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By  Dr.Zarni>>

All the “dramatic” developments in Burma, including the release of 6,000-plus prisoners, are, as US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell put it, certainly welcome. Likewise, the man from the International Crisis Group was singing the praise of Naypyidaw on the BBC World Service News hour with Robin Lustig on 11 Oct .

And yet despite these loud applauses of “changes” in Burma, the Burmese public is finding it very, very difficult to feel hopeful. 

Not even Burma’s highly regarded political comedian Zaganar could say he was happy in spite of his new found freedom today when he was released from Myitkyina jail where he was serving 34 years behind bars. He told the Burmese local Eleven Media Group before boarding the Rangoon-bound plane, "Based on my current experiences I dare not think changes are real and big this time either." 

Time magazine quoted his remark to the Associate Press: "I am not happy at all, as none of my 14 so-called political prisoner friends from Myitkyina prison are among those freed today". 

So, how are we really to understand these much-trumpeted “changes” in Burma? 

These changes do not include the change of heart among Burma’s rulers. They are in fact principally related to only two things.

First, the regime's felt need to realign its geopolitical interests.

The military’s uneasiness about its need to rely on China for international protection runs deep. Today China is also Burma’s number one foreign investor, all of it in mega-development, infrastructural and resource extractive projects.

And for Naypyidaw dealing with an increasingly aggressive, powerful and rich Beijing, without the backing of the West and the mainstream Burman public, is like fighting with one hand tied behind the back.

Tangible improvements on the human rights, political and development fronts are part of the price the generals have to pay to balance Beijing's growing influence.

Second, the generals and ex-generals have an acute desire to prove that they are not failures at nation-building, as the bulk of the Burmese public thinks. That’s understandable. The military has had nearly half a century to govern, develop and bring about peace and prosperity for all—not just themselves and their families. But they have turned the world’s rice basket into a basket case.

Hard facts on the ground speak louder than the military’s institutionalized fiction that the senior and junior generals vis-à-vis civilians are brilliant nation-builders. The generals’ Burma is ranked second to last, just ahead of Somalia, on Transparency International's Corruption Index. Public provision of health services exists only in name. There are no social safety nets. Period.

Public education, the largest provider of schooling, at all levels lies in ruin. Ninety-nine percent of university graduates don’t know what BA or BSc stands for, let alone how to spell Bachelor of Arts or Science correctly. And forget the home-grown PhDs.

This extremely low quality of human resources is not the exclusive problem of civilian educational and bureaucratic institutions. The bulk of the 4,000-plus graduates from the Defense Services Academy, the Defense Services Technological Academy and the Defense Services Medical Academy failed entrance examinations at Russian educational institutes where they were sent as “state scholars” under civilian disguise.

There are pockets of communities whose socioeconomic and humanitarian conditions are closer to those of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa than to those of an Asian country about to “take off” developmentally. Many spend more than 70 percent of their meager household income on food alone, while wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the Chinese and a handful of cronies, who in part play the role of portfolio managers for the generals and ex-generals.

The country’s ecology and communities face serious threats to their survival from some mega-development projects such as dam construction—seven on the Irrawaddy, Burma’s Nile, alone—and the two major Chinese gas and oil pipelines and Thailand’s $13 billion Special Economic Zone construction in the country's far south.

Nearly one-million Muslims—Arakanese Muslims and Rohingya—are forced to live in semi-concentration camps in Arakan State. In the midst of economically rising Asia, the country produces the fifth largest refugee population in the world. The Burma Army is still waging military operations against armed ethnic groups such as the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Union.
The generals’ offer of peace is largely motivated by their strategic plan to either split these groups or placate them momentarily. They should not be misunderstood as the generals’ “quest for peace and ethnic equality” or as a political solution to the non-Burman population's six decades of ethnic grievances and thwarted federalist aspirations.

While successive military governments have paid lip service to the country’s farmers, the bulk of the country’s population, the generals don’t have enough money to endow a national agricultural bank and a rural development fund. For the money is sucked into two dozen armament projects, including German-run fiber-optic networks and the assembly work of Made-in-N. Korea missile components, and buying several squadrons of state-of-the-art Russian Mi-G 29s and Mi-24 gunship helicopters.

But while Burma's erstwhile military rulers survey the ruins they have left as their legacy, one accomplishment serves to put their minds at ease: the institutionalized ruling ethos enshrined in the Nargis Constitution of 2008.

As the winds of change are said to be blowing the public in Burma, we should be asking some fundamental questions which will allow all of us to see these changes in their proper contexts.

Here is my favorite set of bench marks:

First, is the military weaning itself from its misguided view that it is the only institution capable of keeping the country together and developing her?

