Why The West Can’t Topple Burma’s Junta

Burma’s been in the news a lot this last year—first with the huge monks’ protests, then with the strike of Cyclone Nargis. In the first case the monks were put down brutally, in the second case the government allowed in little foreign aid for cyclone victims, and did very little itself. Humanitarian disaster upon humanitarian disaster and the West has pretty much been able to do nothing but look on in dismay and mouth empty words.

The reasons why are simple enough, and they are symbolized by nothing better than Burma’s new capital of Naypyidaw, which separates the Generals from those they rule.

As the New York Times writes:

Naypyidaw is Myanmar’s new capital, built in secret by the ruling generals and announced to the public two and a half years ago, when it was a fait accompli.

A nine-hour drive north from the former capital, Yangon, it looks like nothing else in this impoverished country, where one out of three children is malnourished and many roads are nothing more than dirt tracks.

Workers in Naypyidaw (pronounced nay-pee-DAW) are building multilevel, flower-covered traffic circles. In a country of persistent power shortages and blackouts, street lamps brightly illuminate the night, like strings of pearls running up and down scrub-covered hills. On the city’s outskirts there is a modern and tidy zoo complete with an air-conditioned penguin house…

It would be easy to write off the move to Naypyidaw as an inconsequential caprice of the secretive generals who have been in power for 46 years. But the transfer of the entire bureaucracy to this relatively remote location, where malaria is still endemic and cellphones do not work, has drained the country’s finances and widened the gulf between the rulers and the ruled.

Even the most charitable observers of Myanmar’s junta portray its members as out of touch. Now they are literally out of sight: the generals live and work in a guarded zone of Naypyidaw that is off limits to all but senior officers.

But this is more than symbolic. Naypyidaw works for the government because the government does not need most of the people in Burma. They just need an army that is willing to put down their fellow citizens, and they need the money to pay for that army. Since in a country like Burma men are cheap and can be paid very little, that isn’t that expensive.

You run this on two levels. On one level it’s like feudalism—you take the food and goods you need, that the peasants can produce, from them and you use it to feed your army and provide it with very basic necessities.  Keep the troops separate from the population so they don’t develop sympathies with them, and use troops from different regions to crush dissent.

For weaponry and the advanced communications that make armies run, you need foreign currency. In Burma’s case that comes primarily from natural gas, sold to Thailand; from timber (teak) sold to Thailand and China, and from opium and gems sold to everyone. This doesn’t provide a ton of money, but it does provide enough money that you can buy the foreign weapons and technology that you need (for example, a test reactor from the Russians. Yes, another backwards hole that is trying to get nukes, that’s Burma).

Since those industries don’t require a heck of a lot of workers, since your need for food and so on is relatively minor and since tax from your citizens isn’t the main source of your real budget (what can you buy with Burmese currency that is worth having or which you can’t just take anyway) you really don’t need most of the rest of the people in the country. They aren’t producing anything you need—neither money nor goods.

So when they revolt, crushing the revolt is a no-brainer. Use as much brutality as it takes and if it results in a sullen population who hates your guts, who cares? You don’t need them to be good workers. You don’t need them to invest in the future. You don’t need them to be happy. You don’t need most of them, period, you just need a percentage of them as soldiers and another bunch to work the export industries, and they can do that under the muzzle, if necessary.

So what you wind up with is an elite which does not need its citizenry. Their power and their wealth is not based on having a prosperous population, the way that a modern nation’s are. Instead it is based on controlling a few key economic activities, and paying a small number of the poor to keep the rest of the poor in their place.

This model, while extreme, should be recognizable to Americans and other westerners. The rise of the financial class and the disassociation of the prosperity of western elites from their own population’s prosperity, while larval compared to Burma is based on the same impulse and the same raw calculus of benefit and power.

Does this model, in Burma, mean that the situation is hopeless? Yes, and no. It means that if you’re serious, you have to cut the money ties. And that means you have to convince Thailand to find another source for timber and natural gas, convince China to stop buying timber as well, and crack down hard on gems and the opium trade. Governments like the Burmese one fall when they can no longer afford to pay the troops and pay other militarily capable forces in the country off. Till then nothing will work.

That means that there is a cost to tumbling Burma’s government. It can be measured in dollars and Yuan and Baht, and it is not insignificant. But it also isn’t huge, and if the West wasn’t completely bankrupt, it could be done if it was considered worthwhile. But when the US government runs only courtesy of Chinese lending, well, the US doesn’t have a lot of money, or leverage, to spare. And the Chinese certainly aren’t going to intervene on their own: China has good reasons to feel that a country’s internal affairs are its internal affairs and no business of anyone else. Nor is Thailand going to voluntarily stop buying natural gas from Burma, power outs aren’t an option and natural gas isn’t easy to buy and transport from elsewhere.

So, while it would be theoretically possible to topple Burma, it isn’t going to happen till the West sorts out its own finances and until the technology exists to get off natural gas. Which is to say, the Burmese are going to be suffering for quite a while yet.

When we fail to deal with our own problems we become incapable of helping others with theirs.

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