Failing State

Burma is dangerously close to collapse, an event that could throw much of South and Southeast Asia into turmoil. A whole new strategy from Washington is called for.

By Joshua Kurlantzick

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Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma
by Emma Larkin
The Penguin Press, 288 pp.

Normally, the Kokang region of northern Burma, home to ethnic Kokang, doesn’t exactly hum with activity. Small traders sell apples from China out of carts on the side of the road; the area’s capital, Laogai, is a seedy town with open-air markets and several shabby casinos catering to local tourists. But last August, the region suddenly came alive. The Burmese military launched a wave of attacks against a Kokang insurgent group, and the Kokang fought back, joined by other ethnic armies in the region. Terrified, as many as 30,000 people fled the lawless area, with many crossing the border into China. And Beijing clearly wasn’t happy. "We warned [the Burmese government] not to push the Kokang too hard," says one Chinese official. "They just didn’t listen to us."

The fighting in Kokang country was hardly unique. Across northern and eastern Burma, where the military junta exercises minimal control and insurgents run wild, tenuous ceasefires between the regime and ethnic-minority militias are breaking down. The resulting clashes are aggravating the nation’s already grave humanitarian crisis, spawned by a mix of vicious army repression of civilians and constant fighting between the military and ethnic insurgents. The Thailand-based Burma Border Coalition estimates that there are already more than 450,000 internally displaced people in one eastern region of Burma alone, and many of them are literally starving to death. Overall, more than a million Burmese have been uprooted—one of the largest groups of internally displaced people in the world. Many refugees spend their time constantly on the run, fleeing one army offensive after the next and struggling to keep their children alive as they forage through the jungle, searching for edible plants. With virtually no medical care in much of the country, children and even healthy adults die of diseases easily curable just across the border in Thailand, while rampant prostitution and widespread rape by soldiers spread virulent strains of HIV among the refugees. And if fighting picks up again, hundreds of thousands more will likely be forced into itinerant misery.

The spiraling conflicts and deluge of desperate refugees threaten to push large parts of the country—already among the poorest in the world—into collapse. Largely unpoliced northeastern Burma already has developed into one of the world’s narcotrafficking capitals, while arms from lawless parts of the country flow across the border into Bangladesh and India, fueling insurgencies in those countries.

Unfortunately, this looming chaos has gone largely unnoticed outside Burma’s borders. For nearly two decades, most Western nations have viewed Burma (or Myanmar, as it is officially named) through a simple, black-and-white prism: the country is engaged in a political standoff between the brutal ruling junta and the democratic opposition led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won Burma’s last free election in 1990 but was prevented by the military from ever assuming office. This simplistic view has badly distorted policy toward Burma, as it leaves only two policy options: sanction Burma, which the U.S. has done since 1997; or engage with the nasty regime, as the Obama administration has done, sending the highest-level American mission to the country since the mid-1990s. But as shown by the Kokang crisis, and by Everything Is Broken, Emma Larkin’s thoughtful and expertly reported book about the aftermath of a devastating cyclone that hit the country in April 2008, Burma now is more than a political conflict between two actors—it is an important country facing a total breakdown. And the humanitarian crisis, a key contributor to the nation’s volatility, must be addressed whether or not the political stalemate is resolved anytime soon.

It won’t be easy. To keep the crisis in check, Washington, and its partners in Asia—like Thailand, Singapore, India, and China, Burma’s key supporter—must reorient their policy to stop the country from imploding while simultaneously keeping up the pressure on the Burmese junta, a difficult balancing act. But in the long run, tackling the looming humanitarian disaster makes sense not only for purely altruistic reasons, but for hard, strategic reasons as well. By addressing the problem head on, the U.S. would help prevent a crisis that could destabilize the entire region. Even more important, Washington would show its Asian partners—who have been angry for years that Burma’s problems spill into their countries while the U.S. does nothing—that Washington has heard them and is responding to their complaints.