The emergence of formal institutions such as “Parliament,” the “presidency,” a “human rights commission,” and so on, is all well and fine. But they don’t mean a thing unless power relations between the military at all levels and the society at large, including the cronies and the legitimate businessmen and women, change along more egalitarian lines.

If Burma is to return to normalcy—after half a century of generals’ ruinous rule—the first thing that needs to change is its Orwellian “soldiers superior, civilians inferior” attitude.

Second, the medieval self-perception as “natural rulers”—the guardians of the nation—so typical of the ruling generals and ex-generals needs to be reassessed in a nationwide open dialogue, and be binned once and for all.

The only tangible way to prove that Burma is moving from the medieval political space to the 21st century semi-liberal place is to hold a plebiscite on the Constitution, which places the military above the law and legalizes military coups d'etat.

Third, the military needs to stop viewing and treating the non-Burman ethnic minorities, who make up 35-40 percent of the total population and who control nearly half of the country, like semi-colonial people to be bossed about.

There are two different Burmas, or Burma experiences. It is not enough to talk about some positive changes or the country being on the cusps of “irreversible” changes in the “Burma Proper,” to borrow the old British colonial lingo. We need to bring in the other Burma—where people still live in active war zones and dormant conflict regions.

Fourth, the new government of President Thein Sein should do the economically and ecologically right thing.

It is a standard democratic practice for any government that claims to enjoy a popular mandate to govern to review critically all existing massive commercial contracts with foreign powers such as China, India, Thailand, South Korea and Australia, as well as with investors such as the global oil and gas companies. Because many of these contracts were signed by the previous military government without any popular input or consultation of any kind, the overall review of these contracts would send an unequivocal message to the public at home and the skeptics abroad that the new Naypyidaw means business. There should be a blanket moratorium on all mega-development projects such as the Tavoy Special Economic Zone and the two Chinese pipelines, which go through conflict zones and are poised to harm communal welfare and the environment.

Finally, there have been Russian-style massive transfers of public assets to the generals and a handful of cronies, including former drug lords and their families who have laundered their money with the generals’ knowledge. The issue of who controls the country’s wealth needs to be discussed publicly and, above all, in the new Parliament.

I know this is a tall order for both those in power and the public. Raising these issues, which some will consider “inconvenient,” in no way implies that anyone who raises them is cynical, idealistic or unrealistic. Because the issues I have identified here are of paramount importance to the public welfare and the long-term future of the country, the public and the government alike ought to start thinking and talking about them.As we say in Burma, when the situation calls for it, no issue is out of bounds.

Our country’s future and the well-being of the public depend on whether and how these fundamental issues are addressed now.

The opinions expressed in this guest commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Irrawaddy.
Why do the Burmese look to foreign experts for the problems which 3 generations of Burmese ourselves have been unable to find solutions for?

Why do we waste time and look across our borders hoping some morons preferably in the West - who don't speak our languages, never lived in our midst, never experienced our difficulties, never fought our battles with us - would give us good and strategic advice???

If these outside philistines want to write about, talk about and bullshit about our misery and our difficulties while turning themselves into Gurus that's fine.

It's one of the tried and true career-building exercises - dissecting the problems of the oppressed and the downtrodden - the Wretched of the Earth.

But should we or do we need to attach any credence to anything these experts pump out as "expert veiws"? - is the question every self-respecting and thinking Burmese should ask of themselves.

No one other than the late Aung San, the father of Daw ASSK, derided the Burmese NOT to turn anyone into the all-knowing Cult-like leader, in his speech at Shwedagon Middle Terrace on 17 Jan 1946. Revolutions or attempts to change systems of government have no chance of succeeding if there is no ground-swell of resistance BY EVERY CITIZEN.

Foreigners have contracted this terminal Burmese disease of Cultism which Aung San prophetically warned against 65 years ago: every time they write about Burma most of it isl about what Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should, or should not do, would or would do. Every single utterance she makes is put under magnifying glasses and are dissected, and meanings extracted or read into.

As long as Burmese remain stuck in this double-slave mentality - subservient towards those in leadership positions - in skirt or in green uniform, and deferrential towards foreigners who claim unwarranted expertise on things Burma I think Burma will remain a colony of the Burmese generals and a brothel of intellectual raw materials on which foreign experts will build their careers, while pumping out pathetically patronizing bullshit packaged as "specialist knowledge".

If we have any self-respect as Burmese we will break free of this double slavery: mental subservience to influential leaders and seeking to find worthy ideas from experts. The answers lie with us - not with leaders nor the experts.

We live in a world created by generations of western imperialists - Yellow Imperialism of Beijing still has a way to go, as far as building its hegemonic hold on the popular imagination.

