Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics including, Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire. He served as a Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.
What is the history of Burma? How did the military leaders come into power?
Burma went through what a lot of developing countries did. It got independence after World War II. It was a fragile democracy with a population that was divided ethnically, with a conflictbetween minorities and majority. In the early 1960’s, the military took power. Fairly common, they ousted the prime minister and they held on ever since. The junta has gone through several changes in the general’s command; they renamed themselves. We are talking about roughly fifty years of military rule. It’s been an extraordinary record. It’s been a very bad period for the Burmese people.
What were some of the attempts to overthrow the junta over the years?
There have been civilian protests, and indeed the junta was stupid enough to hold the elections a couple of years ago. That’s when Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won virtually all of the seats in parliament. She would’ve had taken power, but then they voided the elections. There were streets protests a few years ago in Bangkok led by some of the Buddhist monks. Those are put down brutally. There was also a long running insurgency out in the hillside, especially in the East and North, with a number of different ethnic groups seeking autonomy. All of those have gone on. The junta has responded with great violence; very big military fighting all of the insurgencies and putting down any democracy movement. There’s been repression basically for that entire fifty year period. While occasionally there are ups and downs, it hasn’t change a lot until the last year or so.
What was Burma’s relationship with China during that period?
Well, Burma has moved much closer to China during the recent years because of sanctions by the United States and Europe. Basically, Burma had nowhere else to go. Some Asian countries that are friends with America still have relations with Burma, but basically Burma moved very close to China. Now, it appears that Burma might regret that embrace. China is not always the friendliest partner. It wants something for what it gives. It’s not very charitable. I think part of it is the loosening we see in Burma today is a decision by the junta that stepped back and also stepped back from China. And that’s very good and I think for the West and very good for geopolitics.
What made Burma open up?
A lot of us would love to know exactly what was going on within that place. It’s been an isolated place without a lot of good access for Westerners, in terms of trying to understand the decision-making. We knew there was a junta. We knew there was kind of a civilian elite tided into them, but beyond that we are trying to understand who’s making the decisions. A few years ago, there was kind of a coup within the junta where they took out the prime minister, whose views were more reform minded. So there long have been battles within the military. I suspect that it is a combination. The senior generals were ready to retire. They probably wanted to preserved their positions they looked around the world and seen places where violent protests arise. You often don’t do very well if you lose control. I think they also realized that Burma had fallen dramatically behind the rest of the world and the region. Even in next door Thailand; they have their problems, but people in Thailand live far better lives than in Burma. And I suspect that there has been a sense of a new generation coming up within the military; younger officers who were less enthusiastic about a fifty years dictatorship, and they didn’t have anything invested in that kind of regime that came in fifty years ago. They also might’ve been infected by some Western values and desire for more openness. And it can also be; it might’ve been some folks who really wanted to improve the status of the Burmese people. It’s a very underdeveloped place. They needed access to the West. They needed access to America and Europe. My guess is all of those probably came together. We still don’t know exactly how the power lines run in Burma, but the changes have been dramatic in the right direction.
What makes up Aung San Suu Kyi’s support in Burma?
Obviously, you need more than one woman. She is truly courageous. This is someone who won the Novel Peace Prize. She’s been under house arrest for most of the last twenty years until her release. She was not able to visit her husband who died of cancer – he was British – because she was afraid they wouldn’t let her back in the country. She has sons and it was years before she saw them. She’s somebody who sacrificed greatly. Her party, the National League for Democracy, there are a lot of activists; many of whom have also been released, but there are still some political prisoners. We are in a process here, and she’s been surrounded by a lot of people who work very hard. And there are other activists that they aren’t part of her party. Democracy in Burma is going to require a lot of effort from a lot of different people. She’s a very powerful symbol. Her release was the most important single thing the junta could do to tell the world: “We’ve changed”. Two years ago, she was under house arrest. Today, she’s out free. She can travel the world. That is a symbol to the world. And we’ve just seen the parliament, for example, has impeached the constitutional judges because the judge’s rule limits parliamentary power. This is a parliament dominated by the government’s military related party. That suggests maybe there’s a little bit of independence even within that party. We have to see how that plays out, but to me that’s a good sign. They have taken censorship off; so all of these things are going to require the effort of journalists, of activists, of civil society, of businessman. She’s the symbol, but she’s not enough.
What are some of the challenges that lay ahead for Burma?