T hat Burma faces a massive humanitarian crisis would have shocked observers of the country in the 1950s and early ’60s. At that time, Burma possessed vast natural resources, an educated middle class, a solid bureaucratic system left by the British, and a vibrant democracy that had developed after independence in 1948, including freewheeling publications and noisy political debate. Development experts considered Burma one of the best chances for high growth in Asia; wealthy Thais flew from Bangkok to Rangoon, Burma’s largest city, to stock up on luxury goods.

The situation today could not be more different. Cyclone Nargis, which killed some 130,000 people, left behind utter devastation in the Irrawaddy Delta. Large swaths of the region were flattened, the simple thatch homes swept away and their inhabitants drowned. Mothers grasped small children in their arms until the cyclone’s intense winds pulled the babies away; fishermen held on to tiny boats until the storm capsized them. Stunned survivors, often with no clothes on their bodies, wandered the delta hunting for rotten rice to eat and medicines to treat gaping wounds and festering infections.

But as Larkin—a Burmese speaker and one of the few foreign writers to obtain sustained access to Burma after the storm—clearly illustrates, even before the cyclone the country barely functioned. Once a thriving metropolis, Rangoon now resembles a decaying African city. Electricity flickers on and off, and massive potholes make even short drives an adventure. Though as recently as the late 1990s I rarely saw homeless people in the city, today entire homeless families camp out on patches of grass near the waterfront and train tracks. A nearly worthless currency and an antiquated and corrupt banking system have led to numerous bank runs, with the panics causing spikes in the prices of staple goods. The World Health Organization ranks Burma’s health care system the second worst in the world, surpassing only that of Sierra Leone. Educated Burmese who can get out, do, fleeing to Singapore or Thailand or the West. Some 30 percent of Burmese children under five go hungry, Larkin notes, in a country that once stood among the world’s leading rice producers.

Burma certainly faces serious obstacles to development. Its ethnic diversity naturally proves combustible, and as prominent Burma historian Thant Myint-U notes, after gaining independence from Britain, Burma’s government faced civil conflicts in many parts of the country—wars that never really died out, creating the seeds for the numerous ethnic-minority armies still operating in Burma. Yet these apologists fail to note that many other former colonies faced obstacles similar to Burma’s and still managed to thrive. Malaysia is split between ethnic Malays, Chinese, and Indians, and was rocked by race riots and a communist insurgency in its early years; today, its per capita GDP of $14,500 is more than ten times that of Burma. Indeed, as Larkin clearly shows, the Burmese military regime, which first took power from the democratic government in 1962, bears most of the responsibility for the country’s impoverishment. After twenty-six disastrous years of authoritarian socialist isolation, between 1962 and 1988, the military rulers embraced capitalism, but unlike China or Vietnam the regime did not allow the benefits of economic opening to trickle down to average people. Instead, the regime hoarded the profits from Burma’s sizable petroleum deposits and stored the money in offshore banks. This left most of the population with nothing and created a parallel social welfare system, including hospitals and schools, just for the military. In 2006, the junta took the parallel system one step further, moving the capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, a purpose-built new fortress town in the middle of the country where the army’s elites can live bunkered away from average Burmese and avoid any possibility of public protest. There, junta leaders live opulent existences; among other things, Larkin describes a lavishly ostentatious wedding for the regime leader’s daughter at which the bride wore a treasure trove of diamonds around her neck.

