The Washington Diplomat / July 2008
By Larry Luxner
In Parade magazine's annual ranking of the world's worst dictators, Burma's Than Shwe comes in third — making him not quite as brutal as Sudan's Omar al-Bashir or North Korea's Kim Jong-il, but definitely worse than either Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan or Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.
"Than Shwe's regime stands out from those of other dictatorships for its use of forced labor in support of infrastructure projects, and for military actions that the Burmese government is taking against a variety of ethnic minorities," wrote Parade's David Wallechinksy in the introduction to his 2008 "evil dictators" index.
But that was before Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma's Irriwaddy Delta region, killing an estimated 134,000 people and exposing at least a million more to widespread suffering and disease.
As pundits analyze the regime's extraordinary reluctance to accept international aid in the wake of Burma's worst natural disaster ever, The Washington Diplomat thought it might be useful to take a look back at how the country's ruling junta grabbed power in 1962 and has managed to hold on ever since.
"They have a monopoly on force and a dominance in weapons," said Derek Mitchell of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "They rule through fear and have been able to control society. Any time an element pops up that might challenge them, they have no problem whatsoever in suppressing it through violence, and by whatever means necessary."
Mitchell and other experts on Southeast Asia agree that the roots of the problem go back to the 19th century, when Burma was conquered by England. Large numbers of Indians and Chinese were imported to build up the infastructure, often displacing ethnic Burmese in urban areas. The country — slightly smaller than Texas — was administered as a province of British India until 1937, when it became a separate, self-governing colony.
During World War II, the "Thirty Comrades" — commanded by Aung San — founded the Burma Independence Army, fighting alongside Burma's Japanese occupiers against the Allies. But in 1945, the army switched allegiances, and two years later, Aung San became deputy chairman of Burma's transitional government.
Only six months later, however, political rivals assassinated Aung San, sparking uncertainty even as the new Union of Burma declared independence on Jan. 4, 1948.
"Ethnic groups have been fighting ever since 1948 for various degrees of autonomy," said Mitchell, senior fellow and Asia director at CSIS's International Security Program. Some 135 distinct ethnic groups are currently recognized by the government, though the Bamar form an estimated 68% of the population.
"A fairly robust democracy was in place from the late 1940s through 1962," said Mitchell. "There were some problems in the late '50s, but in 1962, the military under Gen. Ne Win took over, and basically shut Burma off from the rest of the world."
Ne Win's junta also bankrupted Burma to the point where today, its 52 million people are the poorest in Southeast Asia. It's hard to believe that at the time of independence, Burma was the envy of its neighbors — with its natural wealth and per-capita income far outstripping that of India, Thailand and Vietnam.
During British rule and until the coup, Burma was one of the world's largest exporters of rice; it also produced 75% of the world's teak and enjoyed a high literacy rate. All that came crashing to a halt in 1962. Said Mitchell: "The regime slowly squeezed Burmese society, cut them off from the world, and ruling through violence and fear, ran the country into the ground economically."
Following the 1962 coup d'etat, Ne Win ruled Burma for nearly 26 years, pursuing policies such as nationalization of industries, repression of ethnic minorities, geographical isolation and the expulsion of foreigners — all in the name of his home-grown ideology, the Burmese Way to Socialism.
Ne Win's revolutionary council ran Burma's day-to-day affairs until 1974, when the dictator and many of his top generals resigned from the military and took civilian posts. The country continued to be ruled by Ne Win under a one-party system headed by the Burma Socialist Program Party.
On Aug. 8, 1988, seething unrest culiminated in massive, nationwide demonstrations against the regime, sparking a crackdown that led to some 3,000 deaths. After the "8/8/88 uprising," as it came to be known,, Gen. Saw Maung staged a coup d'etat and instituted the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). The following year, SLORC declared martial law and changed the country's official name from Burma to Myanmar — a designation recognized by the United Nations but not by the U.S. State Department.
In May 1990, after international outrage, SLORC agreed to hold free elections for the first time in nearly 30 years. But that same body annulled the results after Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won 392 out of a total 485 seats in Parliament. Many NLD politicians were arrested or exiled. Suu Kyi, now 63, was immediately detained and has spent much of her life under house arrest, though it hasn't stopped her from working on behalf of democracy for her country.
"It's been 46 years of unremitting military dictatorship," says Priscilla Clapp, who served as chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon from 1999 to 2002. (The United States has not had a credentialed ambassador in Burma since 1990; nor do the Burmese have a full-fledged ambassador in Washington.)
