Burma: Conflict Analysis and Non-military Intervention Strategy
Michelle Thompson received her MA in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from Arcadia in 2010. She has gained significant insight in conflict analysis through her experience at Arcadia’s Nyerere Centre for Peace Research and her internship with the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. This article is based on her research on conflict analysis, intervention strategies and deeply divided societies.
Since 1962, Burma  has been under a repressive military-led government that is known for propagating wide-scale human rights abuses. Some members of the international community have been rather outspoken in their admonishment of Myanmar’s government and the UN has tried to push for a Security Council resolution that would demand Myanmar change its human rights policies. However, there is little agreement on what, if any, action should be taken against the unpopular regime.
This paper will analyze the conflict-ridden relationship between the Myanmar regime and its citizens, and what the international community has done thus far in response. There is an obvious controversy within the international community regarding what the response should be to sovereign states that violate human rights on a massive scale. The question remains to be answered whether there should be an international intervention in Burma, and if so, of what kind and magnitude?
I will use this as a case study to explore options for appropriate non-military intervention strategies in Myanmar, utilizing the theory of responsibility to protect for the basis of action. I propose that using a broad framework of preventive diplomacy will most likely be the best intervention strategy. Preventive diplomacy lays out steps to consolidate peace in order to deter future violent conflicts that may otherwise be inevitable in Burma. This study may be a helpful intervention analysis to apply to other cases of repressive regimes where military intervention is not a likely option.
In 1962, Prime Minister U Nu was ousted in a military coup, just fourteen years after Burma gained independence from Japan. Gen Ne Win, the coup’s leader, transformed Burma into a single-party state led by the Socialist Programme Party. Over the course of the next twenty years independent newspapers were banned and power was transferred from the military to former military leaders forming the People’s Assembly. The regime represented Burma’s dominant indigenous ethnic group that accounts for about 60% of the population; a discriminatory law was put in place barring non-indigenous people from public office. Currency devaluation in 1987 left many citizens without money and sparked wide scale anti-government riots that killed thousands of people. The response of the government was to declare martial law in 1989 and arrest all dissenters. Simultaneously, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) responsible for these actions changed the name of Burma to Myanmar.
The Opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won the general election in 1990 under pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Election results were ignored by the military and despite popular support the party has never been allowed to govern. Furthermore, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest and has remained under such restriction intermittently since 1989. Despite all this, the NLD is committed to non-violent opposition of the current government and peaceful national change.
The population of Burma is far from homogeneous, though there are differing accounts as to how large the percentage of minorities are. The most generous figure estimates that ethnic minorities make up 40% of the population.. Many of these groups have been violently clashing with the ruling authority since Burma’s independence in 1948, demanding various degrees of autonomy and independence from the state. The struggles have generally been unsuccessful, and the ethnic minorities face discriminatory laws and persecution.
Political progress has been slow as the NLD and minority ethnic groups have alternately not been allowed or able to participate in talks regarding Burma’s future. Public unrest has continued to grow, especially due to rising fuel prices in 2007, and a destructive cyclone in 2008. In the midst of the cyclone devastation, the Myanmar regime pursued its plans to enforce a new repressive constitution that granted further powers to military and held no provisions to protect minorities or uphold international human rights standards.
Burma has been under increasing United States sanctions since 1997. The U.S. pushed for a United Nations Security Council resolution on Burma in 2007, “calling Burma to change its policies.” Unfortunately, China and Russia do not agree that Burma is a threat to international peace and security and therefore continue to block a Security Council resolution based on the argument of Burma’s sovereignty. According to China and Russia, the Security Council lacks a mandate to target Myanmar for abuses that take place on sovereign soil and do not threaten any other nation. Interestingly enough, China and Russia both have largely vested economic interest in Burma, especially in gas reserves and arms dealings to the Myanmar regime. China’s investment continues to hold the dominant interstate position in relation to the economic and political choices of the Myanmar regime. It is therefore in the current economic interest of China and Russia to block international action that alters the human rights policies and subsequently the economic status quo in Burma. Due to lack of international consensus many national policies are undermining one another with regard to motivating change in Burma.
Meanwhile, the military junta continues to suppress democracy and minority movements. The recent elections held in November 2010 were not considered free and fair by many Western states; international observers and reporters were not allowed, and as many as 1.5 million people of ethnic minority groups were disenfranchised from voting. Long-term state violence against minorities has been carried out through avenues such as informal taxing, denying citizenship, forced labor, forced relocation, torture, and extrajudicial executions. Violent clashes are common despite ceasefire agreements. With the recent elections and consolidation of military power, the knowledge of persecution and human rights abuses perpetrated against minority groups and the continuous outbreaks of violence, it is high time to consider potential strategies regarding the situation in Burma.
