TOPICS > Politics

Myanmar’s Rulers Hold Tight to Power Amid Cyclone Crisis

May 12, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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In the aftermath of last week's destructive cyclone, the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar has thrown a spotlight on the military junta governing the country. A former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar and professor born in the country examine the country's government structure.
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MARGARET WARNER: The Myanmar government’s refusal to let in enough foreign aid workers is in defiance of international opinion. But that’s not a new stance for a country that has been run by the military or a military-run single party since a coup in 1962.

Over the weekend, the government held a constitutional referendum in most of the country that opponents say will only further cement its power. State TV coverage was dominated by pictures of the reclusive leader, Than Shwe, and other generals casting their ballots.

Meanwhile, little has been heard from the principal opposition leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest on and off since 1990.

For more on the men in power in Burma, we go to Priscilla Clapp, the former chief of mission at the United States embassy in Burma between 1999 and 2002; and Tun Myint, a visiting assistant professor at Carleton College. Born in Burma, he left in 1988.

Welcome to you both.

Junta lacks legitimacy

Tun Myint
Carleton College
We have seen since 1962 the mismanaging of the economy and natural resources has led Burma to now the standard of living in Burma is lower than even Cambodia and Laos.

MARGARET WARNER: Priscilla Clapp, how do you explain why, 10 days into this, the Myanmar or Burmese government is still so adamantly refusing to let in the kind of international response that we saw in the tsunami?

PRISCILLA CLAPP, Former U.S. Embassy Official in Burma: Well, they're concerned that a large influx of foreigners into the country is going to overpower their ability to maintain control. It's stretched as it is right now.

And they're trying to ensure that they have control over everything that happens in the country.

MARGARET WARNER: Do they not recognize, really, do you think, what's going on, I mean, not only the catastrophe that's hit, but how many additional lives? We just heard the World Vision coordinator talking about that, that each hour, each day that goes by puts more people at risk.

PRISCILLA CLAPP: I don't think they understand the full size of this calamity, the full extent of the calamity.

Certainly, the top leadership doesn't, because the people underneath the top general hide bad news from him. He does not like to hear bad news, so they don't take it to him.

And he's given the kind of news that you would see on Yangon television, which is....

MARGARET WARNER: Sanitized?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: ... sanitized and unrealistic, an unrealistic view.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Myint, what would you add to that, to help us understand why they're standing in the way of foreign aid and aid workers?

TUN MYINT, Carleton College: I think the -- we have to ask the question, why are they so worried about this control, the manner that they're in charge of this country, and they are in control?

They want to portray this image because they have long lost the legitimacy within the Burmese population and the trust of the Burmese population. That was shown in 1988 movement. And also when the regime denied the outcome of the 1990 election, it was the second evidence that the elected regime was in danger.

So they want to maintain this legitimacy and also build a (inaudible). The second thing is that the regime itself has already destroyed the foundation of another source of legitimacy, which is religious and cultural foundation.

MARGARET WARNER: You're saying it's destroyed -- I'm sorry, you're saying it's destroyed that foundation?

TUN MYINT: Destroyed the foundation of its legitimacy in Burmese society, in terms of religious and cultural foundation, cultural elements, in that sense.

So if you recall the images of the 2007 monk-led protest being crushed brutally, that is the evidence that the regime had destroyed a key important source of the legitimacy of the military power. So that was the second reason.

The third, I think, source of legitimacy that the regime is concerned is the functional legitimacy...

MARGARET WARNER: Functional?

TUN MYINT: ... that is this which is -- functional, the operational legitimacy, that they want to portray the population, also and to the international community, that they are capable of, they are functioning as a government, and so on.

But we have seen since 1962 the mismanaging of the economy and natural resources has led Burma to now the standard of living in Burma is lower than even Cambodia and Laos.

MARGARET WARNER: OK, can you hold that...

TUN MYINT: So they're worried about this functional...

Current leader reclusive, remote

Priscilla Clapp
Former State Department Official
Than Shwe has been at the head of the government since about 1992. And he has consolidated power so that he alone really runs things now. It used to be a triumvirate; it is now just Than Shwe.

MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry, just hold that thought, and let me get Ms. Clapp back in here. Tell us more about these generals, especially the number one, this guy, Than Shwe.

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Than Shwe. Than Shwe has been in power...

MARGARET WARNER: No, no I'm sorry, let me ask Ms. Clapp first. Then I'll be back to you, Professor. Just a sec.

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Than Shwe has been at the head of the government since about 1992. And he has consolidated power so that he alone really runs things now. It used to be a triumvirate; it is now just Than Shwe.

