Myanmar’s Minority Conundrum: Issues of Ethnicity and Authority

David I. Steinberg (Georgetown University )

Background: The issue of the status and authority of the one-third of the population of Myanmar (Burma), composed of diverse indigenous non-Burman peoples, remains the most intractable of the problems facing the Burmese state since independence in 1948.1 The sharing of political power in some manner acceptable to the local populations, and social and economic equity among these diverse peoples are all related to, but even more fundamental and difficult of solution than, the issue of the political form of government that has bedeviled the state for decades. Burma-Myanmar has been on the brink of fragmentation because of the diffuse, often antithetical, perceptions of these issues by one or more ethnic groups since independence. The desires for independence from the British, dependant on minim! al titular ethnic unity, and the forceful leadership of General Aung San whose role was accepted by most minorities, were the factors that initially succeeded in bringing these groups together at the Panglong Conference in February 1947 that forged the fragile cohesion that existed on independence. An effective answer to the minority issues is still sought, and its amelioration or solution may provide signals and models for approaching some of the more delicate other national issues that transcend ethnicity.

The unity of the state has been a primary goal of the military SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) and the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council). The concern over this goal is, however, not a product of this relatively new incarnation of the military. Since independence, the Burmese military have fought for the unity of the state; more specifically the 1958 and then 1962 military coups were carried out with the avowed purposes of preventing civil war and upholding this unity.

The problem of internal unity has had external dimensions. As the Burmese military has been preoccupied with national unity, senior staffs have been suspicious of the role that foreign nations and peoples have played in fomenting national fragmentation and disunity. They accurately can point, and do so continuously in the controlled press, to history to support their present concerns. They correctly charge that the British employed the ‘divide and rule’ policy of administratively separating some of the peripheral minority areas from Burma Proper (where most of the Burmans lived).2 More important, however, has been recent history, when each foreign power, unofficially and often clandestinely, at one time or another has supported for their own and diverse purposes, political or ethnic rebellions involv! ing minority peoples. These included some unofficial British encouragement of independence for the Karen, Chinese assistance to the Burma Communist Party,3 United States covert support to Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) troops that retreated into Burma in 1949-50,4 external Muslim support to Muslim rebels in the Arakan, Indian connivance with Naga and Chin rebels on that frontier, and Thai assistance at various national and local levels to a wide variety of ethnic and political rebellions located along its long littoral. It is no wonder that Burmese authorities have viewed with great suspicion the roles that foreigners have in the past played in interfering in their country, have projected these same roles into the present, and fear that they may exist into the future. Present internal administrative policies are in part likely to have been formulated with this in mind.

These past problems, severe in themselves and sufficient to cause suspicions, were however aggravated by seven additional and important factors:

[1] Some of these peoples had significant Christian percentages of their populations in contrast to the overwhelming importance of Buddhism among the Burmans.5 This aroused the sympathies of some of the external Christian communities and sects that helped propagandize the plight of these peoples and gave them moral (and perhaps financial) support.

[2] As the military, especially in the period of military rule under the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP: 1962-1988), insulated the state from the outside world, the minority groups were more in touch with external affairs and foreign elements for both weapons and moral support than was the central Burmese government. Thus they made their case to the court of world opinion while the military regime became more introverted, isolated, and more xenophobic. This naturally increased suspicions that foreigners were once again aimed at dividing the country.

[3] The Burman majority is the only major ethnic group that does not have ethnic kin in other lands across the arbitrarily demarked colonial borders; this creates a sense of international ethnic identity Burmans lack.6 In traditional Southeast Asia, boundaries in the modern sense did not exist. Power radiated out in concentric circles from the center and states could be associated with more than one suzerain group, and pay tribute to them. The colonial powers extended administrative control to borders that lacked ethnic, geographic, or other considerations, thus creating some of the problems states in the region today face.

[4] The military, perhaps without central authority and on the whims of individual local but exceedingly powerful military commanders, have treated the minorities, among whom they were stationed and whom they administered, with disdain for their cultures and often religions.7 Charges of human rights abuses and forced porterage by the military in border regions are widespread.