To adequately address the conflict in Burma and potential solutions this analysis will take on a three-part approach. First, this study will use the conflict assessment framework provided by Goodhand to ensure a basic understanding of the important factors influencing the violence in Burma. Next, this study will employ the responsibility to protect model to justify why intervention in Burma must take place. Finally, this study will use an intervention analysis model offered by Lund that considers the curve of the life cycle of conflicts. The combination of these approaches can offer a comprehensive picture of the conflict, necessity and strategies of outside intervention. Recommendations for an improved theoretical intervention strategy, and thus a strategy the international community will finally be able to agree to act on, will be based on the prescriptions made by Lund for strategies suitable to varied stages of conflict and a broad conflict analysis.
Goodhand explains the framework for analyzing conflicts used by the UK Department for International Development (DFID). This entails scrutinizing three main categories and their subcategories to assess the specific conflict. The three main categories are structures, actors, and dynamics. Within the structures category, a conflict analyst would examine the “underlying sources and root causes of violent conflict.” This breaks down further to consider how security, political, economic and social dimensions contribute to the current conflict. Based on this framework, an analyst next examines the actors of the conflict and the interests, motivations, incentive systems and capacities of each group of stakeholders. In this category the analyst may also consider the way a peace agenda takes on individual influence to become an actor. The final category to consider is dynamics, especially the long- term trends, triggers for increased violence and political scenarios for managing the conflict.
Lund’s model allows an analyst to seek strategies based on the information provided by the conflict analysis. Once it is determined where the conflict falls within the life cycle curve it can be decided which category of diplomacy strategies interveners should employ. The options for levels of diplomacy include crisis diplomacy and peacemaking that should occur during war or violent tension, preventive diplomacy that should occur during the unstable peace stage, or politics and peacetime diplomacy that should occur during the stable peace stage.
The conflict analysis begins with the structures of Burma, or the underlying and root causes of the conflict. The overarching structure in Burma, and subsequently the major root cause in the state-society conflict, is the military junta. The nature of the repressive military regime that abuses human rights has created a deeply divided society that allows no progress in relationship between state and society. This is demonstrated in various elements of the overarching structure.
The regime currently values national security, or at the very least security for the regime, over human security. This hierarchy created within the security dimension became apparent to the world when international aid organizations and human rights NGO’s were extremely restricted in travel and relief efforts within the country following the cyclone in 2008. There have been intense and often violent crackdowns on NLD supporters and ethnic-nationalist groups in an effort to preserve order, hence the original name of Slorc (State Law and Order Restoration Council) and the immense amount of power granted to the military. Thousands of people have been displaced within Burma due to military attacks against insurgents. The regime moved its capital city, at the expense of Burma’s already dilapidated economy and struggling citizens, most likely for the sake of national security. Furthermore, the regime has been accused of human rights abuses, many of which can be linked to promoting national security, such as torture, extrajudicial killing and recruitment of child soldiers.
This is an unfortunate and naïve way to approach national security, on the basis of the assumption that a state can sacrifice human security to gain national security, such as the Myanmar regime has done. Recent interest in security dimensions has focused on terrorism, which has emphasized the interconnectedness of security and insecurity the whole world over. Security requires an integrated approach, the acknowledgement of interconnectedness between weak and strong aspects of security. If we recognize the threat that weak and failed states present to the security of strong states, should we not also recognize the threat of weak human security policies in relation to strong national security policies within a state? Myanmar has created distrust and violent opposition among its citizens, especially within the ethnic minority groups, precisely because of the disregard for the human security of its citizens that is shown through the above-mentioned policies of abusing human rights.
The political dimensions of Burma can be viewed and understood as a hypothetical social contract between state and society. Goodhand notes that it is this social contract that either creates or detracts from social stability.  The hypothetical social contract in Burma is based on a problematic relationship between state and society, leaving the contract weak and unproductive. The social contract would improve, and Burma’s society may be more willing to accept the Myanmar regime, if the latter were capable of providing more services. Instead, the lack of services being delivered to the people creates a cyclical uprising of citizens and crackdown of the military government. This is seen specifically in the cases of the uprising of 1988 caused by the currency devaluation and lack of government ability to assist its citizens economically, and the riots of 2007 due to 500% tax increases that left many unable to afford basic amenities such as oil.
