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Inside Challenges, Outside Interests
Inside Challenges, Outside Interests
Konrad Adenauer Foundation Brookings Institution Press
The Brookings Institution is a private nonprofit organization devoted to research, education, and publication on important issues of domestic and foreign policy. Its principal purpose is to bring the highest quality independent research and analysis to bear on current and emerging policy problems. Interpretations or conclusions in Brookings publications should be understood to be solely those of the authors. Copyright © 2010
the brookings institution konrad adenauer foundation
1775 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036 www.brookings.edu All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the Brookings Institution Press. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data Myanmar/Burma : inside challenges, outside interests / Lex Rieffel, editor. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Summary: “Through the eyes of ASEAN members, neighbors China and India, and the United States, examines current state of affairs in Myanmar/Burma and focuses on national reconciliation and economic development, as the country approaches multiparty elections in fall 2010 and after the Obama presidency has initiated a new approach to relations”— Provided by publisher. ISBN 978-0-8157-0505-5 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Burma—Politics and government—1988– 2. Burma—Foreign relations—1948– I. Rieffel, Alexis, 1941– II.Title. JQ751.A58M03 2010 959.105'3—dc22 2010033153 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Printed on acid-free paper Typeset in Minion Composition by Cynthia Stock Silver Spring, Maryland Printed by R. R. Donnelley Harrisonburg, Virginia
Foreword Norbert Wagner Acknowledgments A Note on the Name of the Country Political Timeline
vii ix xiii xv 1
The Moment Lex Rieffel
Part I Inside Challenges
2 Problems with the Process of Reconciliation
Kyaw Yin Hlaing
33 52 77 86 101
An Inside View of Reconciliation Maung Zarni David Dapice
4 Recapitalizing the Rural Economy 5 Boom on the Way from Ruili to Mandalay
6 Three Scenarios for Myanmar’s Future
Part II Outside Interests
7 The Policies of China and India toward Myanmar
113 134 150 166 181 195 201 205
8 A Strategic Perspective on India-Myanmar Relations
9 ASEAN’s Policy of Enhanced Interactions
10 The Last Bus to Naypyidaw
11 Myanmar, North Korea, and the Nuclear Question
12 The New U.S. Policy of Pragmatic Engagement
Kurt M. Campbell About the Contributors Index
he Konrad Adenauer Foundation is a political foundation close to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. At home as well as abroad, our civic education and briefing programs aim at promoting freedom and liberty, peace, and justice. We focus on supporting and promoting democracy worldwide, on the unification of Europe and the strengthening of the transatlantic relationship, as well as on development cooperation. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation has had a long interest in Myanmar. In particular, our Singapore office has supported a series of regional conferences and symposiums that have brought scholars together in China, Hong Kong, and other countries in the region to exchange views on the country’s problems and prospects. Our interest has been motivated by the tragedy of Myanmar’s internal conflict and its authoritarian and ineffective governance since independence in 1948, falling further and further behind its neighbors and regional partners on almost all political and socioeconomic indicators. Our hope has been that the high quality research and dialogue we support, and the related exchange of views, will contribute to informed and improved policymaking both inside and outside Myanmar. When Lex Rieffel came to our office in mid-2008 to seek support for convening a similar gathering in Washington, we quickly saw the potential value of doing so. Our earlier work had been helpful in identifying keen observers of Myanmar in Asia, and we believed that bringing some of them to Washington—where they could interact with the policy community interested in Myanmar—might encourage the U.S. government and other governments to look for a new approach that would be more effective in
advancing human rights and economic progress than the sanctions-based approach of the past decade. The original idea was to schedule the Washington gathering at the end of 2008 or early in 2009, and we were naturally disappointed when it had to be postponed until October 2009. However, this timing turned out to be felicitous, and we are especially grateful for the critical help provided by Professor Bill Wise at Johns Hopkins–SAIS and Professor David Steinberg at Georgetown University in designing the October 29–30 workshop and forum. First and foremost though, it is necessary to acknowledge the crucial role Lex Rieffel has played in initiating the project and keeping up the pressure to make it happen. Ultimately, it was his persistence and legwork that made the conference workshop and resulting book a reality. The papers commissioned for the workshop, which have been updated and edited for this volume, present an essentially Asian view of the problem of Myanmar. Together they provide a valuable perspective on the intractable character of the internal conflict, the appalling economic deprivation suffered by Myanmar’s population of more than 50 million people, and the range of outside interests that may be doing more to prolong the tragedy than to end it. The overview chapter by Lex Rieffel provides a broad context for these papers and fills in gaps to help readers get a comprehensive and vivid picture of this special moment in Myanmar’s history—after the adoption of a new constitution and before the country’s first national election in twenty years. It only remains to be said that the views contained in this volume are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Dr. Norbert Wagner Director Konrad Adenauer Foundation, North America
he idea for this volume began in 2007 after a weeklong visit to the China-Myanmar border, accompanied by an exceptional graduate student guide/translator/interpreter recruited by Dr. Li Chenyang of Yunnan University. At the end of the visit, I discussed with Dr. Li a number of possible joint research activities. One of the ideas was a workshop on Myanmar/ Burma in Washington with a book to follow. Special thanks go to Dr. Li for his encouragement, as well as for his contributions to the October 2009 workshop and to this volume. An important next step was to find a financial supporter for the workshop, and this materialized through the generosity of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Dr. Norbert Wagner, head of the foundation’s North American office, agreed to cover a significant share of the costs. Lining up the rest of the necessary support was not as easy, and the two people who eventually rescued me were Professor Bill Wise at Johns Hopkins– SAIS and David Steinberg at Georgetown University. Bill played a critical role in hosting the open forum that followed the workshop and in obtaining funding from the CNA Corporation and the Henry Luce Foundation. David provided invaluable help in recruiting participants for the workshop and identifying the Sasakawa Peace Foundation as a source of support. An essential step at the same time was finding a Myanmar “architect” to design a program that would be comprehensive and objective. Dr. Tin Maung Maung Than, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, accepted this role and added great value to the workshop and forum. Finally, at the Brookings Institution, where special arrangements were required to host the workshop, Richard Bush (director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies), Martin Indyk (vice president of Foreign
Policy Studies), and Stephen Bennett (vice president and chief operating officer) came through with the essential support. While this volume focuses on the core policy issues that participants in the workshop and forum addressed, considerable value also came out of the give-and-take among the authors, the non-author participants, and the speakers at the two events. Those tasked to lead sessions of the workshop included Jurgen Haacke (London School of Economics), Toshihiro Kudo (Institute of Developing Economies, Chiba, Japan), Ni Xiayun (China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations), Bronson Percival (CNA), Mya Than (Institute of Security and International Studies, Bangkok, Thailand), Khin Zaw Win (an NGO leader based in Yangon), and Zhai Kun (China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations). A strong group of Washington-based participants contributed probing questions and insightful comments: Maureen Aung-Thwin (Open Society Institute), John Brandon (Asia Foundation), Priscilla Clapp (former chargé of the U.S. Embassy in Yangon), Matthew Daley (former deputy assistant secretary, State Department), Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn (Freedom House), Karl Jackson (Johns Hopkins–SAIS), Frank Jannuzi (Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff), Ilango Karuppannan (Embassy of Malaysia), Meral Karasulu (International Monetary Fund), Marta McLellan-Ross (assistant to Senator Jim Webb), Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Marciel (Department of State), Laura Scheibe (Department of State), and Frances Zwenig (U.S.ASEAN Business Council). On the evening before the workshop, at a dinner for our out-of-town participants, Matt Frei (anchor, BBC World News America) recalled his interviews of Aung San Suu Kyi in the 1990s. At lunch the next day, Friederike Tschampa (first secretary, General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union, New York Liaison Office) spoke about the EU’s policy toward Myanmar. In the afternoon, we had a lively conversation with General Wesley Clark who had recently been named to chair an Asia Society Task Force on U.S. policy toward Burma. By all accounts, the highlight of the two-day program was an extended conversation over dinner with Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell—four days before his first visit to Myanmar to engage the government of Myanmar on the basis of the new U.S. policy and to reassure Aung San Suu Kyi of America’s unwavering support for the National League for Democracy based on its impressive victory the 1990 election. He was exceptionally candid in explaining the objectives and limitations of U.S. policy toward Burma, and he strongly encouraged and welcomed the comments and suggestions of the
experts who had been assembled. I am pleased to include his congressional testimony as the last chapter here. For the successful administration of the workshop and forum, we are all indebted to Shelley Su and Paula Guevara at Johns Hopkins–SAIS, Kevin Scott and Aileen Chang at Brookings, and Roman Sehling at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation–USA. Finally, the Brookings Institution Press stepped into the breach when the original plan to publish the workshop papers ran into a roadblock. Chris Kelaher made the case for acquiring the manuscript. Janet Walker provided editorial supervision. Katherine Kimball edited the manuscript with superb efficiency. Susan Woollen produced a striking cover design. Larry Converse managed the production. Special thanks go to Myanmar Egress for enabling us to include what may be the first published map (in English) of Myanmar showing the states, regions, and Self-Administered Zones/Division, as they will exist after the inauguration of the government to emerge from the national election based on the 2008 Constitution. While the road leading from the original vision in Dr. Li’s office in Kunming was longer and bumpier than expected, the workshop and forum clearly exceeded our expectations. I hope that this volume will help readers understand the complex nature of the low-intensity conflict that has plagued the citizens of Myanmar for more than sixty years and lead to realistic expectations of possible improvements in the country’s governance after the national election now scheduled for November 7. Lex Rieffel Washington, D.C. August 2010
A Note on the Name of the Country
he British bestowed the name Burma on the territory they began to take control of in the 1820s and made into a province of India in 1886. Burma became a separate colony in 1937. Upon independence in 1948, the Burmese accepted the name Union of Burma. In 1989 the military regime formally changed the name to the Union of Myanmar. Myanmar had been the written name of the core kingdom and the province and the colony in the local language. The military authorities preferred Myanmar because it had a more ambiguous ethnic connotation, that is, one less closely linked to the Burman ethnic majority. In this book, both Burma and Myanmar are used depending on the context, the former generally referring to pre-1988 events and the latter used in connection with more recent events. Following its normal procedures, the United Nations has accepted the new name. All of Myanmar’s ASEAN partners, all of its other Asian neighbors, and most other countries in the world use Myanmar in official statements and documents. The United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and a handful of other Western democracies continue to use Burma in official statements and documents to underscore their recognition of the National League for Democracy’s victory in the 1990 elections. When the 2008 constitution goes into effect on the opening day of the first session of the national assembly, elected in November 2010, the name of the country will be changed to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.
1947, January April
July September 1948, January 1951, June 1956, April 1958, October 1960, February 1961, August 1962, March July
Aung San–Clement Atlee agreement on Burma’s independence Elections for a Constituent Assembly won by the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League led by General Aung San General Aung San and shadow cabinet members assassinated Constitution of 1947 approved Independence achieved under the 1947 constitution; government led by Prime Minister U Nu formed Phased elections completed in April 1952 won by the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League led by U Nu Elections won by the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League led by U Nu General Ne Win invited to form “caretaker government” Elections won by the Union Party led by U Nu Constitution amended to make Buddhism the state religion General Ne Win leads coup and suspends the 1947 constitution Burma Socialist Program Party established
xvi Political Timeline
1974, March December 1988, April July August September
Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma formed under the 1974 constitution; elections held Student demonstrations related to the burial of former U.N. secretary-general U Thant forcefully suppressed Aung San Suu Kyi returns to Burma to care for her ailing mother Ne Win resigns as head of Burma Socialist Program Party in face of student-led demonstrations 8-8-88 popular uprising brutally suppressed General Saw Maung leads coup as chairman of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC); National League for Democracy founded Aung San Suu Kyi placed under house arrest for attempting to destroy military unity SLORC renames the country the Union of Myanmar National election; National League for Democracy wins 80 percent of seats Aung San Suu Kyi awarded Nobel Peace Prize Than Shwe replaces Saw Maung as senior general National (constitutional) Convention begins first session Aung San Suu Kyi released from house arrest Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, visits Burma; meets with General Khin Nyunt and Aung San Suu Kyi Myanmar becomes a member of ASEAN SLORC renames itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Aung San Suu Kyi placed under house arrest for second time Aung San Suu Kyi released Aung San Suu Kyi and motorcade attacked near Depayin
1989, July 1990, May 1991, December 1992, March 1993, January 1995, July September
1997, July 2000, September 2002, May 2003, May
Political Timeline xvii
August 2003, September 2004, October 2005, January 2006, July 2007, September 2008, May 2009, May
Seven-step Roadmap to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy announced Aung San Suu Kyi placed under house arrest for third time Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt purged and placed under house arrest U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice names Burma as one of six “outposts of tyranny” Capital moved from Yangon to Naypyidaw Monk-led Saffron Revolt brutally suppressed Cyclone Nargis strikes lower Myanmar Referendum on the 2008 constitution (May 10 and 24) Aung San Suu Kyi charged with violating house arrest; convicted in July; sentence commuted to eighteen months First visit to Myanmar by Senator Jim Webb New U.S. policy toward Burma announced First visit to Myanmar by Kurt Campbell, State Department’s assistant secretary for Asia and the Pacific Five election laws issued by the SPDC Second visit to Myanmar by Kurt Campbell Second visit to Myanmar canceled abruptly by Senator Jim Webb Myanmar Election Commission announces November 7 as date for national election
August September November 2010, March May June August
Administrative Divisions of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar according to the 2008 Constitution
Myanmar is divided into seven states (pyine) and seven divisions (yin). Under the 2008 constitution, the divisions are re-named as regions. In addition there are five self-administered zones and one self-administered division. The map on the facing page labels states, regions, selfadministered zones, and the self-administered division in regular capital letters. The divisions, or regions under the 2008 constitution, are (division capital in parentheses): Ayeyarwady Division (Pathein); Bago Division (Bago); Magway Division (Magway); Mandalay Division (Mandalay); Sagaing Division (Sagaing); Tanintharyi Division (Dawei); Yangon Division (Yangon) The states are (state capital in parentheses): Chin State (Hakha); Kachin State (Myitkyina); Kayin, also Karen State (Pa-an); Kayah, also Karenni State (Loikaw); Mon State (Mawlamyine); Rakhine State (Sittwe); Shan State (Taunggyi) The shaded areas on the map are the five self-administered zones, the one self-administered division, and the Naypyidaw (capital) union territory. The self-administered zones are Danu, Kokang, Naga, Palaung, and Pa-o. The self-administered division is Wa.
New Flag of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar
Administrative Map of Myanmar/Burma According to the 2008 Constitution
utra River Brahmap
Ayeyarw ady Riv er
Kunming Tengchong Ruili KOKANG PALAUNG WA
B URM A
Hakha CHIN DANU Sittwe NAYPYIDAW UNION TERRITORY RAKHINE
SHAN Mandalay PA-O
MANDALAY MAGWAY Magway Naypyidaw
Taunggyi Loikaw Chiang Rai KAYAH Chiang Mai
BAY OF BENGAL
BAGO Bago MON Yangon Pa-an
0 0 200 km.
GULF OF SIAM
hange is in the air, although it may reflect hope more than reality. The political landscape of Myanmar has been all but frozen since 1990, when the nationwide election was won by the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The country’s military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), lost no time in repudiating the election results and brutally repressing all forms of political dissent. Internally, the next twenty years were marked by a carefully managed partial liberalization of the economy, a windfall of foreign exchange from natural gas exports to Thailand, ceasefire agreements with more than a dozen armed ethnic minorities scattered along the country’s borders with Thailand, China, and India, and one of the world’s longest constitutional conventions. Externally, these twenty years saw Myanmar’s membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), several forms of engagement by its ASEAN partners and other Asian neighbors designed to bring about an end to the internal conflict and put the economy on a high-growth path, escalating sanctions by the United States and Europe to protest the military regime’s well-documented human rights abuses and repressive governance, and the rise of China as a global power. At the beginning of 2008, the landscape began to thaw when Myanmar’s ruling generals, now calling themselves the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), announced a referendum to be held in May on a new constitution, with elections to follow in 2010. This process of transition to a new government provided the impetus for the workshop in Washington at the end of October 2009, Myanmar/Burma: Outside Interests, Inside Challenges, on which this book is based. The moment was especially ripe because the United States had just a month earlier unveiled a new policy of pragmatic engagement
2 Lex Rieffel
toward Myanmar, and the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell, was preparing to visit Myanmar, as the most senior administration official to visit the country in fourteen years. While the political calendars in Myanmar and the United States alone made the timing of the October workshop propitious, six other developments that generated newspaper headlines in the preceding months contributed to the significance of the moment. To begin with, ASEAN’s ten member countries adopted the group’s first charter at the end of 2008.1 Myanmar— supported at times by other member countries with authoritarian regimes— was the major obstacle to including a number of progressive provisions of the charter, notably the establishment of a human rights body. This is a good example of the challenge Myanmar poses for the ASEAN goal of building “one caring and sharing” community by 2015 that places “the well-being, livelihood and welfare of the peoples at the center of the ASEAN community building process.”2 Second, events in Thailand and Indonesia hampered ASEAN’s ability to deal effectively with the problem of Myanmar. Thailand chaired ASEAN from mid-2008 to the end of 2009, but the Thai government was preoccupied with a domestic political crisis during this entire period. Indonesia had, in effect, the opposite problem. After completing a five-year term, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was reelected to a second term in mid-2009 with 61 percent of the vote. The heady experience of being perceived globally as a poster child for democracy increased domestic pressure on the Indonesian government to take a hard-line position on Myanmar. Third, in December 2008 press reports surfaced about a couple of boatloads of Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar that had been intercepted by the Royal Thai Navy, which subsequently towed the boats back to sea and left the almost thousand occupants to their fate. While many drowned, several substantial groups were rescued and brought to India and Indonesia.3 Although they are inhabitants of Myanmar, the Rohingya community, which follows the Muslim faith, is considered stateless by the government and is subject to some of the worst human rights abuses. Fourth, a North Korean ship bound for Burma in June 2009 turned back after reports that it might be carrying nuclear materials and therefore in violation of the recently enacted UN Security Council Resolution 1874 to enforce the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It appears that Myanmar’s military regime withdrew permission to enter Myanmar ports in response to appeals from a number of important UN members. Fifth, Myanmar’s army—the Tatmadaw—launched an operation against the Kokang ethnic minority on Myanmar’s northeastern border with China
The Moment 3
in August 2009. The operation generated an influx of as many as 30,000 refugees into Yunnan province. The Kokang have historic ties with China, and the Chinese government expressed immediate and strong objections to the military operation. Sixth, competition between China and India intensified in the context of efforts to purchase natural gas from a new offshore field close to Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh. In December 2008 the SPDC awarded the off-take contract to China National Petroleum Corporation, which will build a pipeline across Myanmar to Yunnan province. A parallel pipeline to carry crude oil from the Middle East and Africa will also be built. The chapters in this volume, developed from papers presented at the workshop, help to shed light on the major inside challenges and outside interests that are likely to shape Myanmar’s future beyond the political transition that is now under way. A special effort has been made to bring an Asian perspective to the topic. The overview chapter seeks to place the discussion in a broad historical and policy context and explain why positive change seems possible after two decades of lost opportunities.
The range of internal challenges in Myanmar is vast. Indeed, it is hard to find any broad aspect of Myanmar society that is functioning well. Even the military is far from being a well-oiled machine. The October 2009 workshop focused on two internal challenges: national reconciliation and economic development. Each of these in turn is a complex topic impossible to capture in a couple of papers or two hours of discussion. On the topic of national reconciliation, two Burmese scholars take quite distinct approaches in part 1 of this volume. On the topic of the economy, a Harvard University economist focuses narrowly on the rural economy, and a Swedish scholar focuses on the rapidly growing commercial activity around the principal border crossing between China and Myanmar. The examination of inside challenges concludes with an analysis by an observer in Singapore of three possible political scenarios for Myanmar following the 2010 election.
Kyaw Yin Hlaing presents a factual and balanced view of national reconciliation in chapter 2. He characterizes the approach taken by the three main protagonists—the Tatmadaw, the NLD, and the ethnic minorities— as a zero-sum strategy. All three are focused on outcomes that validate their respective goals instead of on a process that would lead to peace and
4 Lex Rieffel
progress. He concludes that to achieve national reconciliation the military regime will have to give priority to solving the problems that create opposition rather than trying to extend and strengthen its grip on the country. He also notes the view of many Myanmar people that national reconciliation is not possible under military rule but would occur naturally in a democratic system. The deepening divisions that have emerged in the democratic system in neighboring Thailand, however, call this view into question. Maung Zarni views the situation with a personal and rather more pessimistic eye in chapter 3. Like Kyaw Yin Hlaing he argues that the Tatmadaw is preoccupied with consolidating its hegemony over the country and has no interest in national reconciliation. He describes his own reconciliation initiative in 2003–04, with tacit support from Aung San Suu Kyi and the U.S. government among others, directed at the Tatmadaw’s intelligence apparatus led by General Khin Nyunt. The initiative ended when this group of pragmatists was purged by hard-liners in the Tatmadaw, but other opposition leaders who felt upstaged had already undermined the initiative. The experience reveals, according to Maung Zarni, that personalities are at the heart of politics in Myanmar—a point that surely merits repeating. Not surprisingly in a country where conflict has raged for so long, these two approaches represent small segments of the broad spectrum of opinion. While outside observers overwhelmingly blame the military regime for the continuing conflict, within Burma one finds arguments from thoughtful people that place as much blame on how the NLD followed up on its election victory in 1990, or the rent-seeking behavior of the ethnic minorities, or the meddling of China and Thailand. Maung Zarni also points to globalization as a factor, describing the SPDC as a proxy for the foreign corporations that are exploiting Myanmar’s natural resources. Myanmar has the distinction of having the world’s longest continuing civil war. It began before 1948, when the country gained its independence. The end is not yet in sight. The problem at the heart of the civil war today is ethnicity, boiled and concentrated within the arbitrary borders of Myanmar, which in truth has never functioned as one united country. As Maung Zarni points out, however, the critical struggle in the period immediately following independence was within the Burman elite—between communists and socialists. The Burman (or Bamar) linguistic group may constitute as much as 70 percent of the country’s population of more than 50 million people, but both of these data points are disputed. Estimates of the total population of Myanmar range from as low as 47 million to as high as 58 million. Estimates
The Moment 5
of the Burman majority are even more divergent, and some observers claim that ethnic Burmans, narrowly defined, now represent only 40 percent of the population. Much intermarriage among linguistic groups and physical displacement has taken place over the past thirty years, making ethnic distinctions increasingly blurry. The Burmans mostly adhere to the Buddhist faith and occupy the lowland center of the country defined by the Ayeyarwady River. The remaining population is divided among six major ethnic-linguistic groups (Rakhine- Arakanese, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Mon, and Shan), a dozen smaller groups, and more than a hundred other officially recognized linguistic communities. The ethnic-linguistic minorities live primarily in the mountainous regions along the borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand, and some of the most prominent groups adhere to the Christian faith. In addition, three large nonnative groups of Bangladeshis (Muslim), Chinese (Confucian), and Indians (Hindu) together include at least 1.5 million people. The first chance to achieve national reconciliation came a few months after independence, when General Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi), who had emerged as the leader of pro-independence forces, presided over two conferences in Panglong in 1946 and 1947 that hammered out a political framework for the new nation. Significantly, the framework included an option for two of the minority regions to secede if they were dissatisfied with the performance of the union. In July 1947, five months after the second Panglong Conference, Aung San was assassinated along with some of his cabinet ministers, plunging the country into a political crisis with far-reaching adverse consequences that have yet to be rectified. Independence was formally granted by Britain in January 1948 under the 1947 constitution, which provided for a multiparty parliamentary government. Ethnic and ideological differences precluded any economic take-off during the period of democratic rule, which was brought to an end by a military coup in 1962. The ideological differences centered on a communist movement supported by the Communist Party of China. Religious differences were exacerbated in 1961 when a law was passed by Prime Minister U Nu’s government making Buddhism the state religion.4 Armed insurgencies grew in the 1962–88 period as the socialist and isolationist policies of General Ne Win proved to be as much of an economic disaster as the disorder of the parliamentary era. American funding went to remnants of the anticommunist Kuomintang forces that had escaped from China into Burma. Unsubstantiated reports suggested that British funding was going to the Karen and other Christian minorities, and Middle Eastern
6 Lex Rieffel
funding to Muslim minorities. Thailand—Burma’s historic enemy—armed a variety of dissident ethnic groups along the lengthy Thai-Burma border. General Ne Win’s main initiative to achieve national reconciliation, albeit on the military’s terms, was the promulgation of a new constitution. Drafted over a period of two years in a relatively open process, the 1974 constitution established a unitary socialist state with a single legislative body and a single state-sponsored party. One effect of the new constitution was to motivate the ethnic minorities to look increasingly for support outside the country. In another step that became an impediment to national reconciliation, the monks (the sangha) were put under government control through the creation of a Supreme Sangha Council. One of the ironies of Myanmar history, hinted at by Maung Zarni, is that the Tatmadaw prevailed in its struggle with the Communist Party of Burma in 1989 in large part because the People’s Republic of China stopped supporting its Burmese brothers. Yet barely a year later the Tatmadaw managed to create a more formidable opponent in the NLD and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. A people’s revolution in 1988 pushed General Ne Win aside, and a new junta of military leaders—the State Law and Order Restoration Council— came to power. The SLORC’s approach to national reconciliation proceeded on two related tracks: constitutional legitimacy and ceasefire agreements with the armed ethnic minorities. Even before the palace coup on September 18, 1988, in the face of the popular uprising, military leaders were publicly committing to holding a multiparty election. However, the Tatmadaw presumably viewed the election more as a step to restore order than a transition to a democratic system or a way of achieving national reconciliation. As Kyaw Yin Hlaing points out, the SLORC explained before and after the election that the elected body would be not a new parliament but an assembly called to produce a new constitution, which would then have to be approved in a referendum and would subsequently serve as the basis for an election to form a new government. However, other observers do not accept this view and have argued that the voters expected the election to lead directly to a new government led by the winning party. Within days of the coup, a party registration law was issued, and the election took place twenty months later on May 27, 1990. Ninety-three political parties and eighty-seven independents vied for 479 seats. The NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, received 60 percent of the votes and won 80 percent of the seats.5 The party understood to be favored by the Tatmadaw received 25
The Moment 7
percent of the vote but won only ten seats. A standoff quickly ensued. The SLORC refused to certify the election results, and the NLD insisted it had the right to govern the country. The 1990 election in Myanmar must rank as one of the modern world’s biggest political miscalculations. After repudiating the NLD’s election victory, the military was compelled by its earlier commitment to the goal of an elected government to initiate the process of adopting a new constitution as the basis for multiparty elections in the future. Myanmar may hold the record for prolonging this process. The National Convention tasked with producing a constitution opened in January 1993 and was not concluded until September 2007. The opening of the National Convention created a dilemma for the NLD. It participated at the beginning but walked out after two years, when it became clear that the SLORC was unwilling to take any significant steps in the direction of transferring or even sharing power. Ethnic minority members and other nongovernment members of the National Convention had little perceptible influence over the result but stayed for various reasons.6 The National Convention was finally concluded, in the midst of the Saffron Revolt, when the military was under extreme internal and external pressure to reconcile with its opponents.7 The output of the National Convention was a set of detailed principles, and the SPDC quickly appointed a committee to draft the new constitution based on these principles. In February 2008 the SPDC announced that the referendum on the new constitution would be held on May 10, to be followed by a national election in 2010. Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar just a week before the referendum. It was the worst natural disaster in Myanmar’s recorded history, creating more than 130,000 victims (killed and missing). The SPDC insisted on holding the referendum despite the disaster, granting only a two-week postponement for the residents of the most severely impacted townships. The results were announced so quickly and so precisely that they only reinforced cynicism about the process: 98.12 percent of the eligible voters participated in the referendum, and 92.48 percent of them approved the new constitution. The 2008 constitution has generated a sharp debate between those who see it as falling short of the minimal requirements of democratic rule and others who find many more democratic elements than would be expected from a military regime intent on perpetuating its rule. The 2008 constitution creates a classic executive-legislative-judicial structure, a bicameral legislature, and a system of regional assemblies. It provides for relatively open, multiparty elections and spells out basic human rights and protections. At the same
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time it clearly gives the armed forces the power to govern at will, including by giving the commander of the armed forces the power to appoint a quarter of the members of each of the legislative bodies. Since the beginning of 2010, the drums have beaten loudly inside and outside Myanmar for free and fair elections, as promised in the SPDC’s sevenstep roadmap to democracy. The set of five election laws that finally emerged in mid-March 2010 were predictable in being stacked against the NLD and making few concessions to the ethnic minorities and other dissident groups.8 However, they went further in this direction than many expected. The party registration law prompted the NLD to give up its legal status and not compete in the election. Democratic governments and institutions around the world quickly issued expressions of deep disappointment. As this book was going to press in mid-2010, the date for the election was announced by the National Election Commission: November 7. By the beginning of August, forty political parties had been approved by the commission to compete in the November election, but popular sentiment toward the election was mixed at best. Some Myanmar residents were dreaming of another antimilitary landslide on the scale of the 1990 election, but it is hard to believe that the military regime would allow this embarrassment to be repeated. Some were hoping for a massive boycott, draining legitimacy from the results. Others were imagining that the newly elected representatives would begin adopting policies that could lead to genuine reconciliation and more broadly based economic development over time. Any number of small sparks could tilt the outcome in one direction or another. Constitutional legitimacy was one approach adopted by the SLORCSPDC to consolidate its rule over the country. Another approach, which seems to have been more successful, was to negotiate ceasefire arrangements with the armed opposition. The SPDC leader responsible for negotiating the ceasefire agreements was General Khin Nyunt, the head of military intelligence. By 1997 he had concluded seventeen agreements.9 Most of the agreements were verbal, and the terms varied considerably. Enforcement varied even more, but generally the ceasefire groups were allowed to keep their arms, the central government provided some budget resources, and certain economic concessions (to exploit natural resources) were extended. In 2004 Khin Nyunt was stripped of his responsibilities, convicted of corruption, and placed under house arrest. The SPDC, however, by and large continued to respect the ceasefire agreements, and the ceasefire groups became progressively weaker. By the end of 2009 only a handful were in a position to challenge the Tatmadaw militarily.
The Moment 9
In early 2009 the central government announced a plan for transforming the military units of the ceasefire groups into a border guard force under the effective command of the Tatmadaw, pointing out that the ceasefire agreements would have no validity after the 2010 election, when the ceasefire groups would have elected representatives in the national and regional assemblies. Resistance to this plan was so strong, however, that the SPDC signaled its intention in May 2010 to postpone implementation until after the election. As both Kyaw Yin Hlaing and Maung Zarni stress, the conflict between the military-led central government and the ethnic minorities seems no closer to being resolved now than in 1948. One example of how deeply rooted antagonisms can flare up and become serious obstacles to political stability and economic development in the years ahead is the recent anger in Kachin state over the construction of a dam by Chinese companies at the confluence of two major rivers. A company office was bombed in mid-April 2010, killing several Chinese workers.10 The intractable problem of national reconciliation is neatly captured by Maung Zarni in a separate piece he wrote just before the October 2009 workshop: “Tragically, in the 62 years since independence the country has become a ’double-colony’ along ethnic and class lines, this time under the native militarists.”11
For most of the world, the tragedy of Myanmar is primarily political. For the more than 50 million people who live within its borders, a case can be made that the larger tragedy is economic. When Burma gained its independence after World War II, it was widely expected to be one of Asia’s strongest economic performers. In the years before the war, it had been the world’s largest exporter of rice, its natural resource endowment was superb, its population included a well-educated and worldly elite, and the institutional framework built during the colonial period provided a strong foundation for market-led growth. Sixty years later, Myanmar has the lowest per capita income in Asia and ranks among the poorest nations in the world. To some extent, Myanmar’s poor economic performance can be attributed simply to its slow growth relative to the Southeast Asian “tigers” (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and others). Myanmar’s economy grew at a rate of 5.3 percent a year during the period of parliamentary democracy from 1948 to 1962 but only at 3.5 percent a year during the socialist period from 1962 to
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1988.12 The move toward a market economy after 1988 seems to have yielded an improvement in economic growth in aggregate terms, but official figures for GDP and many other economic variables are not reliable. There is little doubt, however, about the strengthening of Myanmar’s balance of payments since sales of natural gas to Thailand began in 2000. The economic progress of the past twenty years has largely accrued to the military regime and its business partners. The standard of living for the average citizen of Myanmar remains very low by global standards, the skill level of the labor force has declined owing to a broken education system and the exodus of young and ambitious people who see no future at home, and the institutional framework inherited from the British has hardly more substance than whitewash on a tropical wall. The obvious explanation for Myanmar’s underperforming economy is the political conflict that has plagued the country for sixty years. Underlying this conflict, however, are the classic signs of a resource curse. Far from being a blessing, the abundance of natural resources has fed the conflict and sustained the military regime. The economy of Myanmar today can be largely captured in a three-sector model: the rice sector in the Burman heartland of the country, the offshore oil and gas sector, and the timber sector in the mountainous border regions inhabited by the ethnic minorities. Three other features of the Myanmar economy merit special attention: China’s role, narcotics, and infrastructure. The biggest rice bowls of Asia are the Ayeyarwady Delta in Myanmar, the Chao Phraya Delta in Thailand, and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. All have had their ups and downs. While Myanmar was the world’s number-one rice exporter before World War II, the top two today are Thailand and Vietnam, where per capita production and per hectare yields have been increasing steadily. By contrast, per capita production and per hectare yields in Myanmar have been declining for a decade, and exports have been well below the country’s historical highs.13 In chapter 4, David Dapice paints a grim picture of the rural sector at the beginning of 2009. In a nutshell, the government’s neglect of the rice economy resulted in a severe shortage of credit to purchase hybrid varieties of rice and the fertilizer farmers require to achieve high yields. Underinvestment in milling and transportation infrastructure made exporting unattractive, and even malnutrition could be having an adverse impact on rice production. Pulses and other cash crops that had been doing well were experiencing collapsing prices, largely owing to a failed attempt by traders in Yangon to corner the export market.
