Sanctions Realities

By Stephen Brookes in Yangon
for Asia Times, February 29, 1997

When the United States made good on its threat to impose economic sanctions on Myanmar last week, was it a bold and courageous move to stand up unilaterally in favor of democracy and human rights? Or was it a bit of political stunt-flying done for domestic applause, that may end up crashing to the ground?

The advocates of sanctions say it was the former. American foreign policy, they argue, should be fundamentally guided by moral concerns. As the world's only superpower, Washington has the obligation to set the tone for international relations and promote freedom throughout the world. To back down from that obligation would be to trivialize America's role in global affairs. The United States, they say, should always side with those struggling for democracy and human rights.

... did America really stand up for human rights, or just do what was politically expedient? ...

But the counter-argument is that American foreign policy-makers should be pragmatic in the pursuit of American interests abroad. If Washington conducts foreign policy along human rights lines rather than hard-headed realpolitik, it will inevitably get bogged down in self-defeating confusion. Every other country in the world is pursuing its own interests in foreign affairs, the pragmatists argue. If the United States fails to, it will inevitably find itself isolated and ineffectual on the global stage, thereby lessening its power and influence.

That's exactly what has happened in US policy towards Myanmar. President Bill Clinton's failure to establish a clear and decisive foreign policy in his first term created a vacuum -- and Washington abhors a political vacuum. In rushed politicians and interest groups, each pursuing their own agenda. For Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, the de facto leader of the pro-sanctions movement, Myanmar presented a wonderful opportunity to embarass the Democratic Clinton administration by protraying it as 'soft' on authoritarian regimes.

"McConnell doesn't really care about human rights in Burma," one political analyst in Washington told me recently. "He just hates Clinton, and wants to hold his feet to the fire  -- and win a few political points for the Republicans."

And in the end, it was the realities of domestic politics that forced the sanctions decision. The original, and much tougher, legislation introduced by McConnell in late 1995 was supplanted last year by the milder Cohen-Feinstein amendment, allowing -- but not requiring -- Clinton to impose a ban on new investment in the event of continued political repression in Myanmar. McConnell and other Republicans stepped up their pressure to impose sanctions this year, and were threatening to withhold support in the Senate for key bills that Clinton wanted passed. Moreover, they were preparing sanctions legislation that would not only be tougher than the Cohen-Feinstein bill, but would be mandatory.

That put Clinton in a bind. He knew that the sanctions would have no real effect on Myanmar, since American investment there is negligible. The pro-democracy movement would receive a momentary boost in morale, but the sanctions would reduce American influence in Yangon to nothing and alienate the member countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations, which are preparing to welcome Myanmar into the group. Moreover, they would impede Washington's ability to control heroin production in the region, and to help the pro-democracy movement. In short, sanctions would completely sideline the United States as a player in Myanmar.

So why pursue a self-defeating policy? In the end, it came down to political horse-trading. McConnell was intent on sanctions, and Clinton needed his support in the Senate. According to sources in Washington, the crunch came at last week's Senate vote on the Chemical Weapons Convention. This was something that Clinton badly wanted, and he needed to make sure that McConnell was on board. Weighing the pro's and con's, Clinton made a last-minute political decision to sacrifice Myanmar. The White House leaked the decision in time for McConnell to get the news before the crucial vote.

Sen. Mitch Mcconnell
That's why, when Clinton made the official announcement, he still didn't have the executive order implementing the decision. (The State Department had its own spin on that, of course. When asked why the administration was in such a rush, spokesman Nicholas Burns said that it was "important to announce [the decison] to send a signal to the Burmese." Ah.)

So what happens next? The sanctions probably won't have a discernible effect on the Myanmar economy, where most new US investment (outside of the oil and gas industries) has been coming through the British Virgin Islands for the past two years anyway. The military State Law and Order Restoration Council that runs Myanmar according to its own rules, and is shrugging off the US move. And if past actions are an indication of the future, it may find some way to retaliate against the US move -- although what move it might take is still anybody's guess.

