Myanmar: The Military Regime’s View of the World
Myanmar: The Military Regime’s View of the World
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report / Asia 4 minutes

Myanmar: The Military Regime’s View of the World

Since coming to power in 1988, the most recent military rulers of Burma/Myanmar have effectively resisted external demands to turn over power to a democratic government.

Executive Summary

Since coming to power in 1988, the most recent military rulers of Burma/Myanmar have effectively resisted external demands to turn over power to a democratic government. Most of the outside pressure has failed to take into account how this government sees and responds to the world beyond its borders. This paper examines the military’s perspective on foreign relations and explains why many current international strategies have failed to push it towards democracy or economic reforms.

The modern state of Myanmar was forged under colonialism and born in the aftermath of World War II. Since inde­pendence in 1947, continuous domestic conflict and the fai­lure of successive governments to forge a stable and pro­spe­rous nation have sustained fears of foreign inter­ven­tion and reinforced a mindset that foreigners are to blame for the country’s many pro­blems.

During four decades of military rule, Myanmar’s leaders have grown increasingly inward­-looking and alienated. They are driven by an obsession with national sovereignty to seek almost total autonomy from international influ­ences. The hall­mark of a foreign policy driven by insecurity has been self-reliance. Since 1962, military leaders have insisted that Myanmar, as much as possible, do things its own way and rely on its own resources. They perceive their country and its problems to be not only unique, but also essentially unfathomable to outsiders. They also exhibit a clear lack of under­standing of international affairs and the motivations, and values of other nations.

The current military regime in principle has reversed 26 years of self-imposed isolation in an attempt to revi­talise the ailing economy and ward off popular pres­sure for political reform. However, while it has relaxed the long-cherished notion of terri­to­rial sanctity, the ideal of absolute sovereignty and perceived need to insulate Myanmar from foreign influence remains. Each opening is accompanied by control mechanisms to limit the negative impact of allowing in more foreigners.

Myanmar’s foreign relations are shaped in this tension between traditional values and current needs. Many outside observers have bought into a kind of conspiracy thinking, which sees the regime to be cooperating with regional governments to undermine the pro-democratic forces. This has given rise to a clash-of-civilisations image that posits the forces of good (i.e. Western democracy) confronting the forces of evil (i.e. Asian authoritarianism). The reality is much more complex and ambiguous.

Some highly practical considerations also shape the approaches taken by the SPDC leadership. One relates to how their commercial interests tie in with national economic development and the drug trade. The regime has obtained vital revenue from reinvestment of narcotics profits. No reform package that does not address personal and institutional economic interests is practical. Another relates to  personal security. The military leaders fear what will happen to them if the political order is overturned. They will continue to frame policies influenced by personal security and will not surrender power without guarantees for themselves and families.

While the military government is locked in a adversarial relationship with Western governments and organisations over democracy and human rights, its leaders harbour a deep-seated wish to be accepted as equals by the developed countries. They are also keenly aware of the impor­tance of attracting Western capital and tech­no­­logy to support military and national deve­lop­ment. Conversely, the junta’s relations with its neighbours, though superficially close, continue to be hampered by historic pre­judices and the generals’ insistence on doing it ‘their way or no way at all’.

Coun­tries like Japan, China, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia, which have provided varying degrees of support for Yangon, have been frustrated in attempts to achieve cooperation from the regime on issues of concern to them. Myanmar’s participation in ASEAN has also been half-hearted at best. The military regime stands largely alone in the world by choice as much as necessity.

International actors, who aim to induce the SPDC to liberalise or in other ways work to improve the welfare of Myanmar’s people, face major obstacles:

  • Myanmar’s rulers are deter­mined not to bow to outside pressure. They refuse to accept significant foreign mediation or any other form of ‘intrusive’ inter­national partici­pa­tion in the solu­tion of its political problems. They have  shown little will to learn from the experience of other countries or take foreign advice, even on technical matters.
  • The sense of outside threat creates a barrier of suspicion, which greatly affects the junta’s interpretation of international policies and hampers the work of foreign agencies, organisations, and companies in Myanmar.
  • The military leaders remain proudly aloof, partly blind to the possibilities presented by cooperating with the outside world. They conti­nue to believe that Myanmar both can, and might be better off to, uphold the traditional emphasis on self-reliance.
  • The strong disposition to look inwards for solutions, compounded by fear of subversive ideas, creates an almost insurmountable barrier to import of knowledge. Myanmar has been little influenced by foreign intellectual trends, including on human rights, economic development processes, and so forth.
  • Few, if any, governments or organisations have the access and goodwill necessary to influence Myanmar’s leaders. The few foreigners who have established positive rapport have done so as individuals and are inevitably sworn to secrecy.

There is no doubt that foreign governments and organisations have a critical role to play in Myanmar, which has immense capital, technology, and knowledge needs. However, in the highly nationalistic environment, they are destined to operate at the political margin for the foreseeable future.

Given this situation, and while it remains vital to work for restoration of democracy, it may be more practical to focus as an immediate goal on facilitating a gradual loosening of military control over political and economic activity. This approach would aim to transform relationships first – among members of the regime, between the regime, state, political parties, and population, and among people in general – and institutions only secondly. It would include immediate action to alleviate the huma­ni­tarian crisis, which over the last few years has caused more and more people to sink into despair, diminishing the prospects for positive change. 

Tackling a closed regime so hostile to outside ideas presents enormous policy challenges and there are no quick fixes. But slower incremental steps may defuse the paranoia and win more influence than demands for rapid change that have repeatedly been rebuffed.  More can be done to expand contacts and so prepare the ground for later political reforms.

Bangkok/Brussels, 7 December 2001

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