And so what you happening in the country today is a reflection of his mentality. He feels that he is the embodiment of the old Burmese kings, and he has built himself a royal capital in Naypyidaw with royal palaces...

MARGARET WARNER: This is a different city, not even in the...

PRISCILLA CLAPP: No, it's a new capital halfway between Rangoon and Mandalay. It's really quite remote. It takes 10 hours to drive there from Rangoon. It's quite inaccessible.

Furthermore, you have to have permission to go there. You can't just visit the capital.

And so they live in this golden bunker off in a very remote area of the world. And they communicate with the world remotely and their own country, as well.

Regime thoroughly entrenched

Tun Myint
Carleton College
Burmese people are very self-governing people. They expect little help from the government. They have been able to just live off the land, grow whatever they need to eat, and so on.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you, Professor. If all this is the case and, as you said, their legitimacy is -- they've undermined their own legitimacy, how do they hold on to power?

TUN MYINT: That is a great question. I think the first report from the World Vision staff indicated that Burmese people are very self-governing people. They expect little help from the government. They have been able to just live off the land, grow whatever they need to eat, and so on.

So the self-governing capacity and behavior of the Burmese people basically is one source of the answer for that, which they learned from the British colonial power, which was able to run Burma from 1824, the first Anglo-Burmese war, to the 1948.

So it comes in from the 1885, so that would be 1948, would be 64 years old.

MARGARET WARNER: And economics...

TUN MYINT: And the question is how could...

MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead. And economically, what keeps them in power?

TUN MYINT: Economically (inaudible) question, who the beneficiary of the presence of military rules in Burma? Certainly, it is not the soldiers of the Burmese army. It is certainly not the Burmese people themselves, but rather, you know, somebody who is benefiting from this presence of military rules in Burma, a complex phenomena.

And it's like international investing in company that are in Burma, like from China, from Japan, from Southeast Asian countries, from other European countries, and so on. These beneficiaries are the bloodlines of the Burmese military regime.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Ms. Clapp, why did the regime -- if it's so firmly entrenched in power -- why were they insisting on this constitutional referendum this weekend?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Well, they are trying to return to some form of parliamentary government, under extreme pressure from the rest of the world.

And more recently from their neighbors, China and the ASEAN, the other Southeast Asian countries, have all been telling them to return to parliamentary democracy.

So they have, in this new constitution they're proposing, put together a pseudo-parliamentary democracy that they call discipline-flourishing democracy, in which the military enforces the discipline.

The military occupies a set number of seats in the parliaments, all of the parliaments at different levels. They have the ability to move in, declare martial law, take the government back over again any time they want.

It's a very military-heavy type of parliamentary democracy, which we would not actually call a democracy.

Prospects for change slim

Priscilla Clapp
Former State Department Official
Over the years, the military has tried to limit the ability of civilians to organize themselves for any kind of function, particularly anything that was political or communal. And so you don't have a lot of civil society.

MARGARET WARNER: And is there any viable opposition, either Suu Kyi and her party, or the monasteries, the Buddhist monks, or any kind of civil society?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Over the years, the military has tried to limit the ability of civilians to organize themselves for any kind of function, particularly anything that was political or communal. And so you don't have a lot of civil society.

But as you can see from what happened last fall, there is, inside this, some organization. And as I think you're going to see in this tragedy that's unfolding now, there is a lot of civil society organization.

People are organizing, pulling together to take -- to fill the vacuum that's been left by the lack of a response from the government.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, briefly, Professor, is there any scenario you could see in which this crisis could actually lead to the downfall of this government?

TUN MYINT: I think the scenario that could lead from this point on would be that the people inside Burma begin to realize that they are living under such a -- I mean, especially the rural people, who never had contact with a government official, especially in an area where the civil war or civil violent conflicts were now going on. So that would be one way.

And then the second thing is the second most organized institution in Burmese society is the community of Sangha, the community of monks, Sangha. And I think Sangha, the community of monks, is now watching carefully. If you listen to the news and so on, or they're talking to the inside Burma, they're watching this event carefully. And they are going to come back with some sort of organized political action. So that would be the second source of chance.

And the third one is the 1988 student leaders, who are now in jails, and some of them are in outside Burma, and some of them are inside in Burma. If they are going to reorganize political activities inside Burma, I think those are the sources of possible civil society sources of power for that.

And the fourth one, probably the most important one, is the military regimes inside -- within the military regime, there is a humane leaders -- there are humane leaders within the regime, and there are the people who disagree with the top generals, but they are living in their lifeline. So I think this...

MARGARET WARNER: Professor. I'm so sorry. That's fascinating, but we have to end it there. But thank you both very much.

TUN MYINT: OK, no problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you.

TUN MYINT: OK, thank you.