In Washington, meanwhile, McConnell will continue to use the Myanmar to harass Clinton, and will probably press for more sanctions, including withdrawal of already-committed investment and a ban on travel by US citizens to Myanmar. If those measures are imposed, tit-for-tat measures could escalate, compounded by resentment from the ASEAN countries at US heavy-handedness in the region. Meanwhile, the pro-democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi remains yoked to a policy whose aim is to undermine the economy -- not a popular political goal anywhere in the world, and one that is costing her support in Myanmar, and has already led to a split in her party over the issue.

So did America really stand up bravely for democracy and human rights? Actually, as Secretary of State Madelaine Albright admitted, the administration had simply done what was politically expedient.

When asked why the administration had imposed sanctions on Myanmar but not on China (which has a very poor human rights record), she said America needed to have "a flexible approach [to human rights violations] depending upon what our national interests are, and we have to understand where we have strategic relationships that require us to take a different approach."

As in the corridors of Congress, for example?

Posted on Sunday, July 29, 2007 at 04:53PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment

Burma, ASEAN and the Politics of Responsibility

By Stephen Brookes in Yangon
Asia Times May 30, 1997

Just after daybreak on the 9th of May, 18,000 identically-clad people assembled in the Kantarawaday stadium in the town of Loikaw in upper Myanmar. Sitting cross-legged on the ground in evenly-spaced rows, they waited patiently in the early morning sun as the threat to their existence was explained to them.

"As all the comrades are aware, ASEAN is extending welcome to Myanmar's integration," a speaker intoned sternly to the crowd. "But neo-colonialists have resorted to all means to prevent Myanmar's integration into ASEAN," he warned. "Neo-colonialists outside the country and their stooges inside colluded in their ruthless schemes to jeopardize Myanmar's relations with South East Asian nations, cause social and religious conflicts and incite riots and unrest!"

The rhetoric may have been clumsy, but the message was clear. And the pro-ASEAN, anti-US rally was only one of dozens staged recently by the Union Solidarity and Development Association, the political wing of Myanmar's ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), as foreign minsters from the Association of South East Asian Nations prepare to meet Saturday to settle the date for Myanmar's admission.

Albright:  Asia not interested
The issue has generated an international squabble, and the battle lines have been drawn for more than a year. The SLORC has made admission a top priority, while opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is dead-set against it. The ASEAN leaders, saying they want to promote stability and economic development in the region, are in favor, while the United States has been energetically lobbying ASEAN to delay, saying it should put more pressure on Myanmar's government to improve its human rights record.

"I would very much like to slow down the possibility of Burma [Myanmar] coming into the ASEAN,'' US Secretary of State Madelaine Albright told a Senate committee hearing last week. "We have tried very hard to get the ASEAN countries to follow our  steps, but they don't seem to be interested."

In fact, the bickering is just political theater. Everyone knows that Myanmar's membership this year is a sure thing, whether it happens in July (which looks increasingly likely) or in December, and a five month wait makes no real difference to anyone in the region.

But the timing issue has presented an opportunity for political posturing on every side. The United States has used it to pretend it's tough on authoritarian regimes. The SLORC has used it to attack Suu Kyi as a neo-colonialist and an enemy of the state. And ASEAN has used it to show that it is an assertive body that has its own mind and makes its own decisions -- and is not afraid to stand up to the West.

Most of Asia will be relieved when the decision is finally announced and the snarling is over. Nevertheless, the debate over Myanmar has done one important thing: it has brought both the romanticism of the West and the pragmatism of South East Asia into sharp relief.

Washington's policy, as exemplified by the economic sanctions it announced last month, is to isolate the SLORC diplomatically and undermine the Myanmar economy. This is supposed to bring about democratic change, although no one in Washington has explained exactly how, and most analysts agree that unilateral sanctions have almost no significant economic impact.