The regime is also criticized for continued poor treatment of its political prisoners and minorities. Amnesty International estimates that in the last twenty years there have been more than 2,000 political prisoners held. As for a recent example regarding Burmese minorities, the Rohingya were expelled from their place of refuge in Thailand in January 2009, whereupon the Myanmar regime denied their existence. The main source of political contention seems to be the regime’s firm stance on disallowance of the many stakeholders to participate in a meaningful capacity, either by way of autonomous rule or inclusive governance.
With regard to economic dimensions of the conflict, Burma is primarily, though not exclusively, stuck within a grievance model. Goodhand explains that a conflict based on grievance is focused on structural conditions of inequality, in other words, conditions of inequality that are embedded within the policies and practices of the state institutions. Therefore, conflict based on grievance is typically state-centric. Examples of such unjust structural policies include denying a certain people group citizenship or the right to vote, both of which the Myanmar regime practices against the ethnic minority Rohingya.
Structural economic policies can often lead to grievance conflict as well. Burma is considered one of the poorest countries of Southeast Asia, and the regime remains economically dependent on China. The regime has had a history of failing to provide for its people and has contributed greatly to an “erosion of people’s entitlements.” The currency devaluation in 1987 that resulted in wiping out the savings of many citizens is a prime example of this. The government poor response to the cyclone of 2008 is another fine example, as its position on keeping foreign aid out could be taken as a statement to the regimes stance on the “non-entitlement” of its people. In 2007 the World Food Programme declared that, “humanitarian assistance is presently unable to meet the needs of the people of Myanmar and that the Myanmar Government must undertake immediate critical reforms for the benefit of the country’s desperately poor and needy people.” This speaks once again to the inability and possible unwillingness of the current regime to provide for its people. The citizens thus are driven to oppose the government for the grievances done to them.
Issues of social identity are extremely important within Burma’s state-society conflict and will need to be addressed promptly. Goodhand suggests that to understand the political actors one must first study the social context they emerged from. The contention between regime supporters and the opposition has created a deep divide within Burmese society. So deep in fact, that Genocide Watch considers Burma to be at the highest stage of the genocide cycle, indicating current massacres perpetrated against minority groups Shan, Karin and Rohingya. The treatment of minorities attributed to the Myanmar regime has left the minority groups untrusting of Burmese dominated groups, and hesitant even to accept the rule of the NLD.
Next, the conflict analysis model suggests examining the main actors of the conflict. There are three main groups that must be included in a solution to the state-society conflict: the Myanmar military junta, the NLD and its recent counterparts, and the ethnic nationalists. These are the dominant stakeholders and political transition demands inclusion of each.
The military regime is interested in maintaining the status quo and motivated by retaining power. The capacity of the regime as a state entity is incredibly limited, as seen above by the limited services it can provide its citizens. In the recent 2010 elections there was evidence of party division between the supporters of the new and old military leaders. However, the regime as a whole has thus far proved adept at maintaining military control and suppressing opposition through means of martial law.
The NLD resistance is interested in a peaceful political transition to democracy. Their interest is motivated by the desire for increased freedoms and observance of human rights for Burmese citizens. The capacity of this group to incite change has been necessarily limited by their commitment to non-violence. However, this group has won past elections signifying that it had at one time the support of a large percentage of population. A recent offshoot of the NLD formed just prior to the 2010 elections, in response to NLD’s decision to decline from condoning and participating in what they perceived as an unfair election. A small group of NLD supporters then became the National Democratic Front (NDF) in order to participate in the polls.
Ethnic-nationalist is a broad category describing at least one hundred ethnic minorities opposed to the current regime rule, such as the Karen, Shan and Rohingya mentioned earlier. Many of these groups are interested in some sort of federalist or autonomous system that would allow better representation and freedom than the current centralized government. The capacity of these groups to spur change has been limited by the factional nature of the ethnicities, scarce resources and location on the borders of the state. However, violent protests have begun to earn them recognition as invested stakeholders.
Finally, the conflict analysis turns to the dynamics of the conflict in Burma. For at least forty years, the long-term trend of the conflict between state and society has been military rule and suppression of any opposition. This has become a cyclical pattern of failure on behalf of the state to provide or protect citizens, subsequent protests of the people, and subsequent suppression of protests. Triggers for increased violence include these failures of the state and exclusion of ethnic-nationalist parties from the table. Ironically, a trigger of state violence has also been the non-violent protests of the NLD. If the stakeholders are not adequately represented in the government with moves toward increasing state capacity to care for its citizens this cycle will inevitably continue.