The Moment 11
Turning to the oil and gas sector, two gas fields off the coast of peninsular Myanmar came onstream in 1998 and 2000.14 The gas they produce is sold primarily to Thailand, where it provides for as much as 40 percent of that country’s electricity production. These sales make natural gas Myanmar’s largest export. The foreign exchange earned from these sales has boosted the country’s hard-currency reserves to a comfortable level, exceeding six months of total merchandise imports. New and even larger offshore gas fields not far from the border with Bangladesh are now being developed. Myanmar has agreed to sell the gas from these fields to China, and construction of a pipeline to carry the gas to Yunnan province began in 2009. A parallel oil pipeline will deliver oil from the Middle East and Africa. The foreign exchange earned from natural gas sales to China and Thailand in the coming years appears sufficient to maintain the military regime in power indefinitely. Myanmar’s timber resources are found in the mountainous regions inhabited by ethnic minorities along its borders with India, China, and Thailand. Teak and other tropical hardwoods have been harvested in a destructive and unsustainable fashion since the end of Myanmar’s socialist and isolationist period in 1988. Much of the exploitation carried out by state-owned or statecontrolled companies is legal: licensed, documented, and recorded in Myanmar’s trade statistics. These statistics show that the major export destinations are China and India. The amount of timber harvested and exported illegally varies from year to year and is believed to exceed the amount exported legally at times. Much of the value that could accrue to the people of Myanmar through royalties and taxes in a transparent system is going to dealers working with ethnic minority leaders, regional military commanders, and other interested parties.15 China has important historical links to Myanmar going back centuries. During the British colonial era, immigration from China (mainly from its coastal provinces) and India was encouraged. After Burmese independence in 1948, two factors turned sentiment against the Chinese.16 First, as Ne Win extended socialist control over the economy in the 1960s, the commercially successful Chinese business community was targeted in a series of violent riots. Second, the People’s Republic of China began supporting the Communist Party of Burma in its armed opposition to Myanmar’s elected government. After the SLORC came to power in 1988, relations between Myanmar and China steadily improved. Toward the end of the 1990s, reports began surfacing of substantial flows of undocumented immigrants from Yunnan province into northern Myanmar, and trade with China began expanding
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rapidly. Today, Chinese companies are undertaking construction projects throughout the country. The extent of this activity has prompted some analysts to claim that Myanmar is becoming a colony of China. Other analysts, however, have stressed China’s displeasure with the SPDC’s abysmal record of governance, the SPDC’s firm intention to resist Chinese hegemony, and the historic record of anti-Chinese sentiment in the Myanmar population. In chapter 5, Xiaolin Guo examines one aspect of the growing Chinese presence in Myanmar: the boom in trade along the old Burma Road between Mandalay, in the heart of Myanmar, and Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. She describes the flow as largely driven by small-scale private sector activity. She notes that it has the potential of creating a backlash, as indigenous Myanmar people are alienated from the land or overwhelmed by Chinese competitors. She also notes that the Yunnan authorities have their sights set on linking China to India through Myanmar along the southern Silk Road. Before Myanmar began exporting natural gas to Thailand in 2000, narcotics produced inside the country and smuggled out were believed to be the country’s largest foreign exchange earner. An antinarcotics campaign by the SPDC in the 1980s and 1990s was effective in reducing the production of heroin, but the production of methamphetamines grew rapidly and now dominates the trade. It is difficult to estimate the value of Myanmar’s narcotics exports today, but it is likely to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. While the SPDC does not appear to be directly involved in the narcotics business, it must be assumed that individuals in authority, such as local military commanders, benefit from taxing or protecting the narcotics trade. A number of the ethnic minority groups are also known to be involved in the business. The expenditure of drug money is visible in some of the main production areas (for example, Shan state) in the form of high-quality roads and other infrastructure and in urban centers (for example, Mandalay) in the form of luxury homes and office buildings. The infrastructure picture in Myanmar points in two directions. On the one hand, the SPDC prides itself on investing heavily in infrastructure, especially roads, dams, and the new capital of Naypyidaw. The roads and dams have some economic benefit but would have more if they were designed with an eye to these benefits rather than to political or security interests. The worst part of the picture is how little of Myanmar’s natural gas is used domestically to fuel electric power, as the supply of electricity falls far short of demand across almost the entire country. Myanmar’s macroeconomic policies can be summed up in a few sentences. Fiscal policy is seriously distorted by booking hard-currency revenues
The Moment 13
from gas exports at an official rate that is orders of magnitude below the market exchange rate. Other revenues are not sufficient to cover budgeted expenditures, a large share of expenditures is allocated to the defense sector, and appallingly little goes to the education and health sectors. Inflation has been in the double-digit range, although it may have dropped into single digits in 2009. While foreign exchange reserves are at a comfortable level, the banking system is dysfunctional, and the working-age population is severely underemployed. Chapter 6 concludes the examination of inside challenges. Michael Vatikiotis considers the implications for the Southeast Asia region of three scenarios going forward: the status quo of heavy-handed military rule, partial transition to democratic rule, and state collapse. Counterintuitively, Vatikiotis suggests that state collapse is the scenario “most likely to bring about rapid change and transformation” in Myanmar. This result would come by way of an international rescue led by the United Nations and ASEAN with the blessing of China and India. A model for this scenario is the response to Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. The status quo scenario, according to Vatikiotis, would be the best outcome for Thailand, China, and India, given their interest in continuing to exploit Myanmar’s natural resources. By the same token, it is the scenario most likely to hinder the regional goal of Myanmar’s becoming a contributing partner in the ASEAN community. Vatikiotis concludes that the most likely scenario is partial transition, wherein half-hearted implementation of the 2008 constitution would provide space for gradual reform along the lines of the Suharto regime in Indonesia from 1965 to 1998. In particular, technocrats would manage macroeconomic policies, and the military’s commercial and rent-seeking activities would slowly give way to genuine private businesses. Political reform could come more quickly than it has in Vietnam because of the Myanmar elite’s anticommunist orientation. Vatikiotis recommends that the international community support such a partial transition “however flawed it may seem for now.”
The case of Myanmar illustrates how far the process of globalization has advanced. The range of outside interests that have a bearing on the conflict inside Myanmar is impressive. Sitting in Yangon, the ones felt most strongly are those of three great powers: China, India, and the United States. Three other parties with substantial interests are ASEAN, the United Nations, and
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Japan. Less visible but equally important in certain areas are multinational corporations such as Total (France), Petronas (Malaysia), and Daewoo (South Korea). Similarly low profile and comparably influential are a range of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). One group of NGOs focuses on politics and democracy, including the Democratic Voice of Burma and the Euro-Burma Office. Another group addresses narrower interests, including the International Crisis Group (conflict), Human Rights Watch (human rights), and Global Witness (resource extraction). Still another focuses on humanitarian intervention, including Refugees International and Save the Children. A fuller list of significant players would include the European Union, Australia, and key ASEAN partners such as Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia. Chapter 7 looks at the Myanmar situation from the Chinese perspective. Li Chenyang stresses China’s scrupulous adherence to the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of Myanmar, suggesting that “simply adopting the Western democratic system would cause social chaos and humanitarian disasters,” a view that few non-Chinese scholars would subscribe to. At the same time, Li points out that China would like to see a “stable, democratic, reconciled, and developing Myanmar.” One of the most important points made by Li concerns the differing approaches among Chinese officials to relations with Myanmar. One example relates to the drug problem in the border regions. Some officials favor cracking down on drug trafficking in this area, and others favor a hands-off policy that enables the ethnic minorities to serve as a buffer between Myanmar and China. Another example is the overexploitation of Myanmar’s natural resources by Chinese corporations and condoned by the authorities in Yunnan province, contrary to the policy of the central government. In the area of military cooperation, Li points out that while China has sold aircraft and other heavy weaponry to Myanmar, it has not sold any rifles, machine guns, or other light weapons.17 He affirms that China has no military bases in Myanmar and notes that, unlike India, it has not mounted any joint security operations with the Tatmadaw. On national reconciliation, Li starts with the fundamental point that China does not consider the conflict in Myanmar to pose a threat to international or regional peace and security. While there is much agreement in the scholarly community that Myanmar is not threatening international security, the claim that it does not threaten regional security is harder to accept. Li goes on to put the problem of Myanmar in the context of China’s relations
The Moment 15
with the ASEAN community, indicating that China believes the problem of Myanmar “will be resolved gradually in the process of ASEAN’s integration.” Li contrasts the steadiness of China’s policy toward Myanmar since 1988 with the reversals in India’s policy toward Myanmar. His 1988 starting point, however, conceals the struggle waged for forty years by the Tatmadaw against the Communist Party of Burma, which received support from the People’s Republic of China. Apart from other advantages cited by Li, China also enjoys a substantial geographical advantage. While Myanmar’s borders with China and India are both mountainous and difficult to traverse, India’s closest commercial center, Kolkata, is much farther away and less accessible than Kunming, in effect its rival Chinese city. Li concludes by stressing the similarities in the approaches of China and India toward Myanmar since 2000 and suggesting that the Myanmar government will seek to maintain friendly relations with both countries in the period ahead “in order to maximize the benefits from this competition.” In chapter 8, Gurmeet Kanwal traces the evolution of India’s relations with Myanmar since the end of World War II, when U Nu, a prominent figure in the Non-Aligned Movement and a close associate of India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was prime minister of Myanmar. Kanwal describes the ups and downs in the bilateral relationship since then: more distant during the militarist and isolationist Ne Win regime, cautiously closer following the popular uprising in 1988 and Aung San Suu Kyi’s emergence as a democratic leader, and then actively engaged after 1993 in the context of India’s Look East policy. Among the factors shaping India’s policy toward Myanmar, Kanwal notes, is the challenge of counterbalancing China’s growing influence, cooperating in the containment of insurgent groups in India’s northeastern states seeking independence from India or greater autonomy, enhancing security in the Indian Ocean, and gaining access to Myanmar’s natural gas and other resources. He summarizes India’s economic cooperation with Myanmar in the areas of trade, oil and gas, and infrastructure and describes in some detail the close cooperation between the two countries in the area of defense and security. Elaborating on India’s concerns about China, Kanwal evokes China’s String of Pearls strategy of encircling India to keep it off balance and preventing its rise as a competing power in Asia. He suggests that in recent years China has made possible the expansion of the Tatmadaw from 180,000 to 450,000.18 On one major policy issue in this area, Kanwal notes
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the assurances from the Myanmar government to the Indian government that it has not leased any military bases to China, but he treats these assurances with some skepticism. On another major policy issue, Kanwal suggests that China has encouraged North Korea to provide nuclear technology to Myanmar and stresses India’s position that the international community must adopt all measures necessary to stop another Asian country from acquiring nuclear weapons. Kanwal concludes by noting that India’s current policy toward Myanmar reflects a realization “that a foreign policy based solely on occupying the moral high ground on every international issue . . . is not a sustainable one now and that economic and strategic objectives must sometimes override other objectives.” In chapter 9, Termsak Chalermpalanupap offers the perspective of the ASEAN Secretariat on Myanmar’s participation in the ASEAN community. He stresses the positive role ASEAN has played in encouraging greater openness in Myanmar, especially in connection with the international response to the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. He begins by noting that Myanmar had the option of joining ASEAN when it was founded in 1968, but General Ne Win decided to stay out to avoid compromising the neutrality policy adopted by his predecessors and reinforced by their prominent role in the Non-Aligned Movement. Given the cold-war struggle under way at the time, including America’s deep involvement in Vietnam, this reason is plausible, but the Ne Win regime was both anti-Chinese and anticommunist. Therefore Ne Win’s isolationist policy would seem to be a more important reason. Termsak describes the steps taken by the government of Myanmar in the mid-1990s to join ASEAN, but he provides little context for this important step. One common view is that the main driver was Malaysia’s prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who wanted to claim credit for “completing” ASEAN by bringing in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. A noteworthy precursor mentioned by Termsak is the participation of Myanmar’s ruling general, Than Shwe, in signing the ASEAN treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone in December 1995 in Bangkok. Termsak notes the progression in ASEAN policy from “constructive intervention,” proposed by the Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1997, to “flexible engagement” proposed by Thai foreign minister (and now ASEAN secretary-general) Surin Pitsuwan in 1998, to “enhanced interaction” proposed by Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas shortly thereafter.
The Moment 17
Termsak spells out the steps leading up to ASEAN’s ambitious plan to achieve a more integrated ASEAN community by 2015, in particular by adopting the ASEAN Charter that went into force in December 2008. He highlights two new principles in the charter relevant to ASEAN’s approach to Myanmar: “collective responsibility in enhancing regional peace, security, and prosperity” and “enhanced consultations on matters seriously affecting” the region’s common interest. At the end of his chapter, Termsak lists the main features of ASEAN’s engagement with Myanmar in recent years. He concludes by noting that ASEAN’s paramount value is “keeping every member state inside the ASEAN fold happily cooperating with all other member states in the process of community building.” Termsak’s account raises a number of questions about ASEAN’s approach to relations with its most problematic member. One episode of note: During the intense debate on the drafting of the ASEAN Charter over provisions establishing a human rights body for the region, Myanmar raised the strongest objections, although other countries shared some of them. In chapter 10, Pavin Chachavalpongpun presents a skeptic’s view of the ASEAN role in Myanmar. He stresses ASEAN’s tendency to react to policy changes elsewhere rather than exerting leadership on regional issues and argues that ASEAN is being marginalized by the new U.S. policy toward Myanmar. He asserts that none of the approaches to Myanmar adopted by ASEAN has been successful and that the military regime has taken advantage of ASEAN by using it as a political shield. He also makes the important point that most of the other nine ASEAN members have been or are currently dealing with significant problems of political legitimacy. The sharpest charge Pavin makes is that ASEAN has created a series of myths to conceal the grim reality of Myanmar’s failures. One myth is that engagement would help to transform Myanmar eventually into a thriving democracy. Another myth is that China has a great influence in Myanmar. According to Pavin, the new U.S. policy of “pragmatic engagement” with Myanmar has punctured a third myth: that ASEAN is the single provider of legitimacy to the government of Myanmar. He points to a number of recent actions by the government of Myanmar that reveal its lack of interest in ASEAN. He posits instead that the military regime views the United States as the “real provider of legitimacy.” Pavin argues that ASEAN has lost the chance to remain “in the driver’s seat” in the process of steering Myanmar toward the political and economic goals of the ASEAN community because it lacks a strategy for doing so. The
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only choices now are to give up any role in addressing the problem of Myanmar or to follow the United States. As Pavin sees it, ASEAN’s actions since the new U.S. policy was announced in September 2009 show that it has opted for the latter course: to “jump on the last bus . . . to Naypyidaw.” As a result, ASEAN is likely to become a marginal player in the international community’s relations with Myanmar. Chapter 11, by Andrew Selth, examines in considerable detail the international community’s growing concern about Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions. He begins by summarizing seven developments between June and October 2009 that generated press reports about cooperation between Myanmar and North Korea in the area of nuclear technology. He provides important historical context for these reports, describing Myanmar’s relationship with North Korea since its independence as checkered. In particular, he recalls the assassination attempt by North Korean agents against the president of South Korea during a visit to Myanmar in 1983, which was taken as a personal affront by Ne Win, Myanmar’s ruling general at the time. He also notes the irony that the portrayal of Myanmar as a pariah state by the United States and other Western countries after the SLORC’s repudiation of the 1990 election provided the impetus for Myanmar’s subsequent rapprochement with North Korea. Selth points out the logic of military cooperation between Myanmar and North Korea and treats as credible many of the reports about purchases of military hardware from North Korea, training of military personnel in North Korea, and North Korean technical assistance in tunneling. Beyond these reports, however, he writes, “public commentary [is] running ahead of the facts.” He explains that Myanmar has a relatively large defense-industrial complex, which naturally seeks to upgrade its ability to manufacture modern weapons by purchasing technology from all available sources. Selth observes that Myanmar, among all the Southeast Asian nations, has “the strongest strategic rationale to develop nuclear weapons” because it feels the most threatened by external invasion. He refers to a September 2009 report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London that found “insufficient information to make a well-founded judgment about Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions and the North Korean connection.” At the same time, he observes that Myanmar’s military rulers can be expected to do whatever they can to stay in power, and therefore the reports of a possible nuclear weapons program cannot be dismissed out of hand. Part 2, on the outside interests, concludes with chapter 12, which is the text of the testimony given by Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell before the
The Moment 19
House Committee on Foreign Affairs on October 21, 2009. In this testimony, Campbell describes the new U.S. policy of pragmatic engagement. The context for this change is laid out in the final section of this overview chapter.
The United States and Other Outside Interests
The United States is arguably the most significant of the other outside interests in Myanmar. Before examining the U.S. role, however, three other perspectives are worth mentioning to round out the picture: democracy and human rights advocates, humanitarian NGOs, and the United Nations. The SLORC’s repudiation of the 1990 election, its unconscionable treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi, and her award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 catapulted Myanmar to front ranks among global causes. Other Nobel Peace Prize winners, prominent actors and musicians, and a host of human rights and democracy advocates have actively worked over the past twenty years to pressure Myanmar’s military regime to stop its abuse of human rights and yield power to the NLD. These efforts have had an especially large impact on U.S. policy toward Myanmar, as discussed further in the next section. International NGOs specializing in humanitarian interventions were not welcome in Myanmar during Ne Win’s twenty-six years of isolationist rule. They initiated programs in the 1990s and have made an important contribution since then to a growth spurt in civil society and the emergence of numerous indigenous NGOs. When Cyclone Nargis struck in May 2008, at least a dozen international NGOs operating inside Myanmar were able to redeploy their staffs immediately to undertake disaster relief activities. Other international NGOs were allowed to begin operating inside Myanmar, and naturally the NGOs as a group began seeking ways to address humanitarian needs beyond the cyclone-impacted areas. Given their financial resources and energy, these NGOs have the potential of contributing importantly to Myanmar’s socioeconomic development after the 2010 election. Global concerns about democracy, human rights, and poverty in Myanmar have prompted the United Nations to undertake a broad range of initiatives focusing on this country. For example, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan appointed Malaysian diplomat Tan Sri Ismail Razali as his special envoy on Myanmar in 2000. Razali resigned in 2005, frustrated over the lack of progress, and was replaced by Nigerian diplomat Ibrahim Gambari. Gambari was no more successful and moved on to another position at the end of 2009. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon made a special trip to Myanmar in May 2008 and is given some of the credit for persuading the SPDC to
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allow international relief agencies to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis. He returned empty-handed, however, from a second trip in July 2009. In 1992 the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed a Japanese diplomat as its special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. Three others followed her in this position. One of the four was never granted permission to visit by the government of Myanmar. The others made periodic visits to Myanmar without achieving significant results.19 The council has adopted a number of resolutions deploring the human rights situation in Myanmar and calling for corrective action by the government of Myanmar. The representative of the secretary-general on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Walter Kälin, has been concerned about the displaced persons situation in Myanmar since his appointment in 2004 but has not yet been able to visit the country. By contrast, the UN’s International Labor Office has maintained a liaison office in Yangon since 2002 and has had some success in the area of forced labor. Since 1991 the UN General Assembly has passed annual resolutions calling on the Myanmar government to respect human rights and restore democratic rule.20 In January 2007 a move by the U.S. government to get a Security Council resolution condemning Myanmar failed owing to vetoes by Russia and China, but a month after the suppression of the Saffron Revolt, the Security Council did approve a statement by its president decrying the actions of the military regime. Sadly, it is not possible to find any positive impact of these activities by the United Nations on the problems of national reconciliation or socioeconomic advancement in Myanmar.
U.S. Policy toward Burma/Myanmar
Until 1988 U.S. foreign policy did little more than recognize Burma’s existence, partly because of the Burmese government’s inward-looking policies and partly because of America’s preoccupation with conflicts in other Asian countries (Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines). After General Ne Win was deposed in 1988, U.S. interest in Burma grew rapidly, although it quickly focused on regime change following the SLORC’s repudiation of the NLD victory in the 1990 election and its mistreatment of Aung San Suu Kyi. Political and economic sanctions were progressively tightened in response to actions by the military regime that inflamed public sentiment in the United States. In September 2009, acknowledging that twenty years of sanctions and “megaphone diplomacy” had little perceptible effect either in promoting better governance or ending the suppression of Aung San
The Moment 21
Suu Kyi, the Obama administration announced a new policy of “pragmatic engagement.” The new policy has been seriously tested in the run-up to the 2010 election in Myanmar. From 1948 to 1988. As part of its strategy to contain China and stop the spread of communism to Southeast Asia, the U.S. government initiated an economic assistance program in Burma in 1950 while also providing covert support to remnants of the Chinese Kuomintang forces that had fled into Burma. Prime Minister U Nu terminated the program in 1953 to preserve Burma’s neutrality in the cold war. U.S. assistance to Burma resumed in 1956 with an emphasis on food aid, only to be terminated again in 1964 by General Ne Win. Significantly, between 1948 and 1962 more than one thousand Burmese military officers received training in the United States under a military assistance program—a larger group than received training in any other country. A third wave of U.S. assistance to Burma began in 1974, focusing on fighting the manufacture and sale of narcotics, and was expanded substantially in 1980 to become a typical multisector program. The 1990 Election and the Beginning of Sanctions. The end of Ne Win’s failed experiment with socialism in 1988 was greeted enthusiastically by the United States at a moment when cracks were appearing in the Iron Curtain in Europe. It looked as though Burma might start down the path of modernization taken by its Southeast Asian neighbors in the 1960s and in the 1980s by China and Vietnam. Americans quickly identified with Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign for democratic rule in the 1990 election. Her appeal in the United States was matched only by her popularity and support in the United Kingdom, where she had studied, met her husband, and given birth to two sons. When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she became a global symbol of the struggle for human rights and democracy. The reversal in U.S. policy toward Burma that occurred between 1988 and 1991 is easy to understand in the context of the historic turn of events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union at that time.21 Democracy was prevailing over totalitarian rule. Human rights were being recognized as never before. The end of history was proclaimed. After almost thirty years of repressive military rule, the 1990 election in Burma looked like another victory for democracy and human rights. A more charismatic leader than Aung San Suu Kyi could hardly be imagined. As it became clear that the hoped-for democratic transition had been denied by the SLORC, as reports of human rights abuses escalated, and as refugees flooded into Thailand, the full range of U.S. assistance programs was
22 Lex Rieffel
wound down, essentially representing the first batch of sanctions imposed on Burma. Under President Bill Clinton, U.S. policy became increasingly linked to the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi in response to a grassroots campaign by democracy and human rights advocates targeting the U.S. Congress. The campaign was successful in getting U.S. aid monies allocated to help Burmese refugees in camps on the Thai border and to support a variety of NGOs promoting democracy and human rights in Burma from outside the country (funneled primarily through the National Endowment for Democracy). This grassroots pressure contributed to President Clinton’s decision in 1995 to send his UN ambassador, Madeleine Albright, to Burma in an effort to persuade the SLORC to accept a role for the NLD in governing the country. She went on to become secretary of state in the second Clinton administration and a fervent and influential supporter of democracy in Burma after the election of George W. Bush. President Clinton imposed a second batch of sanctions in 1997 in the form of denying visas to designated military leaders and their families and prohibiting new investment in Burmese resources by Americans. U.S. Policy in the George W. Bush Administration. Under President George W. Bush (2001–09), U.S. policy became so focused on Aung San Suu Kyi that it could be described as one-dimensional. First Lady Laura Bush personally promoted the cause of Burma to a point where even career diplomats said that U.S. policy toward Burma was being made in the White House. A third batch of sanctions, including a freeze on Burmese assets in the United States, severe restrictions on bank transactions, and a ban on imports from Burma, was imposed in May 2003 under the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act. These sanctions were prompted by an attack on Aung San Suu Kyi and members of the NLD near the town of Depayin (in central Myanmar) while traveling by car to visit NLD supporters in the countryside.22 The U.S. secretary of state, Colin Powell, immediately condemned the attack and referred to the SPDC as thugs. Two years later, in her confirmation hearings to become the secretary of state after serving as President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice named Burma as one of six “outposts of tyranny.” In January 2007, eight months before the Saffron Revolt, the Bush administration attempted to persuade the UN Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the SPDC but was blocked by China and Russia. The fourth and latest batch of sanctions was enacted in 2008 in response to the brutal repression of the Saffron Revolt in September 2007. These
The Moment 23
included a prohibition on imports of Burmese-origin jade and gemstones and a requirement that U.S. directors in the multilateral financial institutions vote against any assistance to Burma. The one-dimensional Bush administration policy toward Burma commanded broad bipartisan support. Republican senator Mitch McConnell, chairing the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Democratic representative Tom Lantos, chairing the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, were particularly outspoken on the issue of Burma. The Bush administration’s response to Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 was rapid and substantial. Disaster relief supplies from the U.S. Agency for International Development were airlifted from Bangkok to Yangon in more than 180 flights by U.S. Air Force planes, more than were carried out by any other donor country or multilateral agency.23 Assistance totaling nearly $75 million was provided to the victims of Nargis. However, in a move regarded by some analysts as feeding the paranoia of the SPDC, U.S. Navy ships with additional supplies stood off the coast of Burma well after it became clear that the military regime would not allow the ships to enter Burmese ports and after ships from other countries had unloaded supplies in Thai ports. A New Policy in 2009. When Senator Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency in 2008, foreign policy was stressed as one of the areas in which his administration would adopt an approach distinctly different from that of the Bush administration. U.S. policy toward Burma was not given special attention in the campaign, but it did receive a remarkable degree of attention after Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. The first hint of how U.S. policy toward Burma would change came in February 2009 during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first foreign trip, which departed from tradition by focusing on Asia. During her stop in Jakarta, Secretary Clinton announced that a review of U.S. policy toward Burma was being initiated, because we want to see the best ideas about how to influence the Burmese regime. And we are looking at every possible idea that can be presented. Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta. But . . . reaching out and trying to engage them hasn’t influenced them either. So this is a problem for not just Indonesia and the United States, but for the entire region. And we’re going to work closely; we’re going to consult with Indonesia for ideas about how best to try to bring about the positive change in Burma.24
24 Lex Rieffel
In March a mid-level foreign service officer visited Naypyidaw and met with the foreign minister, suggesting that the review was proceeding on a fast track. At the beginning of May, however, the review was moved to a slow track owing to a bizarre incident in which an elderly American man swam to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, leading to her trial and conviction for violating the terms of her house arrest. The review moved forward again in August after Aung San Suu Kyi’s sentence was commuted to another eighteen months of house arrest. Another key development was a visit to Burma later in August by Senator Jim Webb, chair of the Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and for years a critic of the hardline U.S. policy toward Burma. Senator Webb met with Senior General Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi and also facilitated the deportation of the deranged American swimmer. The completion of the U. S. policy review was announced by Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell in New York at the end of September in connection with a meeting he had with Myanmar’s minister for science and technology, who was attending the UN General Assembly meetings. Assistant Secretary Campbell testified about the review at hearings held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 30 and by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on October 21. (His House testimony is presented in chapter 12 of this volume.) Two weeks later, Campbell visited Myanmar on a fact-finding mission to assess the military regime’s interest in responding constructively to the shift in U.S. government policy. In mid-November, President Obama participated in an ASEAN-U.S. Summit in Singapore that included Myanmar’s prime minister Thein Sein. Assistant Secretary Campbell made a second trip to Myanmar in May 2010, which was notable for the absence of any apparent progress in the process of engagement. Senator Webb scheduled a second trip to Myanmar in June 2010 but canceled it after he had left Washington in response to a report that surfaced with new evidence about nuclear technology being transferred from North Korea to Myanmar. In mid-2010, as this volume was going to press, four aspects of U.S. policy toward Burma remained ambiguous. The most problematic was the U.S. stance on the 2010 election in Burma. The policy spelled out four conditions for a credible election process: “release of political prisoners, the ability of all stakeholders to stand for election, eliminating restrictions on the media, and ensuring a free and open campaign.” Without these conditions, the
The Moment 25
policy seemed to imply that the government emerging from the 2010 election would not be legitimate. At the same time, Assistant Secretary Campbell said in his October 21 testimony, “we are skeptical that the elections will be either free or fair.” If in fact the election to be held on November 7 is not free and fair, the U.S. government apparently will be forced to disengage on the grounds that the new government of Burma is illegitimate. A second ambiguous aspect was the view of the U.S. role relative to the role of international organizations, regional organizations, and other countries. Toward the end of his October 21 testimony, Assistant Secretary Campbell said, “We alone cannot promote change in Burma. . . . We need regional states’ support in pressing for political and economic reform.” On balance, however, the testimony can be read to suggest that the United States holds the key to Burma’s future and that the proper vision of Burma’s future is the U.S. vision. This view contrasts with the position of Senator Webb, who has pointed to Vietnam as an example of an alternative path to political and economic reform that has been accepted by the United States. A third ambiguous aspect is what the U.S. government decides to call this country. All of Burma’s ASEAN partners and all of Burma’s other Asian neighbors (notably China, India, and Japan) call the country Myanmar. Only a small number of countries apart from the United States continue to call it Burma to show their support for democratic rule based on the outcome of the 1990 election. Continuing to call the country Burma has three disadvantages. It implies that regime change remains a goal of U.S. policy. It makes the U.S. government look toothless because it has failed for so many years to persuade others to call the country Burma. And it implies that Myanmar’s ASEAN partners and Asian neighbors are insufficiently committed to democracy and human rights because they have accepted the name adopted by the military regime. As part of the policy of pragmatic engagement, a case could be made for adopting “Burma/Myanmar” or “Myanmar/Burma” in official statements, as some other Western countries have done.25 A fourth ambiguous aspect is the view that Burma represents a threat to U.S. national security. In the notice issued by the White House in May 2010 extending U.S. sanctions for another year, President Obama determined that the Burmese government’s “actions and policies pose a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”26 Making this finding is a statutory precondition to imposing sanctions against Burma.27 To the rest of the world, however, this finding seems far-fetched.
26 Lex Rieffel
Recommendations to the U.S. Government
The October 2009 workshop was designed to bring to Washington the perspectives of Asian and other non-American experts on the problem of Myanmar, not to make recommendations to the U.S. government. Nevertheless, it is possible to extract a short set of recommendations from the papers presented at the workshop and the related discussion. Readers should bear in mind that these are the recommendations of non-American experts who tend to view the problem of Myanmar primarily as a regional problem rather than a global problem. —The change in U.S. policy is welcome. It is also timely in light of the political transition that is expected to follow the election in Myanmar to be held on November 7, 2010. —As the new U.S. policy of pragmatic engagement adapts to developments inside Myanmar, the U.S. government should keep in mind the complexities of the internal conflict, including discrimination by stronger ethnic minority groups against weaker ones and latent communal tensions among Muslim, Chinese, and other residents. It should view Myanmar as having a premodern society bearing vestiges of feudalism. It should understand that the social changes required to build strong foundations for democratic governance will occur slowly, over decades. It should understand the predatory nature of the military regime. —To be effective in advancing America’s fundamental interests in Myanmar, engagement by the United States will have to be comprehensive, encompassing all major elements of the society, and multidimensional. It should seek to bring people back into the peace equation. —In 2010 the military regime will not be in a position to engage meaningfully with the United States or any other foreign country or international organization because it will be preoccupied with managing the election and launching the new government. Therefore it would be advisable for the U.S. government to monitor developments closely and not launch any initiatives. —During the past year, the United States has clearly demonstrated its strong interest in ASEAN. It could do much more to support ASEAN’s efforts to help Myanmar move toward ASEAN norms of good governance and economic integration. —Human capital and institutional capacity will be the binding constraints on the ability of the new government to govern well. The U.S. govpriority ernment, along with other friendly countries, should give the highest
The Moment 27
going forward to capacity-building programs and projects, especially for civil servants. —As soon as politically feasible, the U.S. government should stop opposing technical assistance activities in Myanmar by international organizations including the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank Group, and the Asian Development Bank. —The U.S. government should assume that the next government of Myanmar will not be in a position to commit to quid pro quos for any relaxation of U.S. sanctions. The U.S. government should also assume that any intensification of its sanctions will have no positive effect on the current government of Myanmar or the next one. —A useful step in implementing pragmatic engagement could be to move toward calling the country Myanmar instead of Burma, perhaps beginning with Burma/Myanmar. —The U.S. government might do more to alleviate poverty and injustice in Myanmar by focusing on good governance instead of on free and fair elections. The policy of pragmatic engagement might be more successful if it were more accepting of the development model followed by Indonesia, China, and Vietnam, where economic liberalization preceded political liberalization.