[5] The hill (minority) areas were climatically suitable for the production of poppies from which opium, morphine, and heroin were produced, thus giving those engaged in this trade the means to purchase arms and the motivation to keep the central government at arm’s length. Opium production was introduced in the colonial period, and until 1959 opium was legal in the Shan State and sawbwas (local maharajas) received revenues from its use.

[6] The natural resources of the hill regions, such as jade and timber, provided lucrative means to sustain local populations in rebellion.

[7] Foreign missionaries and then international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), some of which had religious origins, were extensively involved with the minorities both because they often were animists and more susceptible to Christian conversion, and then because poverty was exceptionally high and health standards low in those regions.

All of these factors have increased mutual suspicions.

However accurate the perceptions of foreign support to various diverse minorities may have been in the past, the situation has vastly changed since the earlier period of Burmese independence. It is now accurate to maintain that no foreign power wants to see the break up of the Burmese state. The balkanization of Myanmar would create conditions of potential chaos in that country, a pivotal state that has become the nexus of real, but unstated, regional rivalry between India and China. Without question the instabilities created would spill over into the region and exacerbate these obvious, if unadmitted, rivalries. There would likely be increases in refugees and illegal immigration, expanded epidemics and health problems, and an even greater trade in narcotics and trafficking in women.8 In a sense, the! past perceptions of the Burmese leadership have been erroneously perpetuated into the present, creating suspicions that no longer are grounded. These perceptions, however inaccurate they may be, markedly contribute to the difficulty of resolving these issues.

As foreign perceptions have also changed, most minority aspirations have also undergone major shifts. Where some minority leaders in the past had publicly advocated independence, some UN trusteeship, most now do not do so. They have instead argued for some form of local autonomy or federal authority, although the word ‘federal’ seems anathema to the military who equate it with virtual independence and the eventual effective break up of the state.9 Independence of any of the regional groupings within Myanmar would not be economically sustainable, and could lead to the kind of ‘ethnic cleansing’ we have witnessed too frequently in other areas.

Yet the old acquiescence of the minorities to Burman domination is now more problematic. As Burman nationalism has understandably grown, so has ethnic nationalism, a phenomenon that is evident worldwide. This means that minorities are likely to demand more from the center as they see their brethren having more autonomy and doing better across the porous borders.

This paper will consider only the issue of the indigenous minorities of Myanmar. The status of the non-indigenous minorities, more specifically the Indian (all those from the subcontinent) and Chinese communities, are not discussed here although their previous and present positions in the economy have strongly and negatively affected Burman attitudes toward foreign economic exploitation and suspicions of the role of foreigners in that society. The colonial period Burmese economy was essentially under foreign control, which was a highly significant factor in the political legitimacy of socialism–getting the economy once again under Burman control. The Indian community occupied a most important position in the colonial and pre-independence period, but since have been replaced in the last decade by the ! Chinese as the single dominant foreign economic influence in the society. Suspicions and prejudices against these groups so intensified that in 1984 a nationality act was passed that relegated inferior status to all those minorities that could not establish residence in Burma before 1824 (the beginnings of colonial influence through the First Anglo-Burmese War and the importation of Indian labor and Chinese immigration). Although the importance of these communities should not be underestimated, they represent a different issue except where Chinese influence has deeply penetrated the ethnic minority groups along the Chinese frontier. Yet the overwhelming and obvious Chinese presence and wealth are potentially explosive and should not be ignored either by the leaders of Myanmar or foreign observers.

State Goals

The goal of national unity of the SLORC/SPDC government is thus conceptually appropriate, proper, and potentially in the interests of the peoples of that country and in those of the neighboring nations. In Myanmar, the role of the military is not now to protect the state from external enemies10 (the function of the military in most states), for such enemies are presently nonexistent, but rather to enforce internal security and preserve internal unity. Although military functions may be different from those in many other countries, the problem the state faces is not in its goal, but rather in the means employed by the central military authorities and their regional commanders to reach that goal. One essential conclusion of this paper is that the military government through its policies and actions is ! undercutting, even destroying, the possibility of attaining its own goal of long-term national unity toward which it struggles. Yet over a longer period the reputation and efficacy of the military will be determined by its ability to attain national unity. This disconnect between goal and its realization is a critical issue facing the military authorities that is obscured by their (presumed) view that the situation is essentially under control for the shorter term through the cease-fires, the amelioration of many active rebellions, and a greater government presence in the periphery. This is likely to be illusory.