To me the most important challenge Burma faces is: How do you maintain a reform process and not scare the military into stepping back? My guess is that within the military, there’s a range of opinion. One of the vice presidents was recently forced to step down. I think it was allegedly reasons of health. He was viewed as a hard liner. The man replacing him is at least perceived as not so hard line. I think what’s important is that the opposition be able to move forward in press for democracy; with elections to come in the few years, which hopefully will be fully free where the military accepts that and make the gains irreversible. We don’t want to have a situation where the military suddenly feels threatened and decides to step back in or hardline factions to step back in. That requires a lot of effort. It’s dangerous. It’s a dangerous period for Burma just as I think in places like Egypt. Turkey has gone through this. This democratization; how do you work with these people? That’s probably number one. Number two, I think, is bringing development and economic growth to Burma. It’s a very poor country. They need investment, but to bring investment they need to change their own laws. And they also have to convince the West that democratization is permanent. The U.S. and Europe are moving forward lifting sanctions, but if you want to bring in full investment you got to convince the West that this is definitely the path Burma is committed to, whatever comes in future elections.
What are the U.S. interests in Burma?
Well, a lot of countries around the world don’t matter hugely in terms of strategy. The U.S. is not going be threatened by whoever runs Burma. Nevertheless, Burma is in Southeast Asian. It’s next door to an American ally, Thailand. It’s next to door to China. We worry about the influence from China and other countries in Asia do as well. I think the number one strategy is you want to have countries in the region that are prepared to be independent of China. I’m not interested in containing China per se, but I like the idea that countries cooperate with one another to ensure that China behaves in proper way; that China’s ambitions are constrained. Burma could play a role of that. If Burma is in Chinas pocket, that enhances Chinese power in the region. If Burma is suddenly working with India, which is also next door, working more with Thailand, working more with Japan; that adds kind of a geopolitical restraint, which useful in a larger game if you are looking U.S. – China relations. There are also important humanitarian issues at stake. Americans do care about people around the world. This is country where people have suffered from war, lack of development, poverty, oppression, lack of democracy, religions repression. I have traveled travelled there with a group that deals with religious persecution issues. It’s been a real issue there. So for being able to see democracy arising in Burma and the transformation there, there are a range of humanitarian issues that suddenly show that children can have a better future. I know families can feed their families. You might see again the role of the civil society and religion flourish. All of these things, I think, are potential for the future. So there are reasons for both the U.S. government and the American population to be concern about this country.
What are U.S. economic interests in Burma?
Definitely, Burma can certainly host a lot of U.S investment. There are resources that U.S. companies can be involved with. Nevertheless, location is going to give that advantage to Southeast Asia or China, but the U.S. can be a player there if America wants to maintain access and influence in Asia. If it wants to expand its economic growth, Burma is the place where U.S. can expand its economic relations.
How do you view NATO today? Do you view it as a dramatically different type of organization than when it was started?
I think the challenge for NATO is what do we needed it for? It was created a half century ago during the Cold War. The common at the time was that NATO’s role was to keep the Russians out, Germans down, and the Americans in. None of that seems very relevant anymore. Russians may not been the most pleasant people under Mr. Putin, but they don’t plan invading Western Europe. Germany is paying for the European Union and is actually running it. And America is involved all over the world. So what do you do with the quintessential ant-Soviet alliance without the Soviet Union? It’s really turned into this kind of fight wars elsewhere or outside of our area. I think it raises very real questions of why we have that and if that’s useful for the countries; or are we getting member states involve in conflicts that they never would get involved in, because they are being dragged in by NATO?
Does NATO play a role in advancing U.S. interest?
The problem with NATO is that you don’t need NATO to get European cooperation. The U.S. fully benefits for European cooperation. It got in in Afghanistan. It got it in Iraq. In Afghanistan, it got it technically through NATO, but most of those countries could’ve provided those troops through another umbrella, including the United Nations. I think the problem for the U.S. is that it’s defending a Europe that can defend itself. Its effort is going to depress European defense spending because Europeans don’t have to spend the money. We’ve gotten pulled into something like Libya, where I saw no American interest involved. It was primarily French and British efforts, which I think serve European interest far more than American interest. I think the U.S. at a time of fiscal crises has to step back and say: “What we can afford?” I think the starting point is to say that you don’t have to defend prosperous and popular allies. What you want to do is to have a good cooperative relationship in the future areas where your interests cross. We should, I think, step back a little from having that tied alliance relationship where we are dragging each other into conflicts that neither is very happy about.
Does NATO have a role in enforcing humanitarian intervention or Responsibility to Protect?
I think the hardest intervention cases are the humanitarian ones because they really target the heartstrings, but they can be problematic as well. How long are you going to get involved? We saw in Iraq the disaster, something that was sold in part as humanitarian. A couple of hundred Iraqis probably died in that conflict; very hard to do right. I don’t see any need for NATO to try to do humanitarian intervention. What we are seeing within NATO today is the reduction of military spending in all of the NATO states, including Britain and France which have there primary military there. We are getting to a point where the small European states can’t even support much of peacekeeping operation; and it’s going to be hard even for the Germans, the British, and the French make much of an effort. The U.S. is taking on an even larger role. I don’t see that NATO is helping in that context. We need to pick our friends if we have a particular fight, and realize this organizational structure isn’t very useful in the future.