The truth is, the American sanctions were never meant to be a realistic tactic for promoting democracy. Rather, they were merely a gesture to express disapproval of Myanmar's military government. "There are times when the United States needs to stand up and say a situation in a country is so reprehensible and human rights are being violated by such a broad degree that we have do something about it," sniffed a State Department spokesman when the sanctions were announced.

But to many Asian eyes, the sanctions appear merely irresponsible -- the act of a country that doesn't have to live with the consequences of its actions. "America acts tough on Myanmar, because they don't have to worry about what happens," a Japanese businessman in Yangon said after the announcement. "If Myanmar becomes unstable, they don't care. It doesn't affect the United States in any way. But they're afraid to put sanctions on China, because they know they will have to pay a price."

This lack of responsibility lends a curious irony to the moral stance taken by Suu Kyi and the United States. Both are careful to avoid saying that sanctions are designed to create economic instability and social unrest -- but privately most activists admit that that's exactly what they are supposed to do.

But who picks up the pieces if the US policy is successful, and Myanmar's economy does collapse? America has been notably silent on this. If Washington can successfully weaken the SLORC's grip on power, is it prepared to send in the Marines if civil war breaks out among the many armed ethnic groups? Here too, Washington has been silent. Would it prepared to prop up the National League for Democracy with money and military support until it could form a stable government? Again -- more silence.

ASEAN, on the other hand, cannot afford to act so casually. They know that it isn't really important whether they "approve" of the SLORC or not. What matters is the reality: the SLORC is running the country and is probably going to run it for some time. ASEAN can't indulge in the posturing of the United States -- it knows that if Myanmar's economy collapses or the country becomes unstable, then the entire region will suffer the consequences. And that is something that, as responsible leaders, they must defend against.

"We have all agreed not to leave Myanmar behind," Malaysian Foreign Minister Abdullah Badawi said earlier this month. "Otherwise, the situation may deteriorate to a point that will jeopardise the stability of the region."
Moreover, if Western sanctions generate instability in Myanmar, it is ASEAN which will have to clean up the damage. As Philippine Foreign Minister Domingo Siazon suggested on May 1, "Those who are far away, if this particular case should not turn out to be successful, they do not really suffer the strategic consequences. We are involved, we are very near. You cannot leave Myanmar to collapse or to have an internal revolution."

So is it really any wonder that ASEAN, as Albright complained, does "not seem to be interested" in following the US lead?

Posted on Friday, July 27, 2007 at 01:25PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | Comments1 Comment | References1 Reference

Economic Disneyland

By Stephen Brookes in Yangon, for Asia Times

mickey.jpg The New York-based National Labor Committee lashed out this week at the Disney corporation, accusing it of "exploiting workers in a multitude of countries" and vowing to expand its pressure on Disney's suppliers in Haiti to include those in Asia -- most notably in Myanmar.

"By focusing solely on Disney operations in Haiti," the group said on October 12, "NLC ran the considerable risk that Disney management would be tempted to cut-and-run from Haiti.  The decision to expand the focus of the Disney campaign adds a measure of safety to Disney's Haitian workers.  Disney management should now understand that Disney cannot escape the heat by pulling out of Haiti."

Conversely, however, the group then demanded that Disney and other U.S.-based apparel companies "pull all of their operations out of Burma", as part of an international economic boycott of the military regime there. (Burma is the former name for Myanmar.)

In other words: Disney should stay in Haiti because pulling out would cost workers their jobs, but it should "cut and run" from Myanmar even if it puts thousands of people out of work.

The inconsistent approach, say some observers in Yangon, underscores a key truth about the call for sanctions.

... "myanmar has become the fashionable place to boycott" ...

"Myanmar has become a whipping boy for the world's human rights campaigners," said one businessman. "Things are much worse in countries like China and everybody knows it. But Myanmar has become the fashionable place to boycott. People who couldn't find it on a map want to slap sanctions on it."

The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) that rules Myanmar has come under harsh attack from labor and human rights groups, and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has called for an international economic boycott against the country.

