Spring postponed

11 April 2008

Apr 10th 2008 | YANGON
From The Economist print edition

AS DUSK shrouds the Sule pagoda in central Yangon, the dazzling neon haloes behind many of the Buddhas' heads flash brighter. Before them the devout, kneeling in their sarongs, murmur prayers, light joss-sticks and touch their foreheads to the marble floor. Outside, traffic roars on the city's busiest roundabout. The shrine, housing a hair from the Buddha's head, is one of Myanmar's holiest and some 2,000 years old. But Burmese temples are all works in progress. This one gleams with fresh white paint and gold leaf. In contrast, over the road, the dirty-yellow façade of City Hall is a study in crumbling neglect.

Even in the commercial heart of its largest city, religion remains central to life in Myanmar. Many Burmese felt the country's thuggish junta crossed a line last September, when its soldiers opened fire on monks leading protests against its rule—including some beside the Sule pagoda. It seemed proof that a regime fond of numerology and superstition ruled neither by divine right nor by popular acquiescence, but by force. Nobody knows how many were killed as the protests were quashed; much of Myanmar remains an information chasm. A United Nations rapporteur has said at least 31 died. In Yangon many believe, probably wrongly, that hundreds or thousands did. Suppressing the truth lets all sorts of rumours flourish.

As in 1988, when thousands did die as an anti-government uprising was put down, there was international outrage, followed by fresh sanctions last autumn. A United Nations envoy, Ibrahim Gambari of Nigeria, was sent to Myanmar to convey concern, and thousands joined protest marches round the world. But a few months on, the generals appear as immovable as ever. Indeed, diplomats who have visited them in the remote mountain fastness of their new capital, Naypyidaw, say they are even more confident. A squall has been weathered, and they can return to what they do best: wrecking their country and making a good living out of it.

Over a pricey cappuccino in Mr Brown's, a café just behind City Hall, in a dingy first-floor lounge favoured by courting couples, a young man discusses the protests. He took part in the previous round with a scarf covering his face. But the time, he says, is not right to take to the streets again. He cannot afford to. Many others say the same. He works as a house-painter, earning about $30 a month, and lives in a Yangon suburb with his parents, landless farmers who make about $20 a month each. During the protests he went five days without work or pay. Like almost all his contemporaries, his ambition is to find a job abroad. He could get one in Singapore but would need to pay $3,000 for the privilege, an unimaginable fortune.

Yet, quietly, low-level protests continue. In late March many monks boycotted annual state-run examinations in Buddhist literature. Soldiers have been, in effect, excommunicated. Monks refuse to accept alms from them, denying them karma-enhancing “merit”. And such is the thirst for revenge of many in Yangon that renewed protests are possible at any time. Cloistered in Naypyidaw, the junta may be caught unawares again. “They live in a bubble when they're out,” says one diplomat, “and a bunker when they're not.”

Repression continues, too. Many monks are still in their villages, where they were sent after the unrest. At a monastery in Pakokku, where the beating of monks last September played a big part in fanning the flames of protest, more than a third have yet to return. Some of those locked up during the protests are still detained—perhaps 1,000, alongside 1,100 long-term political prisoners. Others are still being arrested. On March 29th six young people were detained for staging a peaceful rally against the draft constitution the junta wants to foist on Myanmar. Another protester, Ohn Than, who was arrested last August while staging a silent sit-in to protest against fuel-price rises, was sentenced this month to life imprisonment. Some protest leaders are still in hiding, planning the next round. Others have fled to Thailand.

The official press remains laughably propagandist. (“Commander, Minister view thriving mung, sunflower plantations” was one recent front-page story in the New Light of Myanmar, the junta's English-language daily.) Access to foreign news is limited. But a threat this year to ban satellite dishes by imposing extortionate licence fees was not carried out. Perhaps the generals feared that losing the right to watch English football—a tea-shop passion—would have been the final straw.

Internet connections are at best patchy, and almost non-existent at times of tension, such as during last month's visit to Yangon by Mr Gambari. Foreign journalists are not allowed into the country, unless they pretend to be tourists. A number do. After a purge of the intelligence services in 2004, the immigration authorities appear to have mislaid their files.

A vote the army cannot lose

Tension will mount again next month. In its one gesture to political reform, the junta has said it will hold a referendum on the new constitution. This week it announced the date—May 10th—and published the draft, putting copies of the 194-page document on sale. If the vote goes ahead, and the draft is approved by 50% of voters, the junta says multiparty elections would follow in 2010. On “Armed Forces Day”, March 27th, Than Shwe, the senior general in the junta, promised he would then hand over power to a civilian government. The regime is waging a propaganda campaign to promote a “yes” vote. In big letters, as if speaking slowly to a classroom of dim children, the New Light pointed out that, if the draft is not approved by 2010, elections will be delayed. “If so, it will take longer for the nation to exercise democracy.”

