the power of financial sanctions against the regime, demanding substantial change in their policies. This makes it harder to press the offending neighbours, when global action is so limited.
Second, prudential reasoning for any country’s so-called national interest calls not only for thoughts regarding here and now, but also about the future. This applies as much to China as to India and Thailand. Given the history of oppressive regimes in the world, the tyrants of Burma will, sooner or later, fall. The memory of betrayal of the Burmese people by particular countries would, however, last well beyond that.
Third, there is a kind of defeatism about Burma which seems to have got hold of the thinking of a great many people in the world. I think we have to be more confident that with reasoned public discussion and concerted global action a great deal more can be achieved than is happening right now.
Towards the end of March of 1999, when I was at Trinity College in Cambridge, I received a phone call one morning from one of my old friends from Oxford, Michael Aris, the husband of Aung San Suu Kyi. I knew that he was extremely ill with prostate cancer then. Michael told me, as he had done many times earlier, that the one focus of his life was to help Suu Kyi. Despite his illness, he sounded adamant, and explained to me, even as his voice was fading over the phone, the need for focus in confronting the Burmese tyrants. “Make no mistake, Amartya,” Michael told me, “this disease will not—it cannot—kill me. I have to recover and be active again. I have to help my Suu and my Burma.” This was around March 24. I received a call on March 27 that Michael had died: it was also his birthday.
Michael Aris is no longer here to tell us that we must have focus in our action. But his parting message is important. We can confront the tyrants and do our duty to Burma only if we do not lose focus. The need for that concentration has never been greater than it is today, when the monstrosities of the regime continue undiminished, when sops like preordained electoral arrangements confuse and confound well-meaning people, and when the world seems at a loss about what can be done to help the Burmese people. There is everything to fight for—with clarity and reason.
(Adapted from a speech delivered recently by Noble laureate Amartya Sen at a conference on Burma in Washington DC.)