But domestic and foreign garment manufacturers in Myanmar, who employ some 50,000 people in Yangon alone, are disturbed by what they see as a strategy that could create long-term damage in the economy and hurt the people who are most in need.

"We have 3,600 workers who are dependent on us, and it's my responsibility to find the buyers so they can keep working", said the owner of the company which has been making the American Character Classics clothes for Disney in Myanmar. "We don't want to lay anybody off. So we'll just have to find new buyers to replace Disney."

But will sanctions improve the situation in Myanmar? It's instructive to look at the case of Haiti, where the international community imposed an economic embargo after Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed in a 1991 military coup.

The similarities between the two countries are striking. Both Aristide and Suu Kyi are highly charismatic figures who won overwhelming victories in democratic elections. Both enjoyed massive popular support among their nations' poor. Both were supplanted by military regimes and exiled -- Aristide to Washington, Suu Kyi to house arrest. Both lacked economic training, and were hostile towards the business community. And both called for the international community to impose economic sanctions against their own countries in order to bring them into power.

Did the sanctions work in Haiti? Clearly not. Despite three years of an almost total embargo, Aristide was only able to return to Haiti when the United States brought him back in a military operation. And when he returned, it was to an economy that was in large part ruined, while the military leaders -- the targets of the boycott -- retired in luxury.

As Christopher Caldwell wrote in an article on Haiti two years ago in The American Spectator, prior to Aristide's return: "The sanctions do not harm the army at all -- if anything, they foster a new and necessary contraband mafia, which the army takes part in and taxes. And in the name of saving lives, the embargo kills Haitians at the rate of at least a thousand a month, according to research by the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies."

Moreover, the country's export-oriented light manufacturing sector -- much of it in garments -- was essentially destroyed by the embargo. The number of industrial jobs fell from more than 150,000 in 1990 to fewer than 10,000 by 1995, and most of those losses came as foreign companies, including 200 from the United States, left as a result of the embargo. They went to Guatemala, Honduras and other developing countries. And when they left, the jobs left, too -- many of them for good.

Neither did Aristide's 1994 return bolster the country's economy. Despite massive infusions of aid, policymaking virtually ground to a halt as squabbles broke out in the disorganized, fledgling goverment. The planned privatization of Haiti's nine state enterprises stalled, the ruling Organisation Politique Lavalas has been unable to disburse aid effectively, and corruption is said to be rampant. Arguments over economic policy finally led to the resignation of the prime minister, Smarck Michel, in October 1995.

In fact, the lack of commitment to economic reform has dampened aid from international organizations, and urgently-needed private foreign investment is only coming back slowly. Unemployment is running at a brutal 80 percent. And Aristide's successor, Rene Preval, admitted at his inauguration that Haiti was on the brink of bankruptcy as a result of corrupt public officials and low tax returns.
The lessons of Haiti might well be applied to the case of Myanmar, as the threat of sanctions increases. Having failed to restore democracy -- while creating a severely damaged economy -- would sanctions have a different effect in Myanmar?

"The problem is that the SLORC is not going to bow to pressure," said one analyst. "They're a military government -- they'll put the country on a war footing if they have to. And Suu Kyi is intransigent in her opposition to investment. The standoff could continue for years. So the question is, what happens to the people if the country becomes an economic battleground? But no one seem to be thinking that far ahead."

(Asia Times, October 19, 1996) 

Posted on Friday, July 27, 2007 at 12:24PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment

Sanctioning Burma: Que Sera Sera

By Stephen Brookes in Kyaing Tong, Myanmar
for Asia Times April 24, 1997

It was about half an hour after sunset, and the hills of Shan State in northeast Burma were deepening into rich shades of blue, as the sky darkened and the lights of the town blinked on below. There were five of us on the balcony of the Kyaing Tong Hotel, four journalists and an articulate young colonel from Myanmar's Office of Strategic Studies, and we were engaged in an unusually open discussion about politics in this troubled country. Suddenly a reporter from Japan's NHK burst in.

