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Monday, March 10, 2014

Comments on Recent STRATFOR Analyses of Myanmar / Burma

Part 3. Myanmar: Emerging with a Wary Eye , 26 Feb 2014
Part 4: Myanmar Pushes for Control Over its Restive Borderlands , 27 Feb 2014

Both analyses in the four-part series should be looked at in tandem. Together they reflect omission of linked historical facts and imbalance in interpretation that continues to conspicuously favor only the current government.

The following are key points for consideration:

· STRATFOR visibly writes from a Burman power elite perspective
· Analyses conspicuously avoids ethnic minority facts and perspectives
· Terms used in these analyses mime known propaganda from Burmese and or their international supporters
· Analysis patterns consistently beg the issue of assumed legitimacy of the Myanmar Government in spite of facts and indicators to the contrary

The following quotes and counterpoints are illustrative of this general pattern:

1. “Bitter memories of colonial exploitation and ongoing armed conflict with insurgent…undermined any concerted effort to build a modern nation state.”

Counterpoint: This characterization blames others, while avoiding any consideration of Burman urban elites’ history of brutalization of rural ethnic minorities as causal. The reality here is that undermining the building of a modern nation state has been primarily the function of Burmans unwilling to accept pluralism and the power sharing that goes with this. STRATFOR’s characterization of impediments to the nation state lacks consideration of the most pertinent facts.

2. “With national reconciliation currently underway, the central government is trying to build relationships with the outside world and unlock Myanmar’s growth potential by increasing trade and foreign investment.”

Counterpoint. This reflects one side of the equation. There are other sides to be considered in proper full analysis. First, the Burman-dominated government is likely trying to build relationships with the West to counter-balance Chinese expansionism and dominance. Second, the economic embrace of the West is done with the Burmans imperative that only they can be in dominant control. Third, the government, which has only spent 1% on health, education and welfare in the past, wants to use international resources to take care of its neglected peoples, while keeping profits and controls in the hands of Burmese power elites. Fourth, Burman elites’ insistence on control of international resources and initiatives in ethnic areas is likely part of Burmese generals’ counter-insurgency aims to keep ethnics marginalized and beholding to Burman power brokers. All this is not so much about “unlocking Myanmar’s growth potential” per se. It is rather driven by Burman elites’ self-preservation imperatives. This is not likely for “the good of the nation” respecting its multi-ethnic nature.

3. “The porous periphery, made so by the rugged highland terrain remote from the central government, along with extensive ethnic and religious connections in the border areas that the ruling Buddhist Bamar often lacked, convinced successive Burmese leaders to prioritize national integrity and regime security over external relationships.

Counterpoint. Burmese leaders for decades have focused on getting rid of any and all ethnic resistance in pursuit of their ideal of “One Nation, One Ethnicity, One Religion”. This is, in the estimation of many in the region, a matter of blatant Burman racism and exclusionism in a highly diverse multi-ethnic ethnic society. To blame terrain, British colonialism, Japanese occupation, etc, as STRATFOR does in its analysis, whitewashes historical facts about Burmese power elites’ narrow and brutal aspirations that need to be considered. Their history has been one of purposeful oppression of all who are not Burman. If this is what “national integrity” means, then Burmans are well on track. This term dupes readers into assuming something more enlightened.

4. “The inability of Burma’s civilian government to effectively deal with these domestic and external threats ushered in an era of military rule.”

Counterpoint. While true, this analysis makes it sound like the civilian leadership failed by factors beyond its control. The reality, however, is that this leadership culture was likely responsible for murder of General Aung San, who had been the architect of Burma’s independence and who most experts feel was eliminated for wanting to empower ethnics. This precipitates a backlash from a number of ethnic groups who had been promised the right of autonomy. The Burmese military did have to step in to preserve Burman elites’ power. This is a far cry from preserving the “national integrity” of a multi-ethnic nation state. It was mainly about keeping ethnics down and out of power. Ethnic Minority Exclusionism.

5. “The New Frontier. By the early 2000’s, Myanmar’s need to look beyond its near abroad, coupled with an imminent transition within the ruling military leadership, provided the impetus to carry out the current stage of political and economic reform.

Counterpoint. This is very far off base revisionist history and unvarnished Burmese propaganda. The Burmese dictator and power elites were fearful of Chinese dominance in the face of Burma’s self-imposed isolation from the West. The government’s “Overnight Enlightenment” was baseline Realpolitik that used “reform” as the basis for currying favor with the West to help counter-balance China’s pressing influence. The military has not really “transitioned” at all, except to get more powerful. Its generals constitutionally retain immunity from prosecution, they have not been brought to accountability for decades of crimes against humanity, war crimes and human rights abuses, and they retain their business monopolies and stranglehold on stolen ethnic lands rich in natural resources. Economic reform is dominated by Burman power elites, while ethnics are kept marginalized and or well under control. Political reform lacks real teeth, as Burmese generals retain real power as in the past. STRATFOR’s phrase “impetus to carry out…reform” is misleading and inaccurate.

