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Western Pragmatism Trumps Human Security Concerns in Myanmar
By Pavin Chachavalpongpun

MYANMAR has for decades been placed under a harsh spotlight not only for its long night of military rule but also for its notorious human rights record. This appalling situation was one of the main reasons behind stringent international sanctions. Now that Myanmar has embarked on a series of political reforms, Western nations seem to be satisfied with the commitment of Myanmar's leaders to the ongoing democratization process. Yet this optimism has so far not improved the terrible human rights violations inside the country. Ranging from the state's use of violence against certain ethnic minorities to the continued brutal attacks against the Rohingya Muslims at the hands of radical Buddhists, Myanmar's human security situation is in crisis.

In the case of Myanmar, it seems clear that the discourse on "security" has long been dominated and manipulated by the state. In other words, what is considered supreme in the realm of security has been the nation, or more importantly, the state. National security has been prioritized at the expense of the security of the people. This allowed state authorities to legitimize their actions even as they implemented repressive policies against their own people. The discourse on security is never people-centric. Owing to the overwhelming emphasis on national security, the notion of human security has been downplayed in the consciousness of the state.


In addition, the real focus of Western advocacy has not been on human security either, despite engaging rhetoric about promoting human rights. In reality, the West's campaign to strengthen human security has remained superficial and self-serving. As far as the interests of the West are concerned, "security" in the Myanmar context is also broadly defined as the well-being of the state.


In this essay I discuss reasons behind the crisis of human security in Myanmar. Through the current remarkable political transition, what seems stagnant has been improvement in the human security situation.


Arguably, human security in Myanmar is caught between the domestic "security" discourse and Western advocacy. Whereas the state continues to define and redefine "security" to fulfill its own political agendas, Western human rights advocacy has been held hostage by the West's own strategic imperatives in the country. In supporting democracy and human rights, Western governments have worked closely with the democratic icon, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as the voice of the voiceless in Myanmar. They have exploited Suu Kyi's recognized status to legitimize their previous policies toward the military junta, their current policies toward the government of President Thein Sein, and to cover up their pretense of defending human rights in Myanmar. But Suu Kyi herself has shown little interest in raising the issue of human security either, as demonstrated, for example, in her silence regarding the plight of the Rohingya Muslims. As a result, human security issues in Myanmar have been left unattended, both by the state authorities and outside powers.


Human Security in Myanmar


In the aftermath of the 2010 general election in Myanmar, when the dictator General Ne Win seized control of the country, the old elite in the army voluntarily stepped down from power for the first time since 1962, paving the way for a series of political reforms. One of the most striking was the release of Suu Kyi from house arrest; she had been detained in her own residence for 14 out of the previous 20 years. What followed seemed proof that Myanmar might be on the right track in terms of improving the human rights situation. In a broad sense the improvements have been striking: A large number of political prisoners have been released; media restrictions have been eased; widespread Internet usage has been allowed; independent newspapers have licenses to operate legally; and official censorship, while still in place, has become less compelling.


These upbeat developments effectively legitimized the Thein Sein regime and made possible the removal of sanctions imposed on Myanmar by Western governments. On Sept. 5, 2012, the government formed a new National Human Rights Commission composed of 15 former ambassadors, academics and civil servants to assure the world that the mission to safeguard human rights would continue.


But the sense of optimism about human rights improvements has largely been confined within the inner circles of the Myanmar elite and Western powers. In reality, the seemingly improved human rights situation has little to do with the grave condition of human security. Many cases have been reported involving state violence against ethnic minorities following the breakdown of ceasefire agreements between various insurgent groups and the government. The military has been accused of abusing civilians in conflict areas, including forced labor, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, the use of "human shields" and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.


Human Rights Watch's World Report 2012: Burma succinctly summarizes key events in which the central government continued to wage war against a number of ethnic minorities and to remain silent regarding the violent conflict between radical Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.1 But this report only offers one side of the human security situation in Myanmar. In reality, human security concerns in the country cover more broadly almost all aspects of human life. Certainly, there are many threats to economic security. The lack of sound economic policy over many decades has had a debilitating effect.