"CNN just announced that the United States is imposing sanctions on Burma," he said.

                                                                               Stephen Brookes
The conversation stopped. We all looked over at the colonel, who a few minutes earlier had been telling jokes and describing his experiences as a soldier fighting the Burma Communist Party insurgents in this same part of the country.  His face went taut, as if he'd been slapped, and he stared off into the dark hills.

"This is just politics," he said grimly, after a few moments. "We aren't politicians -- we're only trying to develop the country. We survived without anyone's help for 26 years, and we can do it again if we have to."

It was a strange and significant moment. Just about every observer in Myanmar had assumed that a US ban on new investment was inevitable, but the news had come in the middle of a trip led by Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, one of Myanmar's top leaders, to show journalists and diplomats the government's efforts to wipe out opium and develop the region's economy. The trip was pure public relations, but it was also a lesson in the realities of power politics in a country that faces potentially explosive divisions.

The ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council was able to take us into the Shan region, for example, because it had struck a cease-fire arrangement with the drug-trafficking insurgents who formerly held control. A stable modus vivendi had been achieved.

"We allow them to keep their arms, and we work together with them to develop the economy," the young colonel had explained earlier that day in Mong La, a rapidly-expanding town on the Chinese border. "Everybody's tired of fighting, so now we're cooperating for economic development," he said, pointing to a group of soldiers lining the airstrip where our helicopter had landed. "The guys with the G-2's are ours," he said, indicating the semi-automatic weapons they carried, "and the guys with the AK-47's are the former insurgents." They looked to us like part of the same army.

... sanctions reflected America's failure to come to grips with realities in the region ...

That cease-fire with the insurgents was the result of a realistic strategy on the part of the SLORC, explained one diplomat on the trip.

"The West has a strategy of arresting drug traffickers and seizing their assets," he said. "But here, that doesn't work. It takes a long time to eradicate the opium, and you need to have an economy. So the government goes to the traffickers and says, 'cut back some of your activities and we'll turn a blind eye to the rest, as long as you put money into building the economy.' It's a transitional process, and it takes a long time."

So when the US sanctions were announced -- with Secretary of State Madelaine Albright saying that the SLORC had "chosen not to listen" to US demands for political change, and had "failed to cooperate in the war against drugs" -- many diplomats in Myanmar suggested that the ban reflected America's failure to come to grips with realities in the region, both in terms of drug control and political evolution.

"It's hard to see how the US ban will realistically improve anything in Myanmar," said one diplomat at a subdued reception in the hotel, shortly after the news had spread throughout the group. "It only creates more intransigence on both the government's part, and on the part of Aung San Suu Kyi." Another Western diplomat agreed, predicting that unilateral sanctions would completely end Washington's already-weak influence in Yangon. "This must be America's new policy of 'splendid isolation'," he noted drily.

The US charge d'affaires (who had only received the news a few hours before CNN announced it), was off in a private discussion with an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but among the other ambassadors, military attaches and drug enforcement experts in the crowded room that night, there was almost a sense that the sanctions were irrelevant.

"US sanctions have already been factored into ASEAN's decision to admit Myanmar", said one ASEAN diplomat. "They don't matter to us at all." The Japanese ambassador also shrugged the move off, saying that Tokyo was concerned that a sanctions policy would isolate Myanmar. Beijing had a policy of non-interference in other countries' affairs, added the Chinese ambassador, noting that "Myanmar needs to go its own way".

And in the middle of the room, surrounded by a small crowd, was Gen. Khin Nyunt. He was dressed casually, and seemed tired and disappointed at the news, but not angry. The US move "will have no effect," he told us, as he sipped a glass of orange juice. "In politics you have to expect these things." Asked whether the sanctions would cause the SLORC to reconsider any of his policies, he said, "We don't have anything to reconsider, because we are walking in a straight line. And we have many friends in the region."

