Wednesday, September 9, 2009

What is the Burmese junta doing?

Burma has been a cauldron of surprising news in the past two years or so. The generals have taken a series of actions in a number of areas: brutal repression of the monks' demonstrations in 2007, prosecution and conviction of Aung Sun Suu Kyi (ASSK) in a bizarre show trial, a major rainy season assault on the Karen militias and villages, increasing pressure on the Kachin Independence Organization, brutal assault on the Kokang cease-fire group on the Chinese border. And don't forget the mystery tunnel construction (link) and the phantom North Korean ship (link) a few months ago. (Here is a list of recent news items concerning events in Burma and the rest of southeast Asia, and here is a map displaying some of those items. Follow the UnderstandingSociety twitter feed for updates.) Is there an underlying logic to these actions? What is the junta's strategy? What are they trying to accomplish, and how do these actions fit into any sort of rational plan? (See an earlier post on the Burmese dictatorship.)

Here's a sketchy analysis about the junta's goals: to maintain the decisive military and political power of the Burmese army; to gain full control of national territory, including particularly the states with independence movements and armed militias; to retain the ability to crush any possible opposition movement; to keep the wealth-production machine going for the benefit of the generals and the military system; and to preserve diplomatic support from China. And one important date is looming: the junta's promise to conduct elections in 2010. The elections are plainly designed to leave decisive control in the hands of the army and to present a thin semblance of "democracy". And the junta is determined to manage this process so as to lead to an outcome that leaves their power unchallenged.

So what do they need in order to accomplish these goals? They need arms; they need trading partners; they need on-the-ground control of the population; and they need to retain control of Burma's resources and economy. How do recent actions conform to these goals? Is the junta merely reactive, or is it following a longterm strategy?

The trial of Aung San Suu Kyi fits into this set of goals fairly obviously. ASSK is the most charismatic leader that Burmese society possesses. She leads the National League for Democracy (NLD), the most persistent opposition group in Burma today and the overwhelming winner of the elections of 1990 (link). And her name is one of the most celebrated in Burma's post-colonial history. Her father Aung San was the hero of Burmese independence and his assassination in 1947 was a turning point in Burma's modern history. ASSK has the potential to mobilize a powerful pro-democracy movement, and the generals fear her. Moreover, there seems to be a streak of emotion in the generals' attitudes toward her; there seems to be a powerful hatred of ASSK that goes beyond rational fear. But the evident determination of the junta to keep ASSK under house arrest and out of politics through the 2010 elections makes a cruel kind of sense.

The recent military campaigns against the Karen and Kokang groups and the increasing pressure on Kachin and Shan movements also fit fairly clearly into the goals mentioned here. The generals appear to have come to the conclusion that they have a realistic opportunity to change the balance of forces between the army and the ethnic organizations. They appear to have undertaken a determined effort to do so, beginning with the Karen. This seems to be motivated by both the long-standing effort to control the non-Burmese populations and the goal of managing the 2010 elections.

The international trade strategies of the junta also appear to be directly linked to the commercial interests of the regime. Gas contracts, timber and jade sales, and exploitation of Burma's other economic assets show an aggressive but strategic effort at increasing Burma's foreign exchange revenues. The relationship with North Korea appears to represent a source of military technology not otherwise available to Burma (the mystery ship?). And western economic sanctions don't seem to dampen Burma's trade opportunities significantly. In other words, the junta appears to have created an alternative world trading system that leaves it fairly immune to western criticism and sanctions.

Burma's foreign relations also seem fairly successful in the realpolitik sense. Burma has managed to avoid much pressure from ASEAN nations; it has preserved the diplomatic support of China in the United Nations; and it maintains acceptable relations with India and Bangladesh. Its assault on the Karen areas has ruffled relations with Thailand because of the influx of refugees across the Thai border their military campaign created. And the assault on the Kokang group had strained relations with China because of the large number of refugees into Yunnan province and the mistreatment of Han people in Shan State. But so far the Chinese haven't offered much pressure to the Burmese junta either.

So it seems that there is actually a fairly coherent underlying set of goals and strategies that appear to be driving the junta's actions. The common view in the western media of the junta as mysterious, secretive, reactive, paranoid, and ineffective doesn't seem to be accurate. The junta seems to be a more dangerous enemy to the people of Burma than this description would suggest. The generals have developed bureaucracies and plans that allow them to pursue their aims fairly effectively. And this is bad news for a democratic Burma. The junta has entrenched a brutal, violent, and exploitative regime that is fundamentally unconcerned about the welfare of the people of Burma; and their military government seems pretty effective in preserving its power and pursuing its political goals.

It is interesting to note how many areas of the social sciences need to be consulted in order to deal with this question: political science (how can we explain the regime's behavior?), organizational behavior (how do the bureaucratic agencies of the Burmese state function?), military sociology (how is the army recruited and managed?), and social movements theory (how do the various oppositional groups in Burma seek to mobilize?). So Burma represents something of a laboratory for social science research and theory formation.

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