David Steinberg is a Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. Previously he was a Director for Philippines, Thailand, and Burma Affairs during his time of service to the United States Agency for International Development. He is the author of several books including, Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence.
What is the name situation? Is it “Burma?” Or is it “Myanmar?”
The first question that everybody asks is, “What about the name? Burma or Myanmar?” and really it is both. The official name of the country on independence was the “Union of Burma,” but in Burmese it was the “World Country of Myanmar.” It’s an old term, Myanmar, going back to the 12th century. The military changed the name in ’89, the opposition didn’t like it because they said, “We weren’t consulted.” So Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition basically said, “We’ll keep Burma.” The U.S. backed Aung San Suu Kyi and continues to back her, so they continued to use Burma. The U.N. and everybody else, almost every other country in the world, uses Myanmar.
Historically, how did the junta in Burma gain power in 1962?
The Junta military have been in power since 1962, the coup. But actually they had considerable power before that, because there was a constitutional coup from 1958 to 1960. But in 1962, the supposition by General Ne Win, who was in charge of the army, was that the minorities were going to try and leave the union of Burma; he formed a coup to prevent that from happening.
To the government and the militaries, the most important position is always the union of the country. Now in fact, since that period, there have been private resources released that indicate that the military had planned a coup before that time. So the ostensive reason was the reunion of the country, in ’88 you had a failed government of the military. And the military had another coup to back up the military government that had nearly lost power.
What happened in the 1988 uprising and why was it different?
The 1988 uprising should be seen in the context of East Asia of that time, remember in 1986 you had people power in the Philippines. 1988 you had the failed People’s Revolution in Burma and in 1988 you had Tiananmen in China.
These are all interrelated in the sense that they were expressions of concern from the bottom about what was going on in the top. In Burma, you had a failed socialist government; the economy was in terrible shape and there was enormous economic and political frustration under an authoritarian and single-party socialist government based on the Eastern European model.
What happened was, there was an incident of college students who had a fight in a tea house that had nothing to do with politics. The police came in, beat up, and killed students; you had all this frustration pouring out in the streets. So you had, during the period march to September 1988, a tremendous sort of opening; the Rangoon Spring you may call it.
And then on Sept 18, 1988, the military had a coup return power in the military. In my view, since 1962, the military has always said that they will continue to have power, and this is true today. Now that power may be direct rule, as it was from 1962-74 and from 1988-2011, or indirect power through a party they control, which was ’74-’88. And they still control essential power since the new government came in March 2011.
How did Aung San Suu Kyi emerge politically?
Aung San Suu Kyi has a unique position in the country. Her father was the George Washington of Burma; negotiated independence from the British and was assassinated before independence actually took place. Her mother had been ambassador to India for a period and Aung San Suu Kyi grew up, for part of her life, in India.
Her mother became ill in 1988 and Aung San Suu Kyi, who was living with her husband and kids in Oxford [United Kingdom], returned to Burma to take care of her mother. And that was the time of this political unrest, or the people’s revolution, and she played a very active role. I think from the very beginning, she felt that if there was an appropriate time, she would do something for her country.
I think she told her husband, Michael Aris, that when they got married. So this has been sort of on the back of her mind. She immediately assumed a role when she talked to people in very good Burmese. Partly because of her father’s legacy and then because of her own capacities, she began to attract attention. There was this frustration built up about the military in the past and she verged on the edge of that frustration and used it very effectively.
What was the military’s reaction when they saw Aung San Suu Kyi gaining support?
Well, basically they put her under house arrest; they didn’t treat her badly in physical terms. She was in her family’s house on the edge of Inya Lake. It’s an old, decaying place but very spacious. But at the same time, they vilified her in the media. They refused to used her name, because if you use it legally it is Aung San Suu Kyi; but the name Aung San Suu Kyi evokes the memory of Aung San and they didn’t want that because that gave her a certain amount of legitimacy in the public eye. So they called her “The Lady,” as there was a biography written of her called “The Lady.” Now, this has all changed since the liberalization that took place after 2011.
Could you please discuss the significance of the elections of 2010?
The elections of Nov 10th  were regarded by the United States as a sham, completely corrupt. They were certainly unfair, there was not a free and fair election by any stretch of the imagination; the government party won the majority of the seats. And so, people dismissed what the new government was going to be, including the U.S.