6. “Also underway are a number of connectivity projects including…a deep-water port and special economic zone in Dawei…and a host of roadway and mining infrastructure projects.”

Counterpoint. The projects are largely on ethnic ancestral lands that Burmese want to finally dominate, since ethnics historically occupied Burma’s border regions as original inhabitants several millennia ago before Burman’s arrival. The details of STRATFOR’s benign-sounding projects are attended by aggressive corruption, coercion and attacks on ethnics to keep them in line and not interfere with progress. “Roadways” and “mining infrastructure” mean Burmese penetration of ethnic sanctuaries that can serve to fast track the Burmese Army to keep these regions under tight control. STRATFOR’s characterizations sounds like Burmese power broker marketing. The reality for ethnics is less kind. All this strongly suggests “Burma is open for business”, but the danger here is that ethnics will pay a price by being systemically taken advantage of largely in the name of “progress” for others. Ethnics’ losses and further subjugation will likely be enduring.

7. “As Myanmar pursues a new policy of strategic opening, consolidating central control over its peripheral regions – currently through a national reconciliation process – has become top priority.

Counterpoint. This is likely propaganda text lifted from the Burmese themselves or their pro-regime international suitors. “Strategic opening” is an enlightened-sounding term for Burmese power elites’ deft manipulation of international resources to secure dominance over ethnics. The so-called “national reconciliation process” is thought by many in the region to be a highly sophisticated ploy to bide time. This is for the purpose of stalling till national elections and Burman chairmanship of ASEAN, using ceasefires to strengthen Burmese Army frontier basing on ethnic lands, pursuing ongoing ethnic land confiscations in the name of progress. This keeps ethnics hanging in limbo with repetitious stalling tactics on an open-ended basis. Burmese look good in international eyes for leading this “reform”.

8. “Naypyidaw fears ongoing ethnic conflict will sap central government resources and continue to limit any coordinated economic development….undermining the very reasons the military is facilitating a slow transition to civilian leadership.”

Counterpoint. This is sadly even worse propaganda that suggests altruism on the part of the Burmese military. Nothing could be further from the truth. The military’s transition to civilian leadership is largely a ruse to curry favor with the West to get legitimacy and resources to counter-balance China’s growing domination of Burma. Economic development is being dominated by Burman power elites who have little intent of equally empowering ethnics with real economic power. “The very reasons” catch phrase reflects pro-regime sentiments favoring Burman elites.

9. “The drive to consolidate border control has unfolded through a 2009 military offensive, and, more recently, through a push for peace agreements with various insurgent groups as a part of national cease-fire.”

Counterpoint. This promotes Burmese selfish intentions and casts ethnics in a dubious light. The truth is rather more the opposite. The Burmese Army offensive has been a scorched earth campaign against ethnic villagers for decades. This still unaccountable-for-war crimes and crimes-against-humanity army continues attacks on the Kachin now for over two years, as well as attacks Shan…all of which means attacking villagers and creating refugee crises. The “push for peace agreements” sounds reasonable to international thought, but the reality in this region is that these are used to neuter ethnics. These minority leaders will look recalcitrant if they walk away from the peace table, under which the Burmese are using coercion and corruption to intimidate them. The Burmese Army strengthens its outposts on ethnic lands during these peace talks. Attack helicopter pads have been established and artillery forward postured, as well as aggressive intelligence and reconnaissance operations against ethnics. Witness what has already happened in Northern Karen State today alone.

10. “As Naypyidaw pursues its national unity plan, it is finding that its new foreign relations are not expanding quickly enough to offset some of the strains of its relations with China.”

Counterpoint. The last part of this statement is true. The government is in a footrace to get the West to embrace it and anchor international aid, development and investment. America would be the real prize here. The first part of this statement begs the issue that the government wants “national unity” in ideal Western terms. Not so. The Government of Myanmar seeks unity under Burmese power elites’ aim of Burmanization of all ethnics. This means dominance without the prospect of future ethnic resistance to Burmese power.

Final Comments.

· The four-part STRATFOR series coincides with the Myanmar Government’s need to reinforce perceived legitimacy before scheduled negotiations with ethnic leaders this month.
· This analysis specifically avoids embarrassing historical facts about Burmans with such repetitious consistency as to be obvious even to the casual reader.
· It altogether fails to mention the reasons behind “ethnic conflict” on the part of Burman systemic oppression past and present, as well as the future seeds of it that are now being planted and unwittingly aided by international engagement.
· The overall neglect of relevant facts concerning ethnics supports Burman elite agendas to keep ethnics marginalized and beholding to Burmans in power.
· STRATFOR might consider giving voice to ethnic perspectives in this pluralistic society. As is, its four-part analysis series is badly flawed, and its conclusions lack credibility that they might otherwise merit. Burmans in power are otherwise well served by STRATFOR, but both ethnic minority and US interests definitely are not.

Tim Heinemann, tsh5252@hotmail.com

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