Burma and Libya

There has been some chatter among Burma watchers questioning why the international community so quickly intervened in Libya under the UN’s “responsibility to protect” doctrine. After reading a recent blog post on The Interpreter website, I was compelled to respond. I have reposted my letter to the author below:

Mr. Selth-

I very much enjoyed your piece. Like many Burma activists, I am often mystified by the US treatment of Burma as compared to other countries. I also agree that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has played a significant role in the way Burma is both perceived and treated by the international community. Once point worth considering is whether this is actually a good thing. Suu Kyi is undoubtedly an important symbol of freedom in Burma, but those that put her in the same category as, say, Mandela, are way off the mark.   There is no doubt that she bravely stepped into the spotlight in a leadership role when a leader was needed, but it was the chance illness of her mother that brought her to the country in the first place. There is some question about how much she has actually done to improve the lives of the people. Moreover, there are many in the ethnic communities, and even among Burmans, who believe she, and the NLD in general, is significantly out of touch with the desires and needs of ordinary Burmese.

More importantly, Burma is not Libya. In Burma, is there is a huge open question as to who the US or the UN should actually support in a military action. As you point out, there are few Burmese military personnel who have taken up arms against the government. The fighting, which has gone on since independence, has been conducted by ethnic armies. Put bluntly, the ethnic groups fighting against the Burmese military are not actually fighting for democracy. They are fighting for a variety of things, including cultural independence, autonomy, an end to forced relocation and land grabs, and, — lets be clear — money.  The Wa, which has the largest ethnic army, has been in the drug business for a very long time. If the US were to intercede militarily, would we support the Wa? Fight them? Other groups, including the KNU, who are often seen as the “white knights” in the fights against the Burmese (largely due to their Christian majority — a whole other set of issues), are also feared by many citizens who have been paying taxes to them and been conscripted by them for many years. Burma looks a lot more like Iraq than it does Libya. Overthrowing the government will just be the first step in a process of nation-building that will take years. Even within the various ethnic groups, unity has been impossible. (e.g., the SSA North and South, the KNLA/DKBA). Plus, there is a huge industry of exile groups still refusing to accept that their sacrifices in 1988 were largely for nothing who will continue to demand a seat at the table.

I abhor the actions of the military junta and their cronies, but I get concerned when I see so much media attention put on the lack of democracy, and so little on the assortment of other issues facing the nation. I have focused my work on development, rather than politics, largely because I have not been able get my mind around a solution. What I know for sure is that foreign military intervention is not it.

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