Burma may very well play an outsized role in the success or failure of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia–the White House’s attempt to undo some of the damage it did earlier in its administration in places like India, South Korea, and Burma. Burma was an exception because unlike the others, it was not an ally and was oppressing its citizenry, so it obviously required a different approach.
The administration wisely recognized that Burma’s location, combined with the shifting of global economic focus eastward, gives the country a strategic relevance it has not had since World War II. Though it’s been ruled by a vicious military junta, new leader Thein Sein has begun a process of liberalization in return for the restoration of diplomatic ties to the United States–a step we took–along with the request that we relax economic sanctions, which is under consideration. In the last week, the administration received some good news and some bad news out of Burma. First, the bad news:
A prominent Burmese monk who was freed last month as part of a mass release of political prisoners was briefly detained again on Friday in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a group that tracks the plight of dissidents and democracy advocates in the country.
The monk, Ashin Gambira, was one of the organizers of the 2007 uprising against the military government that ruled Myanmar at the time. His arrest on Friday, after four weeks of freedom, appeared to demonstrate the limits of tolerance under Myanmar’s new civilian government.
Fighting continues between ethnic Kachin rebels and government troops in northern Myanmar, a longstanding conflict that was reignited last year and has resulted in a wave of refugees across the border into China. Separately, a cease-fire agreement signed last month with the Karen ethnic group appears to be fraying, with some Karen leaders denying that there even is an agreement.
Some of this was inevitable, and the clashes with upland peoples and minority groups are not necessarily proof that Burma’s rulers are unwilling to rein in the military. But it’s also important for the West to ensure that Burma’s leaders haven’t pulled a bait-and-switch scheme by releasing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the only Burmese dissident most people have heard of, while imprisoning those who have not had the opportunity to pose for photo ops with American officials.
Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made historic visits to Burma in recent months, and both were careful to stress that the challenges in Burma going forward are just as great as the opportunities. And on that front, the good news:
As Myanmar pursues dramatic reforms, its relationship with China — the Southeast Asian nation’s biggest investor and second-biggest trade partner — is changing. In some cases, long-festering resentment is flaring into the open.
During decades of isolation, the former Burma relied on China as its closest diplomatic and military ally. Wide-reaching Western sanctions put in place after a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 forced Myanmar to deepen economic ties with China.
But as Myanmar embarks on the road back to democracy, a once-muffled debate about China’s role is growing louder. The reforms are also taking place as the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China has sharpened since the Obama administration’s “pivot” toward Asia after preoccupation with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the past decade.
This is encouraging for the administration because it identifies–correctly–a desire among the Burmese population to look west. China has taken advantage of the lack of Western involvement in Burmese commerce by using parts of Burma accessible to China–which happens to include Burma’s former capital, Mandalay–as a backyard. In “Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia,” Thant Myint-U writes of returning to Burma to find that his parents’ countrymen (he was born in New York City but his parents are native Burmese) had not been lifted out of poverty, but Chinese immigrants and businessmen didn’t seem to be living in the same grim economic reality.
He tells of seeing a brightly lit cell phone store in Mandalay filled with Chinese customers while a Burmese woman was bathing in an outdoor well nearby, among a pack of stray dogs:
There was nothing intrinsically wrong with what the Chinese were doing. But the Chinese were entering a vacuum, and this once proud capital of a little kingdom, and later a city of British India, was being transformed into an outpost of the world’s biggest industrial revolution. They were helping create an unequal society. It wasn’t clear at all what the consequences might be.
There can be no doubt China understands grand strategy and Burma’s role in a new great game. But they are not at all concerned about the Burmese people, or the country itself. India is, and the U.S. should be as well. Smart American policy toward Burma–which seems to be what Clinton is carrying out, with McConnell’s support–can hopefully tip the scales in the right direction.