Over the past year or so, Burma’s authoritarian government has implemented significant, albeit limited, political reforms. This partial liberalization has won guarded praise from Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s leading dissident who is now set to run for parliament in by-elections this spring, as well as Western governments who support her cause. At the same time, the country’s military has intensified its vicious fight against the autonomy-seeking Kachin people of northern Burma. In its efforts to snuff out that uprising, the Burmese military has “committed serious abuses” against civilians, including killing them, using them as forced labor, and pillaging their homes. And the Kachin conflict is just one of several long-running ethnic insurgencies in Burma, none of which is yet resolved.
These seemingly schizophrenic responses to popular demands for reform–releasing prisoners one minute, literally smashing villages the next–has a lot of people wondering: Which of these approaches shows us the real Burmese government? Is the country being run by budding democrats who haven’t quite figured out how break their atrocious habits in the north, or is it being run by tyrannical genocidaires who are using piecemeal reforms as a tactic to trick the rest of the world into ending painful sanctions? In a post on his always-thoughtful Securing Rights blog, Georgetown University student Daniel Solomon put it this way:
The release of Burma’s political prisoners is a symbolically significant effort, essential to effective political reconciliation between Burma’s civilian government and the pro-democracy opposition. However, the real challenge to Burma’s democratization will stem from the regime’s effort to negotiate a political settlement with Burma’s ethnic minority groups. The Karen conflict is a microcosm of a wider issue–Burma’s central government, interested in consolidating political authority and access to the border regions’ natural resource wealth, prefers a Naypyidaw-based, centralized government, while minority opposition groups prefer a federalized system.
From that passage, I inferred that Dan sees the ethnic wars in northern Burma as more fundamental to the country’s future than its constitutional changes, and therefore the government’s counterinsurgency efforts as somehow more revealing of its true nature. That order of priority was echoed in a recent tweet from former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who linked to the New York Times story on the Kachin war with this commentary: “New military action against the Kachin reminds how far Burma has to go to achieve genuine reform. Not there yet.” Meanwhile, Burmese journalist Zin Linn noted for the Asian Correspondent that President Thein Sein had twice instructed the military commander-in-chief to stop the Kachin offensive, but those instructions have apparently been ignored. From that fact, he concluded that the president’s commands are a “deceitful tactic,” “worthless statements intended to satisfy the international community” so it will lift long-standing sanctions.
I wonder, though, if attempts to view these two streams of behavior through a single lens obscure more than they clarify. Burma’s reform process will inevitably be multidimensional, because governance is multidimensional. Democratization lies on one dimension, centralization lies on another, and ethno-nationalism arguably on yet another. Democratization is about the expansion of a government’s accountability to its citizens. Democratic states vary widely in the extent to which they centralize power, from the genuine federalism of the United States to the highly centralized administration of the French Republic, and one end of that spectrum is not obviously more liberal or democratic than the other. Existing democracies also vary widely in the extent to which they recognize ethnic “communities” as rights-bearing groups and provide legal opportunities to advance demands for national self-determination. These three dimensions are interrelated in their concern for popular sovereignty, but they do not and need not move in lock step.
If that’s right, then I’m not sure it’s helpful to presume that decentralization represents the only just and liberal outcome to Burma’s ethnic wars. Without question, it is deeply illiberal to respond to demands for autonomy or even independence with mass atrocities, where punishment is collective, disproportionate, and indiscriminate. It is not inherently illiberal, however, to reject demands for decentralization or autonomy, and it is arguably more liberal in the classical sense of that word to reject attempts to link citizenship to ethnicity than it is to accept them.
I also agree that it’s reasonable to look to the government’s treatment of the communities entangled in these insurgencies for clues to that government’s direction and intentions. That said, I don’t think it is sensible or even particularly helpful to presume that both streams of behavior flow from a single “character,” or even a common strategy.
What if these seemingly contradictory tracks are the twin results a house divided? It’s quite possible that actions on these different fronts are being led by different factions within the Burmese government. Maybe civilian leaders intent on liberalization are driving reforms at the center while military leaders committed to maintaining the country’s territorial integrity retain control over counterinsurgency. Maybe civilian and military elites have both split into “soft-liner” and “hard-liner” camps, and the two are wrestling for control while we scratch our heads over their seemingly incoherent behavior. I don’t know which of these is true, and I get the sense that very few people do. Based on my knowledge of other reformist episodes in recent history, however, either of these scenarios seems more plausible to me than a narrative in which a ruthless and unified cadre outfoxes the world.
This question isn’t academic. On the one hand, foreign governments and international activists have every right and reason to demand that Burmese forces immediately stop committing atrocities. On the other hand, if the Burmese government is internally divided, then conditioning rewards for political reform on specific responses to the country’s ethnic insurgencies could push liberalizers into a confrontation with their internal rivals before they’re strong enough to win that fight. If soft-liners are competing with hard-liners for the upper hand in this process, they will gain powerful allies over the next several months as political parties and civic groups mobilize in response to reforms at the center and even, hopefully, win seats in parliament. I don’t see any simple answers to this moral dilemma, but I do believe we’ll grope our way toward more effective responses by avoiding policies that tightly link conditions on the two dimensions and the assumptions of organizational and strategic coherence on which those policies would be based.