1. The ten members of ASEAN are Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. 2. From the Preamble to the ASEAN Charter (www.aseansec.org/publications/ ASEAN-Charter.pdf [May 2010]). 3. S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, “Understanding Statelessness: Issues, Challenges, and Opportunities,” NTS Alert, no. 1 (February 2010) (www.rsis. edu.sg/nts/HTML-Newsletter/alert/NTS-alert-feb-1001.html). 4. At the same time a law was passed that guaranteed freedom of religion. David I. Steinberg, Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 59. 5. Ibid., pp. 91–92. 6. An important step along the way was the SPDC’s announcement in August 2003 of a seven-step Roadmap to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy. The plan ordered that (1) the National Convention be reconvened; (2) the process necessary for the emergence of a genuine and disciplined democratic system be implemented; (3)
28 Lex Rieffel
a new constitution be drafted based on the principles laid down by the National Convention; (4) the constitution be adopted through a national referendum; (5) free and fair elections for the legislative bodies be held; (6) the legislative bodies be convened; and (7) a modern, developed, and democratic nation be built by the state leaders and the government. 7. Often called the Saffron Revolution, the monk-led popular protest was quickly and brutally crushed by the SPDC and therefore does not seem to merit being called a revolution. 8. The International Crisis Group published in May 2010 a superb analysis of the election laws: “The Myanmar Elections,” May 27, 2010 (www.crisisgroup.org/en/ regions/asia/south-east-asia/burma-myanmar/B105-the-myanmar-elections.aspx). 9. Zaw Oo and Win Min, “Assessing Burma’s Ceasefire Accords,” Policy Studies 39 (Southeast Asia) (Washington: East-West Center, 2007), p. 13. 10. The granularity and complexity of the reconciliation problem today, at the level of one major ethnic minority, has been analyzed by Ashley South. He contrasts recent developments in Karen communities inside Myanmar with those in the substantial Karen groups in Thailand and beyond. Ashley South, “Governance and Legitimacy in Karen State,” in Ruling Myanmar in Transition, ed. Monique Skidmore and Trevor Wilson (Singapore: ISEAS, 2010). 11. “Confronting the Demons,” Irrawaddy, October 17, 2009 (www.irrawaddy. org/opinion_story.php?art_id=17011). 12. Tin Maung Maung Than, State Dominance in Myanmar: The Political Economy of Industrialization (Singapore: ISEAS, 2007), pp. 290–92. 13. Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 dealt a major blow to roughly half of the delta rice bowl. While recovery has been somewhat faster than expected, rice output remains below potential, owing to infrastructure damage compounded by severe policy- related constraints. 14. Sean Turnell, “Burma’s Economy 2008: Current Situation and Prospects for Reform,” Burma Economic Watch, May 2008 (www.econ.mq.edu.au/Econ_docs/ bew/BurmaEconomy2008.pdf), p. 15. 15. Global Witness, A Disharmonious Trade: China and the Continued Destruction of Burma’ Northern Frontier Forests (October 2009, London). 16. A third factor was the remnants of the Kuomintang army that fled into northern Myanmar as Mao Zedong’s communist forces consolidated their control over China following the defeat of Japan. These remnants supported themselves in large part by becoming a global supplier of opium. Some were evacuated to Taiwan in the 1950s, and in 1961 the Chinese army effectively eliminated the rest. 17. Andrew Selth writes that China has provided light weapons and ammunition to Myanmar: Burma’s Armed Forces: Power Without Glory (Norwalk, Conn.: Eastbridge, 2002), p. 168. Others have claimed that China has provided Myanmar with facilities to manufacture light weapons. 18. Few military analysts believe that the number of active Tatmadaw personnel exceeds 400,000. Desertion seems to be a problem, and many units are known to be
The Moment 29
well under their formal strength. Total personnel at the end of 2009 may have been below 350,000. 19. The current special rapporteur, since May 2008 and from Argentina, is Tomàs Ojea Quintana. 20. UN General Assembly Resolution 46-132 on the Situation in Myanmar, December 17, 1991 (http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/RESOLUTION/GEN/ NR0/582/20/IMG/NR058220.pdf?OpenElement). 21. The People Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1986 that deposed President Fernando Marcos was an even closer example of the victory of democracy over authoritarian rule. 22. Donald M. Seekins, “Burma and U.S. Sanctions: Punishing an Authoritarian Regime,” Asian Survey 45, no. 3 (2005): 437–52, 439. 23. Tripartite Core Group, Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (July 2008), p. 52. 24. Remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, February 18, 2009 (www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2009a/02/119424.htm). 25. The U.S. Institute of Peace lists the country on its website as Myanmar/Burma. 26. White House press release, May 14, 2010 (www.whitehouse.gov/the-pressoffice/message-president-continuation-national-emergency-with-respect-burma). 27. The requirement is contained in the Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1997.
kyaw yin hlaing
Problems with the Process of Reconciliation
nyone familiar with Myanmar politics knows that the country’s three main political forces, the military government, prodemocracy groups represented by the National League for Democracy (NLD), and ethnic minority groups, desperately need to reconcile their differences and find a way to work together for the long-term political stability and economic development of the country. While ethnic problems have plagued the country since independence in 1948, the political deadlock between the prodemocracy groups, especially the NLD, and the country’s ruling junta has existed since 1988, when the NLD came into being. Although both the government and the NLD have noted the importance of political reconciliation, neither has initiated a meaningful dialogue with the other. Similarly, while the ceasefire agreements between the government and most ethnic insurgent groups remained intact, many vital issues, such as the use of ethnic languages as official languages in minority areas, remain unresolved. Over the past seven years, the military government has declared repeatedly that political changes and national reconciliation would take place only within the framework of its seven-point roadmap. In other words, the junta would work only with political groups prepared to abide by its rules. In addition, the junta also asked ethnic minority and other political groups to run in the elections to be held in 2010 and demanded that ethnic ceasefire groups turn themselves into border guard forces under the control of the Tatmadaw. Needless to say, this is not the kind of political reconciliation process that prodemocracy and ethnic minority groups want to see. The fighting between Kokang and government forces in August 2009 and the eighteen-month extension of the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi earlier in the year show that the reconciliation process is still far from reality.
34 Kyaw Yin Hlaing
In mid-2009 Aung San Suu Kyi offered to work on lifting Western economic sanctions on the country. Several meetings between Suu Kyi and a representative of the government then took place. Regardless of this seeming thaw in relations between the two parties, however, actual reconciliation continued to be elusive. Suu Kyi made it clear that she wanted to work on the lifting of sanctions mainly because sanctions were seriously affecting the country’s poor people, not because she wanted to reconcile with the government. When the election laws issued by the government in March 2010 required the NLD to expel Aung San Suu Kyi before it could reregister with the Election Commission, the NLD sought to revise the laws by filing a suit against the junta. When the Supreme Court rejected this legal challenge, the NLD leadership decided to boycott the elections. As it had not reregistered with the Election Commission by the deadline of May 6, the NLD lost its status as a legal political party. If the election result turns out as the military government intends, the new government will merely be old wine in a new bottle. Although the new military-dominated government might consider releasing political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, it is unlikely the new government will find it necessary to reach any political settlement with the NLD. In any event, Suu Kyi’s current detention order will expire in November 2010, and there will be little time between the election and the expiration of her detention order. This chapter examines why national reconciliation between the three main political forces has eluded the country. Regardless of their call for a national reconciliation process, none of the three has seriously worked on the process itself. All have talked more about what they want than about reconciling their differences. Each of the three forces, instead of making compromises and seeking mutually acceptable solutions, wants to be a winner in the political game. Thus it seems unlikely that national reconciliation will occur in the near future. Naturally, in such a situation, the military government holds de facto power and has more leverage and resources than the other two forces.
Problems between the Government and the NLD
Myanmar has been ruled by military governments since March 1962, when the Revolutionary Council led by General Ne Win replaced the British-style parliamentary system—which came with independence from the British in 1948—with a military-dominated one-party system. This party, known as
Problems with the Process of Reconciliation 35
the Burma Socialist Program Party, ruled the country until 1988, when it was paralyzed by the student-led nationwide social protest commonly known as the four eights (August 8, 1988—8-8-88) democracy uprising. When the leaders of the movement called for the formation of an interim government, the leaders of the Burma Socialist Program Party government allowed the commander-in-chief of the armed forces to take control of the country. The military then formed a governing body known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). As soon as it took control, SLORC announced that it would hold multiparty elections and asked the public to form parties if they wished to engage in political activities. Owing to a lack of mutual trust, the parties formed by political activists and the junta were at loggerheads with one another over the rules governing the activities of political parties and the conduct of the election. The junta showed little mercy to its challengers. Because it was the biggest party critical of the military government, the NLD and its members received the harshest treatment from the junta. The NLD leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was placed under house arrest for the first time in August 1989.
The Second House Arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi
The situation was aggravated by the NLD’s landslide victory in the May 1990 elections. Immediately afterward, the SLORC secretary Major General Khin Nyunt reiterated the army’s preelection announcement at a press conference that the winning party of the election would convene a national convention to draw up a constitution, the constitution would have to be ratified in a referendum, and a second election would have to be held to form a new government. The NLD’s caretaker leadership initially accepted these terms.1 However, many NLD members from local areas were disgruntled with this decision, as they wanted the transfer of power to take place immediately.2 Thus the NLD was quickly split by an internal disagreement. The more radical proponents attempted to form an alternative parliament but were arrested before they could put their plan into action. The junta refused to transfer power to the NLD. Many military leaders reportedly thought they could do a better job than an NLD-led government of keeping the country together.3 Some military leaders appeared worried that an NLD-led government would try to restructure the Tatmadaw in a way contrary to their interests.4 For example, some appear to have concluded that an NLD-led government might force senior military officers to retire or promote them to unimportant positions.5 In short, they believed that transferring power to the NLD would create a threat to personal, institutional,
36 Kyaw Yin Hlaing
and national interests. They talked more about reconsolidation than reconciliation, reflecting a preference for their own entrenchment. By the end of 1990 the military government appeared determined to remain in power for a long time and did not plan to reconcile with the NLD in the way opposition leaders wanted it to do. Prodemocracy groups in Myanmar and democracy advocates in the international community, especially in the United States and the European Union, pressured the junta to honor the results of the election. The military government resisted all domestic and international pressures, announcing that it would seek to establish a discipline-flourishing democracy in the country. Several opposition groups called for the junta to have a genuine dialogue with the NLD and ethnic minorities. They argued that only through a meaningful tripartite dialogue would the country’s political problems be resolved. The NLD repeatedly called for the government to honor the 1990 election results. While ignoring the NLD’s request, the junta made ceasefire agreements with various ethnic insurgent groups.6 The junta announced that it would hold a national convention to discuss political issues with all groups in the country and adopt guiding principles for a new constitution. Although the junta opened the National Convention in 1993, it artfully controlled the convention to produce a constitution that would secure for the military a strategic role in Myanmar politics indefinitely.7 Outnumbered by delegates handpicked by the military government, representatives of the opposition parties found most of their proposals rejected. Representatives of ceasefire groups and other ethnic minorities also found it almost impossible to get their demands accepted by the junta.8 Moreover, military leaders publicly refused to spell out the exact duration of the convention. Opposition groups realized that the junta would do everything within its means to prolong the drafting of the constitution and enhance its own power relative to other groups in the process. When the junta released Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995 after more than five years of house arrest, many hoped that the junta and Suu Kyi would reconcile their differences and seek a way to work together. To their dismay, they discovered that the junta had not released Suu Kyi to reconcile with her. Rather, the positive results of the economic reforms undertaken in the early 1990s had allowed the military leaders to be more confident of their position and less worried about the opposition. The junta released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest mainly because it believed that by doing so it could better control the opposition movement. Aung San Suu Kyi tried to reach
Problems with the Process of Reconciliation 37
out to the junta by making conciliatory comments about the government and requesting military leaders to have a dialogue with her party but failed to convince the military that it was in their interest to do so. Many military leaders at that time appeared to believe that Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders mainly wanted to talk about transferring power, not sharing power. The military was determined to remain in power and was not prepared to have such a dialogue. It was not surprising, therefore, that the military junta simply ignored her requests. When the government dismissed the NLD’s demand to make the National Convention more democratic and transparent, the NLD decided to boycott the convention.9 Three years later, in 1998, in response to the junta’s latest crackdown on her defiant party, Aung San Suu Kyi stated that “economic sanctions are good and necessary for the rapid democratization of Myanmar.”10 As a result she was placed under house arrest again.
The Third House Arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi
Following news of a secret meeting between senior government officials and Aung San Suu Kyi under United Nations mediation, the junta released Suu Kyi from her second house arrest in May 2002. Despite this seemingly positive development, the national reconciliation dialogue between the junta and the NLD stalled within a few months. Aung San Suu Kyi was again taken into protective custody, together with a large number of NLD members, in the wake of a clash in late May 2003 between supporters of the government and NLD members in Depayin, a small town in central Myanmar.11 The junta had taken Aung San Suu Kyi into custody hoping she would help them with their nation-building activities. Senior General Than Shwe, the junta chair, apparently treated her like a niece being addressed by her uncle during three short meetings. They reportedly never talked about political issues.12 Than Shwe did not appear to have a plan for dialogue with the NLD. A local analyst who is close to many senior government officials noted that “Than Shwe would not have placed her under house arrest again if he had ever thought about having a true dialogue with her organization.”13 In 2004 the junta revived the National Convention, which had been in recess since 1996, in the context of its newly unveiled seven-step roadmap to democracy.14 The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) invited NLD leaders to drop their boycott and rejoin the convention. The NLD at first agreed but then changed its mind and said it would take part only if the generals first released from custody all of its detained leaders.15 The NLD also issued a series of statements calling for the government to release all political
38 Kyaw Yin Hlaing
prisoners and to convene the parliament that had been formed by the 1990 elections.16 The government publicly rejected these proposals, and the convention proceeded without the NLD’s participation. On September 3, 2007, the ruling junta concluded the convention after adopting detailed principles for the new constitution that would not only guarantee the military’s continued role in the country’s politics but also make the military the most powerful and resource-rich institution in the country. For instance, one of the principles required that the president of the country be a person with experience in military affairs. Although most opposition groups rejected the principles, the junta refused to revise them and expressed its determination to implement the remaining steps in the roadmap. However, in the wake of the forceful crackdown on the monk-led protests in some major cities in September 2007, the government announced that Senior General Than Shwe would meet Aung San Suu Kyi if the latter stopped confronting the government and stopped calling on the international community to impose economic sanctions.17 The junta even appointed a cabinet minister to liaise with Aung San Suu Kyi directly. Since then, several meetings between Aung San Suu Kyi and representatives of the junta have taken place, and she has been allowed to meet with certain party members. At the same time, the government has emphasized that it would work with opposition groups only so long as they adhered to its rules. Aung San Suu Kyi seemed unwilling to abide by the government’s parameters. However, a leading member of the NLD noted privately that “our problem is that none of us, including Ma Suu, knew how to change the minds of the generals.”18 On October 18, 2007, the junta formed a committee to draft the new constitution based on the principles adopted by the National Convention. In February 2008 the junta announced that it would hold a referendum for the new constitution on May 10, 2008, and that new elections would be held in 2010. While the junta was preparing for the referendum, some senior military officers publicly confirmed that Aung San Suu Kyi would not be allowed to run in the 2010 elections.19 The referendum for the new constitution was held on May 10 in most townships in the country and on May 24 in the twenty-four townships that were seriously damaged by Cyclone Nargis at the beginning of the month. On May 25 the government announced that the new constitution had been approved by 92.4 percent of the voters. By early 2009 many foreign countries, including some European Union countries, had concluded that the government could not be stopped from implementing its roadmap. While the NLD did not seem to know how to resolve the political impasse, the
Problems with the Process of Reconciliation 39
junta seemed prepared to proceed without Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. Editorials in government newspapers at this time indicated that the junta had written off a role for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in the political transition. Indeed, the government was apparently looking for a good excuse to extend her house arrest after its scheduled expiration at the end of May. That excuse emerged when the American John Yettaw swam across Inya Lake and entered her residence. Aung San Suu Kyi and her two assistants were charged with violating the terms of her house arrest, and she was given a three-year jail sentence on August 11, 2009. By Senior General Than Shwe’s order, the sentence was immediately commuted to eighteen months of house arrest. The subsequent appeal process could take one to two years.20 Thus Aung San Suu Kyi will remain under detention until after the elections in 2010 because the junta believes she would jeopardize their plan to institute their discipline-flourishing democracy.21 In late September 2009, in a letter sent to Than Shwe, Aung San Suu Kyi offered to work for the lifting of sanctions. She also asked for permission to meet with European and U.S. envoys to understand the nature of sanctions. Soon after the letter was sent to Naypyidaw, Minister Aung Kyi met with Aung San Suu Kyi. Although the issues discussed in the meeting were not made public, that Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to meet with European Union and U.S. envoys indicated that there might be a thaw in relations between the government and “The Lady,” as she is popularly referred to in the country. In November 2009 the junta allowed visiting U.S. assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell to meet Aung San Suu Kyi at the government guesthouse. In addition, at the request of Assistant Secretary Campbell, the government allowed the NLD’s Central Executive Committee members to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. However, Suu Kyi cancelled the meeting when the government refused to allow fellow detainee and NLD vice chair U Tin Oo to attend it.22 But in December 2009 Aung San Suu Kyi decided to meet with three ailing senior NLD colleagues whom the government had allowed her to see. At the same time, the government gave no indication that it would allow Suu Kyi to play a role in the government to be formed after the elections in 2010. The junta also allowed Assistant Secretary Campbell to meet Aung San Suu Kyi during a second visit in May 2010, after the NLD had been deregistered, but the visit left the impression that the positions of the junta and the NLD were hardening rather than softening. In short, it is clear that the kind of political dialogue NLD leaders want to have with the generals is not part of the agenda of the military junta.
40 Kyaw Yin Hlaing
Reasons for the Absence of a Dialogue
Why has there been no productive dialogue between the junta and the National League for Democracy? Myanmar watchers have postulated three different answers: First, Ne Win’s control of the junta from behind the scenes made such a dialogue impossible. Second, the military was hostile to the NLD because the latter had defeated the military-backed National Unity Party in the 1990 election. Third, antireform hard-line officers prevailed over proreform soft-line officers in the struggle for power within the government. A thorough examination of political developments in Myanmar in the last two decades shows the implausibility of these three answers. Scholars and journalists were attracted to the first answer mainly because Ne Win played a crucial role in the emergence of the SLORC. Although Ne Win did wield much influence over some leading members of the junta until the mid1990s, there is no direct or indirect evidence of his being actively involved in domestic politics afterward.23 In 2002 the government arrested Ne Win’s son-in-law and grandchildren on the charge of high treason. Ne Win and one of his daughters who lived with him were also placed under house arrest. The subsequent conviction of his son-in-law and grandchildren suggests that Ne Win was not as powerful as he was often perceived to be. When he died in December 2002 (at the age of around ninety-one) the government allowed only a small number of close family members to attend the funeral ceremony. If anything, this suggests that the junta was more interested in looking after its own interests than appeasing its former commander. With regard to the second explanation, many observers assumed that the National Unity Party was backed by the SLORC because Ne Win played a role in its creation and that it was essentially the Burma Socialist Program Party with a new name. Although it is true that the junta would have preferred the National Unity Party to the NLD, it is wrong to simply label the party as the junta’s proxy. Nowhere in the country did the military help National Unity Party candidates win the elections.24 Because more than ninety political parties contested the elections, the junta probably thought that no party would win a clear majority. Perhaps the military leaders expected that with the winning seats spread over the disparate political parties, the opposition would not be able to form a government and might instead look to the junta to do so. Journalists and other Myanmar watchers favored the third answer. When the junta disbanded the entire military intelligence agency in 2004, it detained many senior intelligence officers, including its chief, Khin Nyunt. Because
Problems with the Process of Reconciliation 41
Khin Nyunt was more flexible than other senior military officers, many foreign diplomats and journalists considered him to be a liberal, proreform officer. On Khin Nyunt’s instructions, his close associates informed foreign diplomats privately that they understood the need for political reforms and were willing to do whatever they could to implement them. In fact, however, Khin Nyunt was not dismissed for being liberal. The military council decided to dismiss Khin Nyunt and the entire intelligence corps mainly because of the failure of certain intelligence officers to follow Khin Nyunt’s lead and exercise power discreetly in their individual areas of responsibility. These officers, especially ones in the field, conducted themselves inappropriately and became very unpopular. Moreover, the level of corruption among the intelligence corps was significant, especially among members assigned to border areas. Abuse of power by local intelligence officers increased in the early years of the new millennium. The commanders of intelligence battalions often acted as if they were as powerful as regional army commanders. Lower-ranking intelligence officers did not pay proper respect to higher-ranking army officers. When a clash between intelligence and army units occurred in the northeastern city of Muse on the Chinese border in September 2004, senior army officers came to the conclusion that the intelligence corps was getting out of hand. Senior military officers, especially Than Shwe and Maung Aye, were reportedly infuriated by this turn of events. Than Shwe ordered Khin Nyunt to take action against the intelligence officers responsible for the incident in Muse. Khin Nyunt reportedly refused to do so. In an attempt to preserve the authority of military intelligence, he instead had a secret meeting with his close aides and ordered them to uncover information on the corrupt activities of regional commanders, which he planned to submit to Than Shwe at a cabinet meeting. A meeting of a small number of military officers without the permission of higher authorities is considered tantamount to mutiny in the Tatmadaw. A local analyst observed that Than Shwe must have been angry over Khin Nyunt’s refusal to take disciplinary action against his corrupt subordinates and his attempt to investigate senior army officers because both actions threatened the unity of the armed forces.25 In October 2004 the government announced that Khin Nyunt had retired on grounds of poor health. A few days later, however, in a speech given to top government and military officials as well as some local business leaders, Thura Shwe Mann, the third highest–ranking official in the SPDC, accused Khin Nyunt of corruption, insubordination, and attempting to break up the armed forces.26 Many of his senior intelligence officers were given long
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prison terms, while Khin Nyunt himself received a forty-year suspended sentence. A retired officer who was close to Khin Nyunt noted that even though [Khin Nyunt] was more flexible than other senior officers, he was not prepared to side with the opposition and turn against his hard-line colleagues. A lot of people thought that Khin Nyunt wanted to release Aung San Suu Kyi to please Western governments. It was not true. He was not a big fan of hers. He wanted to release her mainly because he thought he could control her. In addition, he also thought that the junta could prolong its rule more effectively by engaging with the Western governments.27 Another former government official who had worked closely with Khin Nyunt suggested that Khin Nyunt was only liberal to the extent that being liberal served his interests. Another problem with the power struggle argument is that the supposedly proreform group was always weaker than the supposedly hard-line group. The power struggle argument reflects a misunderstanding of the power structure in the government. A large number of Myanmar watchers and a large majority of the population once thought that General Khin Nyunt, as leader of the liberal group, was more powerful than the hard-liners, but the aforementioned points indicate otherwise. Why, then, did the military not want to work with the NLD? Part of the answer probably lies in the way the junta and the NLD sought to legitimize themselves. The junta took control of the country by cracking down on the prodemocracy movement. A natural extension of this strategy was to legitimize itself through outlawing or delegitimizing prodemocracy groups. Similarly, the NLD tried to legitimize itself by delegitimizing the military government, which had refused to hand over power. Throughout the 1990s both groups spent more time and energy attacking each other than seeking a means of cooperation. As a result, mutual trust between the junta and the NLD was absent. Apparently many senior military officers worried that a future government might take vengeance against them, their families, and their friends. In calling for dialogue, both the junta and the prodemocracy groups, including the NLD, did not make clear what they could give in return for what they wanted. Both sides mainly emphasized what they wanted to get from the other side, and both became disappointed when they did not get it. Conceivably, both parties adopted hard-line positions out of frustration over not getting what they wanted. For prodemocracy groups, the political
Problems with the Process of Reconciliation 43
deadlock remained unresolved simply because of the military junta’s refusal to honor the results of the election of 1990. For the military junta, the prodemocracy activists, especially Aung San Suu Kyi, were the biggest mischief makers in the country. Instead of seeking a way to work with each other, both sides adopted a zero-sum approach. The recent offer made by Aung San Suu Kyi to work for the lifting of sanctions in collaboration with the government was a departure from this pattern. However, sources close to the government speculated that this would not change Than Shwe’s decision to deny her a leadership role in any government formed after the 2010 elections.28 In early 2010 the junta asked some serving and retired government officials, trusted community leaders, and business people to run in the election in 2010, representing the government’s views. The NLD and other opposition groups, by contrast, were fighting internally over whether to sponsor candidates in these elections. Many leaders of the NLD were worried that if they stopped seeking to have their victory in the 1990 elections recognized, their party might become marginalized. Anticipating that the junta would do whatever was necessary to win the 2010 election, they worried that their party would lose the special status it had gained by winning the 1990 election. Many younger NLD members, however, believed that if the election became the only game in town, the only serious option would be to participate in it. Otherwise, their party risked becoming irrelevant.
Problems between the Government and the Ethnic Minorities
Numerous ethnic minorities have engaged in armed struggle against the central government since the year after the Union of Burma was created in 1948. Consequently, state–ethnic minority relations have proved to be far more politicized than relations between successive military regimes and other social groups. Myanmar has 135 officially recognized ethnic groups, and more than 20 of them have fought against the central government throughout the postcolonial period. Many ethnic minority leaders apparently believed that British rule was better than rule by the Burman ethnic majority and displayed much apprehension before agreeing at the time of independence to join a union dominated by ethnic Burman politicians. Many members of ethnic minorities were employed in the colonial administration. As a result, they got a modern education and developed a strong ethnic identity earlier than the Burman majority. After independence, Burman politicians dominated the government. Many ethnic leaders viewed the Burman leaders as hegemons whom
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they could not trust. They agreed to join the union only out of respect for General Aung San, who also promised that ethnic minority groups could leave the union ten years after independence if they still felt that membership was not benefiting their people. The Burman-dominated government began to have problems with ethnic minority groups immediately after independence. The result was armed insurrection (for independence or autonomy) by the Karens, Mons, Kachins, Shans, Pa-O, Paluang, and Rakhine in the years of parliamentary rule (1948–58). The government tried to assert control over the country by launching military operations against the insurgent groups but failed to crush them. Another major problem between ethnic minorities and the central government was that the former wanted more political and economic rights and benefits from the union than the latter could provide. A prominent Shan leader and the first president of independent Myanmar, Sao Shwe Thaik, even declared in parliament that if he had known that education, health services, and the economy in his state would remain poor under the Burman-dominated government, he would not have signed the Panglong Agreement.29 Furthermore, the practice by the Burman political leaders of dividing revenue for various ethnic regions according to their share of the total population did not endear them to the ethnic minorities. Ethnic minority leaders began to question Aung San’s 1947 rhetorical statement that “if a Burman gets one kyat, a Shan will get one kyat as well.” For Burman political leaders, the statement meant that if the government allocated one kyat (Myanmar currency) to each individual Burman, it would also allocate one kyat to each individual belonging to an ethnic minority. However, some minorities interpreted the statement as allocating one kyat to each ethnic minority community for each kyat allocated to the Burman community.30 Ethnic minority leaders also believed that since the areas they inhabited were more underdeveloped than areas inhabited by the Burman majority, the central government should invest more in the development of their areas. The central government, however, lacked the fiscal capacity to meet the demands of both the Burman majority and the ethnic minorities. In 1961 ethnic minority leaders held a meeting to exert collective pressure on the government to establish a more federal state. Political leaders of Shan and Kayah states also threatened to secede from the union, as permitted by the 1947 constitution, if the government did not comply with their demands. However, before the minority leaders and the Burman political leaders could reach an agreement, the military seized control of the country, claiming that it did so to prevent the disintegration of the union.
Problems with the Process of Reconciliation 45
Soon after it came to power, the Burma Socialist Program Party government attempted to make peace with the ethnic minorities by inviting all armed insurgent groups to send representatives to Yangon, the Burmese capital at the time, to negotiate a settlement. However, only one small group was able to reach agreement with the government. The government then tried to please the ethnic minorities by promulgating a new constitution that instituted a quasi-federal system for a one-party state and granted statehood to seven predominantly ethnic regions. It also offered high-ranking government positions to defected insurgent leaders. Nevertheless, the Burma Socialist Program Party government failed to meet the expectations of the insurgent groups, and as a result its attempts to end the civil conflict failed to bear fruit. In addition, because the government functioned more like a unitary than a federal state, minority leaders were not happy with the new constitution. Still, neither the government nor the ethnic minorities were strong enough to defeat the other, and fighting continued throughout the socialist period.31 To make matters worse, units of the Tatmadaw mistreated residents in some minority areas. The situation was compounded by the government’s inability to undertake development projects in minority areas.32 This impasse persisted even after the SLORC-SPDC government took control of the country in 1988. The junta initially refused to make peace with insurgent groups. However, after 1989 the government began negotiating with these groups, and eventually seventeen major groups and several smaller ones entered into verbal ceasefire agreements with the government.33 Most of the ceasefire groups also attended the government-sponsored National Convention; having continually received assistance and economic concessions and other forms of support from the government, they were loath to offend it. Most of them criticized the government or expressed their support for Aung San Suu Kyi only privately. A Kachin community leader commented on the interaction between the ethnic minorities and the government thus: It is very difficult to keep something from the government. Once a Kachin Independence Organization [KIO] member wrote a letter to Aung San Suu Kyi, stating that the KIO supported her and her party. Many KIO leaders did not know about this letter until General Khin Nyunt asked Dr. Tu Ja [a leading KIO figure] to see him in Yangon. At the meeting, Khin Nyunt passed the letter sent to Aung San Suu Kyi to Dr. Tu Ja and asked him what was going on. Of course Dr. Tu Ja had to tell General Khin Nyunt that it was the action of one member and the
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leadership of the KIO was unaware of it: “This is the situation we have been in. We have to be careful about what we do and what we say.”34 Because they are financially weak, smaller ceasefire groups depend more on the government, and as a result they make even greater efforts to be on good terms. A leading member of a small Karen group led by Phado Aung San noted, The government has been really nice to us since we surrendered. They give us everything we need. In return, we remain loyal to it. When General Khin Nyunt was fired, we felt very bad. He was our original benefactor. He really helped us. The new secretary I [of the SPDC] has also been very nice to us. He personally assured us that nothing would change in the way the government treats us. We will remain loyal to the government.35 Nonetheless, many problems between the government and ethnic minority groups remain. Most ethnic groups want the country to be divided into eight states instead of seven states (non–Burman ethnic majority areas) and seven divisions (areas inhabited by the Burman ethnic majority). They also want the constitution to guarantee their cultural rights and control over natural resources in their own territories. Although negotiations between the government and the Karen National Union (the last large insurgent group that has yet to formalize a ceasefire agreement with the government) have been under way for some time, the two sides have not found a way to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. Despite having made ceasefire agreements with the government, the New Mon State Party has been openly critical of the SPDC. As punishment for their recalcitrance, members of the New Mon State Party were marginalized and given fewer economic concessions than more compliant groups. For many minority leaders, issues regarding autonomy, promotion of their own cultural practices, and the right to extract natural resources linger. They believe that a genuine dialogue is necessary to resolve these long-standing issues. The military government for its part has been mainly interested in ensuring that all ceasefire groups are enjoying the economic concessions granted to them, staying away from the NLD and other prodemocracy groups, and not challenging its authority. In 2006 some ceasefire groups began to express their unhappiness with the government more forcefully. Although they had initially agreed to give up their arms once the National Convention had finished its work, a number of groups began to retract their agreements since the government had
Problems with the Process of Reconciliation 47
not accommodated most of their demands. Most ceasefire groups, however, were too weak and divided to challenge the government. Because of infrastructure projects it has undertaken, the government now has relatively easy access to areas formerly controlled by insurgent groups. In addition, most ceasefire groups now are much less able financially to rearm themselves, as they can no longer collect fees from illegal business activity at border checkpoints. A leader of the Karen National Union, which is still fighting against the government, noted that morale is poor among low-ranking members of ceasefire groups and that most do not wish to fight the government again.36 Therefore, the government seems to have concluded that even if most of the ceasefire groups were to end their agreements, they would not be a serious security threat. After terminating the National Convention, the government indicated to ceasefire groups that it wanted them to form political parties and participate in the 2010 elections. In addition, in April 2009 the military announced a plan for all ceasefire groups to transform their respective armed units into units of a national border guard force.37 Each unit would be limited to 326 soldiers, of which 30 must be government soldiers.38 All border guard units would be under the command of the Tatmadaw commander-in-chief and would receive salaries and benefits directly from the Tatmadaw. The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and the New Democratic Army–Kachin readily accepted the government’s plan.39 The Kokang groups rejected it openly. Other ceasefire groups were unhappy with the plan and asked the government to give them some time to consider it. The Kachin Independence Organization, among others, hinted that it might accept the plan if the government dropped the part about the inclusion of government soldiers in all border guard units. In late August 2009 the government accused Kokang leaders of illegal arms production and dispatched security forces to enforce the law. Skirmishes between government forces and armed Kokang forces continued for about three days.40 Then the Kokang units fled into China and neighboring areas as government forces took control of the Kokang territory. It appears that the government took forceful action against the Kokang as a warning to other ceasefire groups that it would not accept negative answers to the border guard plan. In late 2009 the other ceasefire groups did not seem to have a clear idea about how to respond to the government’s plan.41 None of them wanted to give up complete control over their respective armed groups. They just wanted to delay discussion on the border guard force for as long as possible. At the same time, a number of ceasefire groups, including the Kachin
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Independence Organization and some Karen and Mon groups, indicated that they might participate in the 2010 elections. At the beginning of 2010, most ethnic groups were still not certain about their future. However, they understood that they could not expect meaningful dialogue with the military government. Most ceasefire groups tried to avoid doing things that would lead to problems with the junta. They also tried to abide by the government’s rules as long as they did not lose control over their own forces, economic benefits, and territory. Most of them believed that going back to the jungle and engaging in armed struggle against the government was not a good option. Instead, they preferred to delay addressing major issues until the next government comes into existence. At the same time, many local communities in ceasefire zones were frustrated with the ceasefire groups. They complained that the leaders were more interested in enriching themselves than in doing something good for their own people. Most ethnic minority areas are microcosms of the entire country: they are multiethnic areas in which the various ethnic groups living together do not agree with one another and feel that the largest ethnic group is trying to achieve political dominance. Reconciliation must take place not only between the government and ethnic groups but also between the various ethnic groups.
