Bellus Burmanicus

by Kenneth Champeon, Aug 5, 2002 | Destinations: Myanmar / Yangon

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Review of Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 by Bertil Lintner, Silkworm Books, 1999.

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Foreigners living in Northern Thailand are likely to teach English or work for a Burma-related NGO. The same touching but naive idealism driving Westerners to demand the liberation of Tibet drives them to promote democracy in Burma, which has known little but tyranny since its independence from Britain in 1948. It's "hip" to care about Burma, and if you don't particularly care about Burma, you are liable to receive a scolding from one of the holier-than-thou hipsters of Save Burma, Inc.

Veteran journalist Bertil Lintner's interest in Burma, however, is neither naive nor affected. In 1983, he married Hseng Noung, a rebel soldier he met while researching Shan guerillas operating just across the Thai-Burmese border. He has authored six books about Burma's dire history, and his latest, Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948, is indispensable for anyone genuinely and intelligently seeking the betterment of Burma's longsuffering populace.

Citizens of countries with a long tradition of democracy often hold the mistaken belief that democracy is a kind of commodity, to be airlifted into a place and dropped willy-nilly on to the democracy-starved. In any case, as Tocqueville pointed out, the problem with democracy is that it is merely a tyranny of the majority. In Burma, the Burmese form the majority, enabling them to lord it over the nearly one hundred other ethnic groups within the country's borders. In a sense, Burma went from bad to worse when it became Burma: a land invented by the caprice of colonial cartographers, with little reference to its true, jigsaw puzzle-like political map.

For the last fifty years, ethnic insurgency groups have fought in vain for autonomy, independence, or, at the very least, respect. This has helped the military junta in Rangoon to justify in the name of "law and order" its repressive measures and the inordinately high percentage of its budget committed to defense. Indeed, the regime's name used to be SLORC, or the State Law and Order Restoration Council, subsequently changed to the more euphonious and euphemistic SPDC, or State Peace and Development Council.

To make matters worse, Burma during this time became the world's largest source of opium and its derivative heroin. This caused Western governments to offer on-and-off support for the regime whenever it pretended to undertake anti-narcotic activities. But at various times the regime has profited from the drug trade - Lintner cites a recent figure of $600 million a year - which provides capital to compensate for the regime's disastrous pseudo-socialistic economy and the widespread economic sanctions it has endured as punishment for its human rights abuses.

Lintner blames the drug trade on "the inability of successive governments in Rangoon to come to terms with the country's ethnic minorities and the refusal of several post-1962 military-dominated regimes to permit an open, pluralistic society." This is in marked contrast to the views held by many anti-drug zealots, who believe that opium growers and couriers are to blame, and that by destroying opium crops and imprisoning or executing convicted couriers, the War on Drugs will be won by attrition. But Lintner points out that crop destruction in the past has often caused growers simply to overproduce in response, while the couriers are no more than delivery boys, hired by a worldwide, above-the-law network of Al Capones. To Lintner, the drug trade is a political, not a criminal problem. On the other hand, Lintner leaves us with little doubt that the current regime's China-style butcheries of its own people are criminal, and have occasionally received the full backing of Western leaders. He quotes an American Congressman Rangel saying in a CBS interview, "They're saying that the Burmese Army is brutal. Hey! Of course they have to be brutal; they're fighting a war on drugs." Mr. Rangel deftly, if somewhat coarsely, elides the difference between a war on people (animate, sentient) and a war on drugs (inanimate, insentient), and is apparently unaware that the brutality under discussion has been inflicted predominantly on groups seeking self-determination, not drug profits per se.

Also missing from this assessment is American complicity. During World War II, the US Air Force paid pro-Allies ethnic groups in opium, which has evolved into one of the region's most "stable" currencies. During the Vietnam War, droves of American GIs became addicted to heroin, and when they returned home the stage was set for an international heroin trade. And in the late 1970's, the US provided millions of dollars in weapons to the regime, without stipulating their proper use.

The most brazen demonstration of the regime's illegitimacy came in 1990, when the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) headed by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi received 60% of the vote in the country's first multiparty elections since 1960. The regime dismissed the results and continued to consolidate its power. Every once in a while, rumors fly that the NLD and SPDC are to reconcile, but such rumors are seldom any more encouraging than word from the Middle East that the "peace process" is to be resumed. Until recently, Suu Kyi was under house arrest.

When the British Empire (what Orwell wryly called the Pox Britannica) was collapsing, it was commonly suggested that British tyranny would simply be replaced by local tyranny, and that the local tyrannies would be no better, and possibly worse. However self-satisfied this view, it has been borne out to an astonishing degree. This is not to say that England was wrong to quit the Empire, but that in doing so it invented artificial states whose unity could be maintained only by force. As Lintner writes, "There is no term in any language that covers both the Burmans and the minority peoples as no such entity existed before the arrival of the British in the nineteenth century. Burma, as we know it with its present boundaries, is a colonial creation rife with internal contradictions and divisions."

The Chinese civil war and the Cold War only exacerbated the problem by adding to the soup of ethnicity the China-backed Communist Party of Burma and the US-backed Kuomintang, Chinese nationalists hoping to use Burma as a stage for wresting China from the Maoists. Lintner devotes a 15-page appendix merely to a list of "rebel armies and other anti-government groups in Burma", and his book is a veritable Scrabble set of organizational acronyms.

The Tolstoian question all Burma-watchers must ask themselves is: What to do? Despite Suu Kyi's continued support for them, economic sanctions have caused the regime to depend on drug money. Diplomatic pressure hasn't worked, and in any case Burma is now cuddling up to China in the rogues' gallery of repressive states. Hardly a peep is heard from the NLD. Lintner offers no advice, only a hope that the civil war will be resolved and democracy enshrined.

This same wishful thinking informs the idea that Afghanistan, say, will become both peaceful and democratic with the wave of an international wand. "Afghanistan" is a fiction, a mapmaker's corral for peoples unified only by their shared participation in a post-colonial disaster. Burma likewise. Colonialism cannot be undone, so until the world moves beyond the nation-state system that colonialism established - until, in other words, there are no national borderlines and especially no straight borderlines, Burma's tragedy will simply be one of a multitude. Good fences make good neighbors only when the fences have some good reason for being where they are.

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