Not, of course, that democracy is really on offer. “Guidelines” agreed after 14 years of aimless rumination by a committee appointed to take the generals' dictation appeared last September. They made clear that some of the main features of military dictatorship would persist. The army chief would have the power to intervene in politics at will and several ministries would be reserved for army officers, as would 25% of seats in both houses of parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained opposition leader, would be excluded from politics, as the widow of a foreigner. The generals seem to have retreated, however, from a provision in an earlier version of the draft in which any amendment of the constitution would need 75% of the votes in parliament. Instead, it would have to be approved by 50% of the popular vote.

“The issue”, says Mark Canning, Britain's ambassador in Yangon, “is not Clause A, B or C. It's the whole superstructure of intimidation that hangs over it.” There is no dialogue with the opposition, whose most important members are locked up. And, under the law, criticising the convention that drafted the constitution is punishable by up to 20 years in jail.

Miss Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, has called for a “no” vote. Exiled activists and monks advocate a boycott. Many critics of the regime who used to think any change was better than none have changed their minds since last September's violence. However, a resounding “yes” vote seems inevitable. The junta surely will not repeat the mistake it made in 1990, when it held an election and was astonished to be routed. Miss Suu Kyi was already in detention. Yet the League won more than 60% of the votes and 80% of the seats, even doing well in areas dominated by soldiers.

The League fears that, before or after the referendum, it might be banned. Already its organisation has been whittled down to little more than a head office in Yangon. The parliament that emerges in 2010 may include a handful of token opposition politicians. But it will probably be dominated by soldiers, by the junta's cronies—urban businessmen and rural landowners—and by members of a new political party the junta is planning to form. Its nucleus would be the “Union Solidarity and Development Association” (USDA), a pro-junta group formed in 1993. USDA is one of a number of ill-defined “mass social organisations” that claim over 20m members—presumably by pressganging students, civil servants and others to join up. It is best known for a hard core of white-shirted thugs, used for pro-junta rallies.

The parliament would also include representatives of the “ceasefire groups”, the dozen or so ethnic insurgencies on Myanmar's borders with which the junta has reached truces. Some groups, such as the Karen National Union, fight on. These wars have dragged on since independence in 1948. In his book on Myanmar, “The River of Lost Footsteps”, Thant Myint-u argues that the West tends to see the country as the seat of a thwarted Eastern European-style people-power revolution. But it is in fact a war-torn disaster area, like Afghanistan or Cambodia. The constitution, he says, would at least formalise a sort of peace with some of its insurgents.

It would be wildly optimistic to hope that creating a parliamentary system of the sort the junta seems to envisage might, over time, bring pluralism. But the process does at least imply some change in Myanmar's predicament. And, as Miss Suu Kyi used to say, Myanmar is like a frozen river: it looks still, but who knows what turbulence is roiling the waters under the ice?


For most Burmese, the predicament is economic as well as political. Freedoms have been trampled on for decades. And making a living is actually getting harder. Last year, as in 1988, it was an economic grievance—an increase in the fuel price as subsidies were slashed—that sparked political unrest. It is not that the economy is on the point of collapse. It collapsed long ago. Those eking out a living in the rubble are still vulnerable to aftershocks.

Collapse is not immediately evident in Yangon. There are ugly shanty towns and slums. But busy streets, a few swanky hotels and shops, advertisement-filled business journals and some palatial mansions in the leafy hills testify to a thin but not insignificant layer of middle-class comfort—and a rare splash of grotesque wealth. Until the 1990s, Yangon seemed frozen in its colonial past. Almost the only cars on its broad avenues were ancient, patched-up sedans. Ne Win, the dictator who led the army into power in 1962, pursued a “Burmese Road to Socialism” of autarky, isolation and utter stagnation. After the 1988 uprising the generals allowed a partial opening up, and a minority has prospered.

Unbidden, a taxi-driver takes a detour to drive past the high gates of a palace he says belongs to Tay Za, the regime's most prominent business crony. Beyond the reinforced grille half-a-dozen shiny new sports cars can be glimpsed. “Dirty money,” snarls the driver, alleging it comes from Myanmar's big drugs trade (mainly, these days, methamphetamines rather than heroin). But when it tightened sanctions on Mr Za in February, America's Treasury called him just an “arms dealer and financial henchman” of the junta.