That admittedly strong statement needs explication, for on the surface the SLORC/SPDC can point with considerable pride to the changes it has brought about in the minority regions. There is now a wide array of cease fires with diverse minority peoples; the bloodshed has stopped, but it had continued for decades, in some areas even over two generations, and this is not easily forgotten. This has brought some relief to some of the minority peoples, and has further served to strengthen the military in its control over the state as a whole, for it has freed its troops to deal with the remaining insurgencies that have become weaker and more ineffective. Some infrastructure has been built where little existed before, providing access to previously isolated regions, and there now is a concerted effort to ad! minister regions that were essentially beyond the control of the central government almost since independence. The creation of a new ministry, the Ministry of Development of Border Areas and National Races under an August 1993 law, is part of the process. As access has been strengthened or created, so has the responsibility of the central authorities in direct or indirect management increased.

Yet these new conditions of relative tranquility remain fragile. The cease fires have not solved problems–they have sequestered them for an indefinite period, but such armistices are likely to collapse without major changes and improvements in the economic and social conditions of these peoples, and in the political arrangements that must be made to provide some locally defined degree of justice in the majority-minority relationships.

If the minorities in some cases have relied on foreign moral support, the Burmese government has in part not been candid in its portrayal of minority issues. Under the BSPP military government, the state downplayed minority issues in such international United Nations fora as ECAFE (later ESCAP), claiming that there were no such issues. Later, under the SLORC/SPDC it has averred that there were 135 ‘races,’ all of whom had to be dealt with in some appropriate manner and for whom the old administrative structures did not work.11 Both approaches grossly exaggerated the issue but from opposite points of the spectrum. The figure of 135 ‘races’ is actually a pre-World War II designation of a linguistic map that includes languages and dialects of such languages.12 There are actually far fewer ethnic groups,! and ‘race’ is not an appropriate scientific term to apply to this diversity. Many believe that the military in differing periods has used the minority issue–either dismissing it or overemphasizing it–as a means to perpetuate its direct control.

The formation and expansion of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) create another element of social and political control by the Burman military-dominated group over minority peoples. With between about 15 million members, it is a military attempt at mass mobilization that increases the tatmadaw’s capacity for action toward its desired ends. Although it is Burman lead and completely controlled by the military, its membership has been extended to minority regions.

Majority-Minority Problems

There is a profound lack of trust between the majority and individual minority groups that has become exacerbated over time. In their efforts to maintain national unity, the tatmadaw has engaged in actions that have lengthened the distance between majority and the minorities, and thus made more tenuous the relationships between Burman and most minorities. These actions may have been in response to varied stimuli such as perceived internal threats to the state sometimes encouraged from foreign sources, attempts to ensure internal military hegemony over all centers of power within the state, and an essential disdain of minority cultures and peoples. These actions include:

Elimination of the limited local minority autonomy under civilian rule (1948-58, 1960-62).

Direct administration of local government in minority areas by military personnel.

Treatment of minority areas as virtually foreign occupied territories.

Elimination of significant minority leadership in the upper echelons of the tatmadaw.

Lack of official recognition of education in local, non-Burman languages.

Restriction of the avenues of social mobility for minority peoples.

Lack of respect for local religious practices in certain minority areas (especially the Chin State).

Arbitrary confiscation of land.

Lack or transfer of central economic resources to minority areas commensurate with their believed contribution to the national income (through exploitation of natural resources).

Support of military units foraging off the countryside and the confiscation of land for military and military-owned agricultural purposes.

Forcing villagers to be removed to alternative, military approved sites and in some areas creating ‘free-fire’ zones.

Forced porterage of military supplies in the minority areas where fighting is endemic.

If mutual trust is not forthcoming, major points of tension could intensify these past problems. For example, the minority groups involved in the cease fires have not surrendered to the Burmese authorities. They still are allowed to retain their weapons and can engage in their traditional agricultural pursuits. But when, for example, a new constitution is promulgated, and before elections can be held, the minorities are supposed to surrender their weapons to ensure the fairness of such voting. It is highly unlikely that this will happen beyond some token release of arms. The levels of trust do not now exist, and are unlikely to exist in the future without significant changes in the administration of minority affairs, to encourage the withdrawal of such weaponry . The surrender of! arms by minorities around the world under various peace plans has not worked, and it is highly unlikely that it would occur in Myanmar, where ethnically related insurgencies have continued for so long and distrust is so high.