The state failed to assure the people a minimum requisite income. Poverty, stagnant wages, rising inflation and lack of job opportunities posed an enduring threat to economic security. On average, most people live on one US dollar a day. Economic hardship led to massive outflows of migrants to seek better economic opportunities in neighboring countries. Some ended up serving as cheap and exploited workers in foreign lands without any social security protection. Economic hardship has also complicated food security. Although a rich agricultural country, Myanmar has experienced chronic shortages of food. On top of this, health threats are made worse due to the lack of good medical facilities. Major illnesses that have affected the people include HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and hepatitis B and C, according to the World Health Organization.2


Related to economic and health security are threats to environmental security that have intensified over the years due to continued deforestation and the building of several dams. The Myitsone dam project was finally suspended by Thein Sein in September 2011 because of rising concerns among local and international NGOs regarding its environmental impact.3


Domestic Discourse on "˜Security'


Human security has been a relatively alien concept in Myanmar, where the security of the nation-state has long been paramount. The making of the "security" discourse in Myanmar is arbitrary because it has been shaped and reshaped according to the changing interests of the Myanmar elite. The state has thus become the equivalent of the nation. Hence, the security of the nation is equal to regime security. Brendan Howe and Suyoun Jang explain this through the actor-centric security paradigm.4 In this paradigm, security is an essential component of absolute sovereignty and the cornerstone of national interest. It places the security of the nation-state at the center of analysis.


From this viewpoint, the state is forever preoccupied with the need to protect national sovereignty and territorial integrity from foreign and domestic enemies, at the same time as it defends itself from all kinds of threats to its interests. Externally, wars are unavoidable. Internally, political stability and social order is imperative. The priority has been to ensure security, with the military being assigned a primary role in safeguarding the nation-state.


In Myanmar's case, a number of factors are responsible for such state-centric security. Bitter memories of being colonized by the British, a long period of divisive civil war following independence during the Cold War and an unending number of ethnic insurgencies have led the state — and the army — to become the most important institution capable of defending the country. This explains why military rule in Myanmar endured so long, effectively because the junta claimed to protect national security; of course, what exactly they protected remained obscure.5


Western Advocacy: Self-Serving?


Maung Zarni offers a useful framework for exploring the relationship between human security in Myanmar and Western advocacy. He argues that there are three "security" discourses adopted by the West. These are: national security, global security and human security.6 Whereas the first two have gained much attention from Western governments primarily because of their own interests, the last has often been ignored even in the context of human rights in Myanmar. Western advocacy on security in Myanmar has been heavily focused on outside interests regarding the endurance of the military regime and the impact of the regime on global security. "The third — human — or people-centered — security trails as a distant third in Western policy-making. This reality is opposed to public discussions, where the omnipresent rhetoric of human rights masks its diminished status."7


As the Cold War came to an end, the West's advocacy policy toward Myanmar also shifted. The brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in August and September 1988 and the rejection of the 1990 election result that saw the victory of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) nullified partly influenced the change in the West's position toward Myanmar's human rights situation. Yet the change was merely cosmetic. Suu Kyi's emergence as an icon of democracy and human rights advocacy served as reference points for the West's new advocacy policy.


In reality, of course, the West invested heavily in safeguarding core interests in the Middle East and North Africa. Strategically, the United States was willing to go to war in the Middle East to protect its interests, both political and economic. Meanwhile, in 2005, the US referred to Burma/Myanmar as an "outpost of tyranny." But despite being an enemy of democracy, Myanmar was never perceived as a core interest of the US.