In 2013, where is focus of the U.S. defense budget?
I think the U.S. is a period of transition. The administration is talking about a pivot towards Asia. There’s a growing sense that Asia matters more economically. Also the potential strategic threat, if there is one, is more China than Russia. So I think we are going to see a shift in terms of military recourses. We’ve already seen a bit of a movement. I suspect there’s going be a major a downgrade in Europe, without be too vocal about because our European allies won’t be happy. But I think this is going to be part of the process in the coming years, and I think even if Mitt Romney is elected, he’s going to face the same pressure in terms of budget. They’re going to start making choices and I think that choice will be Asia over Europe.
Is the shift in technology the right way to go?
I think what the U.S. needs to do is to maintain technological superiority. It needs to be able to ensure that it if has a serious opponent, it can defeat that opponent; technology matter a lot with that. I think the real challenge is: What are you going to do with the army? It’s hard to imagine a large ground war. I think the U.S. officials are really giving up any enthusiasm for nation building, a decade long occupation creating new democracies in central Asia, that of thing. I suspect that manpower is going a big challenge in the future. You have to have some hardware. They are going to stretch out programs. They are going to rethink some of the weapons they are buying. They want to maintain that technological edge. What do you do with the manpower? Manpower is expensive. You have to train people, put them around the world, move their families. There is where I suspect some of the caps are going to come and probably be focused on the army.
What about the cost of soldiers returning from the Army?
We are going to have a long-term commitment to anybody who’s being injured. That’s one of the huge costs coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq. We are going to be paying for this for very a long time. Those wars are unfunded liabilities. We have people suffering grievous injuries. We have an obligation of take care of them; that’s absolute and that’s going to continue. The question is can you help people who don’t face those kind of difficulties? How do you get them on the job market quickly? Because that’s what they are going to be looking to do; if you come back from your tour, you can go on that job market. This is a bad job market. It’s hard for veterans as it is for everyone else. That’s going to be a challenge because you want to treat your people right. So that’s another one of these issues, and another reason to get our economy right to help create more opportunities for returning vets.
How has U.S. policy changed on Egypt?
Egypt has long been in an embarrassment for the U.S. It shows the dual nature, the schizophrenic nature, of American foreign policy. On the one hand, we want stability, so over the years the U.S. government happily worked with dictators. On the other hand, we like democracy. So the U.S. government routinely talks about human rights and democracy. Well, Egypt was America’s friend for decades; a dictatorial regime ran by Mr. Mubarak. His predecessor signed peace with Israel. Mr. Mubarak kept that peace. We gave him a lot of money. He was very repressive. No real democracy, religious liberties weren’t good. I mean any number of things that we can complain about. We stuck by him. So when the protest arose against, the initial administration’s reaction was: “This is our friend,”and then it said “Well, there needs to be a change over time.” And as the protests continue, the administration finally said: “I guess we are for democracy”. It was very embarrassing that the Egyptian people saw that. They know the lack of enthusiasm. Today we face the concern where someone from the Muslim brotherhood is president. What kind of a government; what kind of society is his party likely to bring forward? If they dominate the legislative, they dominate the presidency. He was just in a power struggle with the military; he appears to have won. So I think his party may very well have monopoly power in Egypt for some years to come. So the administration is facing a challenge there. We like democracy. He was popularly elected, but is he going to protect liberty? Is he going to protect minorities? We don’t know. So then this kind of schizophrenia continues.
What about the aid packages?
A problem with American foreign aid policy is, for the most part, we give money to every government irrespective of resolute, irrespective of regime. We gave money to the Mubarak dictatorship for years. We thought we bought stability. Now, we want to give money to the new government, presumably we think we are buying influence, or hoping for stability, or hoping for something. My guess is that at this point it doesn’t matter a lot what the aid is. I mean that is just a side that is just going to do better, if they deregulate, if they are able to develop their own industries. A lot of this, it’s been government controlled. It’s been military controlled. They need to an internal economic transformation. And unfortunately, foreign aid typically does help with that. And I’m very concerned that we’re just trying to entrench another set of leaders. If these people have trouble; if they start taking the authoritarian control, what do we do? So my suggestion would be step back from aid. America has a good reason financially to cut back on aid. We need to recognize that there’s a history of foreign aid that hasn’t worked very well. And if just give to every government over time for every reason; you are going to have very little influence with it.