Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Myanmar, on a trip that
is being hailed as a stunning breakthrough in bilateral relations and a sign
that the Southeast Asian pariah state may finally be ready to rejoin the
international community after two decades of isolation. It is a victory,
analysts say, for the long-suffering forces of good and democracy over a brutal
and self-serving military junta. But the truth is far more complicated.
According to the conventional wisdom in the Western media, Myanmar's Nov.
2010 elections may have been rigged and flawed, but nevertheless led to
unprecedented policy changes and new initiatives. The new president, Thein
Sein, has even been dubbed "Myanmar's Gorbachev" for
his seemingly daring moves toward openness and respect for (at least some)
democratic values. He has held talks with pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi,
political prisoners have been released, and censorship of the media has been
relaxed. Consequently, Clinton has said
that the time is right to visit the country to "promote further reform."
But the secretary's visit has as much to do with Myanmar's relations
with China and North Korea as with its tentative progress on democracy and
If Western observers
are to be believed, recent developments in Myanmar reflect a power struggle
between "reform-minded moderates" and "hardliners" within the government and
the military that still controls it.
The political reality is far more convoluted.
In August and September of 1988, Myanmar saw the most massive and
widespread pro-democracy demonstrations in recent Asian history. Strikes and
protests were held in virtually every city, town, and major village throughout
the country against a stifling military dictatorship that has held Myanmar in
an irongrip since the army seized power in 1962 and abolished the country's
democratic constitution. Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar's
independence hero Aung San, happened to be in the country at that time (she
then lived in England) and people turned to her for leadership. She then
emerged as the main leader of the country's pro-democracy movement.
But the government didn't fall. It retreated into the background, and on
Sept. 18, 1988, the military moved in, not to seize power -- which it already
had -- but to shore up a regime overwhelmed by popular protest. The result was
a brutal massacre. Thousands of marchers were mowed down by machine-gun fire, protesters were shot in custody, and the prisons were filled with people
of all ages and from all walks of life.
Not surprisingly, Western countries, led by the United States, condemned
the carnage. Later, sanctions were imposed on the regime, but they were always
half-hearted and had little if any effect in terms of foreign trade. Still, sanctions
turned Myanmar into an international outcast and prevented it from having full
access to U.N. funding and international monetary institutions.
China, which long had coveted Myanmar's forests, rich mineral and
natural gas deposits, and its hydroelectric power potential, took full
advantage of the situation. In fact, it had already made its intentions clear in the Sept.
1985 edition Beijing Review, an
officially sanctioned news magazine and a mouthpiece of the government. An article titled
"Opening to the Southwest: An Expert Opinion," written by Pan Qi, a former vice minister of communications, outlined the possibilities of finding
an outlet for trade for China's landlocked southern provinces of Yunnan and
Sichuan through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean. It also mentioned the Burmese
railheads of Myitkyina and Lashio in the north and northeast, and the Irrawaddy
River as possible conduits for Chinese exports. It was the first time the
Chinese outlined their designs for Myanmar, and why the country was so
important to them economically. Until then, China had supported the Communist
Party of Myanmar and other insurgent groups, but after the death of Mao Zedong
in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping's ascendance to power, Beijing's foreign policy
shifted from supporting revolutionary movements in the region to promoting
trade. This was the first time this new policy towards Myanmar was announced,
albeit rather discreetly, by the Chinese authorities.
The first border trade agreement between Myanmar and China was signed in
early August 1988, days before the uprising began in earnest. After the
movement had been crushed and sanctions were put in place, China moved in and
rapidly became Myanmar's most important foreign trade partner. It helped Myanmar
upgrade its antiquated infrastructure -- and supplied massive amounts of
military hardware. In the decade after the massacres, China exported more than
$1.4 billion worth of military equipment to Myanmar. It also helped Myanmar
upgrade its naval facilities in the Indian Ocean. In return, the junta gave
Beijing access to signals intelligence from key oil shipment sealanes collected
by the Burmese Navy, using equipment supplied by China. The strategic balance
of power in the region was being upset in China's favor.
But the real resource play came later, and in spades. A plan to build
oil and gas pipelines was approved by China's National Development and
Reform Commission in April 2007. In Nov. 2008, China and Myanmar agreed to
build a $1.5 billion oil pipeline and $1.04 billion natural gas
pipeline. In March 2009, China and Myanmar signed an agreement to build a
natural gas pipeline, and in June 2009 an agreement
to build a crude oil pipeline. The inauguration ceremony marking the start of construction
was held on Oct. 31, 2009, on Maday Island on Myanmar's western coast. The gas pipeline from the Bay of Bengal to
Kunming, in China's Yunnan province, will
be supplemented with an oil pipeline designed to allow Chinese ships carrying
fuel imports from the Middle East to skirt the congested Malacca Strait. And in
September of last year, China agreed to provide Myanmar with $4.2 billion worth
of interest-free loans over a 30-year period to help fund hydropower projects,
road and railway construction, and information technology development.
Western sanctions did not cause Myanmar's economic -- and strategic --
push into "the hands of the Chinese," as many foreign observers have argued.