Indeed, Burma’s military now competes with the regimes in Sudan and North Korea for the dishonor of worst government on earth. Since the junta annulled the election in 1990, human rights organizations have documented countless atrocities. In eastern Burma, for instance, the army regularly attacks villagers, burning down their towns, raping the women, and cutting off body parts—ears, eyes, penises—before killing the men. Elsewhere, the military has perpetrated large-scale forced labor. The junta leader, Senior General Than Shwe, a dour, jowly, and xenophobic ruler, seems like he answered a casting call for a villain. Although in the early days of military rule the army still enjoyed some public support, today the Burmese population clearly despises its rulers. When monks marched through the streets of Rangoon in September 2007’s "Saffron Revolution," they drew some 100,000 protestors, though the military eventually cleared the streets with a brutal crackdown, showing that it did not have scruples even about killing monks, the most respected members of Burmese society. Arriving in Burma shortly after the Saffron crackdown, Larkin found a society in despair so deep that even monks could offer no solace. "It was once said that a monk could fan his robes across a criminal and protect the wrongdoer from the wrath of a king," Larkin writes. "Now, the monasteries were unable to offer any kind of sanctuary."

This thuggery—and the lack of American business in Burma—has made it easy for Washington to all but wash its hands of the country, with American officials who could never take such a hard line with China or Russia blasting the Burmese junta and coming off as tough on human rights abuses. In addition to comprehensive sanctions forbidding U.S. companies from launching new business in Burma, Washington and most other major donors have provided minimal aid to the country in recent years. In next-door Laos, run by a regime less cartoonishly evil but just as repressive, foreign donors, including the United States, spend $49 per person, according to the United Nations Development Program; in Burma, as Larkin notes, donors spend just $2.80 per person, though the country has vast needs.

The aid disparity with Laos only highlights how Burma became the great exception in U.S. policy. With nearly every other country, Washington has proved willing to provide substantial humanitarian assistance in times of dire crisis, no matter how terrible the regime in power. Some observers argue that delivering aid to Burma is uniquely complicated because of the junta’s history of rejecting foreign assistance, and to some degree this is true. Than Shwe’s regime clearly worries that allowing in too much aid could undermine its control. After Cyclone Nargis, it initially rejected virtually all foreign aid, a fact that got enormous play in the Western media. But, as Larkin found, it did eventually permit humanitarian organizations to set up substantial operations, particularly after other Asian countries stepped in and served as brokers between the junta and Western aid groups, proving that the regime’s resistance to aid is not absolute. Another common argument against sending aid to Burma is that it will only end up in the hands of the junta. Most aid workers I’ve met in Burma agree that some of the assistance is indeed skimmed off by regime-connected officials and businesspeople, who distribute it to their allies or even sell it. But the same could be said about many nasty countries where the U.S. provides humanitarian aid, like Laos, a darling of aid organizations, or even North Korea, where regime insiders reportedly sell donated food on the black market and the government keeps a far tighter rein on the movements of foreign workers than in Burma. Despite these obstacles, and the fact that Pyongyang allegedly runs a series of gulags worse even than Burma’s horrid prisons, the U.S. has been one of the largest donors of food aid to North Korea, helping alleviate famine. Even the George W. Bush administration, full of conservatives wary of any interaction with Pyongyang—Bush himself reportedly called the North Korean leader a "pygmy" and went so far as to say, "I loathe Kim Jong Il"—provided food aid to the country.


F or decades, the U.S., other Western nations, and even local powers like China could get away with essentially ignoring Burma’s problems. Average Burmese suffered horribly, but their pain was, for the most part, contained within the country. Thailand took the brunt of refugees, and many Thai companies actually welcomed fleeing Burmese, since they provided cheap, hardworking labor. Thousands of miles away, Washington was hardly affected by Burma’s misery, and Suu Kyi and other democratic leaders took a skeptical view of aid, insisting that it could potentially keep the regime in power longer. Given this argument, American officials felt they had license to reject increasing assistance to the country. Some prominent aid organizations, like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, pulled out of the country entirely.

But while Burma has been suffering for some time, the country’s pain now is spiraling into all-out collapse. Seeking to gain the upper hand as it prepares for state-managed national elections this year, the junta wants to take over swaths of the north and east that are now controlled by the numerous ethnic-minority armies with tens of thousands of well-armed fighters. A major conflagration could easily erupt in the area.