The military have promised to deliver to minority areas increased access to education, health services, and employment opportunities. Yet the budgets allocated to such activities are highly limited and inadequate to accomplish the intended purposes. These budgets seem mainly to be the reported reallocation of previously determined national sectoral budgets (education, health, etc.) to these areas, but the total national budgets for such services are already grossly insufficient for the needs on a national basis and have deteriorated in real and per capita terms over the past decade, let alone in the minority regions. </! SPAN

Thus mutual levels of suspicion, inflamed by historical precedents and recent activities, require the deft handling of negotiations at least to meet the minimal set of requirements of all sides. There is no evidence that there is either this political will or interest.

The situation becomes more complex when the role of the National League for Democracy (NLD) is factored into the already complicated equation. The NLD, although in alliance with a number of minority parties especially the Shan NLD, is essentially a Burman party. It has through the exiled National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) called for ‘National Reconciliation’ at a March 6-7, 2001meeting close to the Thai border. It supported making public the secret dialogue between the SPDC and Aung San Suu Kyi that started in October 2000 and that continues at this writing, and wants the minorities brought into the dialogue process but at a later date because the present dialogue conditions are too fragile. It sees a staged set of consultations: intra-ethnic (to ensure t! hose representing a minority are legitimate), inter-ethnic, and national. It recognizes that although minorities are considered as ethnic entities, they are internally split with factional problems that must be overcome. Yet the government and the NLD share a common attitude: each demands from its adherents a kind of orthodoxy that makes dialogue far more difficult.

Current Dilemmas

Many observers outside Myanmar have been encouraged by the private dialogue that has taken place from October 2000 between members of the SPDC and Aung San Suu Kyi, de facto leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). The United Nations Special Representative, Ambassador Razali Ismail, has been active in pursuing this welcome initiative, and his involvement in Myanmar has so far been positive. He was in Myanmar in early June, and is expected to return to Yangon in July. Yet there are many who remain skeptical about the potential for success (even the use of such a term is certainly defined by the interests of each of the parties) for a number of reasons, most obviously because it is highly unlikely that the military will give up essential power, although cosmetic changes s! eem possible, even likely. Important as well has been the lack of inclusion of minorities in such a dialogue. This has been a concern of Ambassador Razali as well, but at this writing there seems to be no action on this issue; while the opposition feels it is premature, perhaps the government would rather attempt to isolate the NLD (and, of course, its leadership) from the minorities. This is of importance to the minorities because the NLD is essentially a Burman party, what is left of it after being decimated by the military authorities. Although it is true that in the 1990 election the NLD overwhelmingly won, they were in alliance with a series of minority political parties as well.

In the early period following the establishment of the SLORC, the NLD position (or more accurately that of Aung San Suu Kyi) seems to have been that the solution to minority issues could be easily resolved following the re-institution of democracy in that country, and thus discussion of specific minority questions should be delayed to some later date.14 That seems to have changed. As the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) has attempted to draft possible constitutions for the state, acts that the military have said to be illegal, the National Convention that the SLORC convened to draw up a new constitution with a highly select group of delegates and in a manner that was heavily scripted and controlled, has floundered on the issues of minority representatio! n and power under such a new configuration.

As the issue of a new constitution is sporadically debated, the state organs of information have leaked certain guidelines on minority rule that are likely to be enshrined under a new constitution, whenever it may appear, led by the military authorities. The first is that the former minority ‘states’ (Shan, Kachin, etc.) are inappropriate as pivotal administrative entities because they are inaccurate descriptions of ‘race,’ as these areas contain many minority groups, not only the ethnic group for which the state was named (the Chin State is an exception). Second, that in order for some of the most important cease fires to continue, some groups with concentrated ethnic populations within contiguous townships would have a degree of local autonomy called ‘self-administered zones.! ’ Most important among them are the Wa, who are the best armed and most difficult to contain. Others are said to be planned for the Naga, Danu, Kokang, Pa-O, and Palaung peoples.