A genuine national reconciliation process between the three major political forces in Myanmar has yet to take place. The military mainly wants to retain power. The NLD-centered opposition does not have any trust in the government and wants it to honor the 1990 elections. The ethnic minorities do not think they will get what they want from the military government and seek to get what they can. What they have managed to get is well short of what they want for themselves and for their people. For national reconciliation to happen, military leaders must give priority to solving the country’s political and economic problems rather than extending military rule, and the opposition groups will need to convince the military leaders that unless they engage in a genuine process of national reconciliation their rule will not last. One way of convincing them could be a nationwide uprising. Although such an uprising cannot be completely ruled out, both political and civil society groups are too weak in 2010 to mount one that can be sustained. Moreover, Aung San Suu Kyi as well as most opposition leaders would not condone a mass uprising to achieve their goals.
Problems with the Process of Reconciliation 49
Consequently, many people have concluded that a genuine national reconciliation process is not likely to take place under military rule. Some believe that instead of wasting resources and energy calling for national reconciliation, political groups should seek to become credible opposition forces that can make the military-led government accountable and transparent by expanding political freedom in the country. They believe that once democracy becomes the only viable alternative, national reconciliation will occur naturally. The upcoming election is unlikely to turn Myanmar into a democratic country immediately. However, some observers are optimistic and hope that more political space will be freed up for opposition groups and civil society organizations. Critics of the regime argue that because the military will continue to control the new government, the upcoming election will not contribute to any tangible political changes in the country. At the present moment, no one knows for sure how the new government will deal with the opposition. Future political changes will depend on the new boundaries for political space set by the elected government and, in turn, on the ability of opposition groups and civil society organizations to exploit these political opportunities. On a more positive note, if these groups are able to overcome constraints they have previously yielded to, the political template may well be more fluid than most observers have come to expect.
All cited interviews were conducted by the author. Owing to the sensitive political situation in Burma, the names of interviewees and specific dates of interviews are not always given. 1. Interview, October 12, 2003. 2. Interview, July 20, 2004. 3. Interview, March 12, 2005. 4. Ibid. 5. Interview, January 8, 2009. 6. Mizzima News Group, “Democracy Supporters Call for Tripartite Dialogue in Myanmar” (http://Myanmarlibrary.org/reg.Myanmar/archives/200103/msg00054. html [April 2007]). 7. Interview, March 15, 2003. 8. Interviews, 2004, 2006, 2007. 9. Htet Aung Kyaw, “Roadmap to Division,” Irrawaddy (www.irrawaddy.org/ opinion_story.php?art_id=400 [July 2010]).
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10. Pilger on Aung San Suu Kyi’s Standoff, BBC, July 28, 1998 (http://myanmar library.org/reg.burma/archives/199807/msg00657.html). 11. Kyaw Yin Hlaing, “Myanmar in 2004: Why Military Rule Continues,” Southeast Asian Affairs (2005): 239. 12. Interview, April 23, 2007. 13. Interview, June 15, 2009. 14. The seven steps of the roadmap to democracy are “(1) Reconvening of the National Convention that has been adjourned since 1996. (2) After the successful holding of the National Convention, step-by-step implementation of the process necessary for the emergence of a genuine and disciplined democratic system. (3) Drafting of a new constitution in accordance with basic principles and detailed basic principles laid down by the National Convention. (4) Adoption of the constitution through national referendum. (5) Holding of free and fair elections for Pyithu Hluttaws [legislative bodies] according to the new constitution. (6) Convening of Hluttaws attended by Hluttaw members in accordance with the new constitution. (7) Building a modern, developed and democratic nation by the state leaders elected by the Hluttaw and the government and other central organs formed by the Hluttaw.” Kyaw Yin Hlaing, “Myanmar in 2003: Frustration and Despair?” Asian Survey 44, no. 1 (2004): 87–92. 15. The National League for Democracy, Statement for National Convention, May 14, 2004 (www.dassk.com/contents.php?id=757). 16. All NLD statements are available at the Online Burma/Myanmar Library (www.burmalibrary.org [July 2010]). 17. See Sebastien Berger, “Aung San Suu Kyi: Leader Offered Meeting,” Telegraph, October 10, 2007 (www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/10/05/ wburma105.xml). 18. Interview with a former youth leader of the NLD, July 2, 2009. 19. “Democrat Banned from Myanmar Elections,” Manila Times, February 21, 2008 (www.manilatimes.net/national/2008/feb/21/yehey/world/20080221wor1.html). 20. Interview, September 12, 2009. 21. Ibid. 22. “Daw San Suu Kyi Did Not Meet NLD Central Executive Committee Members,” The Voice, November 9–15, 2009, p. 3. 23. Interviews, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007. 24. Hlaing, “Myanmar in 2004,” p. 256. 25. Interview with a local analyst, December 20, 2004. 26. Thura Shwe Mann, “Complete Explanation on the Development in the Country,” in Compilation of Speeches by General Shwe Mann, Lt. General Soe Win, and Lt. General Than Sein (Yangon, Myanmar: News and Periodical Enterprise, 2004), pp. 4–6. 27. Interview, April 29, 2008. 28. Interviews, September 12, 2009.
Problems with the Process of Reconciliation 51
29. Panglong Agreement, Parliamentary Proceedings (Chamber of Nationalities) 2, no. 1: 821. The Panglong Agreement is an agreement reached between Burmese nationalist leader Aung San and leaders of Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic groups that outlined how Shan, Kachin, and Chin areas would be integrated into the Union of Burma. 30. Interview, May 4, 2003. 31. Martin Smith, Myanmar: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, updated ed. (New York: Zed Books, 1999). 32. Interviews, 2001–05. 33. Yan Nyein Aye, Endeavours of the Myanmar Armed Forces Government for National Reconsolidation (Yangon, Myanmar, 1999), p. 5. 34. Interview, December 28, 2004. 35. Interview, February 22, 2005. 36. Interview, May 4, 2009. 37. Wai Moe, “Border Guard Force Plan Leads to the End of Ceasefire,” Irrawaddy, August 31, 2009 (www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=16691). 38. Ibid. 39. “NDAK Ready to Turn into Border Guard Force,” Mizzima (www.mizzima. com/news/inside-burma/2360-ndak-ready-to-turn-into-border-guard-force.html [July 2010]). 40. Moe, “Border Guard Force Plan Leads to the End of Ceasefire.” 41. Interview with an ethnic minority leader, September 12, 2009.
An Inside View of Reconciliation
oth historically and in the present, the defining characteristics of politics in Myanmar have been mass poverty in all its dimensions, a multiplicity of conflicts, domination of the weak by the strong, and resistance from below.1 Sixty years after her independence from Britain, Myanmar is the only country in Southeast Asia that remains engulfed in domestic conflicts, both armed and nonviolent. Despite numerous local and external efforts at mediation and direct political negotiations, neither positive peace nor lasting resolution of conflicts is in sight. First, a word about my personal perspective. I was born in Myanmar and spent the first twenty-five years of my life in an extended military family where a state-centric, Burmese nationalist view prevailed. I have spent the second half of my life in exile as a dissident and a student of Burmese affairs, and my earlier views have necessarily been challenged by my complete immersion in Aung San Suu Kyi–led opposition politics and first-hand experience working with ethnic minority resistance groups. My views on peacemaking in Myanmar have evolved as a result of both intensive professional training in peace negotiations and firsthand experience in seeking common ground with the other side.2
Patterns and Trends in Peacemaking
Until 1989 the conflict in Burma was a three-way affair between the Socialist Party–controlled Burmese army, the armed Maoists, and a number of indigenous ethnic armed resistance groups. Within ninety days of Burma’s independence in 1948, an open struggle for state power between the communists and the socialists—with irreconcilable ideological visions and personal
An Inside View of Reconciliation 53
rivalries—gave birth to a civil war within the ethnically Burman elite. The battle raged on until both the socialist-controlled military regime and their nemesis, the Communist Party of Burma, collapsed—in July 1988 and April 1989, respectively. Armed opposition from most ethnic minorities of political significance also began early, hardly paused during the 1988–90 transition, and continues to this day, despite a patchwork of disparate and fragile ceasefire deals with the country’s military rulers. Three distinct historical approaches to peacemaking can be seen between 1948, when the civil war first broke out under a parliamentary government, and 1988–89, when the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) began pursuing ceasefire deals with various ethnic armed resistance groups. In the first, influential nationalist figures in the fields of culture, literature, and politics, all ideologically leaning toward the left, launched a Leftist Unity campaign in the 1950s to mediate the conflict between the Maoists and the socialists. The objective, which did not come to fruition, was a lasting peace between the two most powerful forces in the conflict. In the second approach, many Burmese politicians in U Nu’s parliamentary government sought to establish a temporary ceasefire with the Maoists rather than a lasting peace, to concentrate resources on the military campaign against the armed ethnic minorities that were demanding greater autonomy or outright secession. At one point, U Nu’s government was on the verge of total defeat at the hands of the Karen National Defense Organization, which controlled territory reaching the suburbs of the capital city of Rangoon. The nationalist elite’s rationale was twofold: keeping the Union of Burma intact was more important than Burman leadership conflicts and ideology; and as soon as the military threats posed by the Karen National Defense Organization were addressed effectively the communists and the socialists could resume their own intra-ethnic, ideological feud. Lasting peace did not seem to be an end in and of itself for either the Burman politicians on both sides or the armed units on both sides. In the third approach, peace meant only two things for the Tatmadaw leaders. One was acceptance by all opposition groups of the military’s prerogatives, including the historical entitlement—the self-perceived institutional right—of the Tatmadaw to configure the postcolonial state in line with its uncompromising vision of a unitary polity. The other was acceptance by all opposition groups of the military’s operational terms of peace. In short, the military saw peacemaking as enforcement of a set of rules dictated by a central state (in Myanmar) led by the military and subject to its dictates. Since the Tatmadaw was created almost seventy years ago, its self-image
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has evolved from servant of the people to guardian of the people. Today in Myanmar, the army is the state—real, not imagined. Between 1988–89 and 1994, the military reached separate ceasefire agreements with more than seventeen ethnic armed resistance groups of varying sizes and degrees of political significance. According to Maung Aung Myo, an army-bred former lecturer at Myanmar’s influential National Defense College, the decisive factor behind the regime’s decision to seek these agreements was its fear of cross-ethnic alliances among the armed opposition in concert with the popular opposition movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi.3 To be sure, the new external developments such as the approaching end of the cold war and post-Maoist Beijing’s withdrawal of support for communist and to a lesser extent ethnic armed rebellions across Southeast Asia turned out to be an external enabling factor for Myanmar’s ceasefires—or “peace settlements,” as the regime labels these disparate agreements. The regime’s pursuit of ceasefire agreements, however, was largely motivated by an instrumentalist strategic objective, not a genuine desire for a lasting peace, which would require addressing long-held grievances (past rights abuses, denial of basic rights) and substantive political disputes (different political visions, extreme asymmetry of power, local economic and resource exploitation, and other issues related to ethnic, economic, or political justice).4
Two Thematic Issues in Peacemaking
Since it was formed in 1942 with the sole support of fascist and militarist Japan, the Tatmadaw has gone through a long process of metamorphosis in its ideological foundations, organizational structure, strategic alliances, and relations with the country’s civilian population. While it has always been a key player in Myanmar’s national politics, the military seems to be have locked itself into a process of regressive evolution.5 In spite of its noble intentions at the beginning—to liberate the people from the yoke of British imperialist rule—its present-day worldview and mode of operations have come to be characterized rather accurately as fascist and militarist. This view refers not just to the Tatmadaw’s policies, decisions, and behavioral patterns but also to the actions of troops on the front lines. One report after another from credible local and international organizations over the past twenty years lends credence to allegations of atrocities throughout the country suffered at the hands of the military. The military’s own view “from the barracks” is diametrically opposed to the widely held view from the outside.
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Recently the elderly and controversial local writer and former communist Maung Suu San, also known as Comrade Chan Aye, has described contemporary Burmese politics as post-ideological. He is correct if the ideological division is defined along the conventional left versus right split. But this observation overlooks the crystallization of an alternative ideology that has two components. First, it frames the military as the only time-tested, battleseasoned, and best-qualified natural ruler of the country. Second, it defines national security narrowly as regime security and places regime security as the overarching policy objective governing all other dimensions of nation building. Regime security, in turn, is equated with the personal security of Senior General Than Shwe and his extended family. These two defining components, pervading the regime’s governing discourse and self-perception, are institutionalized and constantly reinforced. Besides, the Tatmadaw’s carefully constructed, self-serving view from the barracks is dominant among the new officer corps. At the organizational level, this hegemonic view serves as a rare ideological basis for elite cohesion within the officer corps but not necessarily among privates and other ranks.6 One reason Tatmadaw officers hold closely to this view is clearly that doing so helps compensate for the tremendous reputational loss suffered by the military as the direct result of both its categorical failures as nation builder and widespread and ongoing human rights crimes against the citizenry of all class, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Another rationale is the aborted coup, chronic splits, quiet mutinies, periodic wholesale purges, and high rates of desertion experienced by the military since it first assumed power in 1958. In the words of Maung Aung Myo, a former lecturer at the National Defense College, “at present, the Tatmadaw is concerned with the institutional unity, operational capability and troop discipline. There appears a low morale and high rate of desertion.”7 Whether the military’s internal tensions and conflicts of interests will boil over and result in a serious institutional split, which might create political space for dissidents and ordinary citizens, remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: public welfare as the main concern of the Tatmadaw has been replaced with a military-centered, statist perspective. A local analyst recently observed that the military seems to have stopped referring to itself as being “the army of, for, and by the people.”8 Thus the Tatmadaw as the ultimate ruler—whose right to rule at will is cemented in the 2008 constitution—is one of the two major themes local peacemakers feel they have to work with. Operating within this paradigm, the generals pursue what they consider their historical mission to
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reconsolidate the power of the centralizing state, which was disrupted by a century of British colonial rule and six decades of post-independence civil war. By contrast, local peacemakers tend to frame the objective as reconciliation between the military rulers and the suppressed civilians represented by the National League for Democracy (NLD). From their perspective, civilians have as much right as the military to decide how to mold Myanmar into a modern nation, and they reject the military’s attempt to “constitutionalize” the political apartheid wherein the military arrogates to itself the constitutional right to be the national arbiter, occupying the first tier of politics and society. The second important theme is ethnic equality, which bears an opposing set of historical memories. The Tatmadaw has gradually moved away from the two cardinal foundations of Myanmar historiography: that Myanmar regained its independence through a collective effort by a number of players—Communist cadres, ethnic minority feudal elites, leftist-inspired masses, rightist nationalists, and soldiers; and that the founding of postindependence Myanmar was based on a formal agreement among several major ethnic groups of varying sizes to voluntarily form a federated Union of Burma as politically equal founding partners.9 These two factors are not irreconcilable in and of themselves. However, the tragic assassination of several key architects of the union on the eve of the country’s independence made the task of implementing the new arrangement extremely difficult, especially since the Bama or Myanmar leadership that assumed the reins of the newly independent state did not seem to be as committed to the idea and reality of Burma as a voluntary federal association whereby the paramount principle of equality among indigenous ethnic groups, including the Bama tribes, was to be enshrined constitutionally in both spirit and letters. In the gradual evolution of its institutionalized self-image, the Tatmadaw views the majority Burman ethnic group as first among equals. This is reflective of the ethnic makeup of the military leadership—Burmans and ethnic minorities who share the military’s view on ethnic hegemony. To the generals, creating a modern state involves no cultural subjugation, political domination, economic exploitation, or territorial expansion and control by the Burman population over the rest of the population. In its own story line, the Tatmadaw is only seeking to restore multiethnic harmony and safeguard the territorial integrity of Myanmar as it has existed since time immemorial. The generals insist that forging a nation-state, even in a conflict-soaked multiethnic country such as Myanmar, involves no cultural, military, or political subjugation, despite glaring evidence to the contrary.
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Profiles of Reconcilers
Although natural prejudices do arise from differences in ethnic, class, religious, and professional backgrounds, they rarely degenerate into violent conflict. The all-encompassing conflict seen today is constructed by the elite, which exploits each group’s distrust and fear of the ethnic Other, rather than by the grass roots. Although Myanmar’s elite of all ethnic and class backgrounds have been engaged in this ethnopolitical mobilization, the overwhelming public sentiment is that the generals—and their power base, the Tatmadaw—must bear the lion’s share of responsibility for the continuing conflicts and their own spectacular failures at nation-building. To be fair, blame must be shared with the uneducated or uncritically educated dominant Myanmar ethnic group, especially the Burmese intelligentsia, which subscribes to the myopic Bama- or Burmese-centric nationalism. The ongoing conflict reflects a strong twofold legacy: deeply ingrained and localized feudal and paternalistic political cultures, on the one hand, and post-independence political experience, with autocratic regimes, elite domination, and control of the public realm, on the other. Given the elite’s near-total control of both the decisionmaking process and the public sphere, it is no surprise that its dialogue and reconciliation efforts have made a significant imprint on society at large. The collective hatred toward the military that has developed during the past half century of military rule, however, transcends all bounds of ethnicity, religion, political ideology, and economic background. Even many local businesspeople, including well-known regime cronies, who have benefited from their close ties with the regime profess privately their deep disdain toward their patrons in generals’ uniforms.10 The reconcilers can be divided into two categories: internal and external. The internal reconcilers can be further divided into professional ones and accidental ones. Professional reconcilers are individuals with some formal training in mediation, political negotiation, and conflict resolution. Accidental reconcilers are those who have had no training but whose social and political position makes them ideally suited to the task of mediation. Internal reconcilers can also be divided into two categories: those with a nonmilitary background and those who are or have been military officers. Reconciliation work may be defined as both public and private attempts to help establish common ground between the ruling military regime and its political opponents, the long-term objective being harmonious coexistence among all elite groups, both ethnic and military, and their institutions. I focus here on elites because grassroots communities are generally not
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engaged in communal, racial, ethnic, or religious conflicts. With the exception of the violent conflicts between the Karens and the Burmans in lower Burma in the 1940s and occasional outbursts of collective hostilities directed at the economically dominant and culturally chauvinistic local Chinese, ethnic communities across the country were not warring against one another. It is usually different ethnic elites who attempt to stoke ethnoprejudices as a strategy for political mobilization in their elite-level power struggle. Nevertheless, ethnic tensions and divisions, as well as widespread prejudices, are significant issues among Myanmar’s grassroots communities that deserve serious attention.11 However, only a few of the local players in the politics of reconciliation are known to have had any professional training in conflict transformation, resolution, or management. Even for these few, their current involvement is accidental and circumstantial rather than a result of their professional background. A cursory look also shows that the local peacemakers come from highly diverse backgrounds: senior Buddhist monks, Christian pastors, university professors, medical doctors, former and serving military officers, prominent dissidents, businessmen, women, drug warlords, and insurgent leaders. Conspicuously absent are Muslim leaders and civil servants. Muslim leaders are not players presumably because of the negative and widespread social attitudes toward them. Civil servants, by contrast, stay out of peacemaking because the military rulers direct them to avoid political activities.
Exploring a Track-Two Approach
Following what is considered a failed attempt by the SPDC in 2003 to physically harm Aung San Suu Kyi and her senior colleagues through a mob ambush, I was assigned to lead a small team of dissidents mandated to seek Western support for strengthening armed resistance by the National Council of the Union of Burma, an umbrella group of armed resistance and dissident organizations, including the Karen National Union (KNU), based at the Thai-Burmese border.12 As others before us had done, we hit the wall of policy indifference and overestimated Western solidarity with our struggle for freedom. Finding no prospect for either arms or financial support, we decided to embrace pragmatism and start talking to the military.13 Similarly, within six months of our quietly signing off on our mission to seek Western support, the late general Saw Bo Mya decided rather pragmatically to accept the ceasefire offered to the KNU by General Khin Nyunt, the third ranking general, who, in his capacity as head of the powerful Directorate of Defence
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Services Intelligence (the military intelligence unit), served as the regime’s top troubleshooter. The spy chief was increasingly viewed as “the only general in the country whom the outside world could do business with,” as one senior Western diplomat based in Rangoon remarked to me after Khin Nyunt was arrested. This is the view also prevalent within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Domestically, Khin Nyunt, with no infantry troops under his command, was the weakest of the top three generals, and he was therefore compelled to build his base by adopting what I would call a “politics of give and take” with the regime adversaries such as Aung San Suu Kyi and armed resistance groups. At this time the intelligence camp, whose wings were beginning to be clipped by the rival hard-line group with their zero-sum understanding of politics, was looking for new strategic alliances with ethnic resistance groups, opposition circles, religious leaders, and academics as well as international organizations and foreign diplomats. Uneasy with the drift into the embrace of Beijing and concerned about the damage the domestic political deadlock was doing to the country’s economic and political development, the intelligence camp became interested in mending fences with Washington, which it saw as a counterweight to the growing Chinese power in the region. In Washington, a less moralistic, more strategic-minded group of policy analysts, advisers in Congress, and career diplomats saw the growing influence of China in Myanmar as part of a larger pattern of Chinese activity with the potential of undermining U.S. interests around the world. By the autumn of 2003, in consultation with my team of fellow dissidents in exile and with the knowledge of the U.S. government, I was in direct communication with the office of prime minister and intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt. Building on these divergent concerns, I proposed to Matthew Daley, then deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the U.S. State Department, the idea of organizing a track-two initiative. While tracktwo diplomacy, most broadly defined, refers to “non-governmental, informal, and unofficial contacts and activities between private citizens or groups of individuals,” the term as used in this essay refers to “a subset of unofficial activity which involves professional contacts among elites from adversarial groups with the purpose of addressing policy problems in efforts to analyze, prevent, manage and ultimately resolve inter-group or inter-state conflicts.”14 Daley was himself frustrated with the U.S. government’s rigid adherence to its sanctions as he saw how little impact they were having on the regime’s behavior or policies. So he jumped at the opportunity and in due course helped secure the necessary political support from the U.S. government. For
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without the government’s official consent, the communications my dissident colleagues and I were having with Burmese counterintelligence would have been problematic, especially since we had all been granted asylum by the United States. Moreover, if our Burmese efforts were not classified as track-two, my travel to Rangoon while holding a United States–issued refugee travel document would have been in violation of U.S. immigration and citizenship laws. The moment for my own face-to-face confidence-building talk came when Senior General Than Shwe overruled a political deal that General Khin Nyunt had reportedly secured from Aung San Suu Kyi as early as March 2004.15 The NLD issued a public statement saying it was staying away from the National Convention where the constitutional discussions were taking place off and on, citing the regime’s failure to respond to the NLD’s request that certain antidemocratic provisions and principles be put on the convention’s agenda for debate. The news that leadership-level dialogue had hit yet another dead end compelled our group of dissidents to act, believing that channels of communications ought to be maintained at all levels.16 A brief detour here may be useful. My understanding of the deal was that Aung San Suu Kyi, still under house arrest at the time, would be allowed to address the National Convention, thereby helping to legitimize the regimesponsored seven-step roadmap to democracy. The military would also permit the NLD to seek changes at the convention in some of the blatantly antidemocratic provisions of the draft constitution. This was a deal that both the intelligence camp and the NLD felt could move the country on the path toward much-needed reforms. However, feeling increasingly threatened by what he viewed as the hidden agenda of his own chief negotiator and intelligence chief, Than Shwe feared that Khin Nyunt might make a deal with the Western-backed opposition movement and eventually betray him. Than Shwe’s greatest fear is known to be meeting the fate of his former boss, the late general Ne Win, who was put under house arrest and denied access to critical medical care by Than Shwe himself. It is hardly surprising that the deal was shot down. As a matter of fact, in January 2004 Than Shwe backpedaled on the ceasefire agreement that the Khin Nyunt–led intelligence camp had reached with the KNU.17 The track-two initiative undertaken by my colleagues and me needs to be placed in its proper context. The common ground we felt we had was our view that Western sanctions were hampering the process of change that Myanmar desperately needed. We were also of the opinion that if we were to move away from a military-controlled state then a certain segment of the
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military needed to be working with us. In other words, the weakened intelligence camp of potential reformists and the dissidents disillusioned by the empty Western rhetoric of democracy promotion needed each other. The plan we proposed to General Khin Nyunt was to hold a series of face-to-face confidence-building meetings bringing Khin Nyunt’s deputies together with a group of pragmatic dissidents in exile.
Peacemaking without a License
On May 30, 2004, I flew from Bangkok to Yangon and met with three of Khin Nyunt’s deputies: Brigadier General Than Tun, Colonel Hla Min, and Colonel Tin Oo.18 Initially, our requests included that we also meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, but the intelligence camp refused, saying “the political climate was too tense.”19 The news of our one-day meeting, rumored to be backed by the U.S. government, set off a strong reaction for four different reasons. First, the NLD party leadership in Yangon felt seriously threatened by the track-two initiative. They were outraged that I had stepped forward as an opposition interlocutor after Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD had pulled out of negotiations with the regime because the regime had backtracked on a sealed deal. In addition, the NLD feared that if Washington were indeed backing an initiative with the regime without consulting with or having the prior blessing of the NLD, then the United States might be relaxing its economic and political pressure on the regime. Second, many Myanmar dissidents have a rigid idea of who qualifies as a legitimate revolutionary or dissident: unless the individual is either in the armed resistance or has spent time in jail for antimilitary activities, he or she is not considered a bona fide dissident. Despite my track record as an effective organizer and campaigner who helped translate the NLD’s call for sanctions and economic boycotts into a policy reality (in effect serving as a key campaign spokesperson internationally), I was not viewed as a bona fide revolutionary or dissident. That I was the only exile who actually went to Yangon with the backing of the U.S. government and at the invitation of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt was too much for them to stomach.20 Personalities are at the heart of Myanmar politics.21 Third, the intelligence camp itself could not bring all its key in-house players onto the same page. There were ongoing internecine fights between different cliques. For example, some sought short-term public relations or propaganda gains by claiming that certain dissidents were opposing
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U.S. sanctions and seeking cooperation with the regime; others saw value in building long-term strategic ties with dissidents. The public relations– oriented clique proactively leaked the news of my one-day trip to Myanmar exiles and the exile media. Last but not least, that General Khin Nyunt, the main backer of this tracktwo initiative from the regime’s side, was ousted less than five months after the initiative got off the ground blocked any momentum that may have started to gather. Two months before his arrest in October 2004, Khin Nyunt sent me a clear message that he was ready to support moving ahead on the initiative by accepting my proposal that we organize a meeting in Thailand between his top deputies (such as Brigadiers Kyaw Win, Thein Swe, Kyaw Thein, and so on) and a group of influential and pragmatic exiles who were open to exploring new ideas for ending the deadlock between Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi. The Thaksin government also indicated to me that it would be prepared to provide logistical support for such a Burmese-toBurmese dialogue. This was nipped in the bud by Khin Nyunt’s ousting eight weeks after giving the project his approval. These were the ingredients of the explosive mix that set off one of the hottest political controversies in the past decade. Needless to say, the first casualty was my own reputation. I’d been forewarned about the risk to my reputation by former generals in Manila who were advising me on the need to build channels of communication with potential reformists within the military regime. The Filipino generals, who played a catalytic role as “good soldiers,” encouraged me to accept the risk because it was not my reputation that should matter most but the strategic mission of building ties with forward-looking officers within the military’s inner circle. But the longer-term implication was a public controversy that scared off anyone who was inclined to pursue any type of mediation initiative without Aung San Suu Kyi’s blessing. It is significant that, with the exception of those who have worked on ethnic ceasefire initiatives, local reconcilers lack either access to or the confidence of key parties in the underlying conflict, such as Aung San Suu Kyi and Than Shwe. While Aung San Suu Kyi is unlikely to suspect that external players such as UN special envoys have traded their conscience for the regime’s permission to meet with her, she might well distrust a proreconciliation Burmese. As an illustration, Suu Kyi refused to believe credible reports about a conflict of interest on the part of Ismail Razali, the retired Malaysian diplomat who was appointed as special adviser on Myanmar to the UN secretarygeneral. At the time he accepted this position, Razali was chairing the board of directors of a Malaysian company that specialized in making electronic
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passports. He reportedly sought business contracts for his company from the Myanmar government. When a reporter asked Aung San Suu Kyi pointedly whether she thought Razali had violated the conflict-of-interest principle, she said no. Whether she knew about Razali’s business interests in Burma is something only she can answer. Her remarks may simply have been a show of faith in Razali’s integrity. If he had been Burmese her reaction would have been totally different—because there had been numerous cases of Burmese dissidents within the NLD who turned out to have worked for the regime from a multiplicity of motives, circumstances, and logics.
Peacemaking by External Players
Peacemaking initiatives can be launched by five types of external players: the superpowers, the United Nations and other international bodies, friendly countries, humanitarian groups, and private sector parties. In the case of Myanmar, the first three are relevant.
Despite taking a rather hard line publicly, several Western countries, including the United States as the leader, have tried with no apparent success to mediate the conflicts in Myanmar. These efforts have targeted not just the conflict between the military regime and the mainstream opposition of Aung San Suu Kyi but also the armed conflict between the Karen National Union and the Tatmadaw. When Washington offered to help mediate the KNUTatmadaw conflict about a decade ago, the KNU felt that by holding out indefinitely it could get a better deal. More recently, Washington tried both bilaterally and with Beijing’s help to get some kind of meaningful engagement with the military regime on policy issues, including the latter’s treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition party. In June 2007 Beijing hosted and provided logistical support for a bilateral meeting between the United States and Myanmar. Washington’s delegation was led by a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department, while the Myanmar delegation was led by the foreign minister and included the regime’s liaison with Aung San Suu Kyi, Brigadier General Aung Kyi. Washington’s approach to dialogue with the military regime was based on economic and financial incentives, including millions in development and humanitarian aid. However, the Myanmar regime is not attracted by economic bait; it only craves public recognition from Washington. Nothing short of full recognition will move the military regime.