[Making Use of Responsibility to Protect]
First presented in 2001 by the International Commission on Intervention and Sovereignty, the responsibility to protect is an international political norm that is based on an emerging view of state sovereignty. In this set of principles, it is generally upheld that for a state to preserve its sovereignty, it must protect its people from such harms as genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. If a state does not protect its citizens in this manner, the state forfeits its sovereign right and international intervention becomes an option to manage the conflict.
Thus far, the international community cannot come to consensus on how to react to the conflict between state and society in Burma. Of course, since each nation has its own political agenda, states will always undermine one another to achieve their individual gain. Enforcing an international cooperative agreement is therefore crucial to affect political change in Burma. Although the Myanmar regime has been taken to task for human rights abuses and oppressive practices through the United Nations General Assembly, the member states remain divided and no action has been decided on. Furthermore, the General Assembly has no legitimate legal power to enforce any decision made. The Security Council, which does hold the authority of enforcement, also remains divided regarding a plan of action toward a political solution in Burma. Perhaps, then, it still remains to be established that it is necessary to intervene in Burma in some capacity.
It is in the interest of the international community for all states, territories and autonomous regions to prosper in order to improve overall international security. If there is a state that is verging on collapse from violent conflict or tension it will indeed affect the interconnected international community. Furthermore, it is the international community’s responsibility to intervene when a state fails on a massive scale to protect or uphold the universally acknowledged rights of its citizens. It is this responsibility to protect framework that can serve as the motivation for the international community to take action on behalf of the citizens of Burma. It is also the responsibility to protect framework that can serve as the loose structure for how to intervene; suggesting the international community work to prevent future crimes against the people of Burma first through peaceful means on economic, diplomatic and political levels.
The opposition of the repressive Myanmar regime within Burma has been unable to change their circumstances alone, especially due to the factional ethnic divisions of much of the opposition. The international community obviously has little desire or capacity to intervene militarily, in the traditionally understood sense of the responsibly to protect model. Resources of the international community are currently stretched thin due to larger military operations and vested interest in areas such as the Middle East that are generally thought of as a greater threat to international security. Typically, it takes a great deal of individual national interest to warrant a military intervention. The lack of interest toward an intervention in Burma is demonstrated notably by the lack of meaningful political action seen thus far on behalf of Burma. Therefore, the international community must use the responsibility to protect model as a guide to non-military intervention to ensure that some action will be taken.
Unstable peace is described by Lund as the stage in the life cycle of a conflict in which “tension or suspicion run high but violence is either absent or only sporadic.” The state-society conflict within Burma fits best within the category of unstable peace for a number of reasons. The ceasefire movements beginning in 1989 between the military regime and fifteen insurgent organizations helped to minimize the violence. The ceasefires instituted a “negative peace,” although tensions are still incredibly high and violent clashes still occur. However, as we have seen in the conflict analysis, state and society still largely see each other as enemies not to be trusted. Due to high tensions, government repression and lack of reconciliation, crisis and war are an imminent threat.
Lund explains in his framework for intervention analysis that “preventive diplomacy is especially operative at the level of unstable peace.” Preventive diplomacy, or any “action taken in vulnerable places and times to avoid the threat or use of armed force,” is thus the most compatible strategy for as long as the diagnosis for the state-society conflict in Burma remains at the stage of unstable peace. Of course, in Burma’s case where tensions are currently high but violence is sporadic, preventive diplomacy should be used to consolidate peace in such a way that deters future outbreaks of violence. It is also worth noting that if wide-scale violent riots break out again in response to government policy in Burma there will need to be a reevaluation of the proposed intervention strategy as the conflict stage will have changed from unstable peace to crisis. The key components of preventive diplomacy that determine the success of an intervention strategy in Burma are timing, leadership, leverage and multifaceted action. It is necessary for success to act early and efficiently to solve the problem before the next crisis. The international community must be in cooperation and utilize regional capacity for leadership and political and economic leverage to influence parties. Furthermore, the solution must get to the root of the problem incorporating both structural and operational issues.
Until now, many international actors have been waiting for an overarching political solution to Burma’s conflict. However, it is becoming clear that a regime change is not enough, as the sources of contention now run too deep within the society for democracy to be a quick fix. Preventive diplomacy in Burma must be initiated from the two major fronts that encompass all stakeholders. The conflict between state and society requires civil society to “prepare the way for democratic change” as political elites take action for political change on a state level. Local participation must remain a key focus of any solution. Though historically opposition of the military regime has been fragmented, support of emerging organizations such as the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC), which strives to bring each of Burma’s oppositional stakeholders to a common demand for political transition, will be essential for preventive diplomacy. What follows are suggestions for leadership and leverage strategies for the international community.
