Europe and the suffering people of Burma/Myanmar

5. Mar 2009


p align=”left”>Timo Kivimäki, Senior Researcher NIAS – Nordic Institute of Asian Studies

The fate of the Rohingya people reverted our attention to the suffering of the people of Burma/Myanmar – a country whose name cannot even be agreed upon. Yet, initiatives to relieve the situation of the people would require cooperation, not just arguments and working against each other. Europe, in order to participate in this, would need a new, more sophisticated strategy towards Burma/Myanmar. Last week, an excellent blog entry by Martin Gemzell, Asia Program Manager of Olof Palme International Center, drew a convincing picture of the complicity of the military government in the suffering of the Burmese people. Yet the suffering is also linked to structures, prejudice and acts of broader circles. Recently, I spent a week in the Rakhine State – in the biggest concentration of the Rohingya people – and learned that discrimination against the Rohingya is not only a monopoly of the government. Most local Rakhine and Chin people do not accept the justification of Rohingya existence in the country and instead used the government’s registration of the Rohingya for the constitutional referendum as clear proof of the government’s dishonesty in regards to the referendum. As one Rakhine engineer stated, “naturally they falsified the vote, because they even registered the Muslims (the word identifying the collective entity of the Rohingya people is generally not used in Rakhine State, except for Rohingyas themselves) even though they have no right here, and even though they are not Myanmar people.” The exiled democratic government of Burma, (NCGUB) recently issued a statement on the Rohingya people, and also failed to recognize the citizenship of the Rohingya people. The problem of the suffering of the people is more comprehensive than just a matter of the political system. We Europeans who would like to be helpful should not only focus on the institutional macro structures of power if we want to be useful for change for the better. By this I do not mean we should not also focus on opportunities to contribute to change of the political system, but simply that the policy agenda or development and wellbeing cannot be a hostage of a regime change.  Much can already be done now. We do not need to wait for a fundamental change before we can act.

To contribute to steps to the right direction, Europe could try to work on a more diversified and complicated strategy regarding Burma/Myanmar. During the transition of the political system, one should not ignore opportunities to contribute to democratic developments and to a more peaceful future of the country. The generational change in the military leadership, the transition to a constitutional system with some sort of parliamentary, multi-party political space, and the continuing negotiation on changes to the constitution, all offer entry points for positive European contribution. A more sophisticated agenda could start with reacting differently to different initiatives of the government. When the government ignored the suffering of its people after the late spring cyclone in the country, angry criticism was in place. However, when the government developed its openness towards international cooperation for the relief of the people, Europe should have reacted with open public recognition. Furthermore, a more sophisticated strategy should not treat everybody in the government similarly. There has been suggestion of collaborating with the middle-rank administration (not the privileged elite) on issues of human security. While running the risk of supporting elements of the undemocratic political system, this could also represent the kind of sophisticated strategy that could play up more democratic and progressive people in the government and agendas that could help the situation of the people instead of just focusing on paranoid agendas of state security.

With a better political system as an instrument of the people rather than that of only the elite, Burma/Myanmar will be able to help itself in accelerating development and reducing poverty. But all this should not ignore opportunities for Europe to contribute to the alleviation of the suffering in a more direct manner. The total concentration of the Myanmar military government on security of the state system and the total concentration of Europeans on changing that system has resulted in the loss of many opportunities to focus on policies that could directly help people with their difficulties. People in the country need humanitarian assistance, and there is widening space for offering that assistance in a responsible manner. This widening space for assistance should be utilized as an independent parallel track to the all-politicizing track that aim for democratization.

Furthermore, there are options to encourage economic development that are nevertheless politically responsible. Denmark’s Minister for Development Cooperation, Ulla Tørnæs recently suggested promoting tourism in the country as a strategy of increasing people-to-people interaction. Democratic Burma lobbyists have been hesitant as this could also support the repressive government. A more sophisticated strategy could involve a process of tourism certification, which could identify morally responsible tourism options in the country. Hotels, travel packages and transportation options that would be not only environmentally certified, but which could also ensure that a maximum share of tourist spending would end up in the pockets of the local people presents a middle way.

A more flexible and sophisticated strategy from Europe for Burma/Myanmar would, in short, involve identifying opportunities to work on humanitarian and development issues despite the government tactics that are not approved of. At the same time, it would mean a flexible strategy of supporting the progressive initiatives and people in the government and opposing the less progressive people and projects. For this, Europe would need better links and dialogue all the way to the top. Dialogue and communication should not be seen as a reward the government has to earn. Europe should be prepared to communicate publicly and confidentially.  On the official track, Europe would need a strategy to gradually increase involvement that does not build up the government, eventually leading to the establishment of a Commission delegation in Yangon. On the unofficial track, better communication would require a strategy of utilizing eminent Europeans for the engagement of the top levels of Myanmar government. Even though Burma/Myanmar is far away, the consequences of our strategies should serve its citizens. Blunt strategic instruments and disregard for the consequences of our demonstrative actions is no longer acceptable in face of the human suffering in this poor country.