Underpinning the wealth of the elite is more than drugs and guns. Its biggest legal export is of natural gas to Thailand. India and China are also hungrily eyeing other oil and gas reserves, and already the generals can relish the prospect of a windfall from a planned pipeline to China. The Thai sales earned an estimated $2.7 billion last year, 45% of total exports. But this neither trickles down nor creates many jobs. The junta spends the money on itself, its arsenal and its absurd new capital. By contrast, a small garment-export industry has been destroyed by Western government sanctions and consumer boycotts, putting an estimated 100,000 people out of work.

So, beyond agriculture, there are few jobs. And in the countryside life is ever grimmer. A survey late last year by the government and the United Nations Development Programme found that of a population of about 53m, 30% lived below the poverty line. Infant mortality rates were high, at 76 per 1,000 live births. The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) says that 32% of children under five are malnourished. Of children enrolled in primary school, 57% drop out.

Feeding itself should be the least of Myanmar's problems. Burma, as it was until the junta renamed it in 1989, was once the ricebowl of Asia. Even today, and with rice in shorter supply across the continent, it produces a national rice surplus. Yet many of its 14 states or divisions have deficits. In northern Rakhine food shortages are perennial and malnutrition rife. There are also deficits in the “Central Dry Zone” and in Shan state, where the eradication of opium-poppy fields has impoverished farmers. Rice distribution is disrupted by pigheaded divisional commanders clinging on to their surpluses, and by army restrictions on internal traffic. So, in what one development worker calls a “heresy”, the WFP is helping feed Myanmar.

Alarmingly, despite agricultural plenty, Myanmar has the classic conditions for a famine: acute poverty, poor or non-existent flows of information and crazy policies. In one cackhanded intervention in agriculture, the junta in 2006 ordered every farmer with an acre (0.4 hectares) of land to plant “physic nuts” (jatropha) around the edge of his plot. It was so keen on the crop that it also set up special plantations. The idea was to make biofuels to meet Myanmar's energy shortage—even much of Yangon spends most evenings in darkness. But Myanmar lacks the refineries to turn the plants into fuel. The policy has been cited by many refugees pitching up at the Thai border as one reason for their flight: typically, the junta has been dragooning farmers into working for no pay in its jatropha plantations, so it becomes even harder to make a living.

Where Myanmar boils over

Burma was a crossroads of Asia. Myanmar's isolation is a new phenomenon, and its borders still provide a safety valve of sorts. That is especially true of Thailand, which has absorbed perhaps as many as 2m Burmese immigrants. Some analysts suggest that a sharp downturn in the Thai economy, closing that valve, might cause an explosion in Myanmar.

Even if economic hardship provokes another outburst of popular unrest, however, there is little reason to think the junta cannot handle it. It has about 500,000 soldiers, twice the number in 1988, despite the subsequent ceasefires in many of the insurgencies it was fighting. And the army has so far proved willing to shoot civilians—even monks—if ordered to.

Before the purge in 2004 of Khin Nyunt, the intelligence chief who was then prime minister, it was possible to perceive policy rifts in the junta's ranks. Some seemed to favour a cautious opening to the West, even if it meant talking to Miss Suu Kyi. Some analysts believe the junta is still divided: over the succession to Than Shwe, said to be ill, though he looked hale in March; over the alleged rivalry with his number two, Maung Aye; and over the transition to “civilian rule”. This seems plausible. But to hope for a mutiny, or self-destruction by the army, is wishful thinking. Its generals are probably too afraid of hanging separately not to hang together.

Some of the students who fled to the Thai border in 1988 expected to return, like Aung San, Miss Suu Kyi's father and Burma's liberation hero, as part of a conquering foreign army. One theory to explain the junta's bizarre move to Naypyidaw in 2005 is that, after the war in Iraq, it too feared invasion.

Now, veterans of the exile movement have almost given up hope of concerted diplomatic pressure, let alone military action, against the regime. People power, says one, is the only hope. At present that suggests only failure and bloodshed. And the outside world is certainly in disarray. The West favours sanctions and punishment; but Myanmar's fellow members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as India and, above all, China, hope their continued engagement with the junta will win them influence. China did indeed seem to persuade the generals to receive Mr Gambari and institute a dialogue with Miss Suu Kyi.

Than Shwe, however, would not even meet Mr Gambari on his most recent visit, last month. The West, meanwhile, has few levers of influence left. In part this is a result of having followed Miss Suu Kyi's own wishes. In the late 1990s, when the conditions of her detention were briefly eased and she could talk to the world, she favoured using sanctions and boycotts, including even of tourism, to put pressure on the junta. It is assumed she still does.

The Nobel peace-prize-winner's undoubted moral authority and courageous perseverance give her stance considerable weight. So does her huge electoral mandate. It may be old, but no one has a better one. Some Western policymakers now see Miss Suu Kyi as part of the problem. But that is daft. Without her, the opposition would lose not just a figurehead, but perhaps the last flicker of hope in Myanmar's political darkness.


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