As fighting escalates, the nation’s already dismal refugee crisis could worsen rapidly, with hunger, disease, and refugee flows spiraling out of control. A large share of Burma’s million-plus internally displaced people could also flee the country, causing hundreds of thousands of refugees to flood into Thailand and China. As they move, the refugees, and soldiers engaged in rape and sex with prostitutes, spread HIV and other deadly diseases. Doctors Without Borders estimates that the country already has the worst HIV crisis in Asia. And as Burma’s refugee crisis worsens, so too will the HIV emergency, threatening the health of India, China, and Thailand. Parts of northeastern India along the Burmese border now face record numbers of HIV cases because of the disease spreading from Burma. Burma also appears to be a breeding ground for more dangerous forms of the virus. According to Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations, Burma’s massive internal migration causes diverse strains of the disease to mix, which has helped to spawn the deadliest forms of HIV in the region.


he flaring violence and burgeoning humanitarian catastrophe have made it harder for the U.S. and other major powers to ignore Burma. Possibly realizing that the country cannot be defined solely by a political struggle when the humanitarian crisis is spiraling out of control, Suu Kyi has publicly offered to work with Than Shwe to help get sanctions against Burma lifted.

There are also the broader consequences to weigh. The armed conflicts and the deluge of desperate refugees are threatening to spawn chaos and lawlessness on Burma’s borders, which could spread instability into eastern India, a region already wracked by its own ethnic and class-based insurgent warfare. This would give greater freedom to the narcotraffickers—one of Burma’s ethnic-minority forces, the United Wa State Army, already has transformed itself into one of the most powerful drug traffickers in the world. The situation would also create large ungoverned regions, similar to Somalia or Yemen, which could become a nexus for criminals and terrorists.

More importantly, a political vacuum in parts of Burma could allow the spread of weapons of mass destruction. For years, some Burma observers have suspected that, in order to strengthen its position internationally, the regime was trying to launch a nuclear program. Originally, this suggestion was laughed off by senior American officials, but over the past two years the international community has grown concerned that the junta may indeed have nuclear ambitions (though nuclear experts doubt it has anywhere near the capabilities it needs to actually build a bomb). A comprehensive study released in January by the Institute for Science and International Security, a respected nonprofit that conducts research on science and policy, documents a web of worrying new military links between Burma and North Korea and suspicious construction of potential nuclear facilities in Burma. "No one can ignore the possibility of significant North Korean nuclear assistance to this enigmatic military regime," the report concludes. "Burma is seeking abroad a large quantity of top-notch highly sophisticated goods with potential missile and nuclear uses."

The regime’s potential nuclear ambitions are, perhaps, the most important reason to prevent Burma from imploding. In a time of chaos, this nuclear technology easily could escape the country and find its way into dangerous hands.


G iven everything that’s at stake, the United States must begin viewing Burma as a potential failed state and preparing for the consequences. As a first step, Washington should launch a substantial new humanitarian assistance program for Burma, not only because the Burmese people desperately need assistance—a fact that could be said about citizens of the Congo, or Burkina Faso, or many other poor countries ignored by the U.S.—but also because it could help stem the slide toward chaos. This is not to say that humanitarian aid alone will fix all the woes that have led to Burma’s instability; handing out rice and cooking oil won’t necessarily persuade rebel factions to put down arms or stop the regime from brutalizing its people. But by establishing a humanitarian operation in collaboration with Burma’s neighbors, the U.S. will begin to build the institutional infrastructure it needs to respond should the situation take a sudden turn for the worse. A joint humanitarian effort is also a critical first step to forging a coordinated Burma policy so we can effectively avert a full-blown catastrophe—or at least prevent turmoil from spreading across the region.