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China’s role in national reconciliation in Myanmar is ambiguous. On one hand, Beijing feels it must defend the principle of noninterference in other countries’ affairs. On the other, China seems uneasy about the military regime’s failure to maintain domestic political stability. The Saffron Revolt of 2007 was only the most televised in a long series of social upheavals in Myanmar. Furthermore, the Chinese leadership is fully aware of the general lack of competence on the part of the military regime in handling international relations. Therefore, China has sent top officials to Naypyidaw and invited Tatmadaw generals to Beijing to dispense advice on how to handle international controversies. For instance, at the height of the international protests over the military regime’s mishandling of the Cyclone Nargis disaster in May 2008, the Chinese were actively involved in mediating the escalating tension between the military regime and the international community. China has also been involved in mediation between the military regime and the United Nations. Two other dimensions of China’s relations with Myanmar are worth noting in this context. One is Beijing’s role in ceasefire agreements between the military regime and the ethnic armed resistance groups, particularly those with past ties to Beijing: the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance (MNDA) made up of Han ethnic Chinese locally known as the Kokang Chinese, and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) based in Mongla, Shan state. In the second half of 2009, a flurry of high-level visits to Beijing by Tatmadaw generals took place for the purpose of seeking Beijing’s assistance in disarming certain ceasefire groups that were refusing to go along with the SPDC’s plan to convert them into border guard units. The other dimension is Beijing’s relations with the NLD and other opposition players. In fact, the Chinese embassy was the first diplomatic mission in Yangon to meet with the NLD leadership after the 1990 elections and offer a message of congratulations. Beijing has maintained contact with some pro–Aung San Suu Kyi dissidents in exile over the years while it continues to develop its official relations with the military regime.
One well-documented area of peacemaking is a range of initiatives by the United Nations. Over the past fifteen years, the UN General Assembly has passed annual resolutions calling for national reconciliation in Burma. While they are not binding, these resolutions lend credibility to all UN initiatives to end Myanmar’s long-running internal conflicts. As noted by the Brazilian
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scholar Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar from 2000 to 2008, the United Nations has undertaken nearly forty visits by its envoys and official messengers. These include a first visit by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in May 2008 to plead for humanitarian access to the victims of Cyclone Nargis and a second visit in July 2009 to urge the military regime to release Aung San Suu Kyi and all 2,100 political prisoners, make the 2010 elections inclusive, credible, free, and fair, and pursue a genuine process of national reconciliation. None of these mediation missions has produced a significant outcome. Besides these overtly political efforts, the United Nations and its agencies have engaged in policy discussions on a broad range of issues with sparse results. In November 2007 the European Union appointed an Italian diplomat, Piero Fassino, as its special envoy for Burma-Myanmar. More than two years after he assumed this assignment, Fassino has still not been issued a visa by the Burmese regime.22 Myanmar’s military-controlled media recently lambasted the European Union for its pro-sanctions policy. For its part, ASEAN has stayed clear of direct mediation efforts. Aung San Suu Kyi has in the past singled out ASEAN as a regional block whose policy of constructive engagement is skewed because it engages only with the military rulers and not with civil society representatives. In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the country’s rice-growing delta and its fishing industry in May 2008, the regime tactically chose the lesser of two evils (that is, ASEAN and UN humanitarian missions over the European Union and the United States) by conceding limited humanitarian engagement in the face of the global outcry against its blockage of emergency relief supplies for Cyclone victims. But the initial optimism surrounding the joint efforts by ASEAN and the UN to expand humanitarian space in Myanmar (and its potential for change) proved premature. After the much-publicized initial humanitarian cooperation with ASEAN and the UN, the regime reined in local humanitarian efforts, jailed local citizens who voiced their concerns about the regime’s manipulation of aid provisions, issued stricter guidelines for international NGOs, and, last but not least, removed its top liaison and deputy foreign minister Kyaw Thu from both assignments, as he had become too friendly with external humanitarian engagers for the generals’ liking.
Thailand’s role in peacemaking in Myanmar is intriguing because before the British arrived Thailand and Myanmar were rival imperial powers and had fought numerous wars against each other. Military elites in both countries
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still harbor mutual distrust. The Thai military views the SPDC as an isolated and backward bunch of generals, while the SPDC views the Thai military as a stooge of the United States. Thailand’s national security establishment deems Myanmar the top nontraditional security threat to Thailand, while the Burmese generals perceive Thailand as the top traditional security threat to their country.23 Nevertheless, the two countries have established extensive economic relations out of necessity and convenience. Myanmar sales of natural gas to Thailand generate a significant portion of Thailand’s electric power consumption. Thailand is planning to import coal and electricity from Myanmar through hydropower projects along Salween River, while Thai companies are heavily invested in major resource extractive sectors of the Myanmar economy. The Thai economy benefits from an estimated 2 million to 3 million Burmese migrant workers across Thailand who are paid less than half of Thailand’s minimum wage. This economic entanglement serves as a powerful incentive for Thailand to play a mediator role in Myanmar’s internal conflicts. In particular, Thailand under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra hosted the Bangkok Process in December 2003, which involved high-level discussions between SPDC officials and their counterparts from fifteen other governments concerned about Myanmar’s domestic political situation. The Thai government also readily agreed to help facilitate the track-two initiative that General Khin Nyunt and I were working on, which ended prematurely when Khin Nyunt was sacked in October 2004. More important, successive Thai governments have played a quiet mediator role between the KNU, which served as a strategic buffer for Thailand, and the military regime for the past ten years, including facilitation of a well-publicized trip to Yangon in December 2003 by a KNU delegation led by its iconic leader, General Saw Bo Mya. Other below-the-radar track-two efforts by various conflict resolution professionals have included those by the father of peace research and its leading practitioner, Johan Gultang; European Union–based organizations such as the Friedrich Ebert Foundation; and private sector players, including executives from Western natural resource extraction companies working in Myanmar’s gas and oil sector. None of these efforts has produced either a concrete outcome or a mechanism for conflict resolution. The way the regime approaches all mediation efforts including various track-two initiatives, especially after the ousting of Khin Nyunt, helps explain the categorical failure of mediations. For the generals divide the world into two vast camps, friends and foes, not unlike the worldview infamously espoused by then U.S. president George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers and deputies.24
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And they are only interested in using these encounters with external players as the propaganda forums in which the regime spokespersons air their wellrehearsed narratives regarding the state of the affairs in Myanmar, spread false tales of Aung San Suu Kyi’s uncompromising idealist stance vis-à-vis her captors in power, and stoke the international community’s fear of ethnic balkanization in Myanmar absent the strong hand of the military.25 To sum up, the military regime has stuck to its guns, both literally and figuratively, having apparently decided to engage with both outside and inside groups only on its own terms. Meanwhile, it has been pursuing its strategic plan to “constitutionalize” military rule while continuing to “weaponize” and “nuclearize.” At the end of 2009, the military regime was pursuing closer ties with Russia and North Korea (both of which supply Myanmar with weapon technologies, including nuclear and missile technology) while also befriending the theocratic regime in Iran. The regime is developing twenty major sites for manufacturing weapons, investing a significant portion of its GDP to import dual-use (civilian-military) technology, training up to 4,100 military officers in Russia in the areas of nuclear engineering and nuclear sciences, and building 600–800 underground tunnels and command centers. Fundamentally, Myanmar’s military regime sees politics as the extension of war, not the other way around. Indeed, it does not feel a need to pursue either peace as a negotiated process of give and take or reconciliation as a process of healing among historical antagonists. It is hard to see any efforts at reconciliation having any impact on the conflict landscape of Myanmar, however creative or imaginative or powerfully supported they may be, as long as the regime views national reconsolidation as simply the restoration of a national unity that never existed, with the military as the ultimate unifier.
The SPDC’s Approach to National Reconciliation
As noted earlier, Myanmar’s ruling generals are not pursuing reconciliation because they see something wrong with their behavior, policies, and practices. Instead, seeing themselves as the guardian of the nation, they consider all actions that advance the objective of achieving a unified nation-state to be justified. No wonder that reports of the military’s use of violence, torture, rape, pillage, forced labor, forced relocation, and so on keep piling up.26 The ruling generals believe that they are good Buddhists who meditate and observe occasional Buddhist sabbath and daily precepts, despite their unmistakably antihumanist and antiliberal policies and practices. They appear to
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see no dissonance between their self-image and their actions.27 State building is a fundamentally criminal process, as Charles Tilly noted when he famously remarked that “wars ma[ke] states and states ma[ke] wars.”28 It requires getting tough and doing unpleasant things like shooting unarmed monks or implementing a policy of “four cuts” in fighting armed dissidents, that is, cutting off food, funds, intelligence, and recruits. As noted above, the military regime has invented a historical fiction to reinforce its sovereignty-based political philosophy: If any trace of ethnic disharmony and division exists inside the country, it is a legacy of the British colonial practice of divide and conquer. Armed with this radically distorted historical memory, the military resorts to various methods to compel those inclined toward peacemaking to accept its terms of engagement. Among these are the following: —pursuit of separate ceasefire agreements with ethnic armed resistance groups rather than a comprehensive, multilateral, and collective peace agreement with all —divide-and-conquer tactics, such as inducing intra-group splits between the Shan State Army–North and the Shan State Army–South, between the Buddhist rank and file of the Karen National Union and its predominantly Christian leadership, between the dominant ethnic minorities and the less powerful ones, and even between siblings and relatives in the same family —providing differential access to economic rewards in the form of commercial licenses, export-import deals, and the like —psychological manipulation of key players, taking advantage of their sense of self-importance and their personal political and organizational missions —blackmail and threats of loss of livelihoods, access to education, medical treatment, and the like —the classic counterintelligence practices of spreading misinformation, slanderous rumors, and whispers —geopolitical and economic games with outside powers, such as reneging on a commitment to grant oil concessions to India and giving them instead to China, after China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution, proposed by the United States, condemning the military regime for its suppression of the Saffron Revolt in September 2007 —demographic engineering by displacing communities to change the population mix in a direction favorable to the regime However, there are also progressive practices by the military regime that have practical benefits in its relations with various ceasefire groups. For instance, the incidence of forced labor and other abuses by the Tatmadaw
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has significantly declined in ceasefire areas, indicating self-restraint. Ceasefire groups have been permitted to pursue various types of commercial projects that benefit either the ethnic leaders or their communities more broadly. The military regime also recognizes the symbolic power of their ceasefire partners by letting Tatmadaw officers be disarmed by ceasefire groups when the former enter the headquarters of certain ceasefire groups, such as the United Wa State Army. These are among the regime’s peace dividends. But the fundamental problem of reconciliation in Myanmar remains unaltered. The regime is dead set against honestly reflecting on why it is seen almost universally as the great obstacle to peace by the people in whose name it justifies its existence, policies, and decisions. In his fine but unpublished analysis of the cardinal problem of the military regime, Maung Aung Myo perceptively observes that the military’s “overemphasis on regime survival in the name of order and stability and its egotism of knowing what is best for the people has invariably isolated the Tatmadaw government from the society it is supposed to protect and govern.” The same author sums up the essence of Myanmar’s ongoing crisis thus: With “absolute authority, backed up by the monopoly of the instruments of violence and the absence of checks and balances, the Tatmadaw government has increasingly become the captive of a small group that failed to differentiate between private, corporate, and public interest.”29 Even General Khin Nyunt and his men in the now-defunct intelligence apparatus, credited with being modern politicians who understood politics as an art of give and take, pursued political deals with armed and unarmed dissidents because they were more pragmatic, not because they were driven by a system that values peace and reconciliation. With the last batch of pragmatists in the military completely purged or relegated to positions of strategic insignificance, peacemaking is incomparably more difficult because policies are being determined by hard-liners whose paradigm is conquest, control, and domination.
What Can the International Community Do?
I see four areas where external actors might insert themselves in ways that promote, complement, and strengthen—rather than undermine, overwhelm, and displace—the quest for peace and conciliation by local actors. First, the intellectual community should develop honest analyses rather than strategically framed, discursive narratives that are distorted by self-censorship. Peacemaking efforts based on less than a fully honest examination of
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the objective nature of those who hold power, their self-perception, their power instruments, and their historical narratives can do serious disservice to the country’s oppressed public. A flawed peacemaking process can be worse than no peacemaking at all. Second, practical reflections among reconcilers is one way to address this intellectual deficit. Current analytical paradigms and historical understandings might be subjected to a collective critique by bringing together a group of local and external reconcilers, in a mentally and physically safe setting, with a group of expert mediators whose views of Myanmar and her conflicts have not been tainted by firsthand involvement. The current dominant state-centered narrative, coming from both the regime and the United Nations system, needs to be held up to serious intellectual and empirical scrutiny. The colonial, hegemonic, racist, class-based, sexist, and predatory nature of the military-ruled state in Myanmar needs to scrutinized. The state is the elephant in the room. Regrettably, most peacemakers for various reasons have chosen not to discuss this beast. Third, an in-depth comparative study of similar conflicts might yield useful results. With massive investment by the regime in weaponization of the already thoroughly militarized state, Myanmar today is moving away from, not toward, a democratic, peaceful political system. It is deepening its existence as a state in which national security is coterminous with survival of the leadership and the regime, with no space to develop along the lines, for example, of the East Asian Tigers. Conflict-soaked Myanmar could usefully be examined against two alternative sets of states: developmentally successful states in East Asia, such as Taiwan and South Korea, and developmentally failed states, such as Iran and North Korea. Additionally, a comparative study could be done between Myanmar and the Southeast Asian states that have moved or are moving away from past militaristic, authoritarian rule, such as post-Marcos Philippines, post-Suharto Indonesia, post-Mahathir Malaysia, and pseudo-communist Vietnam. Finally, the wisdom of intellectual activism, if peacemaking or reconciliation can be called that, needs to be made accessible to the people of Myanmar in their local languages. Without an enlightened population, peace deals at the elite level, while valuable and welcome, will remain elite power-sharing deals. They will not transform society to accept peace as an intrinsic value. A systematic translation initiative devoted to peacemaking and conflict analyses could be developed and funded. The elite-driven peacemaking of the past sixty years has failed in part because elite peacemakers are confronted with two major obstacles. First, if
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they move too far from the collective position of the community they represent, the community grows suspicious of their mission, and they stand accused of being co-opted by the regime in exchange for personal gain. Second, some peacemakers, though their efforts are grounded in humanitarian and development experience, do not have a grassroots base. While Myanmar is not the West Bank and her communities are not up in arms against one another, the long-standing elite-level conflicts, both between and within ethnic groups, have a deeply negative social and psychological impact at the grassroots level across the country. There is no silver bullet for Myanmar’s conflicts; a spiritual, intellectual, and political transformation of society is the only ultimate solution. Elite-level peacemaking can help trigger this process, but ultimately it is human beings, not states or multinational corporations or multilateral institutions, that make peace. Power does not make peace; it only manipulates, exploits, deceives, controls, and dominates. An initiative that brings people into the peace process needs to do seven things: address prejudicial ethnic, class, and gender attitudes and norms; revise official historical narratives; enable communities and individuals to negotiate peace in their localities; empower people by providing them with productive and sustainable livelihood opportunities; transform people into independent thinkers who are less susceptible to ideological manipulation; give communities greater control over natural resources and the environment in their localities; and enhance individual and communal capabilities to resist the centralizing power of a modern nation-state that serves the largely imperial world order.
Global Dimensions of Peace and Reconciliation
The turmoil in Myanmar is taking place not simply within the country’s domestic landscape. Those who claim that the domestic landscape must change before peace or prosperity can be established are categorically flawed in their understanding of the nature of both the conflicts within the country and the external world order. The turmoil is taking place within a process of regressive globalization, a negative form of globalization that strengthens systems of political oppression and economic exploitation at the expense of peace, stability, and citizen rights in natural resource–rich and geopolitically strategic countries. The Myanmar people are not merely up against their country’s unsavory rulers. Their struggle for peace is in fact against some of the world’s most powerful ideological, economic, political, and military forces. For example, their oppressor enjoys reliable support from China and
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Russia, the two members of the UN Security Council that have used their veto to block efforts to push for reconciliation in Myanmar. The global resource extraction industries are deepening their ties with the Myanmar military regime. Among the global exploiters of Myanmar’s natural resources are Total of France, Chevron of the United States, Ivanhoe Mines of Canada, China National Petroleum Corporation, Daewoo International of South Korea, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India, Petronas of Malaysia, and Thailand’s PTT Exploration and Production. They all fill the military regime’s coffers and in effect fund the SPDC’s oppression. Until the external equation changes fundamentally, reconciliation in Myanmar, not just human rights and human dignity, will remain a victim of globalization. The military regime is simply the local proxy in a process that is seeing the country’s economic sovereignty slip away.
1. I use Myanmar as the country’s name only to be consistent with other chapters in this book. In 1989 the ruling military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar, arguing that the old name, the Anglicized word for Bama, which refers specifically to the country’s dominant Buddhist tribe, did not reflect the country’s ethnic diversity. Besides the dictatorial manner in which the generals changed the country’s name, the new name, Myanmar, is linguistically incorrect, because the word Myanmar has no meaning without the suffix Lu Myo, to denote the Bama ethnicity, or Tai or Pyi, to refer to the polity (which belongs to the Bama). Nor does it remotely capture the country’s ethnic diversity, as the generals claim. Finally, the correct transliteration of the new name from written Burmese to English is “Myanma”—that is, without the final consonant r. 2. My conversations and meetings have ranged across civil society opinion makers, business elites, and high-ranking military officers. Key regime officers include Lieutenant General Myint Swe (widely known as Senior General Than Shwe’s pet and the first chief of the newly created Military Affairs and Security Department, the military intelligence unit), former brigadier general Than Tun (head of counterintelligence under Khin Nyunt and chief regime liaison with Aung San Suu Kyi), former colonel Hla Min (spokesperson of the SPDC), and former colonel Tin Oo (the right-hand man and first personal security officer of Khin Nyunt, not the NLD chairman and former defense minister Tin Oo). Opposition leaders whom I met and held discussions with include the late P’doh Saw Ba Thin, chair of the Karen National Union; P’doh Mhan Sha La Phan, the KNU general secretary, who was assassinated in the Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sot in 2008; other top KNU leaders (KNU defense chief General Tamala Paw, Major Tu Tu Lei, and P’doh Kwe Htoo); and high-ranking brigade commanders and strategic advisers in the Karen
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National Union in the low-intensity war zone of Kawthoolei or Karen state. I also had substantive conversations with various local and foreign mediators who have made attempts at peacemaking in Burma. Among these individuals were the Reverend Saboi Jum (a Kachin Baptist pastor), Dr. Simon Thar (a Karen neurosurgeon and politician), and Dr. Christian Peter Hauswedell, who headed the Asia Division at the German foreign ministry. 3. Maung Aung Myo, “The Future of the Tatmadaw’s Political Role in Myanmar: Prospects and Problems,” unpublished manuscript. 4. For the most recent discussion of the military’s refusal to address historical grievances across the board and its consequences, see my forthcoming essay, “Bottom-Up Pursuit of Justice in Burma,” in Global Civil Society 2011: Globality and the Absence of Justice, ed. Martin Albrow and Hakan Seckinelgin (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave-Macmillan, forthcoming). 5. Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s martyred father, and his closet nationalist colleagues, who founded the Burma Independence Army or the Tatmadaw’s nucleus, were all leftist radicals and agitators who admired Stalin’s Soviet Union. This helps explain the fact that military commanders were answerable to underground nationalist agitators who served as political commissioners during the Tatmadaw’s first battle—the revolt against its Japanese masters. 6. In-depth interviews across Southeast Asia with a number of Tatmadaw defectors, both officers and other ranks, between January and June 2010. 7. See Maung Aung Myo, “Future of the Tatmadaw’s Political Role in Myanmar,” p. 35. Maung Aung Myo’s observation has been repeatedly confirmed by a half dozen army officers of varying ranks who deserted the Tatmadaw as late as spring 2010, during the time of my interviews with them. 8. Personal communication with Arthur Win (not his real name), a Rangoonbased local writer and political analyst, Bangkok, January 2010. 9. The treaty was known as the Panglong Agreement, named for a small ethnic Shan town where it was signed by a group of Bama and other ethnic leaders. Despite the treaty’s central original flaw—that it does not fully protect the interests and concerns of its diverse ethnic population—its modern-day adherents continue to cherish its federalist ”spirit” while acknowledging its limitations and hence the need for significant modifications. 10. This observation is based on my personal communication outside Myanmar with a diverse group of local businesspeople over the past five years. 11. See my analysis of Burma’s intra- and inter-group ethnic politics in “Confronting the Demons,” June 19, 2010 (www.irrawaddy.org/opinion_story.php?art_id=17011). 12. The team members were drawn from different ideological and organizational backgrounds. They were Aung Saw Oo, Naw May Oo, Aung Thu Nyein, and Min Zaw Oo. 13. We were not the only team of dissidents who were assigned to seek Western support for renewed armed resistance. Concurrently, KNU leader General Saw Bo Mya also sent his son, Colonel Nada Mya, to Western capitals on a similar
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assignment, something my colleague Naw May Oo picked up on during our chance meeting with the colonel in Washington. 14. Dalia Dassa Kaye, Rethinking Track Two Diplomacy: The Middle East and South Asia, Clingendael Diplomacy Papers 3 (The Hague: Netherlands Institute of International Relations, 2005), especially “What Is Track Two Diplomacy?” (www. clingendael.nl/publications/2005/20050601_cdsp_paper_diplomacy_3_kaye.pdf [July 2010]), pp. 5–7. 15. Priscilla Clapp, who served as U.S. chargé d’affaires and chief of mission in Rangoon from 1999 to 2002, has noted that Than Shwe overruled the deal his intelligence chief Khin Nyunt reached with Aung San Suu Kyi in 2004. See Priscilla Clapp, Burma’s Long Road to Democracy (Washington: United States Institute of Peace Special Report 193, 2007 (www.usip.org/files/resources/sr193_0.pdf [July 2010]). 16. Our group—including prominent dissidents in exile such as Tun Kyaw Nyein, Bobo Kyaw Nyein, Aung Thu Nyein, former physician to Aung San Suu Kyi, Dr. Alice Khin Saw Win, and so on—broadly agreed that we should keep talking with General Khin Nyunt’s office, despite this negative development. The dissidents among us later changed their tune—from involvement and approval to disentanglement and denunciation—when the Burmese media criticism of my day trip to Rangoon looked imminent. An Irrawaddy editorial, “A New Blow to the KNU,” discusses the rifts and fallout resulting from our “talking to the enemy” (www.irrawaddy.org/opinion_ story.php?art_id=6707 [July 2010]). Even General Bo Mya, the late iconic revolutionary with an impeccable record of personal involvement in the KNU’s armed revolution, who flew to Rangoon in December 2003 to hold face-to-face ceasefire discussions with General Khin Nyunt, did not escape attacks and slanders from his own rank and file. 17. During the last round of ceasefire negotiations between the KNU and the regime immediately before the dismantling of the Directorate of Defence Service Intelligence (or military intelligence) under Khin Nyunt, the regime’s chief negotiators, such as Brigadiers Kyaw Thein and Thein Swe, would tell their KNU counterparts that the agreement made the previous day needed to be renegotiated, as the Lu-gyi (big man, referring to Than Shwe) did not accept it. My dissident colleague Naw May Oo, in the Free Burma Coalition office, was in daily satellite-phone contact with her Karen colleagues who led the KNU delegation during the negotiations. 18. Brigadier General Than Tun was the chief liaison officer between the military regime and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He was also chief of counterintelligence in General Khin Nyunt’s Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI). Colonel Hla Min was the government spokesperson at the time while Colonel Tin Oo was General Khin Nyunt’s very first personal security officer or aide d’camp and a confidante. They are all serving lengthy prison sentences after their boss’s downfall in October 2004. 19. At our insistence during the last-minute negotiations in Bangkok regarding the details of my confidential day trip to Rangoon, Colonel Tin Oo faxed us a letter
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confirming that we had pressed for a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi but that his side, that is, the prime minister’s office, decided against it, citing the tense political atmosphere. 20. At the Bi-annual Conference of the Burma Studies at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois, in October 2004, Matthew Daley remarked publicly that there was nothing personal about the U.S. State Department’s support for my trip and went on to justify such support on grounds that the U.S. government’s Burma policy is to encourage and support dialogue among Burmese citizens in political conflicts. 21. Besides our track-two dissident team, the intelligence camp also made contact with several other influential dissidents such as Harn Yawnghwe, then top opposition lobbyist based in Brussels, and Dr. Thaung Htun, a New York–based representative of the Burmese exile government headed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s first cousin, Dr. Sein Win. However, no follow-up activity was taken by either side. Personal communications with Harn Yawnghwe and Dr. Thaung Htun, November 2006 and June 2010, respectively. 22. Even if the regime were to allow him into the country, Fassino is not believed to be the right man to advance the European Union’s unspoken Myanmar policy objective of high-level dialogue with the generals. Personal communications with both European Commission officials in charge of Burma and Southeast Asia and ambassadors to Burma from key EU countries, 2008–10. 23. Personal communications with Thai security analysts at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, as well as with the Tatmadaw defectors in two Southeast Asian capitals, 2010. 24. In May 2006 I served as a facilitator and interpreter for a meeting in Rangoon between Professor Johan Galtung and a senior military official in the Military and Security Affairs Department. The department chief and his deputies wanted me to assure them that Galtung came to see them because he wanted to befriend the military government. 25. In June 2010 a senior Chinese scholar and administrator from China’s National Academy of Social Sciences told me about his experience interacting with Myanmar academics, who are also civil servants. According to him, at the scholarly exchange forum held in Rangoon in 2008—and initiated and funded by a German political foundation—the academics, handpicked by the Myanmar regime, explained to foreign visitors that Aung San Suu Kyi was a major obstacle to the Myanmar military government’s desire for wanted peace and reconciliation because she continued to insist on transfer of power on the basis of the NLD’s election victory two decades ago, a verifiably incorrect assertion. During my two-and-a-half-hour meeting with them in Rangoon in May 2004, even Khin Nyunt’s deputies, who were relatively open minded compared with the officers who replaced them, were more keen on heaping blame on Aung San Suu Kyi for the country’s political stalemate than on jointly exploring potential solutions to break the political deadlock.
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26. These reports have culminated in the Harvard Law School’s May 2009 report “Crimes in Burma,” a powerful indictment of the regime’s atrocities both in areas under its direct rule and in the country’s armed conflict zones. Crimes in Burma, report by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, 2009 (www. law.harvard.edu/programs/hrp/documents/Crimes-in-Burma.pdf [July 2010]). 27. In one of my meetings with Lieutenant-General Myint Swe, then head of military affairs and security, he told me directly that he was observing sabbath for the day despite his busy schedule and indicated that his bosses and senior colleagues were also doing the same. He even exhorted me to go and pay homage at the Shwedagon pagoda after the late afternoon meeting to build up my karma. 28. Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In, ed. Peter Evans, Dietrich Reuschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 169–91. 29. Maung Aung Myo, “The Future of the Tatmadaw’s Political Role in Myanmar: Prospects and Problems,” p. 39.
Recapitalizing the Rural Economy
n January 2009 I met with groups of farmers from areas just north of Mandalay down to areas in the Ayeyarwady Delta that were still recovering from the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. I was part of an assessment team facilitated by International Development Enterprises Myanmar, a nongovernmental organization focused on social entrepreneurship. We were able to meet with many farmers, usually without any officials present, so they were able to speak freely about the challenges they faced. This chapter does not recount in detail the findings of our team, which were delivered to International Development Enterprises and the Myanmar government.1 Suffice it to say that we found many farmers, even those with considerable land holdings, wanting to borrow at 10 percent a month interest and unable to do so. Virtually all families we talked to were deeply in debt. They had great trouble financing inputs for rice and other crops. To save labor they were broadcasting rice seed instead of transplanting, even though broadcasting results in lower yields than transplanting. Farmers were also using much less fertilizer than they would have if credit had been available. Even pulses, legumes, and crops other than rice, one of the great recent successes of agriculture in Myanmar, had been hit by collapsing prices.2 It was reported that a group of well-connected traders in Yangon had promised high prices to local buyers and farmers but asked them to provide credit by deferring payment. Their attempt to corner the market evidently failed, and they were unable to pay after they had taken the product, leaving many of the local buyers without capital. Reports conflict over how well the situation with these major cash crops is evolving, but the main food product of Myanmar has always been rice, and this chapter focuses on rice, even though pulses are often an important cash crop for rice farmers.
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To begin with, there are two major data series estimating rice output. One is produced by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which largely relies on government data. Its estimate puts current annual output of milled rice at about 18 million tons.3 Given domestic consumption of about 10 million tons, this would imply 8 million tons of rice exports annually, making Myanmar the largest rice exporter in the world. Since recorded exports are typically considerably less than 1 million tons and unrecorded border trade is unlikely to be more than a few hundred thousand tons, it is doubtful that these production estimates are close to reality. The second data series is produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It has local people making estimates based on area and yield samples. The department estimates rice production to be in the range of 10 million to 11 million tons a year, a much more plausible figure. In 2009 rice exports were about 1 million tons and domestic rice prices were stable. This is not surprising. The world rice price has dropped by half from its high in 2008, and the kyat-dollar exchange rate has been stable or even appreciating slightly. Based on these facts, some observers have concluded—probably incorrectly—that there is no real food security problem in Myanmar. The lack of credit has led to a lack of work for landless laborers.4 They are eating taro and types of rice normally used for animals. Their demand has collapsed owing to a lack of wage income, and they are hungry. The lack of entitlements to food means that even when food is available in the markets, it may not reach the stomachs of the landless or their families. Even the normal safety net of Buddhist monasteries’ feeding of children and even adults is frayed and strained. Things are quite close to the edge, if recent informal but plausible reports are correct. The situation in 2009, a reflection in part of the damage to capital, labor, and land (salt intrusion, filling of irrigation ditches, and the like) wrought by Cyclone Nargis, is only the latest chapter in a long book. Farmers always and everywhere are used to annual crop variation and natural disasters. They save in the good years and use these savings (food, livestock, gold, or financial savings) to tide them through the lean years. What has happened in recent years in Myanmar is that surpluses have been scraped away through low crop prices, and little has been done to help out in the bad years. Farm-gate paddy prices in Myanmar are about half of those in Vietnam.* This difference reflects the lower quality of Myanmar rice, owing to
*Paddy is unprocessed rice taken off of the stalk. It is milled to produce the rice sold in markets. Farm-gate prices are prices actually received by farmers from buyers who transport the paddy from the fields where it is harvested.