And then, former PM Thein Seinn becomes the president and on March 30th 2011, he gives a speech that any democrat could give in the country; amazing, for the first time since 1962, basically fifty years. What does he say? He says, “Our education system has collapsed, our health system has collapsed, we have too much corruption, we are not treating the minorities well, we have got to reform and do something.” Never has that happened before, since the civilian government.
And so he began to take steps and these steps have been very wide. They included everything from releasing political prisoners, to forming labor unions, having demonstrations, cutting down on censorship, inviting dissidents back into the country, and trying to deal with the minorities in a more agreeable way.
These have been really quite remarkable reforms. “Are they real?” people ask. Some of the people who feel the military government, which evolved into the present government, is not really legitimate; they say, “No, these are phony.” But it’s not true; I think he is sincere. When I met with him, that seemed quite obvious. But also, the question is about the capacity to deliver on all of this. He is sincere, and reformers have assumed an even greater role in the cabinet which took place just recently.
This is important, but the capacity to implement reforms — after all there is going to be an election in 2015 — that is going to be a critical election. Probably President Thein Seinn will not run again, he is older and he is not well, supposedly. And the question then will be: How much of these reforms can be instituted before 2015?
Education is a long term proposition for reform. Minorities, they’ve done a lot of work, but there is still a lot of work to go. The attitude of people who have been central control, so authoritatively over the past fifty years, getting to go to a new position is not easy, emotionally or intellectually. There are a lot of people who say, “I don’t want to take any strong action in favor of the reforms because they might switch later on.”
And the foreign people, people in the NGO [non-governmental organization] community, people in the official aid communities from governments, multinational aid agencies, they are trying to gear up to do something. But again, you can’t do things very quickly because there is very little capacity. The restored educational system, the people who have been educated, a lot of them are leaving the country. Even if they are invited back, not all of them are going to come back. So there is a lack of a capacity to implement, whether you are talking about higher education, health statistical planning, administration; these issues are very, very important.
What is the United States policy towards Burma with President Thein Seinn in power?
The policy has shifted markedly and you have to go back and start from the beginning. That policy under both Presidents Clinton and Bush was, in fact, regime change. It said in the reports from the State Department to the Congress, every six months: go back and honor the results of the May 1990 elections, which the opposition swept, and then we will talk to you. Which means get out of power and then we will talk to you,;which of course was a non sequitur and nobody, that I knew at least, would believe that the military would do that.
So we imposed sanctions to try and enforce this in a series of three steps. That was basically unsound, because — I was against the sanctions from the very beginning because I know enough about these people to know that they won’t give into sanctions — this is a highly nationalistic, patriotic country. They cannot be seen to be subservient to foreigners.
The Obama administration came in and they did a study with six countries, of which Burma was one, and they said, “Let’s look at this.” And they called it pragmatic engagement which meant that we have to continue the sanctions because congressional relations require that and they weren’t about to mess with the Republicans on Burma, which didn’t really count in public policy terms.
And so they said, “Okay, we will have high level dialogue.” The result was that the Burmese government sent signals that they were interested. The United States send signals back. The United States signed the treaty of amenity in association with ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, in 2009; we wouldn’t have signed that before because of Burma’s entry into it.
So we sent signals, they sent signals, and we began to build this up and its reached fruition with Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma in early December 2011.
How does foreign investment affect the relationship between the United States and Burma?
The foreign investment was first passed in 1988, after the military coup said, “We are moving away from a socialist government. We are going to encourage the private sector, we are going to encourage foreign investment.” Well then, there were the U.S. sanctions, following that there was the opprobrium about that government. So a lot of people didn’t want to invest, and after ’97 they couldn’t make any new investments.
The new law is far more open, there are provisions in the constitutions about nationalization, which, of course, foreign firms are very worried about, given the past history of that country. But Burma is full of natural resources. As the Chinese say, “It is a beggar with a golden bowl.” It has all kinds of natural resources others want; including China, but everyone else as well. We are very interested and have investments in offshore gas; but there is everything from copper, iron, offshore gas, gold, teak, and so forth.
So the problems will be: Does the government know how to deal with foreign firms? Will they take too much investment too quickly, where the result will be that they will be seen as overpowering the Burmese economy? Historically, you need a little bit of knowledge here. Burma went democratic-socialist upon independence in ’47. Why?
