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Speech by Derek Tonkin

Derek Tonkin

Formerly HM Ambassador to Thailand and Laos 1986-89, and HM Ambassador to Vietnam 1980-82.  Chairman, Network Myanmar.

On: Myanmar or Burma : Can the West Help?

20th October 2008

Bo Aung Din addressed the Group immediately afterwards.

“The Confucian philosopher Mencius decreed that old men with white hair ought not to be forced to work but should be cared for.  I’m sure Alastair Darling has not read that.  When I retired from the Diplomatic Service, now already eighteen years ago, my wife decreed that I should go out to work, because how could she possibly retire on a civil servant’s pension?  Nowadays I would say that the civil servant’s pension is really worth quite a lot, so I’m particularly pleased that I’ve still got my pension, and long may it continue.

The subject we’re to discuss tonight is Myanmar or Burma: Can the West Help?  So perhaps I might start by saying a few words about Myanmar or Burma.  I have a preference for the use of the word Burma: it’s the name that I know; it’s the name that I understand, and it has so many historical connotations for me.  However, as a former diplomat, I must recognise that Myanmar is, in international terms, and according to international protocol, the name of the country.  It is seated as Myanmar in the United Nations, where all 192 members recognise it as Myanmar.

 On any official communications, Myanmar is the only name that can be used.  When HM The Queen signs credentials for a new ambassador, it is to the head of state of the Union of Myanmar.  And from 2010, if the new constitution comes into force, it will become the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. 

When I met Aung San Suu Kyi in December 1999, she mentioned to me that in the 1950s there had been a discussion in the Burmese parliament about whether they should move to the word Myanmar (which of course has been the Burmese name for the country for a very long time), or whether they should stay with Burma. 

The feeling at that time, on purely mellifluous grounds, was that it would be very difficult for non-Burmese to say the word Myanmar, as it is two syllables, not three.  The only word that seems to rhyme with it in English is ‘miasma’, and that is not a particularly good word to use! 

It doesn’t surprise me that this discussion has come back again – it does reflect, I think, the move of the military regime towards a strong nationalist feeling.  That is why the organisation which we set up only twelve months ago is called ‘Network Myanmar’ quite deliberately, as that is the name of the country.  Nonetheless, tonight I would like to use the word Burma because that is the name I have grown up with.

I should perhaps say that I am not the only one in this audience tonight who, as one of the 52 former British Ambassadors, signed a letter to then Prime Minister Tony Blair, complaining about his Middle Eastern policies.  In February this year the Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary gave a speech in honour of Aung San Suu Kyi, which he called ‘The Diplomatic Imperative’

In this speech he said a number of things which I found rather strange.  He referred to the protests led by the monks in September last year as ‘a civilian surge’, whereas it seemed to me that the monks could hardly be described as civilians.  They are a very powerful and a most respectful body of people who protested, firstly against the treatment of some of their members at Pakokku on 5th September when they were beaten up, but secondly, out of compassion for the people of Burma. 

So it struck me as rather strange that the Foreign Secretary seemed to be encouraging civilian surges of this kind.  Then I noticed later on that when talking about how democracy and human rights can be promoted throughout the world, he spoke about situations where the hard power of targeted sanctions, international criminal proceedings, security guarantees and military intervention will be necessary. 

Now, I agree with him quite strongly on the first three; I’m not sure about military intervention, and it was a matter that came up in the House of Commons recently, raised particularly by Malcolm Rifkind, who was really rather critical of the suggestion that military intervention was ever any solution to the problems that we have faced.

If I can keep on a parliamentary note, I noticed in that same debate that the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, David Liddington, gave a very good speech on human rights and democracy, and I support generally everything that he said. 

However, his suggestion that Malaysia, Indonesia and all the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations have it in their power and influence to influence the survival and the manner of government of the Burmese junta concerned me.  He also said that every bit of diplomatic weight that the United Kingdom can bring to bear will be used to determine a European approach for those discussions, and to put the maximum pressure on our Asian friends in order to secure a measure of greater liberty and common decency for the people of Burma who have suffered far too long. 