As part of readjusting its position, the American government implemented a policy of liberal Western advocacy to protest against the appalling human security situation in Myanmar. This advocacy was made possible because Myanmar was one of the places where the West felt it could afford to live out its liberal values, because it was pursuing its core interests elsewhere. In other words, advocacy of human security was allowed to dominate Myanmar policy discussions and media coverage because other Western interests in Myanmar were not deemed very important.8 "Burma is not strategically important to the United States, so it is a "˜free kick' politically to take a high-handed approach to the issue. It makes for good headlines and helps to pacify the US domestic human rights lobby, regardless of whether the approach is effective or not," argued Michael Backman.9


The West then imposed sanctions against Myanmar's military regime, realizing that shutting down channels of communication with Myanmar would not affect its overall global strategic interests. Indeed, sanctions became the hallmark of the West's Myanmar policy, initially endorsed by Suu Kyi herself. Sanctions were also justified not only because of military rule in Myanmar, but also the terrible human security situation.10 In response, the regime intensified its repressive policy toward its own people, creating an even more devastating human security situation. For a long time, Western sanctions proved to be futile.


The US Shift


The recent changes inside Myanmar coincided with US President Barack Obama's innovative "pivot" to Asia. But it was the new political landscape in the region that forced the US to readjust its focus on Myanmar, not the dire human rights situation inside the country. The new US policy toward Myanmar is now pragmatic — engaging the regime and encouraging democracy with the lure of substantial investments from the US, supposedly to facilitate the economic opening up after long years of economic hardship.11


Washington no longer needs dissidents and exile leaders to legitimize its policy toward Myanmar. Together with Suu Kyi, the Obama administration has reinvented Myanmar from being an outpost of tyranny into a new business-friendly partner. In responding to the opening up process, Washington has sought to create a comfort zone for the leaders in Naypyidaw primarily to do business and veer the country away from Chinese influence.12 Lifting sanctions, engaging with the elite, paying more attention to Myanmar's political reconciliation and promoting human rights are now parts of a new policy package designed to welcome Myanmar's political transition and to ensure US interests in the process.


US admiration for Myanmar's democratization and its defense of human rights in the country would seem emblematic of the ethical standpoint of the Obama administration. But the real gist of the new Myanmar policy has been security and commerce-centric, being wary of threats from the old military elite and in the meantime needing to engage economically with the new regime for the benefit of the US. This view of realpolitik, or more diplomatically, pragmatism, dominates the West's new approach toward Myanmar.


However, pragmatism poses a dilemma for the West. It needs to be pragmatic to grasp any opportunities that emerge in the process of transition, but in so doing, its promotion of human rights and support for human security could be compromised. As in the past, the West's security-centric view could eclipse its seriousness in tackling human security issues.


Today, while the West finds that it is important to remain pragmatic in managing relations with Myanmar, its concerns over the lack of human security are belittled. The fact that an atrocious human security situation still persists in Myanmar is a testament to the ineffectiveness of the new approach by the West.


This ineffectiveness is partly sustained by the ambiguous position of Suu Kyi. She has remained largely silent regarding the deteriorating human rights situation. She has made no official statement condemning the massacre of the Rohingya Muslims and failed to exercise her moral authority to engage the West in putting pressure on the government about the tragedy.


While visiting Tokyo in April 2013, Suu Kyi made a controversial speech in which she recognized the role of the military in political reform and said, "I seek to establish a society where the military and civilian populations are two sides of the same coin, all working toward the security and freedom of our country."13 Yet she did not elaborate on how her work with the military would enhance the level of human security. Ironically, while she met with some of Myanmar's migrants, a number of Rohingya Muslims were barred from seeing her.14


To be fair, the mood of reconciliation in Myanmar set the stage for compromise between Suu Kyi and her political opponents, and it is possible that while Suu Kyi is planning her return to politics, possibly to contest the upcoming presidential election in 2015, she is obliged to reposition herself as an acceptable figure among her enemies.




The purpose of this essay is not to investigate the issue of human security as an "independent study" from significant factors inside and outside Myanmar. Instead, it attempts to frame the issue of human security within the two realities that have been responsible for the worsening situation over the years, namely the state-centric view of security and self-serving Western advocacy.


The Myanmar elite have long exploited the discourse of "security" to fulfill their own political agendas. Mainly, such discourse has been used as a shield against enemies of the state; in other words, as protection for the security of the regime at the same time they propagated the importance of national security. This narrow and arbitrary view of "security" ignored the well-being of the people. To make the situation worse, the state was supposed to act as the provider of security to the public but was now blamed for committing violence against the people.


