Atiya on the Foreign Media, Thailand, and Burma
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Atiya on the Foreign Media, Thailand, and Burma

Atiya Achakulwisut is the editorial pages editor at the Bangkok Post. Usually, she is quite reasoned in her opinions, but her latest op-ed well is something truly to behold:

I am also concerned about the usually vocal members of the foreign press corps. Has one standard dropped and another popped up without us noticing? Their silence on the matter [about Aung San Suu Kyi] has been deafening.

This is a democratically elected leader of a severely oppressed country whose people have long suffered under the heavy boots of the military junta. A leader who was not only robbed of her election victory but of her basic human rights for decades, who is now facing a real threat of being tried unfairly and put away in jail for five more years. Where is the outcry from the foreign media? Where are the articles and high-minded opinion pieces condemning the undemocratic elements? Where are the lectures and derision?

BP: She really believes that the foreign media have not been critical of Burma??? There has been deafening silence: Actually one would have difficulties finding a single positive statement about the Burmese government from the foreign media – if ever there was subject on which The Independent, The Sun, Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times (for the UK papers) agree it was on criticizing the Burmese junta. Over the years foreign media editorials have been so frequent in their criticism of Burma one doesn’t know where to start. This NYT editorial from 2007 entitled “The Despotism Formerly Known as Burma” is part of a common theme.

Look one could spend weeks collating all the critical pieces so here are some from the last week from British papers which are critical of the Burmese junta, BBC, The Guardian (here, here, and here), Independent, The Times (here and here, and here). More can probably be found, but am sure you get the point BP is making.

Here are some editorials from major US papers; “Free Aung San Suu KyiKhaleej Times; “Free Aung San Suu KyiLA Times; “Myanmar’s Cowardly Generals” NYT; the Washington Post had an editorial just over a week ago entitled “Engage With Burma?”; an editorial in USA Today entitled “Show trial in Burma”; Boston Globe editorial from April entitled “Burma needs Obama’s help”; “Odd intrusion gives Burma’s junta potent weapon” SF Chronicle. There are probably plenty more including this op-ed in the WSJ and op-ed in the NY Post. Not a single one has anything positive to say about the Burmese junta.

For some historical criticism media criticism of the Burmese government and detention of Aung San Suu Kyi see here

Atiya continues:

Has the bad press been reserved for struggling democracies like Thailand? Like, if you try real hard to hold your stuff together and be compliant with Western values, you get slapped when you come up short. But if you are a fully-fledged autocracy that shuts the country off from unwanted relations (and keeps the wanted relations plus profit to yourself) who also could not care less about what the world may think, then you can be left alone. No foreign press would nag that the Burmese prime minister was not elected, that its roadmap to democracy is a coup-produced sham, or that Snr Gen Than Shwe has not been seen smiling or anything.

BP: See above. Atiya is either ignorant about what the foreign media have been saying about Burma for years or dishonest. Neither provide any comfort. Perhaps, her next op-ed will be The Nation is pro-Thaksin. This is the level of absurdity needed to sustain her argument about the foreign media being silent on Burma.

Atiya continues:

The Economist, for example, has been harsh on Thailand to the point that its own integrity can be called into question. In its April issue, for example, the magazine took aim at Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s mandate to govern. “He rode to office, unelected, thanks to the yellow shirts,” the magazine stated.

The statement would have proven the magazine’s theory about Thai democracy being usurped by undemocratic elements – had it not been factually wrong. One has one’s own doubts why such an esteemed publication would opt for dispensing false information for the sake of being critical of a country.

The same magazine has this to say when it comes to Burma: “According to this view the top generals are wicked, but not everyone inside the system is. And given the state of Myanmar’s economy, the choice may be between working with the government and not working with anyone.”

It’s probably this kind of attitude (and profit that can be made from natural resources that Burma has to offer to those who please them) which allows the Burmese dictators to feel free to oppress. They know that if they don’t care about the world, then the world will have no choice but to work with and through them. They also know that if they would just come up with some absurd charges against their political opponents, the world would not put any pressure on them except to wring their hands and sing the same old global chorus of being “so concerned“.

BP: It is the Abhisit government which has used the word “concerned” so why no criticism of them? It is governments which express concern, but can do little more because they have no ability to pressure the Burmese government.