Among the Burmese - just like among many brown, yellow, black and mixed skinned crowds - expertise is seen as more credible if it is produced and presented by men and women of White Skin.

Too many White experts Gene Sharp, ICG consultants, Ashley South, Richard Horsey and the list goes on - dishing out too many useless and failed ideas our way while sharing in no responsibility when the Burmese have failed to change the regime and its inhumane system of government.

Too many crocodiles in our swamp shedding tears.

The sooner the Burmese, that is, the class of us natives that comes into contact with and is in a position to interact with these international experts (on everything), realize how slavish and colonial we have been in our own struggles, the closer we will be to finding solutions to our problem of getting rid of the tyranny, by any means necessary.

Dr Zarni ( is Visiting Fellow, Department of International Development, LSE in United Kingdom.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is quoted as saying "President Thein Sein really wants change" - according to Bangkok Post.

But what really is President Thein Sein in Burma's military-controlled political system?
Remember President San Yu? Sure the Revolutionary Council (1962-74) and Burma Socialist Programme Party (1974-1988) all of which were Ne Win's creatures - were not the "elected" Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (correct name?). But the Army is the backbone of this new Than Shwe creature.

This new creature with Thein Sein as its face and nominal leader may end up devouring its Creator, just as the BSPP self-destruted and brought Ne Win down from the throne, by default. 

But so what? The biological clock is ticking for Than Shwe anyway.

What about the Army's Class rule? What about the military-sponsored Bama colonalism towards non-Bama ethnic communities? 

Some say retired Burmese diplomat and economist U Myint, U Thant's grandson Thant Myint-U, the regime's hired mouth Nay Win Maung, etc. are "backing the President". But how? 

What are these new presidential gurus and mouthpieces going to do when, not if, the real generals move against the President (and all his men)? 
And what is the future of the NLD as the flagship opposition?

We now have the flagship opposition which no longer considers itself "opposing the dictatorship" (albeit in new clothing), nor pursues power sharing arrangement", according to NLD leader U Win Tin.

Is the NLD, legal or illegal, is morphing into a National Pagoda Trust (Gaw Pa Ka) or prisoners of conscience (POC)-Rescue mission?

I wouldn't worry about the military ruling the country resistance-free or reforming the State successfully. The economy is its Achilles Heel and the militarized State has neither intellectual capacity nor political will to turn itself into anything workable.

Represssion and resistance will go hand in glove. The ethnic resistance cannot be wiped out, even after some centuries. Just look at the Balkans, Southern Thailand, or Northern Ireland. For the Bama resistance against the State, it has not stopped since 1958.

Whether or not it has succeeded is irrelevant. The point is the Burmese conflicts will continue on, destroying any prospects for peace or prosperity for the little men and women on the street.

This is all familiar to the Burmese familiar with the country's past.

Dr Zarni ( is Visiting Fellow, Department of International Development, LSE in United Kingdom.

In his August 16 speech to a gathering of handpicked cronies and technocrats in the Burmese capital of Naypyidaw, President Thein Sein, an ex-general, dropped a bombshell: his government would like Burmese dissidents in exile to “come home” in order to help contribute towards the national development of their birthplace.

Curiously, the real thrust of the President’s speech was about the popularly mandated nature of his quasi-parliamentary government—which works under the directives of the non-elected National Defense and Security Council; the terrorist insurgent nature and lack of public support of the Kachin Independence Organization; and the compassionate nature of the economic measures the government is undertaking in order to alleviate the economic pains of the country’s masses, including the working urban poor, the rural farmers and the pensioners.

Be that as it may, let me single out the issue of the exiles’ return.

Unlike emigrants, political exiles typically look back not only to the circle of immediate and extended family that they left behind, voluntarily or not. They look beyond that circle, to their “home” communities and people. And the greatest dream of political exiles is not to have a prosperous permanent home in the country where they have taken “temporary refuge,” but to return home in order to both reunite with their loved ones who are still alive and contribute to the betterment of the people of their country.

Burmese exiles—who number in the thousands, span several generations and include people from diverse professional and educational backgrounds—are no exception.

Judging from on-line chats and Facebook discussions, the potent idea of the “exiles’ return” has triggered widespread conversations among the Burmese diasporas. And as a one-time “returnee” from exile in the US, I do feel I have something worthwhile to share with my compatriots on the subject of “going home”— especially when that return home would take place in a climate of political uncertainty and against the backdrop of a government, run by the very same leaders as the old regime, which is unlawfully keeping 2,000 plus fellow dissidents with various talents behind bars.

In particular, I don’t want other exiles to repeat my mistake of seeing the mirage of a negotiable or expandable political and societal space, when in fact no such space actually exists on the ground.