Now, my problem here is that in the discussions I’ve had in South East Asia, reaction was that it is they who should be putting pressure on us to change our policies.  They said to me,

“You in Europe, you come to us and you say you are concerned about human rights and democracy in Burma.  This we well understand, and we for our part are trying to do what we can in our own quiet way, but apart from that, in South East Asia, in China, in India, we have so many other interests and so many other concerns.  Whether we like it or not, Burma is our neighbour.  Somehow we have to get along with them; there are many difficulties that we face, particularly over matters like refugees, the flow of narcotics, HIV-AIDS, the exodus of workers, and we try to resolve these as best we can in discussions with the Burmese – in many committees, in ASEAN, in regional organisations.  In other words, our interests are multilateral, are very substantial and cover a broad spectrum.  Yours only seem to cover human rights and democracy, and you come to us and you say to us, ‘We want you to exert all this pressure on us, on China, on Thailand, on Singapore, and so on and so forth’ – and yet your policies have meant that you no longer have any influence with the generals.  You have slapped sanctions on them, you have made it clear to them that you would like to see regime change; and having got yourself into a position where they no longer want to talk to you, you then come to us, and you say to us, ‘Now we want you to do what we’ve been doing.’”

So their answer to me was,

Forget it!  We are not interested in slapping sanctions as you have done.  We think they are totally counter-productive; we think that all that has happened as a result of these sanctions is that they have become more recalcitrant, more reluctant to listen to what is being said in the outside world, and that this has delayed the process of reform and democracy in Burma.”

Now, I think there was a reflection of this during the recent cyclone Nargis, when I think all of us were astounded at what seemed to be the almost reckless abandonment of the people by the military junta.  How could they be so callous as not to go immediately to the support of their countrymen? 

Of course, they received a lot of criticism, and it was very well deserved.  Yet I am still waiting to see any quiet assessment of why the generals behaved in this way – why it is, in terms of what I would call traditional Burmese kinship, that the ruler is seen to be there to rule and provide security and stability, yet what happens out in the villages in not his concern.

Then of course there was a lot of pressure put by the international community: in the United Nations Security Council, Bernard Kouchner particularly raised the possibility of a resolution which would compel the junta to accept aid.  He even went so far as to say on one occasion that he would be sending in his ship Le Mistral the following day, unless there was a satisfactory response.  However, this was the challenge that he couldn’t accept because overnight his military had told him,

“Mr Foreign Minister, Sir, please can you give us guidance – what happens if we’re fired on?  Where do we actually land the supplies that we have, and what are we supposed to do then?”

So there were six ships appearing off their coast, including the USS Essex (an amphibious assault vessel which can carry 1,500 troops, has thirty helicopters), a destroyer, two supply ships, Le Mistral (which if you’ve seen a photo of it, looks rather like an aircraft carrier), an amphibious assault vessel, and HMS Westminster that was replaced subsequently by HMS Newcastle.  The reaction of the Burmese generals was, ‘What on earth are these ships up to?’  There is considerable evidence that the Burmese then deployed their military who had begun to assist with relief and recovery work in order to protect the country against what they saw as the threat of invasion.  I mention this simply to show the kind of paranoia that exists, and how it is so important that we should try to understand what it is that makes the generals behave the way that they do.

So I am Chairman of a group that was set up only twelve months ago, called Network Myanmar.  Whilst the media has reported that we are opposed to sanctions, to ostracism, to isolation, we are in favour of responsible travel and tourism.  We do believe that there should be renewed trade and investment, conducted very much on the lines that we conducted our trade with South Africa during apartheid.  I was actually in South Africa for three years of that time, and our then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had very strong views about all this which, as it happened, I supported

Stephen Thomas, PLP: “Good evening.  I would like to go straight into one particular statement if I may.  Those here tonight have the power and influence to help Burma back onto the path of recovery.  Now, I’m here as the representative of the Parliamentary Democracy Party (PDP), of which Bo Aung Din is the Chairman.  Derek has kindly given an outline picture of Burma as the history books would portray it.  Our history version is totally different.  It’s a history which many people in the west are not aware of. 

The people here tonight have got the influence, the PDP is the right door, but it needs a key to open it.  It’s easy to break down that door, but that will only bring more misery and death, and we don’t want that. 

By supporting the PDP in its promotion, you would not be deserting the past efforts made by the National League for Democracy (NLD), of which Suu Kyi is the General Secretary.  What is required is to open a new chapter in Burma’s reconstruction by allowing multi-party politics, which is precisely what this is all about.

I want take this opportunity to thank Bo Aung Din, the Chairman, for allowing me into this role, for about 27 years now.  How I got there is another story, but my role for a number of years now has been purely to promote democracy in Burma.