She is equally dishonest (or just merely ignorant) if you read The Economist‘s article on Burma which she is quoting. The lead is:

The junta’s latest outrage and the debate over the West’s failed Myanmar policies

BP: This is her evidence of The Economist‘s unfairness that they call it an outrage? The Economist‘s previous article on Burma criticized the junta for its “callousness and incompetence” in hampering the aid effort

Atiya continues:

The truth is that democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi should never have been placed under house arrest and no country should be “working” with the military junta that took power by force, save to make them relinquish their grip. It is quite puzzling how the world press is ready to heap scorn and pressure on a half-baked democracy like Thailand’s and refrain from applying the same kind of heat to a fully-fledged dictatorship like Burma’s. Maybe they think it is an exercise in futility because the Burmese generals won’t care. But that would then be an act of hypocrisy

BP: On the last part of the excerpt here, see above. On the former, she is misleading (if one is to be fair to her) in the terms of using the term “working” in The Economist. Key excerpt:

The process has almost nothing to do with democracy, yet many diplomats and observers regard it as the greatest political change for a generation. After four decades of absolute military rule, three-quarters of parliament and members of the new government itself will be civilians, or at least retired soldiers. It appears that some powers will be devolved to the provinces. The junta is undergoing a generational shift. Several generals, including the junta’s leader, Senior General Than Shwe, are nearing retirement. This seems to be their bid for a peaceful old age. Sceptical as they are about the hopes for progress, for many Burmese any change is better than none.

Miss Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has not ruled out contesting the election and some survivors of a mass uprising against the army in 1988 may stand. Optimists dream that the opposition might establish a foothold in parliament, or that a business-minded, civilian, political class might slowly emerge. More important than the stance of the NLD, almost obliterated by the junta, will be that of the myriad insurgent outfits representing Myanmar’s non-Burmese ethnic groups. They are mostly observing ceasefires in the country’s 60-year civil war, but are still undecided about the election.

Nor has the outside world decided how to view the process. In February Hillary Clinton, America’s secretary of state, started a debate on Western policy when she said that neither sanctions nor engagement had worked. That debate may now be hijacked by the latest outrages.

For decades after seizing power the generals clung to it by isolating the country themselves. After the massacres that ended the 1988 revolt, America and Europe began imposing sanctions, which both recently renewed. Meanwhile, the Burmese economy is suffering from years of mismanagement, sanctions and the impact of the global financial crisis on remittances and commodity exports. Inflation is running at around 30% a year. Millions face desperate hardship.

Yet Myanmar’s rich resources of natural gas and other commodities, and the strategic access it offers western China to the Indian Ocean, mean that the country has no shortage of Asian trading partners. The regime attempted to open up to global investment in the mid-1990s, but many Western companies were quickly deterred again by divestment campaigns run by exiles and Western activists. Humanitarian aid has also been strictly limited, so that Myanmar receives $2.80 of annual aid per head compared with $55 for Sudan. Some senior foreign officials in Yangon argue for the return of the World Bank and the IMF, which left after 1988. With even a limited mandate they could help professionalise the utterly inept bureaucracy. Without that, any kind of reform process or political transition is probably impossible.

According to this view the top generals are wicked, but not everyone inside the system is. And given the state of Myanmar’s economy, the choice may be between working with the government and not working with anyone. Those arguing for more engagement believe Myanmar’s best hope is gradual change, assisted by exposure to Western influence. The junta has smashed its enemies so thoroughly that the only alternative, short of violent upheaval, might be no change at all.

BP: Atiya confuses the what The Economist and others are calling for and that is a rethink of the strategy of western policy to do with Burma – it is about what policies to implement to effect change and not silence about criticizing the Burmese junta. The reason is that the current policy of sanctions (and also little foreign aid) hasn’t worked as explained by the Washington Post:

Sanctions imposed on Burma by the United States and Europe have proved ineffectual in deflecting the Burmese generals from their course, largely because the country’s neighbors — China, Thailand and India — have continued to increase their trade with the regime.

BP: If a policy hasn’t worked, should one then just continue with this policy or re-think the policy. You have Secretary Clinton, you also have Senator Judd in an op-ed, Desmond Tutu in an op-ed in the WP etc calling on a re-think of the policy.

Instead of blaming the foreign media bogeyman, perhaps she look at politicians, the military and the establishment in Thailand, India, and China.

Fonzi has some views on Atiya’s op-ed here.