Support of Burma’s civil society should be made a priority of the international community. Preventive diplomacy focused only on a political solution without also building up grassroots change will most likely stall the process. United States sanctions, while perhaps serving as a needed symbolic gesture that articulates disapproval of the regime’s current actions, are making it difficult for development organizations to support the strengthening of civil society. Thus, a commitment to support civil society in Burma should take into account ways in which individual national economic policies and sanctions might undermine other national policies. US sanctions are currently ineffective in Burma because other countries are happy to step in and compensate for US lack of involvement in hopes to reap the economic profits. There is a need to make sure that sanctions are based on an analysis of effectiveness rather than pure moral consideration and that they are not in detriment to the building of civil society.
Sanctions are indicative of the overall boycott strategy employed by the US against the Myanmar regime, which has also been ineffective. Without cooperation among the international community, there will always be another nation willing to profit in the place of the one who is boycotting. For example, where the US has tried to isolate Myanmar by limiting trade, China has stepped in. In fact, China’s economic involvement in Burma is most likely the reason China vetoed the draft Security Council resolution regarding Burma.
The current set-up of the regime is what keeps Burma dependent on China economically and therefore it is not in China’s interest for political transition to happen within Burma. Rather than boycott trade with the Myanmar regime, it may be more effective for the United States to gain leverage by imitating China’s position in the relationship between Burma and China. This would eventually lessen China’s influence on the political outcome of the state. For this reason, it is imperative for the US, Europe and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to compete with China for influence of economic and political elites in Burma.
Another example to follow is the Japanese stance on trade relationships with the regime, which lies in between the hard-line stance of the US and the open engagement of China and ASEAN states. There is little evidence to suggest either strategy of isolation or engagement will work by itself. Japan has been able to follow a more hybrid strategy, assisting the regime in capacity building while simultaneously maintaining pressure to push political changes. This will make Japan a key player in the leadership of preventive diplomacy in Burma. They, like any nation that might be able to follow their hybrid approach, exchange their investments in development for a chance to wield legitimate negotiating power to alleviate the violent conflict.
Ostensibly, improvement of human rights practices and political transition will not occur until such changes are more profitable than the status quo. Once the US and EU become economically influential in Burma, these entities will be able to make such changes profitable with the economic leverage they will then hold. This is a key component to effective preventive diplomacy in Burma.
The international community must make better use of the regional organization ASEAN to monitor and apply pressure to the Myanmar regime. ASEAN, which Burma has been a party to since 1997, should take the lead in fostering trust between civil society and the Myanmar regime as another action of preventive diplomacy. As one of its first courses of action toward this goal, it may be helpful for ASEAN to advocate for the improved relationship between the Myanmar regime and foreign aid involvement so that civil society has more chance for sustainable growth. However, ASEAN should not underestimate its potential to influence the transformation of the regime policies while supporting Burma economically. The regional organization publicly approved of the November 2010 elections as a step forward for Burma, despite the criticisms of international election analysts. This would have been an excellent time for ASEAN to test its influence within Burma by demanding more significant changes to the election process.
Based on the conflict analysis it is clear that something needs to be done for the deeply divided society of Myanmar. For the past forty years there has been conflict over the strict ruling system within Burma. The regime does not have the capacity to provide for its citizens, and due to the regimes use of military to maintain control it does not have the legitimacy for sustained rule.
The international community has a responsibility to intervene in some capacity for the sake of international security and human rights norms. Non-military intervention in Burma to ensure human rights protection through a peaceful political transition is an approach worth consideration. A thoughtfully orchestrated process of economic and political strategy would keep nations from undermining one another in their approach to change in Burma.
More specifically, the United States should examine its policies of sanctions and commit to maintaining active support of the civil society in Burma. All nations should begin following the current examples of the EU Common Position and Japan to offer such close engagement with Myanmar as to reward for positive change and discourage from authoritarian behavior.
Without cooperative intervention on higher level, international voices and efforts on Burma’s behalf will be wasted. The nation cannot be sustained on humanitarian assistance and the state capacity is insufficient also. While an adequate political solution could take years to find, preventive diplomacy may lessen the severity and likelihood of violent conflict while building state capacity and civil society in Burma.
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