"The regime itself is really one guy, Than Shwe. He's the man in charge. I say it's a one-man dictatorship masquerading as a junta," Clapp told the Diplomat."The State Peace and Development Council [which replaced SLORC in 1997] has 11 members, but only the top guy makes the decisions. Some people think that in his absence, because he's getting feeble, people will do things the way they think he would want them done."
According to Freedom House, "the SPDC rules by decree; controls all executive, legislative and judicial powers; suppresses nearly all basic rights, and commits human-rights abuses with impunity. Military officers hold most cabinet positions, and active or retired officers hold most top posts in all ministries, as well as key positions in both the administration and the private sector."
Mitchell agrees that the ruling junta is "isolated, xenophobic and not very educated."
"What these guys fear most is a superpower coming in and undermining their control," he said. "Most of them have never traveled outside Burma. They built a capital city 200 miles north of Rangoon, based on a soothsayer and paranoia."
In late 2007, a series of demonstrations and protest marches led by thousands of Buddhist monks led to a severe government crackdown in Rangoon and elsewhere; an undetermined number of protestors were beaten, tortured and killed.
"They say the monks are agents of foreign government, traitors from outside who dress up as monks but aren't really monks," according to Mitchell, who traveled to Burma many times over a three-year period in the 1990s while working for the National Democratic Institute. "This is a place which is in the single digits on health and education, yet 50% of Burma's budget goes to the military. They're demonstrating their priorities while perpetuating this delusion of grandeur."
Clapp, who was also posted to South Africa, Japan and the former Soviet Union, continues to follow Burma very closely. The retired diplomat says she wasn't the least bit surprised that the regime in Rangoon continues to deny the Pentagon permission to deliver desperately needed humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.
"They don't want any military to set foot in their country. It's even written into the new constitution that they will never have any foreign military in Burma," she said.
Clapp noted that although this applies to all foreign troops, the ruling Burmese generals are particularly afraid of U.S. troops.
"They fear an American invasion. They watched what happened in Iraq with great interest and horror, and now hey hear us using the same language [with regard to Burma], talking about regime change. But the Burmese people, who hate their government, have been hoping for years that we would invade. So the sight of American military helicopters and Marines flying over the delta bringing aid would have made people think the U.S. military had arrived, and the government was afraid they'd get a joyous reaction from the people.
She added: "They've been trying to demonize the Americans for a long time, saying that the CIA and the U.S. Embassy instigated [last year's] demonstrations. But this is untrue. They were arresting people just for visiting our embassy."
Since the early 1990s, the United States has imposed various economic sanctions against Burma, forbidding U.S. companies from investing there and prohibiting financial transactions with the regime. In addition, Massachusetts and a number of municipal governments including San Francisco, New York and Madison, Wis., have passed anti-Burma legislation. Several liberal universities have also "jumped on the anti-Burma bandwagon by divesting themselves of stock in companies that do business in Burma," according to the CATO Institute.
Yet that same institute charges that "sanctions are an inherently flawed strategy because the kind of regime likely to become the target of U.S. sanctions — an authoritarian regime in a less-developed country such as Burma — is also the least sensitive to unilateral U.S. economic pressure. Indeed, by reducing the influence of U.S. companies in the target country and driving a wedge between the United States and its allies, unilateral sanctions are likely to be counterproductive."
At the same time the United States and the European Union blacklist Burma, the regime is getting ample foreign investment from China, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and India. But the country won't follow the example of communist Vietnam, says Clapp, for a simple reason: Burma's ruling generals simply don't have an interest in economic development.
"They see economic development as diminishing their control over the people, and a lot of what's happening in China and Vietnam is really economic change," she told the Diplomat. "It's having some political effect [in those countries], but not enough to change from a communist system."
On the other hand, attitudes by fellow members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) toward Burma may be hardening in light of the regime's handling of the cyclone disaster.
"After the way the generals reacted to the offer of assistance — and making it clear that they didn't care about human life — it's becoming harder for Asian countries that in the past might have protected them and come to their defense to do that now. They're quite disgusted. I think we're going to see a different attitude on the part of ASEAN."
In the meantime, she said, "I don't see anything more we can do right now. The current regime is unreachable. But maybe we can provide a certain opening for the next generation, which may realize that this is not a stable future for their country. In five years, who knows?"