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the country’s ancient milling equipment, mixed varieties, poor drying, and unreliable export reputation. But part of the story is high costs of transport, shipping, and trading. At one time, the problem could be blamed on regional military commanders who, being responsible for their troops, were taxing farmers by buying paddy at low prices. This practice is less common now, but there is another kind of tax on farming going on—effectively, not officially: the possibility of exporting is not really open to all. Existing requirements for exporting rice include a regulation that the exporter has to have several thousand tons of rice not meant for export in a warehouse before applying for an export license. This requirement effectively excludes many potential exporters. The exporters who are able to amass large stocks or get export permits are likely to be well connected to the government. They are effectively monopolists, or nearly so. They are able to offer low prices to local traders, who have to accept what is offered and, in turn, offer even lower prices to farmers. Even the state exporters in Vietnam offer far better prices, though their rice is typically of better quality, reflecting more modern milling equipment and better overall post-harvest systems. There is no equivalent in Myanmar of BULOG, the rice logistics agency, the entity that, while not without problems, has stabilized rice prices for both consumers and farmers. Price stabilization in Myanmar often uses physical restrictions on the movement of rice rather than sales or purchases of rice or paddy. This creates enormous uncertainty for traders and depresses export prices because of the uncertainty of actually obtaining rice. It is hard to fully communicate what years of policies like these have done to the capital stock of the rural economy. When farmers and the rural landless are hard pressed, they do whatever they can. They use up natural capital. They overcut firewood, depleting forests. They overfish, depleting future catches. They use the land too intensively, planting on steep slopes that erode, or forgo planting crops that produce little immediate income but turn organic matter and nitrogen back into depleted soils. Indeed, government policy has forced farmers to plant back-to-back paddy fields, creating pest problems, reducing soil fertility, and crowding out crops that would enrich the soil and that farmers would prefer to plant. Of course, improvements to the soil are out of the question when policy is pushing in the other direction.5 The result is that farmers are slowly destroying the agro-ecological system on which they depend. The destructive impact of Cyclone Nargis was also a result of the widespread deforestation of mangrove forests, a natural buffer against cyclones. Severe underinvestment in physical capital such as roads, production equipment, or processing equipment (for example, rice mills) is part of the
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problem. Fuel is also very expensive. We visited one rice mill using a boiler from the early twentieth century to generate electricity from rice husks. No reliable central electricity was available—and this was in a city. Other rice mills were powered by nineteenth-century steam engines. These systems, though ingenious, are not likely to compete effectively with the Thai or Vietnamese equipment, which is run off of a central power grid. The amount of irrigated land has increased, driven largely by government investments. However, the effectively watered area of these projects declines over time as irrigation system maintenance is neglected. Actually, data on the acreage planted or harvested, as well as on production, are of uncertain quality. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that the entire rural economy has undergone many years of massive disinvestment. While the production situation is lamentable, malnutrition is likely to have the most lasting impact on the future growth of the Myanmar economy and the welfare of its population. Recent household surveys measuring malnutrition suffer from the same problems as rice production surveys. Personal communications with some involved with these surveys suggest that the results reported are too optimistic by a substantial margin. An objective nutrition survey of children is badly needed.6 If our own observations are representative, there is already a very serious problem.7 Children who are poorly nourished do not learn well and also have much higher mortality rates. Quite aside from the quality of schools, unless there is a substantial improvement in food intake, it will be difficult to produce a generation of workers suited to any but the most basic tasks. The January 2009 visit was only to central lowland Myanmar, not to any of the ethnic minority areas. It has been reported that in many of those areas conditions are worse than in areas with a Burman majority. In particular, the seventeen-year flowering of bamboo in some regions has led to severe rat infestations, and there has also been a severe drought in other states. This is not precise information but suggests that the problems for all of Myanmar may be even greater than for the areas visited. If so, Myanmar faces a vast legacy of problems to be dealt with on top of the substantial current problems. Production and incomes depend on land, labor, capital, and technology. It is hard to identify any of these inputs in which the trend in recent years has not been stagnation or worse in Myanmar’s rural economy. There is no doubt that farmers will respond with alacrity when prices favor their efforts, as proven by the great rise in pulse production earlier in the decade. But farmers need inputs, and these are hard to come by. Official lending through the Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank in 2009 covered less than 10
Recapitalizing the Rural Economy 81
percent of the requirement for rice production inputs. If commercial credit is not available for other inputs, many farmers will use fewer inputs because informal credit is very expensive, if available at all. The government has lately been making large grants of land to companies that promise to grow rice. While this amounts to tens of thousands or even (in the aggregate) hundreds of thousands of acres, it is not yet a substantial fraction of the total rice area.8 Past experiments with rice estates in other Southeast Asian nations have not had promising results. It is troubling that a major response to concerns about food security or production has been to promote the development of a parallel system of production instead of improving conditions for ordinary farmers. It is unlikely that industrial rice estates will ultimately prove to be competitive. On the other hand, a new program has been announced recently to provide credit for rice production and, to some extent, sesame and pulses. Rice millers and traders with ties to the government are being urged to lend at 2 percent a month to farmers with holdings of more than five acres who are also in a good financial condition. The amount lent is well over the seven dollars an acre provided by the Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank, but the total credit provided by all companies is less than $20 million, while billions of dollars are needed and only the best-situated farmers get credit. These agricultural development companies, formed by Yangon tycoons and local millers and traders, are a small step forward, but most farmers will still have to rely almost entirely on informal credit, when it is available.9 Some estimates are that only 5–10 percent of farmers will meet these two conditions (enough land and financially stability), so most will remain without access to credit on sustainable terms. Capable microfinance programs are operating in various townships and villages now, and it is reasonable to ask whether they could be part of a solution to the severe credit shortage that was observed. A careful answer would take more work, but horseback speculation is that in the near future, at least, they can play only a small part. The required aggregate credit is on the order of $2 billion, and individual loans would be thousands of dollars in many cases. Operating at this scale is well beyond the current capacity of microcredit programs. Opening hundreds of offices and training thousands of personnel is a work of many years, even if such a program were well resourced. This does not mean that microcredit cannot play a useful role, but unless these schemes can attract large amounts of deposits and control risk while expanding rapidly, it is likely that other institutions will play a larger role in any near-term solution.
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Some urban banks have expressed interest in agricultural lending on behalf of the government, with a 100 percent guarantee if the loans go bad. Past experience suggests that this is not a sound approach. When nothing is at risk, the tendency is to lend freely and not carefully, and bad debts often soar. It would be better to work out a risk-sharing arrangement and allow interest rates high enough to cover the higher costs of operating in rural areas and normal default rates. No urban bank is positioned to operate in many rural areas, so expansion would be a slow process, though perhaps not so slow as with microfinance. A third possibility is to reinvent the government-owned Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank by separating it from the Ministry of Agriculture and allowing it to gather deposits at realistic interest rates and make loans at about 3 percent a month, but only to those likely to repay. This would require new rules, salaries, training, and accounting. It would be a large undertaking and could not happen immediately, but such restructuring could follow the example of Bank Rakyat Indonesia, which was in a similar situation in the early 1980s and became a profitable lender to millions of rural borrowers at market rates. If the 2010 elections and other developments create an opening for international aid to the rural sector on a substantial scale, the first thing to do (if the situation has not improved by then) is to provide credit to farmers. This alone would lead to higher production and increased employment of rural labor. The interest rate should be 2 percent a month in real terms—enough to cover the costs of administration, bad loans, and the interest on deposits. If farmers are prepared to borrow at 10 percent a month but cannot, then a loan at 3 percent a month, the nominal rate including inflation, will be very welcome. Ensuring the viability of lenders for future cycles of lending is more important than reducing the interest rate from levels in the range of 3–5 percent a month. Because the amount of aid is unlikely to equal the demand for credit at 3 percent a month, aid donors and the government might work out joint funding of banks in a position to provide agricultural credit. Financial reserves exist within Myanmar that could be used for this purpose. Labor-intensive construction projects could repair rural roads, build small bridges, clean out irrigation ditches, and construct rural markets or water storage ponds. Local governments could be tasked with identifying and bidding out such projects. While supervision and guidelines would be needed to prevent “leakages” (that is, corrupt or wasteful use of funds), the double injection of income to the landless and capital to the villages would be an essential step in getting many households back on their feet. Pilot programs with village grants of up to $5,000 have had initially promising results.
Recapitalizing the Rural Economy 83
But simply producing more rice or other crops will not help much if they fetch little when sold. A comprehensive push is needed to reduce monopoly power among exporters, lower port and internal transport costs, improve milling and drying, and get farmers a fair price (similar to prices in neighboring nations) for their production. These steps could yield a large leap in household income, even if physical output is stable. While the residue of competence in the bureaucracy is fast fading, it would be wise to build on it. Training programs for irrigation engineers, rice specialists, banking officers, and many others should be part of any largescale aid effort.10 Getting learning materials in Burmese and teaching teachers who would lecture in Burmese (and some minority languages) would be a wise early step. If the past disinvestment in human skills and knowledge is not soon reversed, Myanmar will fall even further behind as the rest of the world moves on. As long as world prices for raw materials stay relatively strong, Myanmar will have vital sources of income while its rural economy catches up with the rest of the region. Natural gas revenues could be used to recapitalize the rural sector and its population, should the priorities of the government shift in that direction. But it is hard to see how adequate progress can be made without some external assistance. Support for significant levels of assistance will depend in part on perceptions in aid-giving nations that their aid funds will be well used. Changing perceptions will be a tough sell during the current era of fiscal retrenchment if foreign aid, never very popular, is seen to be going to a nation that has a poor reputation. While the donor countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development may need a more flexible policy toward Myanmar, there will also need to be some flexibility from the Myanmar side if a rapprochement is to occur. Given current and likely future circumstances, it is probably desirable for donor agencies initially to provide grants rather than loans, even if the amounts transferred are much smaller. There are many moving parts to realistic cost recovery, and the mass debt forgiveness of very-low-interest loans from multilateral institutions to African countries is a warning that large amounts of lending in weak administrative environments is not promising. Building up absorptive capacity can set the table for lending, but grants are a better first step. In any case, the problem is first one of allocation and secondarily one of resources. Until a better use of domestic resources is apparent, it would be unwise to add debt. The severity of the problems described in this chapter may or may not create domestic political pressures to push the Myanmar government toward closer relations with countries beyond China and, perhaps, India.
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But unless significant policy attention, administrative resources, and funding are focused on the rural sector, it will continue to lag badly and be a drag on the Myanmar ship of state and its economy. A fuller understanding of the sources of national security and unity and a decent concern for the broader welfare of the population would in itself create more pressure to deal with the rural decapitalization problem. It remains to be seen whether history will continue its old pattern or a new one will emerge, perhaps encouraged by any changes that 2010 might bring.
1. The full report, Assessment of the Myanmar Agricultural Economy, is available from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, March 2009 (www. ash.harvard.edu/Home/Research-Publications/Publications/Occasional-Papers). 2. Production of sesame, pigeon peas, chickpeas, groundnuts, and dry beans rose from 3.36 million tons in 2002 to 4.12 million tons in 2007, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. This is a 4.1 percent annual growth rate. Exports of grams (dal) and other pulses rose from 831,000 tons in 2000–01 to 1.14 million tons in 2007–08, a growth rate of 4.6 percent. This supports the rate of reported production growth. 3. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimates 32 million to 33 million tons of paddy and, at a 56 percent milling rate, 18 million tons of rice. Rice consumption is said to be about 200 kilograms per capita per year in the food balance sheet but 160 kilograms per capita in food surveys from a few years ago. Population in 2007 was estimated to be 57.5 million. 4. The fraction of landless laborers varies from a quarter to more than half of the population, depending on region and village, but many farmers with very small holdings are facing similar problems since they cannot support themselves with such limited farmland at their disposal. At least half of rural families depend on wage labor for their livelihood. 5. Official data show a 30 percent increase in rice yield from 2000 to 2007, but this may be as illusory as the production estimates. Farmers’ reported yields depend mainly on weather, irrigation, and fertilizer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports fluctuations but a stable long-term trend in Myanmar rice yields from 1988 to 2008. 6. UNICEF, in cooperation with the Myanmar government, completed a nutrition survey in 2008–09, but the results are not yet available. Many months of processing will be required to analyze the results for the 8,000 households surveyed. 7. I have served on both national and international committees concerned with nutrition surveillance. 8. Official data report paddy area sown is 8 million hectares, equivalent to about 20 million acres.
Recapitalizing the Rural Economy 85
9. Each of the twenty-nine agricultural development companies operates in one township and has a leading firm that makes large loans, providing capital; smaller amounts are added by township millers and traders. However, the capital of the leading firm is guaranteed by the millers or traders who lend it out. The 2 percent a month interest rate is too low to attract much capital or cover the expenses of lending to risky smaller farmers, but it is higher than the controlled urban lending rate of about 1.5 percent a month. There is an understanding that those who participate in these agricultural development companies will have access to export quota, and this will help defray the expenses of lending. 10. Of course, some efforts along these lines have been made in the past, but they are considerably fewer than are needed.
Boom on the Way from Ruili to Mandalay
espite the artificial boundary lines and modern infrastructure that set present-day Myanmar and China apart, trade across the historical frontiers dominated by local forces in the absence of central control has shown no fundamental change over time. After decades of civil war and class struggle impeding economic development in the two countries, market activities and cross-border trade resumed in the 1990s, benefiting local communities on the border and beyond. Cross-border trade today continues to be an indicator of harmony as well as tension in bilateral relations. As much as economic prosperity and political stability are mutually reinforcing, one is by no means a guarantee for the other. The cross-border trade described in this chapter underscores an imbalance between the two countries in economic strength and an uneven political development with regard to bureaucratic capacity and central policymaking toward ethnic minorities on the periphery. A major challenge to the government of Myanmar that aspires to consolidate its control over the country’s historical frontier areas is to balance economic development and political integration. To be sure, the ongoing cross-border trade can assist as well as upset the desired process.1
Legend has it that once upon a time, the king of Bagan, Anawrahta, led his men in tens of millions on a mission to obtain a Buddha’s tooth relic from the Utibwa of the Tarop country.2 The legendary Tarop country would have been the Dali kingdom (937–1253), although the mission from Bagan is not mentioned in Chinese records.3 By the time Bagan was overrun by the Mongol army, Dali had already been captured by Kublai Khan and subsequently
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became the thirteenth province of the empire ruled by the dynasty under the Chinese name Yuan (1271–1368). The province was given the name Yunnan—“south of the clouds”—which conveys a sense of remoteness in relationship to the center. Political integration of this newly conquered frontier was facilitated by a special administrative device, the court-appointed aboriginal chieftainship, which was duly adopted by the succeeding Ming and Qing governments. Inevitably, from time to time there emerged overlapping claims by Beijing and Mandalay primarily over the native Dai-Shan inhabited territories. When the Konbang dynasty sought to expand its influence eastward into the Qing borderlands in the mid-eighteenth century, China retaliated. During the Burma Campaigns (1765–69), the Qing army—Han soldiers and Manchu cavalry—sustained heavy losses, not the least to tropical diseases and the unfamiliar climate. In the end, the Qing court imposed sanctions on trade, adversely affecting not only the livelihood of local residents but also the coffers of local officials. Smuggling continued, nonetheless.4
Mechanisms of Border Development
The People’s Republic of China and its predecessor, the Republic of China (1912–49), inherited from the Qing dynasty a historical frontier inhabited by ethnically diverse peoples, as did the independent Union of Burma from its British colonial rulers.5 Good neighborly relations facilitated the demarcation of boundaries between the two countries.6 Across these artificial boundary lines, the peoples of the intermingling communities—the Dai, Jingpo, Lisu, De’aung, Bulang, Wa, Lahu, as well as the Han—found themselves overnight becoming, technically, citizens of separate nation-states. On the Chinese side, nation building proceeded with incorporation of ethnic elites into the new government, in tandem with a series of socialist reforms that placed a specific emphasis on development.7 By contrast, the political process in postindependence Burma was interrupted at the outset by a civil war in which the population in the border areas played a large part. Chinese Communist Party support for the Communist Party of Burma in the 1960s, enlisting various ethnic minorities in the border communities, pushed bilateral relations to their lowest point.8 After the Chinese Communist Party cut its ties with the Communist Party of Burma in the 1980s, former military supply routes came to serve a booming cross-border economy. The last two decades have seen life in the border communities transformed, which would have been inconceivable without
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significant, albeit quite distinct, political developments on the two sides of the border. Yunnan province had long been administratively integrated with the rest of China by the time the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. A peripheral province, whose ethnic minorities make up a third of its 40 million-plus population, Yunnan in its economic development enjoys preferential treatment from the central government in the form of fiscal arrangements that have at different times included a range of revenue-sharing devices and in the form of financial subsidies in support of public spending and projects of economic construction and social relief.9 The fiscal system and its reforms at the national level have had a decisive impact on the pace and direction of economic development in this southwestern province. Equally important is the local strategy of drawing attention and investment from Beijing by making the economic development of Yunnan a national priority.10 Like other landlocked provinces, Yunnan experienced a slow start in the early period of economic reform, owing to its inferior economic infrastructure and a central policy favoring foreign trade in the costal regions. Significant signs of an economic breakthrough in Yunnan emerged in the mid-1990s, following two major developments at the national level: the fiscal reform implemented in 1994 to divide revenue and expenditure responsibilities between the central and local governments and a policy shift to redirect the central government’s investments to China’s less developed western region (of which Yunnan is a part).11 Turning its geography and multiethnic population to its advantage, Yunnan set out on a development course to build a great province of ethnic cultures, the center of which was tourism. As reforms deepened, this provincial development strategy came to include an even more ambitious design to build a major gateway to Southeast Asia, seeking ultimately to become a future hub of commerce and trade between coastal China and Southeast Asia and beyond. The same period saw the political landscape shifting in Myanmar. After the 1990 elections in which the National League for Democracy won a majority in parliament, the country found itself still under military rule. Faced with domestic challenges on all fronts as well as international isolation, the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council/State Peace and Development Council (SLORC/SPDC) made tactical policy alterations to achieve national reconciliation. Following the disintegration of the Communist Party of Burma in 1989, the military government embarked on a long-overdue process of negotiating ceasefire agreements with ethnic armed forces across its border regions.12
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On the economic front, the government’s control of certain areas of trade was gradually relaxed to allow diversification of economy and generate desperately needed revenue. Availing themselves of the peace and of local connections, the ethnic leaders in the border communities went into business, trading with and drawing investment from Yunnan. A moderate degree of stability in the east and northeast of Myanmar, which had for decades remained impenetrable owing to widespread antigovernment insurgencies and perpetual local competition for dominance, now made it feasible for the SPDC to introduce and implement its own seven-step roadmap to democracy.
The China Factor
The ethnic armed forces that have reached ceasefire agreements with the SLORC/SPDC are primarily based along the border with China. Thus it is doubtful that political stability and an ensuing economic boom in this area can be viable without a degree of cooperation from the Chinese side. This may have inadvertently provided some international observers with grounds to call on the Chinese government to take the lead in efforts to break the political deadlock inside Myanmar. The Chinese government’s consistent position vis-à-vis Myanmar as an immediate neighbor, seemingly at odds with that of the Western powers, has only served to draw more media attention amid growing international frustration over the apparent failure of the existing sanctions policy. Reflecting on the situation, Chinese academic and policy circles have debated among themselves China’s standing in international affairs.13 Ultimately, they conclude, what China can do is no more than what Asian democracies such as Singapore, Thailand, and India—with whom Myanmar has amicable relations—are prepared to do in their individual capacities, rhetoric aside.14 Because China is a major economic powerhouse and regional rising power, however, its economic interest in Myanmar has, over the years, been subject to intense international scrutiny. The deal made by China National Petroleum Corporation with Myanmar’s Ministry of Energy in 2009 to build crude oil and natural gas pipelines from the west coast of Myanmar to Kunming by way of Ruili came to highlight for Western observers the Chinese strategic interest in maintaining good relations with Myanmar, in addition to a long-standing concern for border security.15 At the conclusion of his trip to Myanmar in August 2009, U.S. senator Jim Webb published a statement in which he asserted that sanctions by Western governments had allowed China “to dramatically increase its economic and political influence in Myanmar, furthering a dangerous strategic imbalance in the region.”16
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The growing Chinese commercial influence in Myanmar, he warned, could easily lead to a military presence. The awareness of, and to some extent the emphasis on, the strategic interests of China and those of other world powers has provided the momentum for reviews of policy toward Myanmar, especially in the United States, as a way to overcome the apparent moral dilemma confronting politicians who call for the lifting of sanctions imposed on a regime once officially labeled as an outpost of tyranny. The smart U.S. policy toward Myanmar today seeks to engage the government in Naypyidaw. Weeks after the August 2009 visit by Senator Webb, the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell, visited Myanmar and held high-level talks with its government. A few days later, in mid-November, President Obama addressed the leaders of all ten ASEAN countries, including the prime minister of Myanmar, on the occasion of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. The new U.S. policy toward Myanmar puts a specific emphasis on deepening ties with Southeast Asia, a region perceived to have come within the sphere of China’s influence in the past decade. To what extent future international involvement from outside the region may have an impact on the existing pattern of economic development (and bilateral relations) is, for the time being, an open question. Any comprehensive assessment would require factoring in ongoing economic activities across the historical frontiers.
Myanmar is endowed with rich natural resources, and a large proportion of its population works in the agriculture sector. Fertile land and a tropical climate provide favorable growing conditions for a great variety of crops, with harvests up to three times a year. The self-sufficient lifestyle of the ordinary people has been essential for Myanmar’s military rule to survive more than a decade of economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, with or without support from China and other neighboring countries. On the other hand, trade with China and other countries in the region has enabled Myanmar to obtain consumer goods that it cannot produce domestically, and growing trade has eased revenue constraints on the military government. Indeed, the period in which international sanctions intensified saw a boom in cross-border trade not just with China but also with other countries in the region. A recent estimate shows that goods exported from Myanmar to its neighbors accounted for two-thirds of the total value of Myanmar exports in fiscal year 2007–08.17
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Characteristic of cross-border trade is a lack of regulation, evident on both sides of the border. Some preliminary research on the Myanmar side has identified informal practice as common in trade with its neighbors, namely, China, Thailand, India, Bangladesh, and Laos. The pattern of exploiting legal loopholes is said to be of long standing and locally accepted; reasons for the prevalence of such practice are many, but most relate to circumvention of lengthy licensing processes and restrictions on export and import goods and, not the least, tax evasion. In this environment of cross-border trade, brokers with connections to outlets of goods in demand and to markets understandably play a key role. Needless to say, local contacts are indispensable. The value of undocumented goods traded across the land border is, therefore, considered many times the value recorded in official statistics.18 Cross-border trade, by China’s definition, is a component of foreign trade that includes state-to-state trade by air and sea, settled in U.S. dollars or euros; trade across land borders, settled in local currencies; and trade in goods of necessity between villagers of border communities.19 Yunnan shares with Myanmar a 2,000-kilometer border, along which are six prefectures; three of these are autonomous and linked to ethnic minorities: Nujiang (the Lisu), Dehong (the Dai-Jingpo), and Xishuangbanna (the Dai). Some twenty officially designated land ports in Yunnan are currently in operation, of which a dozen or so are national level and the rest provincial, mostly along the border with Myanmar. Up to 60 percent of Sino-Burmese trade is channeled through Yunnan province, and exports and imports to and from Myanmar constitute 80 percent of the foreign trade in Dehong Dai-Jingpo autonomous prefecture. Ruili is the most important and busiest of all land ports in Yunnan and one of the four (two national and two provincial) ports in Dehong prefecture.
Ruili Taking Off
Named after the river separating Yunnan from upper Shan state, Ruili is a county-level city under the jurisdiction of Dehong Dai-Jingpo autonomous prefecture. It has a population of more than 160,000, about half of which work in agriculture. The ethnic Dai, Jingpo, De’aung, Lisu, and Ah-chang together make up 46 percent of the local population. The boom in Ruili has largely resulted from gemstone trade with Myanmar, which took off after the mid-1990s. The self-designated title Jewel City of the East is designed to attract investors as well as tourists. Despite its decline since 2004 as the result of a ban by the government of Myanmar,
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jade-related businesses continue to provide jobs for some 35,000 people, amounting to more than 40 percent of the labor force in Ruili. As many as 80 percent of the craftsmen and dealers come from Fujian, Guangdong, Henan, Zhejiang, Sichuan, and Hunan provinces, in addition to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Most foreign nationals come from Myanmar, Pakistan, India, and Nepal.20 Ruili owes its economic boom largely to the intra-boundary, extra- customs status granted by the State Council in 2000 to Jiegao, an area of 2.4 square kilometers (including water surface) located on the Myanmar side of the Ruili River, sharing a land border with Muse. Not long ago, this Old Town (Jiegao in the Dai language) was merely a village, and the local residents relied on bamboo rafts for transportation. The officially registered population in Jiegao is currently 3,000 and predominantly engaged in agriculture; temporary residents (mostly in businesses related to cross-border trade), however, number more than 4,000, and the population constantly floating in and out Jiegao is estimated at 12,000.21 The Jiegao economy is divided into four zones—commerce, manufacturing, storage and logistics, and tourism—all tax exempt. Here, for example, gemstones imported from Myanmar are processed and motorcycles exported to Myanmar are assembled. The main tourist attractions are, first and foremost, jewelry shops, followed by village sightseeing and ethnic cuisine. Linked today by a bridge to the inland city of Ruili, Jiegao is a point where flows of goods meet and depart. The total value of foreign trade carried out in Ruili in 2007 was more than 5 billion yuan; exports represented over two-thirds of the total. The major commodities imported from Myanmar are agricultural products (for example, rubber, pulses, and other oil-bearing crops) and forestry products, followed by minerals and fishery products. Exports to Myanmar range from textiles, machinery, and building materials to electric appliances, household necessities, and foodstuffs. Goods passing through customs are documented, which by no means suggests that all documented goods are actually exported or imported.22 Similarly, not all imported and exported goods are documented by customs. Smuggling, like corruption, is a slippery concept, and the specific local circumstances make it even harder to define. The growth in cross-border trade during the past decade has stimulated Ruili’s urbanization. Property development is booming, and roads in and around the city are constantly being upgraded. The major investor in construction and infrastructure is not the local government, which relies on the higher levels of government for much of its spending, but the private sector.23
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A prominent local entrepreneur is the boss of the Jingcheng Group, owner of a landmark four-star hotel in the city center (in business since 2004), a hot-springs holiday resort (currently under construction) on the outskirts of the city, and—allegedly—as much as 10 percent of the land in Ruili city. A native Jingpo-Kachin from a mountainous village in a neighboring county, he made his first fortune from timber trade with his kinsmen on the Myanmar side of the border in the 1980s. Like many others, he went into the gemstone trade in the mid-1990s, and his business has since diversified to include land development, infrastructure construction, and a wide range of operations. His massive wealth has turned the Jingpo tycoon into a local patron, bigger than the city government itself. The recent inauguration of his private bank, specializing in microcredit, marked yet another business success, allowing him to collect additional social and political capital. Business empires like his (and he is by no means alone) could not have been built without tacit support from the local government. In one decade, Ruili has been transformed from an agricultural backwater to a commercial center, a place where “money talks” to such an extent that the normal bureaucratic clout is irrelevant. Here one is expected to either make a fortune or spend a fortune. In the eyes of the local officials (among whom there is no shortage of Communist Party members), personae gratae are those who are loaded and spare no expense in the local jewelry shops. Paradoxical to the apparent wealth is a steady decline in the revenue from cross-border trade going to the prefecture government coffers.24 This situation reflects, in addition to the general passivity of local officialdom, imbalanced development between the eastern and western regions of China. According to the local officials, more than 90 percent of the goods exported from Dehong are produced in Guangdong and Fujian provinces; Dehong (and Yunnan, for that matter) basically provides a land corridor for those goods to pass through, thus allowing the business enterprises from the coastal provinces to take the lion’s share of profits.25 Looking on the bright side of all this, however, Dehong, being a land corridor, benefits from growth in the service sector as well as from tourism; in so doing, as some officials say to console themselves, Dehong assists “economic growth in other Chinese provinces,” which adds to the “political achievements” of the local government.
The Road to Mandalay
From Jiegao, goods exported to Myanmar enter Muse. The main transfer point between Muse and the interior cities is Lashio (184 kilometers from
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Jiegao), a district-level government seat in the Shan state and a strategic military outpost since independence. Under British rule, this peripheral town boomed with the development of silver mines. In the 1990s it experienced a second boom as trade between China and Myanmar normalized. As far as infrastructure is concerned, Lashio, unlike Ruili, is mostly rural. Large numbers of local residents make a living, directly or indirectly, from cross-border trade. Some are internal migrants from other parts of Myanmar, whereas others come from across the borders to the north and east. Life here is multiethnic. Burmese is the lingua franca, though the Yunnan dialect (and the Dai) by no means sounds alien. Temples dot the hills and streets, and many are brand new, Chinese and Shan styles blending together. On the outskirts of the town, there are three brand-new institutions of higher learning.26 Road conditions in and out of Lashio are probably the best in the country. Lashio is not a tourist destination, and local accommodations serve primarily the simple needs of business travelers. The Lashio Motel is conveniently located and the most adequate in town, with an exterior typical of township government guesthouses in Yunnan. The owner of the property is the Asia World Group, a contractor reported to have built the highway from Muse to Mandalay.27 Highland Lashio is a different world to the lowlanders of, for instance, Mandalay. That particular reputation strikes home when an accidental tourist like myself arrives at the checkpoint at the foot of the mountain, where the historical frontier meets Burma proper. All vehicles without exception are pulled over for inspection. Drug trafficking is apparently far from a thing of past, and trade in prohibited goods is only too real, as one can tell from the vigorousness of the inspectors in action. The journey from Ruili to Mandalay is an all-day drive along a seemingly endless winding road: three to four hours to Lashio and another five or six hours to Mandalay. The seat of the Konbaung dynasty is today a major commercial hub where wholesalers and retailers from all over Myanmar converge. Two adjacent multistory concrete buildings are packed with hundreds of stalls handling everything from spices to household utensils, from fabrics to electric appliances, and much more. Some of the goods are domestically produced, but most are imported from neighboring countries. During business hours, the streets are jammed with pickup trucks, tractors, and cars, and the sidewalks crammed with parked motorcycles, carts, and pedestrians. The gemstone market is separately located on an open ground, surrounded by dozens of tool shops. An ordinary scene in a local commercial bank is striking: stacks of 1,000-kyat notes more than half a meter high spread out on a surface the size of ping-pong table encircled by counters, behind which half
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a dozen cashiers are feverishly counting money under the stares of queuing customers. The volume of daily transactions is considerable. The boom on the old Burma Road today is impressive, considering that not long ago this rugged terrain was inundated by insurgencies and mired in poverty. However informal it may be, the cross-border trade has its own order, which incidentally goes a long way back in history. In the past decade or more, cross-border trade has stimulated economic development in the local communities and also social mobility. With the flow of goods, people move from one place to settle in another. As dealers from the Myanmar side set up shop in Ruili and Jiegao, Yunnanese (Han, Dai, Jingpo, and others) entrepreneurs venture to Lashio and beyond, all making a living on what there is to offer. Whatever their ethnic background may be, once they put their feet down on the other side of the national border, the migrants are identified as citizens of China or Myanmar. These national identities tend to complicate things more than ever before, as international politics is becoming increasingly intertwined with economic competition.
Chinese Presence in Myanmar
Business in Mandalay is flourishing, owing to cross-border trade. Chinese entrepreneurs—old and new immigrants—play their part. Streets in Mandalay are full of signs in Chinese—on petrol stations, jewelry stores, restaurants, and temples. One street called the “ethnic market” opens after six in the evening and is packed with stalls selling vegetables (big in the Chinese diet, say the local residents). Around the corner, there is a Yunnanese food quarter, featuring “cross-bridge rice noodles,” chickpea jelly, and other specialties. Menus are written in both Chinese and Burmese; customers are mixed. Chinese cuisine is as popular as the kung fu movies. DVDs and VCDs (video CDs) originally in Chinese with Burmese subtitles are available on the street at the price of twenty for a U.S. dollar. In Mandalay, it is not unusual to find Burmese youth speaking some Chinese (usually a mixture of Cantonese picked up from kung fu movies and the Yunnan dialect from local shopkeepers). Chinese language schools are reportedly attractive to young men and women in Mandalay, who are eager to become competitive in business. Chinese temples are conspicuous, as they tend to be spacious and bear Chinese characters all over their surface. In addition to a venue of worship, a Chinese temple often functions as a meeting place for fellow townsmen. In the absence of an official census, estimating the size of the Chinese population in Myanmar is very much guesswork. Some put the number of legal
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Chinese immigrants registered with the government at around 300,000, and illegal Chinese immigrants at as many as 2 million.28 In Mandalay, Yunnanese-Chinese are estimated to make up 20 percent of the local population, whereas in Lashio the share is as high as 50 percent.29 The early generations of Chinese immigrants have been largely assimilated, in the sense that Burmese is their first language, and many are naturalized Burmese citizens.30 Anti-Chinese sentiment, although often publicly denied, has been a persistent part of ethnic conflict in Myanmar. The riots against the Chinesespeaking population that broke out in the streets of Yangon in the summer of 1967 nearly severed diplomatic relations between the two countries. Today, Chinese descendants continue to be subject to discrimination, not least in education and employment. This reality makes the growing Chinese presence in cities like Mandalay ever more sensitive.31 The Chinese immigrants are said generally to stick to their own way of life, which seldom bothers anyone, but their business ventures are not always appreciated. Besides, the difference between government-funded projects and private operations is not often acknowledged. Many private entrepreneurs from Yunnan prefer to deal with local bosses in their designated autonomous districts, circumventing red tape and inconveniences resulting from the discrepancy between official and market currency exchange rates.32 Trade of natural resources in the border regions sometimes upsets the national government of Myanmar, which claims rights over all natural resources within its territorial bounds. At the same time, growing awareness of adverse environmental impacts is increasingly becoming a source of local resentment toward foreign enterprises, especially in large cities.33 Since 2005, reacting to complaints from Naypyidaw, Beijing has sought to tighten border inspection, curtailing the outflow of illegal migrants and banning Chinese illegal logging and mining activities in Myanmar. One immediate consequence of this policy was the return to Yunnan of 20,000 Chinese workers.34 Such ad hoc administrative measures, however, can have only limited effect in the face of unrelenting market forces.35
Prospects for Cross-Border Development
When the Qing government at the end of its Burma Campaigns in the 1760s imposed a transfrontier trade embargo, the immediate victim was the local population, which relied on trade for a living. But that was not all. Watching their coffers shrink, county officials in Yunnan could hardly sit still anymore. Someone from Gengma (the present-day Dai-Wa autonomous
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county)—wearing two hats, as a Qing native official and a Burmese saw-bwa (native chieftain)—came up with a cunning plan to trick Beijing into lifting the trade embargo. He allegedly sent gifts to the Burmese king under a forged letter from the Qianlong emperor; in due course, the Burmese king dispatched a tribute mission to Beijing, and thereafter the trade routes were reopened.36 This historical anecdote illustrates the resilience of cross-border trade and the degree to which local officials can maneuver for their own benefit, availing themselves of their strategic geographic position. This situation continues to challenge Naypyidaw and Beijing today. The formation of nation-states in the twentieth century has not fundamentally altered the relationship between the central government and the periphery; nor has the demarcation of boundaries terminated the socioeconomic ties across the border. It is the same today as yesterday: a link to national interests is a blessing for local development. Yunnan is now envisioning itself as having been transformed over the past two decades from China’s southwestern window to its southwestern gateway, and an even more ambitious development is already under way. Further attracting attention and investment from the central government, the governor of Yunnan boasts of his plans to build the third Euro-Asia Continental Bridge, linking coastal China to the Indian Ocean and in the process creating a new southern Silk Road.37 In this bold vision, Myanmar is going to be indispensable. Equally, continued economic development in Myanmar and to some extent political stability in its border regions will be difficult to sustain without sufficient goodwill from China. Two decades of ceasefires have brought a degree of economic prosperity to the local communities along the Chinese border, in which investments from and through Yunnan have played an essential part. Six decades after the country gained its independence, however, the national government of Myanmar shows only limited capacity in administering its periphery.38 The existing ceasefire agreements are yet to be translated into a lasting peace, and the government’s policy circumscribing the economic rights of local authorities in the delineated autonomous districts can hardly be conducive to political integration. Facing the incumbent government of Myanmar and its successor after the general elections is the daunting task of economic reform, in addition to nation building. Without economic development, political stability may be in jeopardy. On the other hand, economic development alone cannot solve all political problems. Peace and prosperity on the extended historical frontiers require efforts from both sides of the border. In this process, cross-border trade will continue to serve as a barometer of progress, for better or worse.
