An Opening in Burma? On Thant Myint-U
Why have Burma’s rulers allowed this seeming opening, and why have China and India made substantial investments in a country still notorious for economic mismanagement and opaque decision-making? Than Shwe is older and frailer than in the 1990s and early 2000s, and, according to several diplomats, may simply want to be sure that he can retire in peace and with his and his family’s great stolen wealth untouched, rather than face some kind of democratic revolution in the future, which might result in his arrest. He surely does not forget that the former military leader, Ne Win, was put under house arrest at the end of his life, along with his daughter. By moving into the background while keeping his wealth, Than Shwe might be able to avoid the same ending. And because Suu Kyi has not expressed support for prosecutions of former military rulers, the regime may believe that a slow, gradual reform process with her involved is its best bet to retain significant amounts of money and power behind the scenes.
And as Thant Myint-U notes, although urban areas of China and India have benefited enormously from decades of growth, the outlying rural regions of both countries have benefited much less, and today income inequality in China is like of that in Latin American nations like Brazil. Most worrying to Chinese leaders, it is in these poorer, more rural areas that the majority of China’s thousands of protests occur each year. Eastern India is almost as much of a threat to the government in Delhi: it is home to numerous separatist insurgencies, many of them fed for years by guns and men migrating across the porous border with Burma. Burma’s poverty and instability have had a similar effect on Yunnan. For years, heroin and methamphetamines have flowed from Burma’s wild northeast into southwestern China, bringing with them high rates of HIV, which is one reason Yunnan was the first region in the country to face a severe heroin crisis.
To develop rural India and China, and to reduce the possibility that poor, unstable Burma will further destabilize their border regions, the governments in Delhi and Beijing must create new development, trade routes and markets for exports from their rural provinces. The routes through Burma to new ports on its coast are the shortest and most obvious path. “Yunnan will be made into China’s gateway to South Asia and southeast Asia,” one Chinese businessman told Thant Myint-U. It is a sentiment I have heard repeated, ad nauseam, by Chinese officials and academics. China has proposed a high-speed rail line to connect it to Burma’s coast, and has started to revive the old “Burma Road” from World War II, a decaying link across the north.
Burma’s long coastline, astride the contested Indian Ocean, also has strategic significance for China and India. In Monsoon, Robert Kaplan speculates that in a century that will be dominated by Asia, sea power, more than land power, will become critical, as Asia’s contested areas are shared bodies of water like the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean rather than the kind of internal land masses fought over by European powers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some strategists, including Thant Myint-U, see a new “Great Game” emerging in Asia, with the region’s rising superpowers competing for sea lanes and resources, with Burma in the middle. The most conspiracy-minded Western strategists see China building a “string of pearls”—a series of ports, bases, satellite states and intelligence-gathering outposts throughout South and Southeast Asia—that will eventually usher in Chinese dominance. The reality will likely be somewhat more mundane: China is indeed courting allies across South and Southeast Asia, and building up some facilities, but is still decades from challenging the United States as the region’s dominant naval power. Many nations in the region want a balance between Beijing and Washington rather than to choose one or the other.
And then there is oil. China and India lack significant domestic deposits, and the Chinese government remains terrified that if it ever clashed with the United States, Washington could use its navy and alliances to shut off shipments of oil to China, many of which travel through the narrow Malacca Strait in Southeast Asia. Driven by this fear, China has made its own deals with traditional suppliers like Saudi Arabia while also cultivating newer oil producers, particularly those where, because of Western sanctions, Chinese firms have an open playing field. Chinese companies have begun to build an oil pipeline that will soon transport roughly 240,000 barrels of oil to China from Burma. Add to that the enormous power generated by new Chinese-built dams in Burma, and the country has become of vital importance to Beijing. Western oil companies, too, barred from new investments unless they had made them before 1997, see in the Burmese fields a potential future gold mine, if US–Burma relations improve.
Contrary to the belief of many Western officials, this influx of Chinese money and businesspeople has not made Burma a satellite of Beijing. To be sure, China’s vast investment and aid in Burma has helped the regime and the country, and Beijing has repeatedly protected Burma from diplomatic censure at the United Nations. China has become a major arms supplier to the Burmese regime, and in recent years a parade of Chinese senior officials have arrived in Rangoon to pledge their undying friendship. But Burma’s rulers fear China as much, if not more, than any other foreign power. China lies right on their doorstep, and before Beijing launched its own reforms in the 1970s, it supported communist rebels inside Burma. Many of Burma’s top generals cut their teeth as younger army officers fighting these China-backed rebels; according to Burmese analysts, several of the generals retain a visceral hatred of China. Among average Burmese, appreciation of the cash, goods and tourists flowing into the country from China is mitigated by fear, and anger, that Chinese products now dominate Burmese markets, and that Chinese firms are buying up Burma’s natural resources, often while employing Chinese, rather than Burmese, laborers to handle the excavation. These resource deals are also destroying Burma’s environment and the livelihoods of many Burmese: tens of thousands of families have been forcibly relocated, with minimal compensation, to make way for the oil and gas pipelines, among other development projects, while some of the hydropower dams reportedly have been constructed with little care for the protection of local rivers or watersheds. In one sign of this rising resentment, an argument that erupted between Burmese and Chinese businessmen in Mandalay in June over a botched gem deal disintegrated into a tense standoff and near-riot.
Worried that China had secured an advantage in the competition for Burma’s natural resources, ports and sea lanes, India has in recent years reversed its policy. In the 1990s, as Thant Myint-U notes, some Indian officials had tried to assist Burmese democracy activists, and India’s then–defense minister George Fernandes, a prominent human rights advocate, even allowed some Burmese exiles to take shelter in his family compound. But soon Delhi shifted its Burma policy 180 degrees. Rather than criticize the Burmese junta, it now engaged the generals under a policy called Look East, hosting Than Shwe on a state visit during which, with no obvious irony, he visited the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation. India ignored international resolutions condemning the Burmese regime’s massive human rights abuses, and launched a policy to boost Indian investment in Burma, particularly in the petroleum industry. Delhi began providing arms to Burma, and in fall 2007, during the Saffron Revolution in Rangoon, India’s petroleum minister traveled to the country to sign new agreements.
But while Burma could become contested territory, as Thant Myint-U notes, it also increasingly links the Asian giants. For decades, East Asia and South Asia were divided by the Himalayas, and by the poverty and ruggedness of Burma. No longer. China’s and India’s grand plans to build overland rail and road links through Burma as part of a new Asian architecture could, one day far in the future, link Asia into a single market like the European Union—assuming China and India can peacefully coexist.
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