 This has not always been through PDP.  When I first went to Burma, it was still in total chaos – even the military regime did not really have control of the country.  My first target was the Karen nation, because they were allies of the British in the Second World War, and we all thought they would be friendly to us if we entered their territory. 

However, nobody would talk to us then – we were nobodies coming from nowhere.  Eventually, after a period of time, I did start to find people to talk to, and they directed me back to London.

 I came back to London, and at this particular time there was a demonstration being held outside the Burmese Embassy.  It turns out that Bo Aung Din was the organiser, and was in fact the first to do such a thing in London.  It was difficult to make contact with him initially, but eventually I did find him, and we’re here today.

Now, Bo Aung Din is someone who knows what heaven and hell is like.  He’s been to both places.  The reason I feel close to him, in a political sense, is because his policy towards the military regime is clear and concise – everybody can understand it.  He would never  dream of hurting a regime’s soldier, for example, because he considers them one of his own.  He’s tried to draw them to himself with other means, and he’s succeeded.  It’s slow, but he

’s succeeding.  Many, many regime troops want to come across to join him.  Again, it’s something the world is not aware of.  That isn’t because the media won’t display it, but because Bo Aung Din doesn’t want to reveal it just yet.  He’s played his cards very, very low, and it’s worked well.  I like to think it’s worked well because we’re sitting here tonight.  And I’m hoping something can come from this.

As I said, my role is to promote democracy.  I have been working with the Foreign Office in London, and I have had many meetings with the Americans, the Germans, the French, and the Canadians over the past twenty-odd years, trying to promote democracy with the PDP at the head.  Of course we have barriers, because the NLD is seen as the electoral winner of 1990. 

U Nu, who was Prime Minister after the war, was ousted in 1962 – coincidentally, this was the same month I joined the army as a young soldier!  When he was ousted he was sent to prison, and when he was finally released, he toured the world trying to get support to restore democracy.  However, everybody ignored him, for some reason or other, and they refused to take any notice of him.  This is something else that struck me as well: why are they knocking back who was the legal Prime Minister of Burma? 

I also had many meetings in Burma with General Bo Mya, who headed the Democratic Alliance of Burma, which is an organised group supposedly to unite the ethnic nations.  Unfortunately he is failing as he does not have the support he should have.  That isn’t because of finance, but because the ethnics unfortunately fight amongst themselves. 

As I said, the people here tonight do have the influence and the power, whatever channel it may be, to attempt to bring together all Burmese groups to sit round a table with the military regime, with the people that are running the country, and talk.  Let the professionals, people like yourselves and other western democracies let them decide.  Because these ethnics and other groups will not work together until someone comes from the outside and says, “This is how’s it’s done.”

Bo Aung Din, Chairman of the Parliamentary Democracy Party (PDP). Burma. “Your Graces, my Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, I appear before you with awe and humility in this greatest institution in the world, which represents good governance, democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law. 

This is an occasion of great pride for me and the PDP, and also for the people of Burma and all its diverse communities, who have this opportunity at this inestimable mother of parliaments, to convey to you and the British people the political and economic problems which my country Burma has faced and is still facing today under military rule – the military who took power from Prime Minister U Nu in 1962, who was bequeathed power by Britain, then the colonial power at Independence.  The people of all the diverse communities of Burma have opposed, and are still opposing, military rule, and want democracy and the rule of law, security and freedom of speech, and economic development to generate employment.

Political parties are still banned, and no political activity is allowed.  Also, the majority of the populations are poor, living at the edge of destitution, and primary health care is non-existent.  Unemployment is at an all-time high.  Education standards have declined.  The country’s economy has deteriorated due to structural dislocations and mismanagement.  Burma is a country which has been under military dictatorships for the past 46 years after it had overthrown the democratically elected government of Prime Minister U Nu in 1962.  Potential parties after the military coup were, and are still, banned today, and no political activity is tolerated. 

Burma has a population of around 56 million and the majority of the population are poor.  They eke out their livelihood from agriculture and from the sea; some are engaged in low-paid employment, while the rest are unemployed, living permanently on doing specific tasks for remuneration in kind.  Prior to the military coup, when Prime Minister U Nu was in power, Burma was a most prosperous country, with the strongest economy in South East Asia, and it had the most educated people in that region.  As you are probably aware, Burma provided the first non-white Secretary-General of the UN, U Thant.  Today, it is probably the least developed country in SE Asia.