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1. This paper is essentially a report on the author’s trip to Myanmar in the spring of 2009 and fieldwork conducted later in the year in Yunnan, China. Accounts of Ruili, Lashio, and Mandalay are the author’s own observations, unless otherwise noted. 2. Pe Maung Tin and G. H. Luce, trans., The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma (Oxford University Press, 1923), pp. 80–83. 3. Mou Li and others, eds. and trans. (from the Burmese into Chinese) Liuligong shi [The glass palace chronicle of the kings of Burma] (Beijing: Shangwu yinshuguan, 2007), editor’s note, 1:208. 4. C. Patterson Giersch, Asian Borderlands: The Transformation of Qing China’s Yunnan Frontier (Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 100 –07. 5. At the fall of the Qing dynasty, the government of the Republic of China (1912–49) claimed sovereignty over the territory of Qing China in its entirety, including what historians call China proper and the former outer domains (that is, Mongolia, Tibet, Qinghai, and Xinjiang) of the Qing Empire. These outer domains became autonomous regions after the People’s Republic of China was founded. 6. The boundary treaty that settled all territorial disputes between the Union of Burma and the People’s Republic of China was signed in 1960. 7. For more on the People’s Republic of China nationalities’ work as part of nation building in relation to the Chinese Communist Party’s rhetoric of development, see Xiaolin Guo, State and Ethnicity in China’s Southwest (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2008), pp. 5–9, 41–61. 8. This was a party-to-party rather than country-to-country relationship. For a brief history of that period, see Xiaolin Guo, “Towards Resolution: China in the Myanmar Issue,” Silk Road Paper (Uppsala, Sweden: Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, March 2007), pp. 37–47. 9. The preferential treatment targets Yunnan, Guizhou, and Qinghai—the three provinces that have a large percentage of ethnic minority populations—in addition to China’s five large ethnic minority autonomous regions, namely, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang (Uighur), Guangxi (Zhuang), Ningxia (Hui), and Tibet. Different regions and provinces have specific arrangements with the central government, depending on the prevailing local conditions. 10. For an analysis of the interaction between national development plans and local strategies in different periods of China’s economic reform, see Guo, State and Ethnicity in China’s Southwest, pp. 98–107. 11. These mechanisms simultaneously intensified the central government’s efforts to alleviate poverty in China’s western region. 12. For more on the ceasefire movement and the political implications, see Martin Smith, State of Strife: The Dynamics of Ethnic Conflict in Burma (Washington: East-West Center, 2007), and Mary P. Callahan, Political Authority in Burma’s Ethnic
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Minority States: Devolution, Occupation, and Co-existence (Washington: East-West Center, 2007). 13. Chenyang Li and Jianwen Qu, eds., Miandian “jiasha geming”: Qiyin, qushi, yingxiang yu duice yantaohui lunwenji [Collected papers from the conference “Myanmar’s ‘saffron revolution’: origin, trend, impact, and policy adjustment”] (Kunming, China: Yunnan University Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007). 14. Chenyang Li and Lye Liang Fook, “China’s Policies towards Myanmar: A Successful Model of Dealing with the Myanmar Issue?” China: An International Journal 7, no. 2 (2009): 255–87. 15. Markets, energy supply, and access to the Indian Ocean bypassing the Straits of Malacca are said to be China’s major concerns. David I. Steinberg, Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 159–60. 16. Jim Webb, “We Can’t Afford to Ignore Myanmar,” New York Times, August 25, 2009. 17. Winston Set Aung, “The Role of Informal Cross-Border Trades in Myanmar,” Asia Paper (Stockholm: Institute for Security and Development Policy, September 2009). 18. Ibid. 19. The third category is officially endorsed and legal on the Chinese side of the border (where it is known as bianmin hushi) as part of the preferential treatment accorded to ethnic minority communities along the national border. On the Myanmar side of the border, the economic rights enjoyed by the autonomous districts populated by ethnic minorities are far more restricted, and such economic activities may be viewed in a very different light. 20. Ruili nianjian 2008 [Ruili yearbook 2008] (Ruili, Yunnan: Ruili Municipal People’s Government, 2009); Liu Liu, Zhang Ying, and Li Shaoming, “Ruili, Xiangyu haineiwai de ‘dongfang zhubaocheng’” [Ruili: The famed Jewel City of the East], Yunnan Daily, September 24, 2009. 21. Ruili nianjian 2008, p. 109. 22. For example, goods for export that are exempt from the value-added tax— cigarettes, among others—do find their way back to Yunnan for a huge profit. 23. Presently, the Dehong prefectural government relies on funds allocated from the provincial (and, by extension, central) government for up to 60 percent of its expenditures. 24. The cross-border trade currently contributes five percent of the total revenue of the prefecture government. 25. In addition to selling their products, exporters enjoy tax breaks granted by the central government to encourage exportation. 26. They are Lashio University, Lashio Technological University, and the Computer University of Lashio. 27. The owner of the Asia World Group is one of three Myanmar tycoons who allegedly have close ties with the military government and with China. Brian McCartan, “On the March to Do Business in Myanmar,” Asia Times, August 26, 2009.
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28. Steinberg, Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know, p. 121. 29. Ibid. 30. The Chinese-speaking population also includes those from Taiwan, who are more culturally affiliated with Fukien-Cantonese than with Yunnanese. A further breakdown of these categories presents even more difficulties. 31. For more on Chinese migrants (legal and illegal) in Myanmar, see Li and Fook, “China’s Policies towards Myanmar,” pp. 274–76. 32. In 2009 the official foreign exchange rate between the Chinese yuan and the Myanmar kyat was 1:8 and that between the U.S. dollar and the kyat was 1:6, whereas the market rates were 1:200 and between 1:1,000 and 1:1,200, respectively. In part to overcome problems caused by the discrepancy, China Construction Bank and Myanmar Economic Bank signed an agreement to formally settle cross-border trade in Chinese currency starting in October 2009. 33. Reportedly, university students in Yangon have taken to the streets protesting against illegal timber trade. Guangsheng Lu and Chunmeng Zou, “Border Trade between Yunnan and Myanmar: Current Situation and Significance,” paper presented at the conference Political Development and New Challenges for International Relations in Southeast Asia, Yunnan University, Kunming, China, July 19–21, 2009, pp. 147–58, 155. 34. Li and Fook, “China’s Policies towards Myanmar,” p. 266. The complaint from the Myanmar government may have been prompted by a Global Witness report on illegal timber trade. Amy Barry and Jon Buckrell, “Dramatic Decrease in Illegal Timber Trade between Burma and China but Smuggling Continues,” press release, Global Witness.org, October 21, 2009. 35. According to the Global Witness report, China may be a main destination, but not the only one, for timber smuggled out of Myanmar, and the companies involved in the illegal timber trade include some based in the United States and the European Union. Barry and Buckrell, “Dramatic Decrease in Illegal Timber Trade.” 36. Giersch, Asian Borderlands, pp. 107–08. 37. Zhang Yixuan, “Yunnan: Cong ‘xinanchuangkou’ dao ‘guojiamenhu’” [Yunnan: From “southwestern window” to “China’s gateway”], People’s Daily, overseas ed., June 26, 2009; Xu Yuanfeng and Zhang Yixuan, “Dichu kaifang de mingpian” [Opening up is the policy], People’s Daily, overseas ed., June 26, 2009. 38. The so-called liberated zones are said to “have often been politically administered, with networks of schools, health clinics, and regular armies.” Smith, State of Strife, p. 12.
Three Scenarios for Myanmar’s Future
yanmar’s relationship with Southeast Asia has been problematic for most of the postcolonial era. It did not start that way. When the British left Burma in 1949, the splendid colonial capital of Rangoon was the region’s most developed and progressive city, a regional hub for communications, education, and finance, and the country it represented was Southeast Asia’s most dynamic export economy. But as the rest of Southeast Asia emerged from the cold war and grew prosperous, Myanmar became detached and withdrawn from the region. With all the international concern about Myanmar’s torturous internal political struggle, the country’s changing position in the region over time is rarely the focus of scrutiny. But for a brief effervescence of economic reform and openness in the early 1990s, Myanmar’s relationship with Southeast Asia has mostly been colored by growing criticism of military rule and cross- border fallout from the ongoing internal conflict that besets much of the country’s hinterland. Today, even conservative states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) like Malaysia and Singapore quietly regret the decision to admit Myanmar as a member, and most people in the region have given up waiting for the reclusive military regime to either relinquish power or open up the country with gradual economic and political reform. Without a substantial change to the internal status quo, it begins to look like Myanmar will remain suspended between India and China, neither contributing to nor benefiting from close ties with its Southeast Asian neighbors. This chapter explores the strategic and geopolitical dynamics of Myanmar’s relationship with Southeast Asia and attempts to project future scenarios based on Myanmar’s possible trajectory in the next few years.
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The term Southeast Asia was coined relatively casually toward the end of World War II to help define a theater of operations and an allied military command. This Southeast Asia has always been an imprecise geographical combination of territories that carries a good deal of colonial baggage. Myanmar’s inclusion in the entity called Southeast Asia was mostly determined by the Japanese invasion and occupation, which extended across all of Europe’s colonial territories east of India and south and west of Japan. In fact, Myanmar was annexed and governed by the British and became known as part of Farther India when viewed from the colonial seat of Calcutta. However, in its precolonial form as a kingdom, Myanmar was one of a string of states that owed loose but diligently acknowledged allegiance to China. In this sense, precolonial Myanmar had a great deal in common with Siam, Annam, the Malay Peninsula, and the sprinkling of princely states in between. In terms of Myanmar’s contemporary relations with Southeast Asia, the precolonial period is therefore of rather more importance than the colonial one, since the memory of Burmese military aggression up and down the mainland has helped define not just contemporary boundaries but also perceptions of cultural affinity and enmity. That said, Myanmar has developed in virtual isolation from the rest of Southeast Asia for much of the past half century. From the 1960s onward, countries like Thailand and Indonesia, together with Singapore and the newly established Malaysia, were emerging from the early vicissitudes of their struggles for independence and embarking on more open policies of trade and investment, turning away from radicalism toward mainstream pluralistic politics, initially with a firm stamp of authoritarianism. Myanmar by contrast was moving in the opposite direction: embracing socialism and turning inward on self-reliance and isolation as a measure of defense against external enemies real and perceived. The trend continued through the early economic boom years of the 1970s and 1980s as economic growth advanced in ASEAN countries and they shook off the image of being poor and underdeveloped. Foreign investment poured in, and stock markets in the region boomed in the 1990s, but Myanmar’s economy trailed behind the others. Even when Myanmar was eventually admitted to ASEAN in 1997, the contrasting socioeconomic indicators were shocking. During a brief period from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, Myanmar seemed to be limbering up to open its doors to foreign investment on a grand scale and poised to transform itself from a largely closed economy into
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one that more resembled its ASEAN neighbors. But this proved a short-lived episode as the political trajectory after 1996 saw reformist, open-minded military officers replaced or supplanted by an inward-looking conservative clique that continues to run the country today.1 What does Myanmar’s already well-documented isolation mean in the medium to long term for its position and role in Southeast Asia? This chapter addresses that question by focusing on geostrategic and regional economic issues rather than trying to imagine the future of Myanmar politics. Specifically, three commonly posited post-2010 scenarios are examined, not in terms of their internal political implications, which have been dealt with elsewhere, but more from the perspective of their impact on Myanmar’s regional identity and context. These regional dynamics may have a greater impact on the country’s political trajectory than internal dynamics.
Status Quo: Splendid Isolation
In the 1970s Myanmar’s GDP growth averaged a little less than 4 percent a year; in the 1980s it fell to less than 2 percent. In the 1990s it peaked at around 9 percent in the brief period of opening up to foreign investment, but it then fell below 5 percent after the 1997 Asian financial crisis.2 By 2008 real GDP growth was estimated at less than 1 percent.3 Today, the United Nations estimates that the average household spends more than 70 percent of its income on food, and the World Health Organization routinely ranks Myanmar’s overall healthcare system among the worst in the world. Less than half of Burmese children go to primary school, compared with the 70 percent of children in Southeast Asia who complete secondary school. If we assume that Myanmar’s current political trajectory is toward more of the same, a solidly authoritarian and military-led regime resisting all pressures for change yet welcoming strategic investment partners and making lucrative royalties from oil, gas, and other minerals, the simplest assumption is that Myanmar will continue to remain detached from Southeast Asia. This detachment, or at least lack of integration with regional economies, greatly benefits the two emerging superpowers of India and China. Both are in search of readily available primary resources and worry about strategic access to oil and gas in particular. Myanmar is a boon to China and India in two ways: it has its own sizable oil and gas reserves, and, for China in particular, it is a convenient conduit to the sea. For India, Myanmar is an overland bridge to the rest of East Asia as well as a necessary security bulwark against the restive peoples of India’s northeastern states.
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Myanmar’s extraordinary usefulness to these two giant neighbors means that the country does not really need the dubious political and security benefits of a regional organization like ASEAN. Lucrative revenues from primary resources have enabled Myanmar to survive a decade-long regime of economic sanctions imposed by the West. Once the Shwe gas field off the Arakan Coast comes online in 2013, for example, it is estimated that it will supply more than 7 percent of China’s domestic gas demand. Moreover, India’s Gas Authority has a 10 percent stake in the venture. It used to be imagined that Myanmar needed ASEAN to balance the influence of its two powerful neighbors, but today ASEAN has little or no leverage over either India or China. In political terms, it makes little sense for either China or India to rock the boat in Myanmar. The current regime serves the strategic aspects of their relationships well. Totalitarian regimes and extractive industries are easy bedfellows. Who wants to deal with land disputes over the path of a pipeline, or the demands of corporate social responsibility in a pluralistic society? Neither China nor India is seeing Myanmar as a market for goods that require an emerging middle-class market, although China certainly benefits from selling goods sent in cheaply overland to Myanmar’s 47 million people. Meanwhile, lucrative revenues from oil and gas provide a significant stream of income for the narrow-based military leadership, which only needs to think in terms of managing social expenditure to prevent outbreaks of unrest and providing a minimal social safety net. The income earned from primary resources, which accrues to companies that are 100 percent owned by the junta, also helps defend the regime from the most debilitating effects of economic sanctions. Status quo, therefore, prolongs and protects Myanmar’s isolation, turning the country effectively into a client state of two major Asian powers without having any appreciable impact on politics. The country remains on the margins, and neither international nor regional diplomatic initiatives have much impact.
Partial Transition: Economic Reform and Transformation
With all the sound and fury of international impatience over Myanmar’s military regime, it is hard to project what kind of government will emerge after the 2010 election—assuming a change in government takes place in 2010. But let us imagine as one possible scenario a partial transition of some kind. Skeptics argue that the military regime in Myanmar has successfully adopted a strategy of sustained delay whereby democracy and civilian
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government can be perpetually promised and planned for but somehow “lost in committee” in an endless process of consultation and preparatory work.4 However, the 2008 constitution in fact establishes a significantly different government structure: a presidential system supported by a bicameral legislature and fourteen regional governments with their own military commands and a degree of autonomy. True, the army has a reserved block of seats in the new legislature, and the army commander will exercise considerable authority through a powerful national security council, but the new structure opens up potential space for the kind of gradual economic openness and reform that characterized the last decade of the authoritarian New Order regime in Indonesia.5 It is often forgotten that the seeds of Indonesia’s democratic transition were sown in the decade of economic growth and prosperity that preceded the 1998 fall of Suharto. There is congruence between the economic liberalization that started in Indonesia in the late 1980s and the gradual opening up of the political sphere, which allowed figures such as Abdurrahman Wahid to establish early forums advocating democratic reform. If market opening and liberalization start to happen in Myanmar, the economy will begin to gravitate toward Southeast Asia and its traditional export markets. This in turn will start to have an impact on the political landscape. If the Indonesian experience is anything to go by, Myanmar’s military power brokers will first be tempted to explore more economic openness because it leads to enrichment without any significant loss of power. Technocrats will draw up reform measures that open up Myanmar’s market and create a better climate for investment. Initially, ownership of large corporations will be concentrated in the hands of the military, as was the case in Indonesia. But as the range and diversity of investment grow, so will the need to take on additional shareholders from the domestic and international business community. Myanmar will attract considerable interest from companies in Japan and Korea but also in countries like Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia, which are looking for better margins in terms of labor costs. Much new infrastructure needs to be built in Myanmar, so a construction boom will ensue. In terms of developing new roads, airports, and ports, the current strategic emphasis on serving the access interests of India and China will be tempered by the opening of more border crossings along Myanmar’s borders with its Southeast Asian neighbors, thus enhancing links with the region, where more open trade and investment regimes will make it easier to import and export goods. These openings will primarily help develop a
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more sophisticated consumer market, which in turn will act as a stimulus for further investment. Tourism will also receive a big boost and generate additional income for consumer spending, opening up the country to greater scrutiny and installing modern forms of access and communication. In short, Myanmar’s economy will start to resemble that of countries like Vietnam a decade or more ago, with the rapid influx of regional investment in such areas as mobile communications, airport and transport services, consumer products, and so on. The interesting point about this scenario is that it is the one most likely to lead to substantive political change. There are two reasons why this process of economic growth and development more integrated with Southeast Asia will start to impact on politics. First, Myanmar’s growing economic integration with the rest of Southeast Asia will enable the movement of labor and capital, which will accelerate demands for openness and transparency (right now Thailand and, to a lesser extent, Malaysia and Singapore already benefit from significant outflows of Myanmar labor, much of it illegal). These demands for a more open trade and financial regime can be dealt with to some extent, as they were in the case of Indonesia, by tailoring reforms to satisfy the business community. From the late 1980s onward, as pressure for political reform started to swell in Indonesia, the Suharto regime’s polished Western-trained technocrats kept external political pressure at bay by delivering economic reforms that made investment very attractive to foreign investors, which in turn made stability and security more important priorities than social and political reform and upheaval. What makes political change inevitable is the extent to which the ruling elite seeks to enrich itself at the expense of the rest of the population. In the case of Indonesia, the key to Suharto’s fall was the resentment felt by his own supporters that he had allowed his family to acquire too much wealth at their expense. It is highly likely, given current and traditional patterns of elite behavior in Myanmar, that the rapid opening of the Myanmar economy will lead to corruption on a massive scale. Of course, members of the junta are already allegedly up to their necks in business interests with all the attendant opportunities for enrichment. But having in this partial transition scenario a form of government that allows some political activity—a limited degree of space—will inevitably lead to the channeling of discontent and the manipulation of corruption charges by competing political factions. Given the greater stake the Myanmar population will have in a more service- and consumer-oriented economy, the likelihood of protest will also be greater because there is more to lose. Eventually, the regime will be forced
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into political reform and its leaders asked to share more power, laying the basis for a transition to a civilian-led democracy. This process of course will take time and could take longer in Myanmar than it did in Indonesia over the decade from 1989 to 1999. However, technology is a great driver of change, and the mobile phone and the Internet cannot be underestimated as factors collapsing the time frame of political change. Simply put, this scenario suggests that while the 2010 election and subsequent implementation of the 2008 constitution will not bring about a significant transformation of the political landscape and will sustain the military in power, the inevitable economic opening to the region it allows will sow the seeds of more profound change, just as the economic reforms that opened up Indonesia’s economy in the 1980s and 90s helped set the stage for democratic transformation. To be sure, the process is by no means guaranteed. Vietnam has enjoyed the fruits of economic openness for two decades and there has been virtually no political change, although communist officials have been forced to become more transparent and accountable. But Vietnam is perhaps a special case, a Confucian outlier with a strongly disciplined political culture rooted in a cadre-based Communist politburo that is capable of adjustment and renewal to avoid the impact of popular pressure for change. Myanmar’s political culture and society more approximate the Indonesian context: authoritarian rule based on strong ties of patronage rooted in a paternalistic culture. As sure as night follows day, the opening and development of Myanmar’s economy will tempt the power holders into amassing great wealth, and without the cultural and ideological discipline of the Vietnamese, they will surely allow greed to blind them to the need for prudence.
State Collapse: Everything Changes
Southeast Asia has experienced the effects of failed states, mostly in the part of the region formerly known as Indochina, where the decolonization process was prolonged and violent. The case of Cambodia is perhaps the most important and instructive example. In the space of three decades, Cambodia was transformed from a relatively stable monarchy through a brutal revolution that imposed a murderous totalitarian rule, to a vicious civil war, an international recovery effort spearheaded by the United Nations, and finally to a struggling multiparty democracy under the thumb of an authoritarian but elected strongman. What would happen in Myanmar if the military lost power, either through internal elite struggle or, less likely, through popular overthrow?
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An internal military power struggle is likely to see the immediate threat of fragmentation, as the new constitution allows for the creation of powerful military commands in the regions. This could lead to a state of civil war and the abandonment of formal government, creating a huge threat to human security. The principal outcome of the inevitable breakdown of authority would almost certainly be some kind of attempt at international recovery, led by the United Nations and ASEAN. This could only happen with China and India’s blessing, but since neither power would want to see the other gain advantage, some kind of hybrid international effort spearheaded by the United Nations and ASEAN would most likely prevail. Given the acute sensitivities in Myanmar about sovereignty, not to mention the concerns about infringement of sovereignty among neighboring states, this international recovery effort would be implemented through economic and development aid programs under the control of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United Nations Development Program. Peacekeeping and armed intervention to maintain security in highland areas would probably be mooted but not tolerated. Unlike the case of Cambodia, Myanmar’s internal strife has been marked less by violence and disruption to human security and more by accommodation and prolonged ceasefire. It is possible that well-armed Kachin, Shan, and Wa forces in the remote northeast of Myanmar would seek to establish independence by force of arms, but this would not be in the interests of powerful border states such as China. Therefore the priority will be repairing Myanmar’s neglected economy in the hope that prosperity promotes unity and reconciliation. Although state failure and collapse would seem to invite suggestions of further marginalization and isolation, in fact, given the formal enshrinement of intervention based on the idea of a responsibility to protect, the opposite may occur. For those looking for a precedent, the recent international response to the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 offers a useful guide. Cyclone Nargis struck the Ayeyarwady Delta region of coastal Myanmar on May 2, 2008. The severe cyclone devastated the region, killing more than 140,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands of others in an already impoverished region of the country. Amid the anxiety and threats from the international community about the Myanmar government’s initial reluctance to allow in international aid and relief for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan stepped in with an offer to send a less intrusive ASEAN Emergency Rapid Assessment Team. This was a groundbreaking step in the sense that it put officials from the ASEAN Secretariat on the ground in a crisis situation. This response quickly led to
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the creation of a coordinating mechanism named the Tripartite Core Group to facilitate international aid.6 The Tripartite Core Group enabled international organizations like the World Bank to operate under a less threatening ASEAN umbrella. For the Myanmar army, which was initially resistant to the idea of an international relief effort on the ground, it soon became apparent that by being seen to direct and channel foreign aid, it projected an image of protecting the people. In a state of chaos following the collapse of the centralized regime, one might imagine individual military commanders’ welcoming international relief as a way of shoring up support on the ground in their areas.
Of these three scenarios for Myanmar’s future, the one most likely to hinder the country’s engagement and integration with Southeast Asia is continuance of the status quo. The current mix of access to lucrative primary resources, sclerotic milimainly benefiting two competing regional powers, offers the tary regime an almost perpetual source of support by playing one off against the other. Neither China nor India is as yet sufficiently engaged with the international community to permit universal norms of political behavior and human security to trump narrow strategic interests. The scenario most likely to bring about rapid change and transformation—although in quite what way remains uncertain—is a full-blown collapse of the state. To be sure, the immediate aftermath of such an outcome would be chaos that threatens the national integrity of Myanmar, but based on recent events and given the way the world works today, the pressure for international intervention would very soon become overwhelming. And we must assume that neither China nor India would tolerate border instability and insecurity for long. However, the most likely scenario to actually unfold, based on current estimates of the situation, would seem to be the partial transition established by the 2010 election. It is not that the election itself will create a perfect environment for the normalization of political life in Myanmar. The pullout of the National League for Democracy has further delegitimized the junta’s measured approach to political change. Moreover, the process of economic reform and integration with the rest of the region will take some time. Given what we know about similar situations elsewhere in Southeast Asia, two points seem clear: a political transition has rarely happened overnight, and economic prosperity and well-being of the populace is a significant
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prerequisite for stable democratic progress. For this reason, although the process will take some time, it is probably important for the international community to encourage rather than hinder the gradual process of transition laid out by the military, however flawed it may seem for now. One final issue in this scenario is worth noting, one that derives directly from the theme of this paper: Myanmar’s evolving relationship with Southeast Asia. While it may be that the 2010 election and its aftermath will set Myanmar on the path to closer integration with the region, which may help promote progressive political change in the long run, there will be pluses and minuses for the rest of Southeast Asia. Thailand could end up being a big loser. Currently, Thailand benefits, much like China and India, from cheap imports of natural gas; it also benefits significantly from the almost 3 million Myanmar workers whose wages are kept low by their illegal status. It is not hard to imagine a more open Myanmar economy pushing up the costs of its primary resources and its labor and therefore affecting the costs of doing business in Thailand. At the end of the day, despite the ASEAN rhetoric of regional integration and inclusion, it is not only China and India that benefit from Myanmar’s isolation.
1. Michael Vatikiotis, “Catching the Wave,” Far Eastern Economic Review 158, no. 7 (1995): 48–52. 2. Michael von Hauff, “Economic and Social Development in Burma/Myanmar,” Economic Studies on Asia (Marburg, Germany: Metropolis-Verlag GmbH, 2007), 1:163–71. 3. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook (www.cia.gov/library/ publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bm.html [July 2010]). 4. Michael Charney, A History of Modern Myanmar (Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 205. 5. International Crisis Group, “Myanmar: Towards the Elections,” International Crisis Group, Asia Report 174, August 2009 (www.crisisgroup.org/home/index. cfm?id=6280&l=1). 6. The Tripartite Core Group was formed after the May 19, 2008, special ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Singapore and the May 25, 2008, ASEAN–United Nations International Pledging Conference held in Yangon. The aim of the Tripartite Core Group was to act as an ASEAN-led mechanism to facilitate trust, confidence, and cooperation between Myanmar and the international community in the urgent humanitarian relief and recovery work after Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar on May 2 and 3, 2008. See First Press Release of the Tripartite Core Group, June 28, 2008 (www.aseansec.org/21691.htm).
The Policies of China and India toward Myanmar
yanmar has the same strategic importance for China and India in both the geopolitical sense and the geoeconomic sense. After the Myanmar military seized power in September 1988, the Chinese and Indian governments both endeavored to expand their influence in Myanmar to protect their national interests. Their policies toward Myanmar had many similarities, but there were also important differences in content and results. This chapter compares the objectives, content, characteristics, process, and results of the policies of China and India toward Myanmar. It assesses the influence of China and India in Myanmar as well as the trend of their relations with Myanmar.
Objectives of China’s Policies since 1988
Myanmar has played an important role in China’s foreign policy calculations since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. China’s policy objectives in relation to Myanmar include access to the Indian Ocean, stability along the border it shares with Myanmar, energy security, economic cooperation between the two countries, and its relations with developing nations. These can best be understood by bearing in mind China’s foremost desire to develop peacefully while pursuing its strategic, political, economic, and security objectives. In other words, the objectives of China’s policies toward Myanmar are multidimensional.1 These objectives were formed gradually, with changes and refinements made over the years.
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Access to the Indian Ocean
Located between China, India, and other ASEAN nations, Myanmar is China’s best shortcut to the Indian Ocean. A core objective of China’s policy toward Myanmar is to establish a strategic route from Yunnan province in southwest China through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean. This route is expected to include a comprehensive set of road, rail, and air connections as well as water, oil, and gas pipelines; it will be crucial to the economic development of southwestern China. According to Voon Phin Keong, the director of the Centre of Malaysian Chinese Studies in Kuala Lumpur, “An outlet on the Indian Ocean would add a new dimension to China’s spatial relations with the world. It would enable China to overcome its ‘single-ocean strategy’ and to realize what would constitute a highly significant plan for a ‘two-ocean strategy.’”2 Many Chinese scholars and officials have urged the government to pursue an Indian Ocean strategy and build international channels to the Indian Ocean, but so far the Chinese government has kept quiet.3
Stability in the Sino-Myanmar Border Areas
A peaceful and stable neighborhood is essential for China’s development. The Myanmar-China border is estimated to be 2,204 kilometers long.4 There are more than 40,000 soldiers in relatively independent minority groups in the north and northeast border regions of Myanmar. Moreover, serious nontraditional security issues like smuggling, crime, illegal immigration, environmental degradation, illegal currency circulation, and money laundering exist along the border. These pose challenges to China’s efforts to establish a stable frontier and harmonious region.
China became a net oil importer in 1993. Its dependence on imported oil reached 50 percent of total oil consumption in 2008, from 29 percent in 2000, and is expected to reach 60 percent by 2020.5 About 80 percent of its imported oil passes through the Malacca Straits, and China’s oil security would be severely threatened if the Malacca Straits were rendered impassable by opposing forces.6 Chinese scholars have advocated importing oil from the Middle East and Africa by pipeline through Myanmar to southwest China. The proven natural gas reserves in Myanmar are about 2.5 trillion cubic meters, which equals China’s own proven natural gas reserves.7 On March 26, 2006, an agreement on the construction of a gas pipeline was signed by the governments of China and Myanmar. The construction of the
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Kyaukphyu wharf began on October 30, 2009. Located on Langley Island in Rakhine state, it is the starting point of the pipelines. The agreement is evidence that energy security cooperation between China and Myanmar has entered an operational phase.8
Myanmar is a crucial source of natural resources. Beyond natural gas, Myanmar is rich in hydropower, timber, gems, jade, nonferrous metals, and arable land. With a vast territory of more than 670,000 square kilometers and a population of more than 50 million, Myanmar is also an important destination for exports and direct investment. Moreover, if the Sino-Myanmar land-and-water transport network is opened after completion of the SinoMyanmar oil pipeline, Myanmar will become a key land bridge for southwest China, providing access to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Europe, and Africa. Bypassing the Malacca Straits shortens the distance to South Asia and beyond by 3,000 kilometers and reduces travel time by five days.9
Friendly Relations with Other Developing Nations
That the Burmese used to call the Chinese pauk phaw (brothers) underscores the close ties between the two countries. Because China is the world’s largest developing country, consolidating and expanding cooperation with other developing countries remains a cornerstone of its foreign policy. Myanmar has come under harsh criticism in the West for its abuse of human rights and lack of progress toward democracy. China’s Myanmar policy has strengthened relations between China and other developing countries; rather than jumping on the Western bandwagon, China has stressed the importance of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other countries and has resolutely opposed the sanctions on Myanmar proposed by Western countries. By doing so, China aims to be seen as a reasonable, just, and fair country in the eyes of other developing countries.
Objectives of India’s Policies since 1988
After a new military came into power in September 1988, the Indian government signaled its commitment to democratic rule by severing contact with Myanmar. Since 1993, however, the Indian government has gradually adjusted its policies toward Myanmar, shifting from idealism to realism, to achieve its strategic objectives. India’s policy objectives in relation
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to Myanmar are to strengthen relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors, to moderate China’s influence in Myanmar, to contain unrest in its own northeastern states, and to obtain access to needed natural energy resources.
