Human security has been a relatively alien concept due to the overwhelming concentration on the security of nation-state. The making of the “security” discourse in Myanmar is arbitrary. It is arbitrary because it has been shaped and reshaped according to the changing power interests of the Myanmar elite. The state becomes equivalent to the nation. Hence, the security of the nation is equal the regime security.
Scholars explain this through the actor-centric security paradigm. 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 centre of analysis.
From this viewpoint, 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 interest. 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 the safeguarding of the nation-state.
In Myanmar’s case, a number of factors are responsible for the existence of state-centric of security. From the bitter memory of being colonised by the British, the civil war throughout the Cold War, to the unending ethnic insurgencies, the security discourse nominated the state as the most important institution capable of defending the country. This explains why the military rule in Myanmar had endured, effectively because the junta claimed to protect national security; yet, what exactly they protected remained obscured.
Maung Zarni crafts a useful framework in exploring the relationship between human security in Myanmar and Western advocacy. He argues that there are three discourses of “security” adopted by the West. These are: national security, global security and human security. Whereas the first two discourses have gained much attention from Western governments primarily because of their interests involved, the last has often been ignored even when they promoted the awareness of human rights in Myanmar.
Western advocacy on security in Myanmar has heavily focused on the outside interests in the endurance of the regime and the way in which such regime has engendered the impact on global security. Zarni emphasises, “The third—human—or people-centred–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”.
As the Cold War came to an end, what also came was the shift of the West’s advocacy policy toward political situation in Myanmar. The brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in August 1988 and the rejection of the election result in 1990 which saw the triumph of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) partly influenced the change in the West’s position toward Myanmar’s human rights situation.
Yet, the change was merely cosmetic. The emergence of Suu Kyi as a democratic icon fighting for democracy and the protection of human rights perfectly served as the reference point in the new advocacy policy of the West. But in reality, the West invested tremendously in safeguarding its core interests in the Middle East and North Africa. Strategically, the United States was willing to enter into wars in the Middle East so as to protect those interests, be they political or economic. Meanwhile, in 2005, the United States referred to Burma/Myanmar as “outpost of tyranny”. Despite being labelled as enemy of democracy, Myanmar has never been perceived as the United State’s core interest.
As part of readjusting its position, the American government implemented a liberal Western advocacy to protest against the appalling human security situation in Myanmar. This liberal Western advocacy was made possible because Myanmar was one of the places where the West felt it could afford to live out its liberal values, as 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. The West then imposed sanctions against the Myanmar regime, realising that the shut-down of 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 the persistent military rule in Myanmar, but also the terrible human security situation. In response, the military regime intensified its repressive policy vis-à-vis its own people, creating an even more devastating human insecurity situation. For a long time, Western sanctions had proven to be futile.
The changes inside Myanmar, at the same time, coincided with US President Barack Obama’s innovative policy toward Asia—the so-called “Asia Pivot”. Once again, the new political landscape in the region forced the United States to readjust its focus on Myanmar’s regime, rather than the dire human rights situation inside the country. The new concept of US policy toward Myanmar is now a pragmatic concept—engaging the regime and encouraging its democratisation with lucrative investments from the United States supposedly to facilitate the economic opening up after long years of the country’s economic hardship.
The engagement with the Thien Sien government is now a product of the United States’ Asia Pivot in relation to Myanmar. The United States no longer needs Myanmar dissidents and exile leaders to legitimise the substance of its policy toward Myanmar. Together with Suu Kyi, the Obama administration has reinvented Myanmar whose old image as an outpost of tyranny was replaced by a new friendly business partner image. In responding to the opening up process of Myanmar, Washington has sought to create a comfort zone for the leaders in Naypyidaw primarily to do business together and at the same time to veer the country away from the Chinese influence. Lifting sanctions, engaging with the Myanmar elite, paying more attention to Myanmar’s political reconciliation and promoting human rights are now parts of the new policy package designed to welcome Myanmar’s political transition and to ensure the US interests in such process.
Apparently, the US admiration of Myanmar’s democratisation and of course its defence of human rights in the country neatly unveils an ethical standpoint of the Obama administration. But the real gist of the new upgraded Myanmar policy of the United States has been security-commerce centric—being wary of the threats from the old military elite and in the meantime needing to engage economically with the new regime for the United States’ own benefits.
This view of the realpolitik, or in a more diplomatic term—pragmatism, is indeed dominating the West in terms of its new approach in dealing with developments in Myanmar. However, pragmatism poses a dilemma for the West. It needs to be pragmatic to grasp any opportunities which emerge in the process of transition. But in so doing, its promotion of human rights and the support for human security could be compromised. Like in the past, the security-centric view of the West eclipsed its seriousness to tackle human insecurity issues. Today, while the West finds it is important to remain pragmatic in managing its relations with Myanmar, its concerns over the lack of human security are belittled. The fact that the atrocious human security situation still persists today in Myanmar is a testament of the ineffectiveness of the new approach by the West.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.