This is an effective but short-term strategy. This provides such groups with local autonomy that they have never legally had since independence, and at the same time it defuses power to such a local level that it has no national impact. The model for such activity may be drawn from the Chinese ‘autonomous regions,’ where limited local authority rests with minority groups but real power is lacking. The Chinese model may appear to more savory than the Russian model, which the Burmese may view as having led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. If the British engaged in a ‘divide and rule’ policy, so it can be charged that the military is intent on a similar approach but using more modern methods. Yet the Burmese authorities will be able to explain to the outside world that in fac! t they have granted more autonomy to minorities than any previous civilian government, and this will be at least accurate in part, although misleading as a whole. This, the tatmadaw may claim, should satisfy foreign critics who harp on human rights.

The levels of distrust between the majority and minority ethnic groups are part of a series of such apprehensions about the sharing of power. They are part of the pattern of problems that include a tendency of the central government (civilian and military alike) to deny effective authority to any potential peripheral political, ethnic, or social grouping. Although these tendencies are simply that, and can be overcome, it makes compromise more difficult.

The minority issues are further complicated by internal divisions among some minorities and fighting between some of them. The Karen National Union, the oldest extant rebellion in the state, has for years been led by Bo Mya, an anachronistic leader who is evidently out of step with the younger Karen rebel leaders who would be prepared to make compromises with the SPDC. In the recent (spring 2001) disputes between the Thai and Myanmar authorities, there seems to have been an attempt to pit one minority against another. As the Wa, supported by the SPDC, have moved and continue to plan to move 50,000 families (perhaps 200,000 people) south toward the Thai frontier from their traditional home areas close to the Chinese border in the Shan State, this has become of great concern to t! he Thai. The rebel Shan State Army, so reports indicate, has been armed and encouraged by the Thai to fight the Wa, while the Burmese authorities support the Wa as a means to deal with the Shan State Army and indicate to the Thai that the Burmese dominate the area.

Suggestions for Potential Resolution of Minority Problem

The solution to the internal distribution of ethnic power in Myanmar must result from actions by the Burmese peoples themselves. Yet foreigners do have a role in reinforcing the potential for accommodation and progress. Basically, they must recognize and respect the real concerns of the military for maintenance of national unity. This is not simply state-generated propaganda, as is sometimes charged by foreign observers. Perhaps one way to demonstrate this concern is for the ASEAN Regional Forum (ASEAN together with China, the U.S., and other powers) to reaffirm the territorial integrity of the state of Myanmar. This simple act of recognizing the status quo is seemingly redundant, yet it could be a step toward reassuring the military of the validity of its paramount concern–natio! nal unity.

Private foreign organizations, the international NGOs (non-governmental organizations), have potentially important roles to play as well. The military do not have the budgets, the knowledge, and lack the trust of the local populations to solve the economic issues that these peoples face. Often deprived of their ancestral villages and agricultural land, moved into safe areas where their actions can be monitored by the military and prevented from being sympathizers of, or bases for, potential insurgents, these peoples desperately need basic human needs assistance. This at present must come, if it is to be provided at all, from the international NGO community. Such assistance is in the interests of all parties. Support by such groups helps build local coalitions and organizations th! at can band together to resolve local problems and this contribute to the social and economic stability of the region–a desirable development that would in fact strengthen the military’s primary goal of national unity. The long-term goal is the re-creation of civil society at the local level in Myanmar–a step that would foster local pluralism (not independence), and would train foreign specialists on that society. It should be noted that Aung San Suu Kyi was first opposed to any NGO humanitarian assistance in Myanmar, but has since modified her position to acquiesce to their presence if they do not assist the government or its related institutions and organizations. The ubiquitous presence of the state makes this difficult at best. The March 2001 National Conciliation meeting of the NCGUB mentioned above endorsed humanitarian assistance to these areas.

The second step would be for a compromise on local autonomy. The provision of local autonomy to specific minority groups, as presently envisaged by the government under its proposed ‘self-administered areas,’ could be maintained as a sign of progress. Such autonomy could be limited to customary and family law, inheritance, some forms of local taxation, etc. At the same time, some of the previous administrative functions of the seven states and divisions could be maintained, and their representation built into a national legislature but not necessarily exactly on the model of the 1947 constitution. These two administrative layers would not necessarily be inconsistent with each other. As the center devolves authority to the state and divisions, so the states could devolve certain t! ypes of authority to the townships. The groups receiving such local ‘self-administration’ would be pleased to have the greatest degree of autonomy they have experienced, although groups such as the Shan and Kayah would see their former limited autonomy during the civilian period erode further.