Well, it was popular at the London School of Economics, you could argue. But also, the economy was in foreign hands; the British, the Indians, and the Chinese controlled the economy in the colonial period. The Burmese, as I said, are very nationalistic, they wanted to get that economy back under their control. How to do that? Socialism – quite obviously.
That idea is still important. One of the problems that China has with Burma is the fact that China is seen as controlling that economy. And there is a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment in the media and the literature because of this. So the Chinese should be worried, and we should be worried in terms of, we are perceived as being too overpowering in that society.
Please discuss the relationship between China and Burma.
First, China legally has the highest foreign investment of any country. Last year it was over $15 billion dollars; but in fact it is much, much more than that because the Chinese are able to buy Burmese ID cards, come into the country, buy property, and start businesses. The result is that there may be two million illegal Chinese in Burma. They are visible; they are relatively wealthy in a country that is very dangerous in terms of the economy and dangerous in terms of ethnic relations and there has been anti-Chinese violence in 1967 in Burma. There are been anti-Chinese in Indonesia because of the economic control.
So my advice to the Chinese would be to be very careful, control your private sector and their activities, and be very careful about your official investments as well. Make sure that people are compensated adequately for your land that is commandeered for your purposes, and that the people get a share of the benefits. In other words, say you’re creating a hydro-electric dam, some of the electricity needs to go locally, not just all to China for resale there.
On the United States’ side, our policy has been in general very forward and progressive. We have still some problems; one of those problems is that the President in August 2012 signed the continuation of the sanctions and the prohibition on Burmese imports in the United States. At the same time that we have approved investments in Burma, at the same time that we have talked about financial banking reforms and getting rid of those sanctions.
And this is illogical. We talk about helping the country in development, but we haven’t allowed the imports of garments. The last time they were allowed it was $356 million in any one year, not inconsequential and employing tens of thousands of Burmese women in factories. So what we have done is something quite illogical in terms of the ends of our policies – our stated ends. This is a problem for the U.S.
The second thing is, we are small players in terms of financial resources. The Chinese are big. But we have another role that we have not yet freed: and that is our veto at the World Bank and the Asia Development Bank. Now we have allowed them to go in and do studies, but they haven’t started any lending yet. Now there are some technical problems over rears and so forth that can be resolved and I’m sure they will be resolved.
But at the same time, this is where the money really is. So we have to be able to allow that to take place. At the same time we have a tendency to be very arrogant in our policy. We say, “Well, our pressures have allowed these changes to take place.” No. There are plenty of Burmese, highly motivated nationalistic army officers who want to see good change in that country as well.
Until recently they have not been allowed to play a role because there was an authoritative leader, General Than Shwe, who would allow no criticism and would not allow new subjects to be brought to his attention without him first indicating the action. The result was basically, economic decline and homeostasis and a very sad situation for the Burmese people.
Why are foreign countries so eager to invest in Burma?
Well the natural resources of Burma are attractive for foreign investment. Foreign countries want that. Burma is also part of the ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, with ten members. There is trade and other relationships that are important and Burma wants to be part of that. Burma is strategically critical, something that we should remember; Burma sits aside China and India – two potential rivals.
As a former defense minister in India said, “We can take care of Pakistan, but China is ultimately our potential enemy.” China has penetrated, in Indian terms, Burma with access to the Bay of Bengal. India thinks if in Delhi; well Pakistan is a Chinese ally, China is to our North and Burma is a Chinese ally – we are surrounded. And that is dangerous.
Now that doesn’t mean that anything is going to break out right now. But if you have a strategic concern in India, you worry. That is why India changed its policy towards Burma in 1993, possibly from the most anti-military foreign country, in terms of its radio and what not, to one that has now supported that government.
On the other hand, China has its own interests. You may have heard of the Malacca Straits Syndrome. Eighty percent of the imported energy Chinese energy comes through the Malacca Straits. The United States or any one of the countries in the region could blockade those straits. If that were to happen and Chinese industry were to suffer, then there would be large scale urban unemployment in China, which is an explosive political issue that the Chinese are trying desperately to avoid.
So pipelines into Russia, pipelines into Central Asia, pipelines potentially through Pakistan. But also, the two pipelines through Burma, one for natural gas, which Burma has offshore has large reserves of that, and one for crude oil that will come from the Middle East and from Africa.
Are there internal ethnic conflicts or other similar issues going on in Burma?
