After Nargis, security dilemma

After Nargis, security dilemma

Article by Josh Hong on May 16, 08 in Malaysiakini

The real tragedy in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in Burma_

  • lies not in the scale of the damage
  • and the number of lives lost,
  • but in the utter failure of the military junta to respond to the catastrophe,
  • practically creating more deaths through its inaction.

Despondent at the inertia of the Burmese authorities, a friend of mine asked: Is Burma now a failed state?

I had no clear answer to that, but this question did prompt me into deeper thought on the issue.

Foreign Policy and the Fund For Peace publish their joint index of failed states on an annual basis, and in their latest publication, Burma ranks as the 14th country on the alert list.

The index defines a failed state as_

  • one in which the ruling authorities are no longer in a position to maintain the state’s territorial integrity,
  • set to lose the monopoly of regular and legitimate forces,
  • and incapable of collective decision,
  • causing the general population to resort to underground economy for survival.

Which is weird because Burma, or Burma Proper at least, is not a state that is being confronted with territorial disintegration. While there are pockets of conflicts posed by secessionist, ethnic rebels, most notably the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), military wings of the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIA) respectively, the notorious Burmese military, known as Tatmadaw in Burmese, remains undefeatable.

While it is true that black market economy is booming, especially in the areas bordering China, India and Thailand, economic participation, legal or illegal alike, by the Burmese population at large is still insignificant, as the militarization of the socialist state has ensured that only the military-linked elites are in control of the economy.


Four critical responsibilities

Going by the criteria provided by Foreign Policy and the Fund For Peace, it seems to me several countries are clear-cut examples of a failed state: Somalia, Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo and, of course, Iraq.

While I am skeptical about the failed states index, another report, the Index of State Weakness in the Developing World, prepared by Susan E Rice of the Brookings Institution and Stewart Patrick of the Center for Global Development, has caught my attention.

In this informative document, the two authors define “weak states as_

  • countries that lack the essential capacity
  • and/or will to fulfill four sets of critical government responsibilities:
  1. fostering an environment conducive to sustainable and equitable economic growth;
  2. establishing and maintaining legitimate, transparent, and accountable political institutions;
  3. securing their populations from violent conflict and controlling their territory;
  4. and meeting the basic human needs of their populations”.


Accordingly, the world’s three weakest states: Somalia, Afghanistan and the Congo, are also failed states, while another 25 countries are “critically weak states”, including Iraq (4), North Korea (15) and Burma (17).

The document also finds that some of the critically weak states have experienced longstanding violent conflict, such as Burma and Nepal. Meanwhile, five of them have seen military action by the United States in their territories: Somalia, Afghanistan, Haiti, Liberia and, needless to say, Iraq.

It is not entirely coincidental that these failed or failing states have tasted war waged by the US. In fact, tackling weak or critically weak states has become a core part of the revised military logic of the successive US administrations since the end of the Cold War. Over the years, the CIA and the National Intelligence Council have consistently argued that state failure and ungoverned spaces are among the international security threats to strong states such as the US. Pre-emptive strike or other forms of international action would therefore be legitimate.

Due to its geopolitical strategic values, Nepal, a Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between China and India, once received substantial military assistance form the US to drive out the Maoist rebels. Thousands of Nepalese died since 1996, partly thanks to the arrival of American M-16 submachine guns at the disposal of Kathmandu. ()

Back to Burma. Washington’s recent focus on the military junta cannot be simply explained as a will to “do good”, hoping to find a way out for the suffering Burmese populace. As the case of Iraq has taught us, there is no such thing as just war.

Since 2005, the Bush administration has been actively lobbying international organizations, ranging from the United Nations to other human rights groups, to apply greater pressure on Rangoon, the recruitment of child soldiers by Tatmadaw being a favorite issue raised by Washington time and time again.

But is the military junta the only one exploiting children in this manner?

Mistrust aggravated

Last year, Human Rights Watch published a detailed and excellent report on the recruitment of child soldiers in Burma. It is telling that the several major ethnic insurgent groups, including the United Wa State Army, the KNLA, the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), are all implicated in this dirty and evil business, alongside the Burmese junta.

Other sources meanwhile reveal that the US has provided financial support to the KNLA and the SSA-S in the past. Such action is indeed perfectly in line with the US’ attempt to manipulate the failed state concept to its own advantage.

It is worth reminding here that, in the 1970s, thousands of ethnic Hmongs in Laos – including minors – were lured by the CIA to fight against the communists, and abandoned to their fate after the adventure failed.

I have just finished reading The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma, by Thant Myint-U, grandson of former UN secretary-general U Thant, after whom Jalan U Thant is named.

Weaving family stories into the grand narrative of a country steeped in history and tradition, the author seeks to explain that Burma has never been a functioning, well-defined nation state, not even in the pre-colonial times when the country was ruled by warrior kings and characterized by incessant wars with its neighbours.

The British creation of a modern Burma by incorporating territories and nations that had never shared a common history with the Burmese kingdom has only aggravated the ethnic mistrust, and subjected the minority groups to decades of oppression alongside the Burmans. The civil war in the border areas has also been open to exploitation by outside forces, ie. China, India and the US.

Thant goes as far as to suggest no amount of foreign pressure will change the behavior of the military junta, who sees itself nothing but a reincarnation of the past warrior kings.

This, perhaps, explains the hesitation of the ruling authorities in granting permits for foreigners to enter the country on humanitarian grounds. After all, the Burmese warrior kings hardly had the welfare of the people at heart.

I certainly hope rational will prevail in Burma, and aid be sent in to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis. However, without understanding this unique history of Burma and the hostile international climate, it is impossible to make sense of the intransigence of the Burmese military junta.

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