These approaches themselves would be inadequate without the military receding into the background in minority areas. This would involve the military retaining responsibility for the maintenance of the borders and the garrison of such troops necessary to ensure the preservation of the state and to deal with such issues as transnational crimes, including narcotics trafficking, illegal migration, etc. But it would necessarily involve the military in the training of minority peoples in aspects of local public administration starting long before such a new system were to come into effect–perhaps during a two-year period. An administrative cadre needs to be created to take over the administration of township and state-level offices and functions, now run by the military. Those remainin! g from the previous civilian era are too few, old, and outdated to staff the positions that would be required under such a system; such positions are now dominated by the military. A staged military withdrawal from local administration would be an important element of any amelioration of minority issues; continuation of direct military administration, even under a ‘civilianized’ administration, would exacerbate problems.

Budgetary issues have long been a problem, with minorities in the civilian period proclaiming that they did not receive an adequate share of national resources. A more effective system of sharing of such resources needs to be determined in consultation with various minority groups. These budgetary arrangements under present and likely near-term future conditions would require that the percentage of funding going to the military budget, both officially and publicly recognized and that buried in other accounts, be reduced, for without sufficient economic incentives any solution to the minority issues will not take place.

The devolution of some significant authority in local affairs should not alone be concentrated in minority regions. The Burman divisions also should be included, because the 1990 election indirectly indicated dissatisfaction with the lack of local participation in the administrative processes. There are few models from which Myanmar could adapt a local autonomy system in ASEAN. Most of the states are effectively under centralized control. The Philippines has proceeded rapidly to decentralize, and Indonesia has embarked on a massive program to do the same at the district level, bypassing the province. Although these moves may encourage greater democratization, they also can spread ecological and health problems, as central control evolves to less circumspect local officials. The p! ositive and negative lessons from those experiences could prove instructive.

Local state and/or township authority should extend to educational systems, in which local languages may be taught as long as the national language of Burmese is also included in the curriculum. This has not been possible under any Burmese administration, and the change would likely be greeted with enthusiasm by local peoples. Language is one of the critical indicators of identity, and preservation and use has become intimately associated with nationalism. Language policy has been a critical component of ethnic complaints on every continent, even inciting rebellion (witness Sri Lanka).

The granting of certain rights to the minorities is necessary but not sufficient. Ironically, as the state should loosen control over the peripheral minority areas, it must tighten control over the military command system. The regional military commanders, who have been elevated to inclusion on the SPDC, need to come under central authority to control their arbitrary actions that only serve to undercut centrally mandated change. Some regional commanders have become the equivalent of warlords with wide discretionary authority. Further, they have remained in their posts far longer than in previous administrations, thus strengthening their control. The state should redefine their nonmilitary functions, reducing their authority over civilian administration and control.

Finally, the military should actively recruit (as once they did) minorities into the senior military leadership. There seems little question that the military will retain effective and ultimate power within the state as they have done since independence and under any likely future government over the next decade or two, even though some positions will probably be provided to civilian leadership and retired military, and that opposition parties may be allowed to function more fairly. This will occur through military representation in a national legislature and through other means. Simply because it is most probable that the military, which has created a dual society—an ascendent military and a subservient civilian (of any ethnic background) one—that is pervasive, that the military! should share some of that power with minorities who can rise within the military ranks as evidence of the fairness of the government and as a means to alleviate ethnic discrimination.

These suggestions are unlikely to be instituted. Yet they could constitute the beginnings of a set of compromises that could have important implications for the defusion of the antagonisms that have caused the loss of so many lives over so many years, and pauperized what should have been a rich and vibrant region of the country. If the immediate problems of the minorities can be assuaged, then the lessons from that process could assist any central government through creating administrative and representational models. Final authority essentially would remain in Burman hands, but under a system regarded as much more fair. Because the military have the authority and power in the state, they must assume greater responsibility to start a process through which the tensions could be am! eliorated and eventually resolved.