It was a subdued crowd that left Kyaing Tong the next morning. The journalists were bundled onto a plane and sent off to Tachilek, where we wandered around listlessly in the dust for a while before being fed and taken back to Yangon. It had been a long trip, and we had all retreated into our own little worlds of fatigue and heat exhaustion. As we were loaded onto the bus for the final trip out to the airport, I found myself sitting behind Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt, an all-purpose academic who had been brought along for our benefit. As the bus started up, he suddenly burst into song.

"Que sera, sera," he sang, "whatever will be, will be." He looked around cheerfully, to see if anyone wanted to join him in a Doris Day sing-along. No one did. "The future's not ours to see," he urged. We were oblivious. "Que sera, sera", he said quietly. Then he fell silent, too.


Posted on Monday, April 17, 2006 at 08:27AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | Comments2 Comments

All's Fair in the Image War


By Stephen Brookes in Yangon
for Asia Times

After a year of almost constant attack by the international press, is Myanmar's much-maligned military junta on a new campaign to change its image?

To judge by recent events, a serious public relations strategy is well underway. An official information committee has been revived, government officials are being made available for the first time in years, regular press conferences are being held, and there's a new sense of openness and even cordiality toward the media -- a phenomenon that bewildered journalists in Yangon are still trying to absorb.

Suu Kyi meets the press                                           Stephen Brookes
"They just called me up out of the blue and told me I could have a visa," said one well-known reporter in Yangon a few weeks ago. "I have no idea why -- they've been blacklisting me for years."

The policy is a dramatic shift from a year ago, when pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest on July 10, 1995. The event quickly became the summer's top international mediafest. More than a hundred and twenty journalists descended on Yangon for her first public appearance, and for the next week there was an almost non-stop schedule of interviews, press conferences, photo opportunities -- even a massive tea party for the media at her home. It was a smart strategy, and it paid off: Her face was on the cover of most of the world's newsmagazines, and on global television every night.

The military junta which had released her, meanwhile, maintained a stony silence, issuing no statements and refusing all requests for interviews.

"This is bizarre," said one television correspondent at the time. "It's the government's first chance to tell the world that they're not so bad after all -- and they won't even answer the phone."

And that, more or less, has been the pattern for how Suu Kyi and the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council have managed their media relations ever since. Deeply mistrustful of the press, the SLORC has kept it at arms length, letting journalists in but rarely meeting with them. It had no official spokesman, and to get the goverment's views on even the most harmless topic, reporters had to submit a request in writing -- which might or might not eventually result in an interview. Meanwhile, some reporters found themselves blacklisted, and others continued to come in on tourist visas.

Suu Kyi, meanwhile -- articulate, photogenic, and available -- maintained her position as the darling of the international press, keeping her door open to everyone from Cable Network News to an obscure children's magazine called Shambala Sun. She began writing a regular column for the Japanese paper Mainichi Shimbun, and there was always a camera crew or two at the weekend speeches outside her Yangon home.

The SLORC uneasily tolerated the situation. But everything changed suddenly in May, when Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy announced it intended to draw up a new constitution. Tensions shot up dramatically as the goverment rounded up hundreds of NLD delegates -- and journalists who might otherwise have ignored the NLD convention poured into the country as the government, too late to stem the tide, hastily stopped issuing new visas.

The arrests, not surprisingly, created another mediafest, and no one understood that better than Suu Kyi herself. "How many of you would have come here if it weren't for all the arrests?" she asked journalists gleefully at a press conference during the convention. "We sometimes think we have a secret friend in the government."

The government responded by launching a war of bitter and sometimes comical invective in the state-run press. Calling Suu Kyi a "puppet princess" of neo-colonialists, the press attacked her incessantly as the "royal mother of the West" and the "democracy sorceress". The top two officials of the NLD, Tin Oo and Kyi Maung, were dubbed "the two clowns", while the NLD itself was renamed the "Flat Earth Society Dance Troupe".