Whatever talents and skills which a Burmese exile may wish to use in order to benefit the welfare of the people and the general development of the country, without this crucial space it is inconceivable that anyone—returnees or existing residents—will be able to productively contribute to nation-building.

So before we exiles and expatriates leap to any excited conclusions and express even the cautious welcome of Thein Sein’s offer as a sign of regime liberalization, we would do well to hold the president’s manifest desire for the return of the natives up against the government’s extremely poor track record of misuse, abuse, under-use and non-use of Burmese citizens, both soldiers and civilians, with talents and skills to contribute.

If Thein Sein, together with his seniors and juniors, are serious about creating the space necessary for Burmese of all ethnic backgrounds to be able to apply their talents and energies towards nation-building, they should start by setting free the 2,000 plus political prisoners and several hundred ex-military intelligence officers who are serving unlawful and lengthy prison sentences in 30 plus jails throughout Burma. For among these prisoners are acclaimed artists, writers, technocrats, teachers, community organizers, doctors, political negotiators, entrepreneurs and so on—with Zaganar, Khun Tun Oo, Mya Aye, Ko Ko Gyi and Htay Kywe springing to mind.

One of the most fundamental obstacles for any Burmese who wishes to use his or her skills and energies in building Burma’s communities and institutions is the neo-totalitarian nature of the overall political economy over which successive military leaders—in mufti or civilian clothing—have presided.

However, Thein Sein’s government has undertaken a flurry of significant activities recently, including the 180-degree reversal of its strategic stance towards Aung San Suu Kyi, going from printing life-threatening messages in the state media to holding out an olive branch in her direction. In addition, the new administration has been rushing to sign a one-year, temporary ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Organization (which the government officially refers to as a “terrorist insurgent” group), has suddenly issued a visa to UN Special Rapporteur Tomas Quintana (who has been denied entry to Burma for the last year), and has attempted to coddle up to the International Monetary Fund.

These actions may be a public relations effort aimed at the Association of South East Asian Nations and the regime’s soft-critics such as the European Union, or possibly the result of a widely-speculated intra-military dynamic taking place among the country’s top leaders. But regardless of the real driving factors, Naypyidaw’s moves certainly give even the harshest critics reason for cautious welcome, if not yet optimism.

But my own first-hand experience in dealing with the generals, both in my capacity as a professional and as a dissident, and more importantly, the military’s nearly half-century track record, tells me that the regime’s view of relations with civilian professionals is little more than that of autocratic masters and professional subordinates.

Neither the military’s institutionalized attitudinal framework towards civilians with talents, skills and creative ideas, nor the country’s institutional framework for decision making, have changed appreciably. Despite a half century of spectacular and verifiable failures, the generals and ex-generals with their neo-totalitarian orientation are still behaving as if they can do no wrong. Without any significant and fundamental change in these two dimensions of the military’s power, policy-making and politics, no meaningful space for any civilians—whether they be community organizers (which dissidents are), entrepreneurs, intellectuals, technocrats or other professionals—can be expected.

In the fall of 2005, and after the ouster of Gen Khin Nyunt and dissolution of his intelligence network, I voluntarily returned to Burma after 17 years in exile as what my regime minders termed “a guest of the State.” I was a mini-VIP, fetched straight from the airplane before anyone disembarked, offered reimbursement for the full international airfare—an offer I refused—and put up in a military guest house with a driver, two personal attendants and a Grade-3 military officer from the Ministry of Defense as my liaison. I held several one-on-one meetings with the then head of intelligence during which I could—and did—offer my views without feeling a need to mince words. All of this was enough to make any returning exile’s head swell and ego bloat with a sense of self-importance.

But despite the regime playing nice with me, to the best of my knowledge none of the ideas and suggestions I was invited to share in writing with the generals has been implemented. There has been no relaxation of restrictions on the Internet, no independent think tank established in the country and no meaningful reconciliation process—not even with second-tier leaders of the opposition such as the “moderate” 88 Generation Student group leader, Htay Kywe. The word “reconciliation” was not even uttered during the Thein Sein government’s first press conference, which was held in Naypyidaw last week.

Even my language of economic “developmental nationalism,” which I thought would resonate with some of the presumably patriotic generals, didn’t result in any appreciable shift in the regime’s budget priorities—which allocate more than 50 percent for armaments and defense, but only 2-5 percent for socially and economically productive domains such as health and education. This is the same government that talks about fertilizers for the country’s farmers and “poverty reduction” with UN officials, but goes on spending billions on Russian-made bombers for the generals.It is the generals’ and ex-generals’ deeds, not their words, that count. I for one will not be going home any time soon.
Dr Zarni ( is Visiting Fellow, Department of International Development, LSE and columnist for the Irrawaddy.
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