The Role of Japan

Since the early 1950s, Japan has played the most important role in Burma-Myanmar of any foreign industrialized state. Historically, this relationship began to flower with the Japanese training of the anti-colonial ‘30 comrades’ in 1940, two of whom were Aung San and Ne Win. Even though the Japanese-induced independent state of Burma in World War II was spurious, and the Burmese turned against the Japanese in the spring of 1945, many Burmese active in that period still remain close to Japan. Beginning with reparations in the mid 1950s, Japan provided $2.2 billion in economic assistance in loans and grants until the 1988 coup.24 Since then, new lending has stopped, but assistance has continued to be provided for completing old projects, humanitarian assistance (sometimes stretching! its definition), and debt relief. Over $500 million has been provided in that period.

The Japanese aid program has undergone revision, and various human rights and good governance provisions have been applied to foreign support, although they have been only sporadically employed (e.g., Indonesia under Suharto). Among the industrialized states, however, Japan and the United States are at opposite ends of the assistance pole: the United States has been rigid in its prohibition on U.S. aid and later on new investment, while Japan has taken a lenient stance. Japanese firms had petitioned the Japanese Embassy in Rangoon for recognition of the regime in 1990, and since then have lobbied for both aid and investment. Japan has been caught between its close relationship with the United States, which opposes any but humanitarian assistance and then not to the government, an! d Keidanren and various ministries that want to restart lending. The emotional attachment of Japan to Burma-Myanmar is very strong.25

During the Ne Win era (which may not yet have reached its final moments), Japanese diplomats had more access to the Burmese leadership than those of any other country. Even as early as 1958, Ne Win was quoted during the ‘Caretaker’ military government as wishing to import Japanese farmers to teach productive farming to the Burmese in the Mu River valley. Today, the treatment of visiting Japanese by the government has been the most friendly of any OECD country. Japan continues to play a critical foreign role today. This, then, gives Japan a great opportunity to affect positively the process of reform in that country, but it also creates a greater responsibility to do so with foresight and deftness. Perhaps because Japan did not want to take a high profile role in Burma-Myanmar in ! the 1970s and 1980s, it never sufficiently pressed for economic reforms that were needed (neither did the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, U.S. and Federal Republic of Germany assistance). Political changes before 1988, to this writer’s knowledge, were never seriously discussed by any donor.

In 1999, this writer accompanied a distinguished Japanese delegation to Yangon, and recommended at that time that Japan provide humanitarian assistance through Japanese and international NGOs and through the UNDP because it would support needed help to the poor, train future Japanese specialists on Burma-Myanmar, strengthen the Japanese NGOs, and help begin the process or rebuilding civil society in Myanmar. But he recommended against restarting lending until significant changes took place in the political economy. In a sense, Japanese policy seems to have been to encourage change through provision of support, while the U.S. has withheld support until change occurs. This writer believes that an intermediate position of humanitarian aid and staged assistance through confidence-bui! lding measures would be the most reasonable approach.

But any assistance, even negotiations, should take place in a quiet, measured atmosphere without public hectoring that plays to the internal politics of the potential donor and encourages emotional nationalistic responses and defense. A former Japanese ambassador to the U.S. at a lecture at Georgetown University, when asked what was the single most important thing the U.S. could do to improve Japanese-U.S. relations, replied that the U.S. should stop criticizing Japan in public. That advice remains sound for a broad spectrum of international relations.

APPENDIX: David I. Steinberg, ‘Myanmar: Military Rule and the Undermining of Civil Society,’ in Nat J. Colletta, Teck Ghee Lim, & Anita Kelles-Viitanes, eds. Social Cohesion and Conflict Prevention in Asia. Managing Diversity Through Development. Washington, D.C. The World Bank, 2001.

David I Steinberg is Director of Asian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, and a senior consultant to The Asia Foundation. He is the author of four books and numerous articles on Burma-Myanmar. His latest volume is Burma: The State of Myanmar (Washington, D.C., Georgetown University Press, 2001). The views expressed herein are his alone.

Source: Online Burma Library (JAPAN INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS, At The Front Lines Of Conflict Prevention In Asia Conference July 6-7, 2001 Tokyo)

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