Perhaps more importantly, Burma could become a perfect opportunity for real U.S.-China cooperation in crisis management. For this reason alone, it makes strategic sense for Washington to step up its aid to Burma, since the U.S.-China relationship will determine much of what happens around the world in the coming decades. As China grows into a global power, Washington increasingly has pressured Beijing to shoulder greater responsibility for managing crises, but from Iran to North Korea to Afghanistan the Chinese government consistently has disappointed, refusing to join international efforts to pressure rogue regimes, add troops to multinational missions like in Afghanistan, or accept refugees from places like North Korea.

Burma is different. Unlike Iran or North Korea or Sudan, China has only modest economic and strategic interests in Burma. And Chinese officials, furious about the drugs, guns, and diseases flowing from Burma into southwestern China, have issued unusually blunt public criticisms of the junta for failing to stop narcotrafficking and conflict in ethnic-minority areas. "You might not see us publicly dropping the noninterference [in other countries’ affairs] policy, but that doesn’t mean we are going to stand by on Burma," one Chinese diplomat who closely follows Burma told me. "And we realize that our relations with them hurts China’s image. There’s a reason Hu Jintao has never made a visit to Burma; we don’t want to see news coverage of him there."

What’s more, unlike in some other regions of the world, Washington can afford to let Beijing take the lead on dealing with Burma. In fact, it has done so already. In 2007, when then Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric John wanted to set up a meeting with senior Burmese officials, he turned to China as the broker and eventually held talks with the Burmese in Beijing. By allowing Beijing to lead, the U.S. will demonstrate, both to China and to other countries in the region, that Washington can play a role in a future multilateral Asia. This would provide critical strategic benefits for the United States: by demonstrating that America is adapting to Asia’s changing realities, the U.S. shows that it will remain a player in Asia for the long haul.


S o what should a new American policy toward Burma look like? First, it should avoid connecting aid to the internal political situation. This would simultaneously reassure the regime, which is always worried that aid is somehow designed to weaken its hold on power; show average Burmese that America is committed to the country for the long term; and put the United States more in line with its friends in Asia, who long have advocated divorcing aid from Burmese politics. It should also bring per capita aid levels to Burma up to regional levels, if not higher. In addition, the new aid operation should be coordinated closely with China, and, at least initially, focus on areas of need that could prevent the country from collapsing, such as working with Burmese farmers to improve agricultural productivity.

Of course, Washington and its partners must insist as much as possible upon accountability and transparency for this assistance. In some areas, the aid could be delivered into Burma from Thailand, thereby bypassing the regime in Naypyidaw and making it easier to ensure that the money is spent well; a network of NGOs focused on Burma already exists along the Thai border.

Just because it increases aid to Burma does not mean the United States should ignore the regime’s horrendous abuses. Nor should the U.S. assume that, just because the regime accepts aid, it has somehow moderated its brutality or become more open to political compromise with Suu Kyi and her party. In fact, most signs suggest the regime has little interest in cooperation with Suu Kyiit recently barred her from competing in the upcoming national elections, which are all but guaranteed to be stage-managed by the regime. It is possible, however, to aid the Burmese people and to remain critical of the junta at the same time. Washington achieves this balance with North Korea, offering food aid while simultaneously appointing a special envoy for human rights to investigate and publicize the country’s abuses. It can do this in Burma by ramping up aid while continuing to insist that real American diplomatic recognition of Burma—returning an ambassador to the country, ending sanctions, no longer treating Burma like an international pariah—be contingent on an end to the political stalemate, peace in the ethnic-minority regions, and truly free elections.

And what if the Burmese junta, which has shown it cares little for its people’s welfare, simply rejects any American assistance? It’s certainly possible. In that case, Washington at least will be able to point out to China and other Asian partners that, rather than leaving the Burmese crisis in their laps, the U.S. tried to help prevent chaos.

During the first year of the Obama administration, the White House has worked hard to convince its partners across the Pacific that it would not ignore them, as George W. Bush often had in favor of the Middle East. "The United States is back in Southeast Asia," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in a speech in Thailand last summer. By reimagining its Burma policy, Washington would show it really has returned.


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Joshua Kurlantzick is Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.  
 
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