The central problem of that country is not democracy in my view. It is minority relations. This has been true since independence and no government has resolved this issue. Approximately one-third of the country is made of minorities, two-thirds are ethnic Burmese, 99% of who are Buddhist. Some of the minorities are Christian, some are Muslim, some are Buddhist as well. But the affair of, in some Burmese sense, of sharing of power and resources has never adequately been dealt with in that country. And that is an essential issue that has to be resolved.
And it is the most pressing thing facing that government right now and it has been the most pressing thing since independence. The military in the past has made it worse, they were against federalism and they put in a unitary state where power was in the center. Now you have the beginning of the potential for a little bit of political pluralism with local legislatures in minority areas, what we would say are provincial legislatures, which are potential important elements of pluralism.
And one of the aspects of the development of democracy is a sense of pluralism, the idea that all power is not centralized in one institution or one place. And we are beginning to see the beginning of that happening and that is a critical element of change in that society.
Do the Burmese people think of their country’s shift towards democracy positively?
Well democracy is a very nice word. It means different things. Before this government came in, the military promised a disciplined, flourishing democracy. And whether it was to be democracy the democracy to be flourishing or the discipline was to be flourishing was something that was not very clear. They didn’t want too much. But they recognized that in their own interest, they needed to have some popular participation. They wanted it controlled. The military had always been afraid of what they called “chaos,” and in that country, that is a very important word.
They tried to control the elections, they tried to control the process, but they have offered they prospect of greater political participation. And they have done so with a good bit of openness since the election, which, like I said, were controlled. There were bi-elections on April 1st, 2012. Those bi-elections were held because legally you could not hold a legislative position and a cabinet position. So those that went into the Cabinet had empty seats to be filled.
Those elections were free and fair, and of the forty-five seats open, the opposition, the NLD, got forty-three. Aung San Suu Kyi got one herself. That was important, because in effect, that was an admission by the opposition that the May 1990 elections that they had won were no longer valid, in their own view. So they had accepted this new government, not, of course, vocally, but in what has really happened.
The democracy issue is important, but remember power in that society is very highly personalized. Personalized power means basically that you develop entourages, patron-client relationships, and power means that there is a feeling that if you are not loyal to some individual, you are loyal to some other individual, which is dangerous.
Personalized power means weak institutions, and what you need for democracy are strong intuitions that can withstand change, if in the United States only fifteen percent of the population respect the congress, Congress itself is still important as an institution, even if we don’t respect the guys in it at any particular time. That has not yet happened in that country, this is a process.
Remember, for fifty years, legally you couldn’t read about democracy. They wouldn’t allow imported books, there wasn’t anything in the school system to enable this to happen. So this is a process. Democracy is a process, an evolution, you don’t get an instant in democracy and you will never get the kind of democracy that the U.S. has now learned. Despite saying this is an instant democracy in Egypt or Libya or any other place you want to name. So it has to be considered that way. It is something that builds over time.
What other actions has the Burmese government taken to liberalize?
The marked change, the change since the new government has come in under Thein Seinn under a number of factors. One, he listens, you have access to him. Even Burmese academics can meet with him from time to time. He has sat through a meeting of ordinary people about poverty where they have criticized the government in front of him. This has never happened before. So this is a very great change. Part of it is attitude, part of it is that the former leader Than Shwe is no longer, it seems, relevant, at least at the moment. He ran a dictatorship that was very, very controlled. Part of it is the fact that he has begun to recognize the problems. President Thein Seinn wants to have the military’s reputation improved.
The military has become corrupt, it was not corrupt. The Burmese military in 1958 was a model for other countries according to the international social scientists of the time. Now it is viewed as corrupt. The military reputation internally has been bad. I think he wants to retrieve that good reputation because it always had a high reputation because it was always viewed as fighting for independence against the British.
So as a result, these are motivating factors and there are plenty of people in his military that wanted reform, that couldn’t say a word before. Now they have an opportunity. So the reforms have gone into everything.
There isn’t an aspect of life that has not had some sort of relevant reform, what we need is more legislation that ensures that the reforms are there. We need more insurance that down the line people in the bureaucracy people will pay attention to this and people will respond. So there are lots of questions about the implementations of the reforms. But the motivation, I think, is very clear, the effects have been positive. The problem may be that the expectations of the people are now too high, the expectations of the foreigners may be too high including the United States. How fast can you more? We tend to have expectations on the Burmese governments that we do not apply to other countries around the world, and even in the region.
