Realpolitik and the Myanmar Spring


By Bertil Lintner
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 saidthat 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 human rights.

If Western observersare 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 poswer, 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 agreementto build a crude oil pipeline. The inauguration ceremony marking the start of constructionwas 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


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