Saturday, February 25, 2012

Cyber warfare in the Doldrums by Derek Tonkin

Former British Ambassador Derek Tonkin.
The debate on recent changes in Myanmar continues to excite unprecedented interest outside Myanmar, not least among the up to 4 million strong Burmese expatriate community. A process of reconciliation has taken root as thousands of Burmese living overseas debate their future.

With strong official encouragement, many are paying visits back to their home country, some for the first time in twenty years. Some have already taken the plunge and have decided to return. The experience and education which they have acquired abroad could be invaluable as the country sets out on the road to modernisation and democratisation.

The cyber war by expatriates and human rights activists against the former military regime passed its zenith in the spring of 2011. There are already concerns about growing expatriate irrelevance. In the wake of the programme of reform announced by President Thein Sein in his inaugural address on 30 March 2011, politically active websites like the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) and its umbrella organisation the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB) have become moribund, if not derelict.

The Chairman of the NCUB Maung Maung, who is the darling of the American Federation of Labour and the Confederation of Industrial Organizations (AFL/CIO) in the US and the Confederation of Italian Trade Unions (CISL), could be fighting to maintain his relevance. His own labour organisation, the Federation of Trade Unions - Burma, has launched a new blog-website which struggles to remain relevant, but is thin on material.

The Geneva-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) recently weighed in heavily on his behalf during a visit to Myanmar; he is included as a member of the ICTU delegation at meetings of the International Labour Organization.

There is a constant flow of material from hard-line critics to online regional news websites like Asian Times, Asian Sentinel, Asian Tribune and Asian Correspondent. However it seems unlikely that they are as widely read as they used to be. Before the flurry of top-level visitors to Myanmar in recent months, these publications were a useful source of information on Myanmar and helped to maintain international interest in the country.

That is no longer the case. The increased geostrategic priority given to Myanmar by the Western powers, notably the US, has meant that diplomatic missions have been strengthened, access to the senior levels of the administration is now very much improved and much better first-hand information is available directly to Western governments. There is a limit to what they might now want to take from activist sources. Why take an expatriate activist out to lunch when you can visit Myanmar without difficulty and talk to almost anyone you chose?

Materials from expatriate and human rights organisations today have increasingly less influence. The Burma Campaign UK, which takes a strong interest in ethnic affairs, is faring better than the US Campaign for Burma (USCB) whose website is showing signs of decay. Its page on US-Burma Policy, for example, has yet to be brought up-to-date about the appointment of Derek Mitchell as US Special Envoy under the JADE Act.

However, so long as the USCB and other US-based organisations are generously funded by organisations like the National Endowment for Democracy, so they are likely to continue to survive, for no good purpose though except the welfare of their staff.

George Soros, after his recent visit to Myanmar, may well have decided to re-orient the general thrust of his Open Society Institute Burma Fund away from expatriate activities, which have long given a poor return on the investment made, to in-country projects arranged with the blessing of Nay Pyi Taw.

Various expatriate groups have struggled to coordinate their activities, like the Burma Partnership, but the pace of events has tended to leave them uncertain. ALTSEAN, the Alternative Asean Network on Burma, has worked hard to remain relevant and produces some commendable research materials. But, through their highlighting on their Home Page of the 2005 Report commissioned by the late Václav Havel and the now retired Bishop Desmond Tutu about possible action in the Security Council and of a 2009 Report by the International Human Rights Clinic at the Harvard Law School supporting a UN-led Commission of Inquiry, they send a message that they live in the past.

Ethnic websites like Shan Herald, Chinland Guardian, Kachin News and Karen National Union maintain a steady flow of information and are unlikely in the short term to wilt. Resolution of the ethnic divide remains the core issue for Myanmar, but receives far less international attention than it merits.

Finally there are those Three Musketeers of the expatriate media, The Irrawaddy, The Democratic Voice of Burma and Mizzima. All three are working hard to develop formal and informal contacts within Myanmar, and with some success. Interviews with officials and even visits to Myanmar are now possible. Mizzima is seeking to negotiate the opening of an office in Yangon.

The Editor-in-Chief of The Irrawaddy, Aung Zaw, recently returned on a visit. The Democratic Voice of Burma has the support of the pro-active Norwegian Government and has seen all its local correspondents imprisoned in recent years released in last month's amnesty. Even so, I would expect external support for all three operations overseas to decline gradually and provided the recent trend to democratisation continues, I would be surprised if all three remain in existence in their present form much beyond 2013.

The expatriate press has been active now for well over 20 years and has been a pioneer in the use of the electronic media to advance its cause. Few are yet claiming though that the top-down reforms in Myanmar are a result of their efforts. Their relevance is now under close scrutiny and a massive shake-out is likely to occur - provided political reform in Myanmar continues. Bad news from inside Myanmar is only good news for their survival.

Derek Tonkin
Chairman Network Myanmar