But Western policies certainly made it easier for China to implement its
designs for Myanmar. This has, in return, caused the West to rethink its Myanmar
policy -- at the same time as the country's growing dependence on China has
caused considerable consternation within Myanmar's military leadership. U.S.
strategic concerns were outlined as early as June 1997 in a Los Angeles Times article by
Marvin Ott, an American security expert and former CIA analyst. "Washington can
and should remain outspokenly critical of abuses in [Myanmar]. But there are
security and other national interests to be served...it is time to think
seriously about alternatives," Ott concluded.
But the turn took some doing. When it was revealed in the early 2000s
that Myanmar and North Korea had established a strategic partnership,
Washington was alarmed. North Korea was providing Myanmar with tunneling
expertise, heavy weapons, radar and air defense systems, and -- it is alleged by
Western and Asian intelligence agencies -- even missile and nuclear-related
technology. It was high time to shift tracks and start to "engage" the Burmese
leadership, which anyway seemed bent on clinging on to power at any cost, no
matter the consequences.
The 2010 election in Myanmar, no matter how fraudulent it was, was just
the opportunity that Washington needed. Myanmar suddenly had a new face and a
country run by a constitution, not a junta. It was the perfect time for Myanmar's
generals to launch a charm offensive in the West, and for the United States and
other Western countries to begin the process of détente -- and of pulling
Myanmar from its uncomfortable Chinese embrace and close relationship with North Korea. Hardly by coincidence, Clinton
visited South Korea before continuing on to Myanmar. For more than a year, it has been known in
security circles that the United States wants South Korea to lure Myanmar away
from its military cooperation with North Korea. The much richer South would be
able to provide more useful assistance to Myanmar than the North, the argument
At the same time, many staunchly nationalistic Burmese military officers
have become dissatisfied with their country's heavy dependence on China as well
as uncontrolled immigration by Chinese nationals into the north of the country.
The first blow against China came in Oct. 2004, when the then-prime minister
and former intelligence chief Lt.-Gen. Khin Nyunt was ousted. The Chinese at
first refused to believe that their man in Myanmar, Khin Nyunt, had been pushed
out. How could the generals dare to move against a figure so key to the
relationship? Nevertheless, both sides managed to smooth over the incident, and
bilateral relations appeared to be returning to normal. Then, in 2009, Burmese
troops moved into the Kokang area in the northeast, pushing more than 30,000
refugees -- both Chinese nationals and local, ethnic Chinese -- across the
border back into China.
Still, China did not get the message -- until Sept. 30 of this year,
when Thein Sein announced that a China-sponsored, $3.6 billion hydroelectric
power project in the far north of the country had been suspended. The dam was
going to flood an area in Myanmar bigger than Singapore, and yet 90 percent of the electricity
was going to be exported to China. Now, China has threatened
to take legal actions against the Burmese government for breach of contract. This
was the final straw. Today, it is clear that Sino-Burmese relations will never
be the same.
To strengthen its position vis-à-vis China, Myanmar has turned
increasingly to its partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN), which it is due to chair in 2014. Even more
significantly, when Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who was appointed commander-in-chief
of Myanmar's military in March, went on his first foreign trip in mid-November,
he did not go to China -- but instead to China's traditional enemy, Vietnam. Myanmar
and Vietnam share the same fear of their common, powerful northern neighbor, so
it is reasonable to assume that Min Aung Hlaing had a lot to discuss with his
But the strategic change in Myanmar didn't happen overnight. In the same year as Khin Nyunt
was ousted, an important document was compiled by Lt. Col. Aung Kyaw Hla,
a researcher at Myanmar's Defense Services Academy. His 346-page top secret thesis,
titled "A Study of Myanmar-U.S. Relations," outlined the policies which
are now being implemented to improve relations with Washington and lessen
dependence on Beijing. The establishment of a more acceptable regime than the
old junta provided has made it easier for the Burmese military to launch its
new policies, and to have those taken seriously by the international community.
As a result, relations with the United States are indeed improving,
exactly along the lines suggested by Aung Kyaw Hla in 2004. While paying lip
service to human rights and democracy, there seems to be little doubt that
Sino-Burmese relations -- and North Korea -- will be high on Clinton's agenda
when she visits Myanmar this week. On a visit to Canberra in November,
President Barack Obama stated that, "with my visit to the region, I am making
it clear that the United States is stepping up its commitment to the entire
Asia-Pacific region." The United States is a Pacific power, Obama said, and "we
are here to stay." But he was quick to add: "The notion that we fear China is
mistaken. The notion that we are looking to exclude China is mistaken."
That statement was about as convincing as Thein Sein's assurance that he
had suspended the dam project in the north because he was concerned about "the
wishes of the people."
The two old adversaries, Myanmar and the United States, may have ended
up on the same side of the fence in the struggle for power and influence in
Southeast Asia. Frictions, and perhaps even hostility, can certainly be
expected in future relations between China and Myanmar. And Myanmar will no
longer be seen by the United States and elsewhere in the West as a pariah state
that has to be condemned and isolated.
Whatever happens, don't expect relations to be without some unease.
Decades of confrontation and mutual suspicion still exist. And a powerful
strain in Washington to stand firm on human rights and democracy will
complicate matters for Myanmar's rulers -- who are still uncomfortable and
unwilling to relinquish total control. And last of all, there's China. Myanmar may
be pleased that the reliance on a dominant northern neighbor might be lessened
shortly, but with so many decades of ties and real, on-the-ground projects
underway, the relationship with Beijing isn't nearly dead yet.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images