At the same time, Western governments could afford to isolate Myanmar where few strategic interests were at stake. In the process, they campaigned for the protection of human rights in the country, yet, the campaign proved to be rhetorical and bound too tightly with Suu Kyi, who had her own political agenda. Strong sanctions were imposed but they failed to produce the desired result.


When Myanmar decided to flirt with democracy, the shift in the West's approach was made. But this time, it is based on active pragmatism. In particular, the US pragmatism seems to have downgraded its previous liberal humanism and emphasis on human rights protection, no matter how superficial that emphasis might have been. Security and commercial interests now dominate policy in the West. This explains why there have been few interventions from the outside world on issues like ethnic conflict, communal violence and the appalling condition of economic, health and environmental security.


Pavin Chachavalpongpun is Associate Professor, Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University. He can be reached at pavin@cseas.kyoto-u.ac.jp. The author would like to express his sincere thanks to Dr Maung Zarni for the vision and inspiration he provided for this article.




1 See details, Human Rights Watch World Report 2012: Burma, at www.hrw.org/world-report-2012/world-report-2012-burma (accessed 19 April 2013).

2 See www.who.int/countries/mmr/en/.

3 Rachel Harvey, “Burma Dam: Why Myitsone Plan is being Halted”, BBC News, Sept. 30, 2011, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-15123833 (accessed 22 April 2013).

4 Brendan M. Howe and Suyoun Jang,“Human Security and Development: Divergent Approaches to Burma/Myanmar”, Pacific Focus, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1 (April 2003), pp. 123.

5 For elaborate details, see Tin Maung Maung Than, “Myanmar: Preoccupation with Regime Survival, National Unity and Stability”, Asian Security Practice: Material and Ideational Influences, Muthiah Alagappa ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), pp.390-416. See also Mary P. Callahan, Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).

6 Maung Zarni, “Burma/Myanmar: Its Conflicts, Western Advocacy, and Country Impact”, World Peace Foundation, Mar. 25, 2013 http://sites.tufts.edu/reinventingpeace/2013/03/25/burmamyanmar-its-conflicts-western-advocacy-and-country-impact/ (accessed Apr.20, 2013).

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Backman, Michael. 2008. Asia Future Shock: Business Crisis and Opportunity in the Coming Years (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) p. 120.

10 Morten B. Pedersen, Promoting Human Rights in Burma: A Critique of Western Sanctions Policy (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publisher, 2008), p.24.

11 U Myint Soe, “Shift in US Policy towards Myanmar,” ASEAN-US Relations: What Are the Talking Points?, edited by Pavin Chachavalpongpun (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2012), pp.107-8.

12 See David I. Steinberg and Hongwei Fan. Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence, (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2012).

13 “Suu Kyi Makes Overture to Myanmar Military in Speech”, UPI, Apr. 17, 2013, www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2013/04/17/Suu-Kyi-makes-overture-to-Myanmar-military-in-speech/UPI-74891366225828/ (accessed Apr. 21 2013).

14 See Kyoko Hasegawa, “Myanmar’s Muslims Barred from Suu Kyi Meet in Japan”, The Daily Star, Apr. 11, 2013 www.dailystar.com.lb/News/International/2013/Apr-11/213374-myanmars-muslims-barred-from-suu-kyi-meet-in-japan.ashx#axzz2R5Vj4Udn (accessed Apr. 21, 2013).

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    For decades, the West was content to make Myanmar a whipping boy over human rights abuses and other human security concerns, because unlike in other regions of the world, the West had few core national interests at stake in Myanmar. With the country now seemingly on a path toward democracy and reform, the West has ditched its idealism and adopted a pragmatic approach that focuses on Myanmar’s state security and its own business interests, argues Pavin Chachavalpongpun.
    Published: December 2013 (Vol.8 No.4)
    About the author

    Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University. He is the chief editor of the online journal Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia.

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