Moreover, the SLORC adopted an even more hostile attitude toward the foreign press, instituting tight new restrictions on journalist visas. And at the Asean Regional Forum in Jakarta, Foreign Minister Ohn Gyaw admitted that certain journalists were blacklisted. "If there is no goodwill, then why should they come and write bad things?" he asked, defending the policy as "simple human relations."

... “sometimes we think we have a secret friend in the government” ...

In contrast to the SLORC's blunt tactics, meanwhile, Suu Kyi's international supporters had been pursuing a sophisticated, high-tech public relations strategy. Through Burmanet, an internet information service that reaches about 5,000 subscribers, the pro-democracy movement was able to link up sympathizers around the world and cooordinate their actions. And in Washington, the Burma Project of George Soros' Open Society Institute was publishing Burma Debate, a well-written, expensively-produced magazine that came out every two months with mostly pro-NLD articles.

The campign was effective. Students on campuses around the world were able to organize consumer boycotts against Pepsi and other consumer products, and sanctions legislation was pushed forward in Washington and Europe.

"American policy toward Myanmar is completely in the hands of a small group of activists," said a diplomat in Yangon recently. "And it's because they're so well organized and know how to deal with the media."

But in July, it suddenly seemed as if Suu Kyi's honeymoon with the press was ending. Journalists were starting to grumble that interviews with Suu Kyi never produced anything but the same platitudes they had been hearing for the past year.

"You ask her questions, and as you're writing down the answers you think, 'this is great'", said a reporter for one Asian newsmagazine recently. "But then when you look at your notes later, you realize there's really nothing there."

For her part, Suu Kyi began publicly complaining about the press, saying in one of her weekend speeches that they always asked the same questions, and that it was a chore to meet with them.

But some analysts say that was partly her own fault.

"She doesn't tolerate criticism any better than the SLORC," said a former NLD member. "And she was a bit spoiled by all the positive press she got last summer." Publications which have written critically about the NLD or suggested that economic sanctions were a counterproductive strategy have found themselves labeled as "SLORC propagandists" by Suu Kyi and blacklisted. (The list, incidentally, includes Asia Times, and both Time Magazine and the Far Eastern Economic Review have also been refused interviews in recent weeks, reportedly for similar reasons).

But even as Suu Kyi's relations with the press were getting more strained, the SLORC was starting to realize that its attacks on her were backfiring. The daily diatribes in the official New Light of Myanmar kept her in the public eye, and the personal attacks on her won her sympathy within the country from people who might previously have ignored her.

Moreover, members of the international business community had quietly been urging the government to rethink its information strategy. "This government is doing all the right things, but not getting any of the credit," said one foreign businessman in Yangon. "The country is far more peaceful and stable than the world thinks from reading the press. If they would just hire a good Madison Avenue public relations company, half their problems would be over."

No Madison Avenue companies have been hired, but in July the attacks on Suu Kyi stopped in the English language press, and the government announced that it would start holding regular monthly press conferences to report on what it called the "real situation" in the country, including economic development and foreign investment.

A revived Information Committee would "help those who would like the world to see the other side of the coin [and] not only the side Myanmar-bashers want others to see" by making officials more accessible to both local and foreign media, a report in the state press said. "In the absence of such briefings or proper sourcing," it added, "journalists wander around, getting whatever they could, forming opinion on whatever is told them by those they could easily meet."

Will the SLORC be able to turn its image around? It's obviously too soon to tell. But in "The Agenda," his book on the Clinton Administration, Bob Woodward quotes a public relations professional who offers some hard-headed advice on handling reporters that both the SLORC and Suu Kyi might be wise to heed.

"Manufacture a steady stream of doggie biscuits for the press," the professional advised, and they would "gleefully lick the hand that fed them." But run out of news biscuits, he warned, and the press "would eat your arm and try for more."


(Asia Times, August 29, 1996) 

Posted on Sunday, April 16, 2006 at 11:30PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment
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