How has the international community responded to Burma’s liberalization?
The response has been great good. We have been behind the times, but when we stepped in, we speeded up the process. After Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went, other leaders began to come into the country. There was a whole slew of them, hotel rooms were filled, prices went up because everyone wanted to go. Businessmen began coming in to look at the situation. I was told that since January this year, 300 Japanese businessmen visited Burma, 200 Koreans, now the U.S. people are coming in, not in just numbers, but at the same time wanting to see what the situation is.
Now there are problems because they want to make sure things are going to continue, people don’t want to wait until the 2015 elections which will determine the future direction of the government. And that raises the question: If President Thein Seinn doesn’t run again, who does run? There are many in the military, formerly in the military that will want to run, that is very clear. And will Aung San Suu Kyi want to run? And will they be able to change the constitution, the seventy-five percent required and the twenty-five percent active military? Will they be able to change the constitution to enable her, not to run, but to pursue a position of leadership?
What is China’s perception of the changes in Burma?
They don’t feel threatened. China does not feel threatened by Burma. China I think, feels disappointed. In May 2011, President Thein Seinn goes to Beijing and they signed a comprehensive strategic partnership with Burma. The Chinese played that down and said they have a comprehensive strategic partnership with a whole bunch of other countries.
So why is that important to Burma? But it was the first time for Burma. Then what happens in September 2011; the president stops the construction of the Myitsone Dam, this is a $3.6 billion hydroelectric project on the Irawaddy [River] in a very sensitive location that causes an uproar. And he says, “I have listened to public opinion and we’re stopping that at least for my term in office until 2015.” The Chinese are shocked. Supposedly they are not informed in advance, although they may have been. But they may not have believed that Thein Seinn would have done this, that is most likely I think.
So the Chinese have now looked upon this as hurting the relationship, they feel that they can’t trust Burma as much as they have trusted it before. Burma had a unique term, that the Chinese used about that country. It was a feeling of siblings, people from the same womb. They never used that for any other country. There is, in the Yunnan province, a huge Chinese-Myanmar memorial building museum, as an example of this relationship. They have signed a whole set of treaties, a good border agreement that still holds, even though China and the nationalist government of China before that had claimed a large part of Burmese territory. Mao did not like Burmese neutralism; John Foster Douglas didn’t like Burmese neutralism either.
At the same time, that was a very sound policy. So right now, you have China being concerned. But as the same time they recognize something; they would rather have Myanmar bend a bit to public opinion, rather than split and have a revolution. There are two things I think China fears. One is a popular people’s revolution. Two is minority unrest. So if Myanmar can deal with those things in a good way; liberalize a bit, as China has done, economically but keep control politically, I think China would be pleased.
Remember in Asia, there have been only two occasions where change has come from the top. The other societies — Thailand, the Philippines, Korea — change has come from the bottom, forced on the administration at the top. But in Burma it came from the top and in Taiwan it came from the top. That doesn’t mean that the top didn’t understand the ferment below. It has nothing to do with the Arab Spring. It was a recognition by those leaders that, “We need to change for our own purposes, and in order to keep a reasonable control of power.” And I think the Burmese were smart enough to understand this, belatedly, but they were able to do that.
Any other thoughts on Burma?
There is one thing I’d like to mention that people don’t talk about. If we look at the history of military regimes, how do they get out of power? The most successful case is South Korea, where they left power without a murmur, without a demonstration, without a loss of life. So it didn’t take a revolution to get the military out of power in South Korea. What is the situation in Burma? The situation is in contrast to South Korea and other places in that under the civilian government. In 1960 in Burma all avenues of social movement were controlled by the military including the clergy, the private sector, and the military itself. All those have now been controlled by the military.
So what you have is that the military controls all avenues of social mobility. And until that changes, they are going to be in a strong position in that society. The opening of the avenues of social mobility is a critical long term issue that we, as foreigners concerned about that country, ought to be able to address. And we don’t think of it in those terms but we should. And the danger is the private sector. In Korea, the private sector went crazy, as we all know; entrepreneurs all over the place. But what’s happening to the potential private sector in Burma? They would essentially be Chinese, and that is a danger, politically for that country, economically and ethnically.