The PDP is the oldest opposition political party in Burma, formed in 1970 by Prime Minister U Nu and 1,130 comrades.  They regained independence under the legendary leader and hero, General Aung San, to end military rule by armed resistance and restore democracy and freedom.  However, no newspaper, television or radio overseas has ever mentioned its existence.  The only political events mentioned here are the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the 1990 general election, KNU and the 1988 students’ uprising, and other minority groups – as though opposition to the military rule had only started at these later dates.  In the European Union and the USA, the PDP is not mentioned at all, only other political parties.  The only publicity that the PDP has received was in the Bangkok Post in Thailand.

Political debate on Burma was and is being denied in western democratic countries, whose information has been conditioned to consider 1990 and 1988 as the beginning of democratic opposition to the military regime, which of course is patently untrue.  Due to lack of access to the media in the west, the PDP decided to use the Internet to put forward political views on Burma.  We found that our policies were supported by a large number of people who began to question the political performance of the NLD and its leaders since 1990.

Increasingly, our political papers concerning the prevailing political and economic situation in Burma were all released on the internet, and we put forward our policies, which are unquestionably democratic.  We also sent these papers to governments, the UN Security Council, the UN Secretary-General, and ASEAN.  We received feedback saying that they supported our opposition struggle for democracy, freedom of speech, the rule of law, multi-party politics and a liberal economics policy favouring direct foreign investment under the rule of law. 

This political activity on the internet won us support from both outside Burma, and within the country.  Our recruiting programmes expanded considerably and, as a result, we established many liberated area working with General Mya, the great Karen current leader who sadly passed away in December 2006.  He was a great patriot, with whom the PDP has worked since 1970.  May he rest in peace: we will never forget him.  His spirit will always be with us in our struggle for liberation until we end military rule, either by political negotiation or armed guerrilla warfare, to which he was strongly committed too.  We also increased our co-operation with other minority communities – the Shan, Mon, Arakan, Karanni, Chin, Kachin and others.

In addition, the PDP espouses democracy’s multi-party competitive politics with periodic general elections according to the rule of law.  The politics of Burma have reached a junction regarding who prevails to govern the country, whether by continuing military ascendancy, or whether by negotiated settlement.  This latter path would take the country on the high road towards the rule of law, security, democracy, free speech and civilian political governance.  Defence and resistance of the PDA would deliver victory for democracy on other terms. 

The issue uppermost in the minds of most of the people in Burma is, ‘When will military rule end?’  This is not a new question, as it has been a perennial one without an answer, to the disappointment of millions of people.  The public no longer see the party which won the General Election of 1990 as a party which will end military rule, but a party without hope and without direction.  The ordinary Burmese see the PDP as the only party which will end military rule and consider other parties now an irrelevance because they have not delivered anything of tangible benefit to them to ease their daily toil or worry.”

Clemens N Nathan, Chairman and Founder of Clemens Nathan Research Centre: “I am going to talk very briefly, as I am not an expert on Myanmar.  However, I was involved from the very beginning in making arrangements for this meeting to take place, and I was at the UN in July this year.  There I asked opinion as to whether Bo Aung Din should speak at such a meeting, but sadly he was not so well-known.  However, I was told most interestingly, “Look, the generals are going to have an election in 2010.  The election will be totally rigged, but it’s the first movement towards democracy.”  I also discovered that American foreign policy towards Burma had been pushed by Laura Bush, who it turns out has a romantic view about Myanmar.

An important question for me when it comes to democracy is, whether in Myanmar or China, does everybody have a bowl of rice?  In China there are terrible infringements of human rights but, by and large, everyone has enough to eat.  Paul Collier has highlighted ‘the bottom billion’ of the people in the world who will never get out of this poverty trap. 

So the challenge for Burma is, can Bo Aung Din’s party get the people out of the poverty trap and develop an economy which will allow them to leap forward and not be oppressed as they are now? 

As Burma was once economically sound, and had a good educational system, I would have thought there is a possibility for this.  What disturbs me about Bo Aung Din’s party is only one thing: he has not abolished, or doesn’t seem to wish to, as far as I can understand, capital punishment, either for soldiers or for the public.  This is something that scares me.  Otherwise, his idealism, his deeply sincere Buddhism, should make him one of the people who could have the possibility to educate people to help them see that democracy can better their lives.”