October 2007 Dispatch - Myanmar After the Saffron Revolution
In late September, tens of thousands of Buddhist monks took to the streets of Myanmar, leading the largest uprising against the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) since 1988. A sharp and sudden hike in fuel prices sparked the protests, but to the regime's many critics, the revolt displayed the depth of popular discontent with economic mismanagement, corruption, and political repression in Myanmar. Images of unarmed monks confronting the feared tatmadaw (armed forces) won the protesters considerable moral support from abroad, as did a public appearance by Aung San Suu Kyi. Some observers anticipated that the "saffron revolution" would lead to the overthrow of the regime, as occurred during the "rose," "orange," and "tulip" revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.
The tatmadaw responded swiftly and brutally, however. Troops imposed tight curfews, raided pagodas, and used clubs and tear gas to disperse protesters. In a matter of days, the armed forces killed numerous demonstrators, arrested or detained thousands more, and re-imposed control. The saffron revolution thus appears to have subsided, and the outlook is not promising for advocates of regime change or dramatic policy shifts in Myanmar.
The episode did reveal some minor cracks in the SPDC edifice. Colonel Hla Win, a longtime senior member of the junta, reportedly defected into an ethnic Karen rebel-controlled area and is seeking political asylum after defying an order to massacre a group of monks. At least one senior army official has leaked incriminating evidence to the press, and a foreign ministry official resigned at the government's "appalling" response to the protests. Prime Minister Soe Win has been hospitalized with leukemia for months. Rumors even swirled of a coup. Nevertheless, SPDC chairman Than Shwe, his deputy Maung Aye, and other cabinet members appear to have closed ranks, and the SPDC looks quite firmly entrenched.
International responses to the uprising and military response have been mixed. Western governments and activist groups quickly condemned the SPDC and pushed the regime to open dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy. U.S. President George W. Bush announced tighter sanctions shortly after the crackdown began. Japan--which has favored engagement in the past--is now considering sanctions and has demanded an explanation and an apology for the shooting of a Japanese journalist.
To dampen international pressure, the SPDC allowed Nigerian diplomat Ibrahim Gambari to enter the country as a UN special envoy. Gambari has met with both Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi to convey the UN's concerns about the crackdown. The SPDC has also appointed retired general U Aung Kyi as an official interlocutor with Aung San Suu Kyi and has made gestures of conciliation to the clergy. However, the Myanmar leadership has rebuffed demands for more serious political dialogue or far-reaching policy reforms.
A degree of Chinese and Russian protection has helped shield the SPDC from international pressure. China and Russia vetoed a U.S.-sponsored UN Security Council resolution demanding that the SPDC free all political prisoners. Officials in Beijing and Moscow argued that the unrest was an "internal matter" unsuited for Security Council action. Their defense of a strong norm of sovereignty--rooted largely in their fear of similar Western attacks--provides political cover for the SPDC. Their objection to isolating Myanmar economically also makes it unlikely that a program of enhanced U.S. and European sanctions will bring the junta to its knees. As long as Myanmar's neighbors do business with the SPDC, it will probably survive.
To date, divergent foreign policy priorities have conspired against a genuinely multilateral policy to drive reform in Myanmar. For China, Myanmar is a strategic gateway to the East Indian Ocean and a source of prized raw materials, as well as a political ally on issues of state sovereignty. India and Thailand have also been loath to cut off or alienate their troublesome neighbor. India has little ideological affection for the SPDC but rejects sanctions and has responded quietly to recent events in Myanmar. Indian officials view Myanmar as an important regional pivot with China and a source of natural resources. Thai policymakers, worried about refugees and instability in ethnic minority enclaves along the border, have tended to prioritize stability over reform in relations with the SPDC. Both India and Thailand derive considerable economic benefits--both legal and illicit--from an open border. In addition, they fear that using their limited leverage to attack the junta will drive it further into China's embrace.
The governments of other member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have split on the issue. Indochinese states defend Myanmar's sovereignty, while the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia have been more openly critical. With a bit of diplomatic legerdemain, Singapore expressed ASEAN's grave concern to Myanmar, speaking as the Association's chair. Discourse in regional think tanks suggests that a growing number of Southeast Asian officials advocate Myanmar's suspension from ASEAN. Although suspension would push Myanmar even further into the margins of international society, it would be unlikely to unseat the SPDC. Isolation also bears obvious risks; cloning North Korea is not in any ASEAN government's interest.
Most analysts agree that China holds the key to improving the prospects for reform, development, and democracy in Myanmar. Indeed, a change in Chinese policy would increase the likelihood of tougher Indian and ASEAN stances, since a fear of encouraging close Sino-Myanmar ties helps justify their existing approaches. The possibility of embarrassment at the upcoming Olympic games provides a short-term incentive for China to press the SPDC for better governance. A longer-term incentive will be to secure the countries' shared border, which is plagued by narco-trafficking, illegal migration, and ethnic conflict. Finally, China has an incentive to build its credibility as a constructive force in Southeast Asia and beyond. Chinese officials have led a well-documented "charm offensive" in the region, both bilaterally and through multilateral institutions, to build influence. To the extent that ASEAN governments make reform in Myanmar a priority, China can show itself to be a responsible stakeholder in Southeast Asia's future.
In the near term, a coalescence of the policies of regional powers is unlikely. Moreover, strong regional pressure does not guarantee seismic policy shifts in Myanmar. The SPDC's harsh response to the protests--like its 2006 decision to move the national capital to a remote area--testifies to considerable paranoia. Still, the outside world has economic, security, and moral reasons to hold Myanmar to higher standards of governance. The pace and direction of change will depend only marginally on the severity of Western sanctions, which bite but do not cripple the regime. Western governments' ability to identify common objectives and forge cooperation with Asian partners will be more determinative. Ultimately, the development of concerted action by relevant Asian states is likely to be the rate-limiting step in the equation. The saffron revolution suggests that many domestic actors are prepared to assume risks to promote reform if Myanmar's neighbors take a tougher stand and help provide the enabling conditions for change.
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