Strengthening Relations with Southeast Asian Countries
In 1991 India adopted a Look East policy, which aimed at expanding India’s influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Actually, the policy focuses on ASEAN member countries and shows India’s eagerness to strengthen its relation with the Southeast Asian countries.10 Myanmar is India’s land bridge to the ASEAN community as well as an important barrier protecting India’s eastern shores. Therefore, Myanmar plays a crucial role in strengthening India’s geopolitical position in Southeast Asia. Myanmar is a key stepping stone in India’s new Look East policy, which seeks to develop and expand political, economic, and security ties with ASEAN.11 India’s new foreign policy strategy and its geopolitical relations with Myanmar do not allow India to be hostile toward Myanmar over the long term. M. K. Rasgotra, the former Indian foreign secretary, has noted that “not isolating but contacting the Myanmar government is the solution. We have to keep in mind [that] Myanmar is a component of ASEAN, no matter what kind of a regime it has.”12
Containing China’s Influence
India provides political and economic support to Myanmar to deter China’s commercial and military influence.13 Andrew Selth has observed that “India’s Myanmar policy objective is to test the strategic relation between China and Myanmar.”14 Foreign scholars are led to such views, in part, because of the differing social systems and ideologies in China and India. Moreover, India has been worried about China’s gradual emergence as a competitor and one of the main threats to India’s national security. Therefore, China is an inevitable factor in India’s Look East policy.15 Myanmar is a major coastal state on the Bay of Bengal. Its western and northern borders connect Bangladesh, China, and the sensitive northeastern states of India, and its southeast coast is close to India’s Nicobar archipelago in the Andaman Sea. India regards Myanmar as crucial to its national interests and will not allow it to become a haven for foreign naval intervention.16 Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh declared publicly at the opening ceremony of the Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo highway in February 2001 that “the development of the relations between India and Myanmar relates to India’s national interest.”17
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From the viewpoint of India, the ever-closer military ties between Beijing and Naypyidaw mark the end of Myanmar’s traditional nonaligned policy.18 India fears that China will constrain India’s relations with Southeast Asia beyond Myanmar. In particular, it will penetrate into India’s weak northeastern region and control the Bay of Bengal, thereby exposing India to attack both from the immediate east and from the more distant west by way of Pakistan. India has been stressing the potential threat of Sino-Myanmar military cooperation since the 1990s and even used this threat as a reason for nuclear weapons testing in 1998.
Solving the Ethnic Minority Issue in the Northeastern States
Separatist activities against the Indian government have occurred for many years in the India-Myanmar border area and have become increasingly fierce. A number of Indian antigovernment militants fled to Myanmar to avoid being apprehended and even established camps and training bases in Myanmar. Without help from the Myanmar government, India cannot effectively combat these rebels. Furthermore, in an effort to fundamentally weaken the centrifugal tendency in the northeast, India has taken steps to improve economic conditions in the northeastern states and narrow the economic gap between these states and the rest of India by expanding border trade with Myanmar.
Obtaining Access to Gas and Oil
India is currently the seventh-largest energy-consuming country in the world, with an average daily oil consumption of more than 2 million barrels. Owing to its limited reserves, 70 percent of its oil and gas is imported. To enable gas from foreign sources to be transported directly and easily to India, the Indian government has proposed building three gas pipelines: the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline in the north, the IranPakistan-India pipeline in the west, and the Myanmar-Bangladesh-India pipeline in the east. In January 2004 the natural gas field discovered near Sittwe was estimated to contain between 2.9 trillion and 3.6 trillion cubic feet (82 billion to 101 billion cubic meters) of recoverable gas. The Indian government immediately offered to buy that gas and to build a gas pipeline from Sittwe to Kolkata through Bangladesh. In mid-January 2005 the energy ministers of Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh reached agreement in principle on constructing the pipeline and agreed to sign a formal contract in March of that year. When India and Bangladesh failed to agree on the terms for constructing the
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pipeline, the Myanmar government instead sold the natural gas to Chinese companies. To sum up, China and India have the same objective in seeking to strengthen relations with Myanmar: protecting their own national interests, particularly their geopolitical security. Thus there are obvious reasons for these two countries to be competing against each other.
The Content of China’s Policies toward Myanmar
Both China and India have tried their best to develop comprehensive cooperation with Myanmar. In particular, they both supported the Myanmar government’s seven-step roadmap to democracy and strongly opposed Western sanctions against Myanmar. However, some significant differences in the content of China’s and India’s policies since 1988 can be seen. China has adhered to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and the basic principles of the UN Charter in its relations with Myanmar. Scrupulously abiding by the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of Myanmar, China has improved its bilateral relations with Myanmar and promoted bilateral cooperation in various fields on the basis of equality and mutual benefit, in the context of a long-term commitment to maintain a friendly, balanced relationship.
Political Development and Democratization
China believes that Myanmar is not yet a modern nation because there are tens of thousands of armed militants in Myanmar who occupy and govern discrete territories and who do not accept the authority of the central government. Simply adopting the Western democratic system would cause social chaos and humanitarian disasters. Building its own nation is the top priority for the government of Myanmar at present. Democratization is a gradual process and needs a stable and favorable external environment, one that includes respect for Myanmar’s sovereignty and a policy of noninterference in its internal affairs on the part of other governments. The Myanmar issue involves a variety of factors and can only be solved through dialogue between its government and people. China would like to see a stable, democratic, reconciled, and developing Myanmar. China supports the efforts by the Myanmar government to advance the domestic political system, safeguard national stability, and improve the people’s well-being. China hopes that Myanmar can achieve democracy at an early date and welcomes the steps
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by Myanmar to accelerate the implementation of the roadmap to democracy within a specific time frame. China supported Myanmar’s referendum on the draft constitution in May 2008, referring to it as “a significant step from a military government to an elected government.”19
Armed Ethnic Minorities in Northern Myanmar
In 1990 the Chinese government issued its Regulations on Specific Policies toward Myanmar’s Armed Ethnic Minority Groups, declaring that China would give no “political recognition, military support, or economic assistance” to the armed ethnic minorities but would regard them as “Myanmar’s local authorities temporarily conducting general business based on the actual situation.” Furthermore, China would “take opportunities to do constructive work with their leaders under certain circumstances, but would ensure that this does not go too far.”20 The Chinese government adhered closely to this policy, in particular by not giving military support to the armed ethnic minorities. Soon after adopting this policy, China had to grapple with drug proliferation involving the armed ethnic minorities in northern Myanmar. However, different policy approaches surfaced among the relevant departments and scholars in China on how to deal with these groups. One approach was to actively cooperate with the Myanmar government by cracking down on the drug-trafficking activities of the groups, thereby assuring the long-term stability of the Sino-Myanmar border. A second approach favored the continued existence of these groups as a buffer between China and the Myanmar government.
Economic Development and Cooperation
China has shared with the Myanmar government its experience with reform and opening up as a guide for Myanmar’s economic development. When top Myanmar leaders visit China, the government arranges for them to visit economically developed cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen to see how they have prospered. Nevertheless, China’s development experience may have limited relevance owing to various constraints, such as Myanmar’s strong nationalism and the sanctions imposed by the West. China attaches importance to developing investment, trade, and technical cooperation with Myanmar. At present, China and Myanmar cooperate closely in the fields of energy, transportation, and communications, among others. China has been providing Myanmar with grant assistance (including foreign exchange, equipment, and technology) and low-interest
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or interest-free loans since 1988. From 1992 to December 2009, China provided Myanmar with $930 million in grants and loans.21 However, the acts of China’s local governments and corporations are not entirely consistent with the policies of the Chinese central government. It is evident that local governments and corporations focus narrowly on their own interests and exploit Myanmar’s natural resources.
Arms Sales and Security Cooperation
China has actively pursued military and security cooperation with Myanmar since the military junta assumed power in September 1988. China has sold weapons and other military equipment to Myanmar including missiles, fighter planes, ships, tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, and radar. China has trained a large number of Myanmar air and naval officers, though this training is largely confined to instruction in the use of military equipment from China. China has encouraged nontraditional security cooperation, mainly focused on illegal immigration, cross-border crime, smuggling, environmental damage, highly contagious diseases, and disaster relief. For example, to eradicate opium poppy cultivation, the Chinese government introduced special policies to encourage Chinese enterprises to engage in alternative cultivation in Myanmar. The Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Commerce provided ¥50 million (renminbi) toward this objective each year from 2006 to 2010. In addition, customs exempts alternative agricultural products from import duties and the import value-added tax. Four distinctive features of China’s military and security cooperation with Myanmar are worth mentioning. First, China sells missiles, aircraft, and other heavy weaponry but not rifles, pistols, submachine guns, or other light weapons. This is to deflect criticism from the international community that the military junta is using weapons from China to suppress its people. Second, China sells arms to Myanmar merely to enhance Myanmar’s defense capabilities. China does not encourage Myanmar to engage in armed confrontation with other countries and is opposed to Myanmar development of chemical, biological, nuclear, or other weapons of mass destruction. Third, China does not object to Myanmar’s purchase of weapons and military equipment from other countries. In fact, Myanmar has also bought arms from India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Fourth, China respects Myanmar’s sovereignty. China has not set up any military bases in Myanmar. There is also no military intelligence–sharing agreement between the two countries. China and Myanmar have not mounted any joint security operations against India or other countries.
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Sanctions and Other Hard-Line Measures by Western Countries
It is China’s view that the Myanmar issue results from complex historical experiences and current realities. China believes that the international community should take an objective view of the current situation in Myanmar and the efforts made by its government. The Myanmar issue only can be resolved by its government, its people, and other parties directly concerned. China is willing to see the international community, especially Myanmar’s neighboring countries, promote the national reconciliation process in a constructive manner based on respect for the sovereignty and dignity of Myanmar. China is resolutely opposed to imposing sanctions or applying pressure. Personally, this author is pleased to see the pragmatic nature of the new U.S. policy toward Myanmar. China considers the Myanmar issue to be essentially an internal affair of Myanmar that does not pose any threat to international or regional peace and security.22 Still, China appreciates the mediation efforts undertaken by the UN secretary-general and the UN’s special envoys. Because Myanmar is an ASEAN member and signatory of the ASEAN Charter, China believes the Myanmar issue will be resolved gradually in the process of ASEAN’s integration. China does not want the Myanmar issue to have a negative impact on overall relations between China and ASEAN. Although the policies of ASEAN members toward Myanmar are not entirely consistent with one another, China supports ASEAN’s constructive role on the Myanmar issue and fully respects ASEAN’s autonomy to solve its internal affairs. This does not mean that China entirely excludes or ignores the influence of the United States and the European Union in addressing the issue of Myanmar. China has always encouraged Myanmar to reach out to the international community. In June 2007 China arranged a ministerial-level dialogue in Beijing between the United States and Myanmar at the mutual request of the two parties. In December 2007 China expressed its willingness to maintain communications with the European Union to resolve the Myanmar issue. However, China opposes the establishment of a cooperation mechanism in which the big powers are in charge while Myanmar is excluded or its sovereignty is threatened. China regards Myanmar as an equal partner and will continue to treat it as an equal partner in the future.
The Content of India’s Policies toward Myanmar
After the Myanmar military came to power in September 1988, the Indian government was critical of the Myanmar government on the grounds that a
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democratic country could not have normal relations with a military junta.23 The Indian government accepted a large number of political refugees from Myanmar and allowed them to carry out activities in New Delhi and other cities against the military regime. It also appealed to the Myanmar government to release Aung San Suu Kyi unconditionally and hand over power to the National League for Democracy. However, India abandoned its hostile attitude toward the Myanmar military government after 1993 and committed to strengthen its cooperation with Myanmar in all fields.
Political and Diplomatic Cooperation[end]
Cooperation between India and Myanmar in the areas of politics and diplomacy has developed continually and become increasingly routine since the mid-1990s. In November 2001 General Maung Aye, the vice chair of the State Peace and Development Council, made an ice-breaking visit to India. Since then, India-Myanmar relations have markedly improved. India and Myanmar support each other on issues concerning the interests of each country. In particular, the frequent visits among high-level leaders of the two countries represent a significant source of support for an isolated military regime like Myanmar’s.24 At the request of the Myanmar government, India withdrew its support to the National League for Democracy and stopped allowing the exiled dissidents from Myanmar to engage in any kind of activities against the Myanmar government. On a visit to Singapore in June 2006, the Indian defense minister explained that India would pursue a policy of peaceful coexistence with Myanmar and would not interfere with its democratization process. Since then, the Myanmar government has repeatedly declared its full support for India’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Military and Security Cooperation
Cooperation in the military and security fields is India’s top priority in its relations with Myanmar. According to incomplete statistics, there have been more than twenty exchange visits between military officers from the two countries since Myanmar joined ASEAN in 1997. The Indian Express has reported that four telephone hotlines connect the military commands in India and Myanmar. Cooperation in the field of nontraditional security is another priority. In October 2004, during Than Shwe’s visit to India, a memorandum of understanding was signed to intensify security cooperation in the border area, to combat terrorism, and to exchange security personnel and information.
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With the improvement in bilateral relations, India and Myanmar have strengthened their cooperation in fighting against ethnic minority separatists in the northeastern Indian states. In 2000 Indian and Myanmar military units attacked the camps of three antigovernment organizations (Naga National Socialist Council, the United Liberation Front of Assam, and the Manipur People’s Liberation Army). This was the largest operation against antigovernment insurgents on the India-Myanmar border in forty years. Myanmar military officers have been allowed to study in Indian military academies since 2000. The Indian military also assists Myanmar in training the coast guard force it established in 2001. During the visit of Indian Air Force commander S. P. Tyagi to Naypyidaw in November 2006, the Indian government agreed to sell military helicopters, maritime aircraft and air defense radar, and other advanced weaponry to Myanmar and committed to upgrade Myanmar’s fighter jets purchased from China and Russia.
India has actively advanced cooperation with Myanmar in trade, investment, aid, infrastructure construction, energy, and other economic areas. The Myanmar-India Joint Trade Committee was set up to promote bilateral economic cooperation; its first meeting was held in July 2007 in Yangon. In February 2001 the road from Morey in India to Tamu, Kaletwa, and Kalemyo in Myanmar was completed with ¥1 billion ($30 million) contributed by the Indian Army’s Border Roads Organization. This 160-kilometer border road not only contributes to trade and investment in the border area but also promotes social and economic development in northwest Myanmar. It facilitates joint military operations against antigovernment Indian separatists and India’s access to Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh called it the India-Myanmar Friendship Bridge. In June 2008 Myanmar and India signed the Agreement on Promoting Investment and Protection between Myanmar and India. The Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank and the Export-Import Bank of India also signed an agreement, according to which India will provide Myanmar with a $20 million loan for an aluminum conductor steel-reinforced wire project and a $64 million loan for a power transmission equipment project.25 Oil and gas cooperation became another focus of economic cooperation in recent years. The Myanmar Times reported in February 2004 that Myanmar would start to buy diesel fuel from India while India would purchase natural gas from Myanmar. In September 2007 Indian petroleum minister Murli Deora, on behalf of India’s National Oil and Natural Gas Corporation,
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signed a $150 million contract for natural gas exploration and drilling with the State Peace and Development Council and the Myanmar Oil and Natural Gas Corporation. Under this agreement, Indian companies acquired exploration and development rights in three of Myanmar’s deep-water areas.26
Comparison of India’s and China’s Myanmar Policies
Whereas a high degree of consistency can be seen in China’s Myanmar policy, India-Myanmar relations have gone through three phases since Myanmar independence: criticism and opposition from 1988 to 1992, normalizing relations from 1993 to 2000, and comprehensive cooperation since 2000. Even so, there are differences between China and India in their attitudes toward Aung San Suu Kyi and Western countries’ sanctions. After the outbreak of the Saffron Revolt in September 2007, the Indian government proposed that UN Security Council sanctions should be the last resort. Meanwhile, Indian foreign minister Pronab Mukherjee suggested to Myanmar foreign minister Nyan Win that the Myanmar government should “consider [investigating] the case of the demonstration and use of force that happened recently.” He also expressed the hope that “the national reconciliation and political reform launched by the Myanmar government could move forward.”27 India wants to join the international community, but it does not want to offend the Myanmar military government. During the Saffron Revolt, the Chinese government hoped that Myanmar’s military government could show self-restraint, properly handle the problem, avoid further complicating the situation, and not affect adversely the stability of Myanmar or regional peace and stability. After Myanmar’s military regime cracked down on the Saffron Revolt, the government of China supported the UN Security Council statement condemning the military regime’s violent behavior. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao also exchanged views on this problem with Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda and British prime minister Gordon Brown by telephone. Furthermore, the Chinese government actively urged the military regime to allow Ibrahim Gambari, the UN’s special envoy, to visit Myanmar. However, the Chinese government clearly opposed the sanctions against Myanmar. Although the economies of India and Myanmar are highly complementary, Myanmar’s trade with India has been smaller than its trade with Thailand, China, and Singapore. In 2008–09 bilateral India-Myanmar trade was $951 million, less than half the value of bilateral China-Myanmar trade. Yet India is Myanmar’s second-largest source of imports, with a value of $805
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million in 2008–09.28 Until January 2008 India’s cumulative investment in Myanmar was $220 million, less than one-sixth of China’s investment. Of the total Indian amount, $137 million was invested in oil and gas fields. Thus cooperation in economic matters is a stronger focus in Myanmar’s relations with China than in those with India, but political and strategic factors are more significant in India-Myanmar cooperative relations.29
Results of China’s and India’s Myanmar Policies
China’s and India’s policies toward Myanmar in the twenty-first century are essentially the same. However, from the perspective of implementation, China still enjoys a privileged position in Myanmar’s foreign relations. The Myanmar government firmly supports the Chinese government on issues concerning China’s core interests such as Taiwan and Tibet, and the exchanges between China and Myanmar in the political and economic areas are broader and much deeper. According to British scholar Dr. Marie Lall, “With regard to the picture from Myanmar, the relationship with India is not perceived as straightforward. Whilst there is a general sense that Myanmar wants to balance out Chinese influence, India is recognized as being too slow and as not having an organized vision about its relationship with Myanmar.”30 Three main factors contribute to the differing influence of these two countries in Myanmar. First, China, unlike India, is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and can give Myanmar more support in international policy debates. Second, China’s economic strength is much greater than that of India. China’s investment, aid, and trade in Myanmar are all much higher than India’s. Third, China’s political system is fundamentally different from India’s. Its policy toward Myanmar is almost free of pressure from domestic political forces and therefore can have a higher coherence than India’s. The Indian government’s policy toward Myanmar is widely constrained by the parliament, opposition parties, and nongovernmental organizations. Moreover, different Indian ministries work separately from one another with different goals and visions. This is especially the case with the Ministry of External Affairs, the Ministry of Commerce, and the Ministry of Petroleum. Possibly this applies to the Ministry of Defense as well, although the evidence is less clear.31 Compared with China, Indian administrations do not seem to have a long-term (twenty years or longer) vision of relations with Myanmar. The horizon seems to be set by the next election. Thus India lost access to the gas from the offshore A-1 and A-3 blocks because of slower decisionmaking and less focus. China got the gas deal because it was quick to
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respond and was seen as reliable and because of China’s political support for Myanmar (expressed in its veto of the U.S.-sponsored UN Security Council resolution). In the security area, however, the depth and range of cooperation are greater between India and Myanmar than between China and Myanmar. For example, in the mid-1990s, India and Myanmar launched Operation Golden Bird to suppress the antigovernment rebels in the northeastern Indian states. Furthermore, cooperation between India’s and Myanmar’s security forces in counterinsurgency operations has grown dramatically since October 2004, when Senior General Than Shwe visited New Delhi. During that visit Than Shwe assured New Delhi that he would not allow his country to be used by anti-Indian militant groups.32 By contrast, Myanmar and China have not conducted any joint military operations since 1988. In addition, some of India’s military equipment sold to Myanmar is more advanced than China’s. The Indian government allows the sale of technology and advanced weapons to Myanmar and also the joint production of military equipment. India’s influence surpasses China’s in other areas as well. An agreement on water-land transportation was supposed to be signed between China and Myanmar during Chinese president Jiang Zemin’s visit to Myanmar in December 2001. It was withdrawn after Myanmar proposed additional harsh terms, reportedly in response to pressure from India. No other agreement between China and Myanmar that has reached the form of a prepared text has been withdrawn since September 1988. Finally, Myanmar has always supported India in its quest to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Although the policies that China and India now maintain toward Myanmar are almost the same, the international community expresses much greater dissatisfaction with China than with India. Western politicians and media constantly criticize China’s noninterference policy and suggest that China’s support is the root cause for the military regime’s long-term survival and the lack of progress in Myanmar’s democratic development. Even though these accusations cannot be substantiated, the pressure on China over the Myanmar issue is far greater than the pressure on India.
Challenges for China in Strengthening Relations with Myanmar
Although China’s Myanmar policy has contributed a lot to the consolidation and development of Sino-Myanmar relations since 1988, it has also faced
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numerous challenges. Relations between India and Myanmar have also faced challenges, but they are fewer in number and the difficulty not as great.
The Myanmar government distrusts foreign investors and believes that they have a hidden agenda to exploit its rich natural resources for their own selfish purposes. Such distrust is a result of Myanmar’s colonial past and its perception that developing countries are in a disadvantageous position in the existing international world order. At present, no Myanmar organization or individual can sign contracts related to resource exploitation with foreign companies without the permission of the military authorities. However, some county authorities in Yunnan province and some Chinese companies have signed natural resource exploitation agreements with ceasefire groups in the northern part of Myanmar. This phenomenon persists even though China’s central government forbids it. The disorderly exploitation of timber and minerals has led to ecological and environmental damage. In addition, Myanmar has a large trade deficit with China because of the relatively large gap in the productive capacity of the two countries.
Illegal immigration is becoming an increasingly important issue. Immigrants from both countries cross the border, but the number from China is presumably much larger. Chinese workers and illegal immigrants moving into Myanmar’s hinterland are posing a threat to the interests of local people. Moreover, many Chinese in Myanmar commit crimes. It is said that more than 80 percent of the criminal acts in Yangon are committed by Chinese. As a result, the people of Myanmar have an increasingly negative impression of Chinese people and Chinese-funded businesses.
China has urged Myanmar to do its best to curb the production of narcotics because of its serious negative impact on China. However, Myanmar points out that the chemical ingredients for making heroin, methamphetamines, and other kinds of drugs and related equipment come mainly from foreign countries, and most narcotics are consumed in foreign countries. Therefore Myanmar should not be the only country held accountable for the drug problem. The Myanmar military government is also concerned that development of substitute crops in the opium-producing areas would increase
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the income of the armed ethnic minorities, which is not conducive to the management and eventual unification of these areas.
Full trust has not been established between China and Myanmar despite twenty-one years of improvement in Sino-Myanmar relations. Seeing China’s rapid economic rise, the Myanmar government is eager to get more Chinese trade, investment, and aid. At the same time, the military regime is afraid that greater Chinese involvement will make Myanmar more dependent on China. In other words, the deeper political, economic, and security cooperation becomes, the more Myanmar officials worry about suffering badly from a change in China’s policy. Moreover, the Myanmar government is concerned that China might support the armed ethnic minorities in their struggle with the central government. Consequently, the military regime tends to adopt a policy of “equal-distance diplomacy” between ASEAN, India, and China.
Challenges for India in Strengthening Relations with Myanmar
Despite the change in India’s policy toward Myanmar since 1993, speeches are frequently made by nongovernmental organization leaders and government officials attacking the Myanmar government and supporting Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. Support is even given to anti-Myanmar government exiles in India. These activities pose the most serious challenge for India, which is unable to stop them, in seeking to strengthen its relationship with Myanmar. As noted earlier, following the change of leading parties in the last election, the Indian government has been unable to pursue a long-term strategy toward Myanmar. Whenever a new party comes into power, there is a risk that projects in Myanmar initiated by the previous government will not be continued. Whether the military stays in power or an elected government takes over, Myanmar needs substantial foreign investment, aid, and loans. Its hope lies with China, ASEAN, India, and even Western countries. Cooperation between India and Myanmar in the political, military, and strategy arenas could be adversely affected if India is unable to catch up with China and ASEAN member countries in cooperating with Myanmar in the economic arena. Although India has attached great importance to its relationship with Myanmar, it does not pay as much attention to Myanmar as China does. The two aspects mentioned above—the anti-Myanmar sentiment within
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the country and the lack of a long-term strategy—are the best examples of India’s lesser attention to Myanmar. Indian media and even officials accuse China of posing a great threat to India, and they often criticize Myanmar for being China’s “satellite.” Such remarks have hurt the Myanmar government and people. By contrast, the Chinese government and the Chinese media are sensitive to the cooperation between India and Myanmar, but their response is far less critical.
Trends in Myanmar’s Relations with China and India
The current trends in Sino-Myanmar relations and India-Myanmar relations can be analyzed from three perspectives. First, both China and India will continue their current friendly policies toward Myanmar and expand cooperation in many areas. Myanmar will remain an important object in the geopolitical and geoeconomic policies of China and India and in their competition as great powers in the world. Both China and India will continue to support Myanmar’s political reforms, led by the military, and accept the validity of its new constitution. They will support the general election in 2010 and accept the results. They will quickly recognize the new government and seek to develop closer relations with it. Second, Myanmar will maintain friendly relations with China and India but will not allow either of them to have a dominant influence. Myanmar is a country with strong nationalist sentiments. Its top leaders do not trust China and have little confidence in India. Like other Southeast Asian countries adopting a balance-of-power strategy, Myanmar will adhere to its traditional neutral position and continue to balance its relations with China, India, ASEAN, and the Western democracies. Some scholars argue that the current diplomatic strategy of Myanmar is a mixture of “balance of power” and “seeking security through cooperation.”33 As a country between two emerging world powers, however, Myanmar has no choice but to pursue a balance-of-power strategy. It will not completely turn to China or India unless one of them pushes Myanmar too far. It will not be possible for China or India to adopt policies that irritate Myanmar. At the same time, Myanmar may take advantage of China and India in order to gain more concessions from the other. From a long-term perspective, Myanmar’s strategic interest lies in developing its relations with India and ASEAN to balance China’s influence.34 The Singapore scholar Poon Kim Shee also agrees that Myanmar is now implementing an “anti-risk” strategy. To reduce economic dependence on China, it cooperates closely with India, consolidates relations with ASEAN, and
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encourages investment from Japan and other industrialized countries.35 If the influence of China or India becomes too strong, Myanmar may introduce other powers into its balance-of-power strategy, such as the United States or Russia. Thus there was strategic significance in Myanmar’s purchase of ten MIG-29 fighters from Russia in 2001. It is an example of Myanmar’s using Russia to counterbalance China and India.36 Third, the continuing competition over Myanmar will not lead to deterioration in Sino-India relations. While competition between China and India in Myanmar is inevitable over the long term, the “great game” predicted by some Western scholars will not materialize. Other more vital issues will set the tone of relations between these two powers, such as border and territorial disputes. Moreover, the two powers share a common interest in the stability and development of Myanmar. If the national interests and security of Myanmar were to be affected by the competition between China and India, Myanmar might choose ASEAN, Russia, Japan, and Western countries as its cooperation partner. Most Chinese scholars share the view that it is normal for Myanmar to strengthen its cooperation with India, ASEAN, and even the Western democracies because China alone cannot meet all of Myanmar’s development needs. They see India adjusting its policy toward Myanmar to increase its influence on Myanmar and reduce Myanmar’s reliance on China. The objective is to move Myanmar back to a position of strategic neutrality rather than to push China out of Myanmar. In short, competition exits between China and India in their relations with Myanmar. However, there could be cooperation between the two countries if a point is reached where competition is threatening other vital national interests.
China and India have made great efforts to develop their relations with Myanmar as a consequence of Myanmar’s strategic importance. The different results achieved reflect differences in their policies and political systems. Looking ahead, China and India will continue to compete for access and influence over the long term despite the numerous challenges they face. China may continue to enjoy a privileged position in Myanmar’s foreign relations, but India’s influence may surpass China’s on some specific issues. Most likely, the Myanmar government will maintain friendly relations with both countries at the same time in order to maximize the benefits from this competition.
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1. Some Taiwan scholars believe that the ultimate objective of China’s policy toward Myanmar is to gain access to the Indian Ocean, using Myanmar as a land bridge to Southeast Asia and South Asia and a buffer state. See Yuh-Ming Tsai, “Breakout: China Foreign Policy toward Myanmar,” Feng Chia Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, no. 8 (May 2004): 302–25. 2. Wai Moe, “China Signs Burmese Gas Deal for 30-Year Supply,” December 26, 2008 (www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=14849). 3. Wu Hongying, “CPPCC Thematic Consultations for the Proposal of Building the Indian Ocean Channel,” 21st-Century Business Herald, March 10, 2009 (www1.21cbh.com/HTML/2009-3-10/HTML_SKBAI7DM7BKJ.html). 4. In the past, the total length of the Myanmar-China border has been estimated to be 2,185 kilometers. Currently, Myanmar government estimates place it at 2,204 kilometers. See Myanmar Embassy, “Basic Facts about Myanmar” (www.myanmarembassy-tokyo.net/about.htm). 5. For 2008, see http://blog.ce.cn/html/81/329481-228751.html; for 2009 and projected 2020, see www.okokok.com.cn/intelli/Class9/200502/73420.html. 6. The threat is primarily from terrorist attacks, pirate attacks, ship collisions, oil leaks, navigation capacity limitation, channel congestion, and other nontraditional security factors. A few years ago, Chinese scholars posited a “Malacca dilemma,” based on an assumption of war between China and the United States. Under this scenario, once armed conflict broke out the American navy could launch an attack on China’s oil tankers anywhere in the world, not only in the Straits of Malacca. The Malacca dilemma is a pseudo-proposition; to the extent that this concept remains relevant, it can be based only on nontraditional security issues. 7. “China Has the Advantage over the Scrambling for the Natural Gas of Myanmar” [Zhengduo miandian tiranqi, zhongguo zhanshangfeng], Lianhezaobao [United Morning News, Singapore], March 15, 2007 (www.zaobao.com/finance/ pages/comment070315.html [July 2010]). 8. Poon Kim Shee, “The Political Economy of China-Myanmar Relations: Strategic and Economic Dimensions,” Ritsumeikan Annual Review of International Studies 1 (2002): 33 –53, 35. 9. Liu Xing, Retrospect and Reflection on Sino-Myanmar Land-and-Water Coordinated Transport Construction (Mangshi, China: Dehong Minority Press, 2007), p. 114. 10. Ma Ying, “The India-Southeast Asia Relation in the 1990s,” Contemporary Asia-Pacific, no. 2 (2002): 47–52, 49. 11. Shee, “The Political Economy of China-Myanmar Relations,” p. 40. 12. Ashok Bhattacharjee, “India’s Natural Gas Project Will Contribute to Strengthen Regional Ties,” Asian Wall Street Journal, Hong Kong ed., January 25, 2005. 13. Helen James, “Myanmar’s International Relations Strategy: The Search for Security,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 26, no. 3 (2004): 530–53, 536–37.
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14. Quoted in Andrew Selth, “Burma and the Strategic Competition between China and India,” Journal of Strategic Studies 19, no. 2 (1996): 213–30, 213. 15. Li Jiaxiang and others, “Analysis of the China Factor in India’s Look East Policy,” Around Southeast Asia, no. 3 (2003): 66–68, 66. 16. Tony Allison, “Myanmar Shows India the Road to Southeast Asia,” Asia Times, February 21, 2001 (www.atimes.com/report/CB21Ai01.html). 17. Fu Xiaoqiang, “India Intends to Get Out of South Asia,” Global Times, September 7, 2001. 18. J. Mohan Malik, “Myanmar’s Role in Regional Security: Pawn or Pivot?” Contemporary Southeast Asia 19, no. 1 (1997): 52–73, 57. 19. “Myanmar to Hold National Referendum in May and General Election in 2010,” People’s Daily, February 10, 2008. 20. Yu Jiang and Wang Chaozuo, “Dui zhongmian bianjing guanlizhong yumiandian minzu defang wuzhuang shili kaizhan jingwu hezuo de sikao”[Reflections on policy cooperation with Myanmar local minority armed forces in Sino-Myanmar border management], Journal of Yunnan Public Security College, no. 1 (2001): 67–71, 67–68. 21. See www1.voanews.com/chinese/news/ChinaTightensEconomic-2009122179848027.html. 22. Statement by Ambassador Wang Guangya to the UN Security Council, New York, November 13, 2007 (www.china-un.org/eng/lhghyywj/ldhy/ld62/t380811. htm). 23. Qian Feng, “Yinmian hezuo, gequ suoxu” [India and Myanmar get what they need through cooperation], November 1, 2004 (http://news.xinhuanet.com/world/ 2004-11/01/content_2162360.htm). 24. High-level visits between China and Myanmar are also frequent. See Li Chenyang, “China-Myanmar Relations since 1988,” in Harmony and Development: ASEAN-China Relations, ed. Lai Hongyi and Lim Tin Seng, pp. 49–64 (Singapore: World Scientific, 2007), p. 50. 25. “Minister of Commerce and Industry of India visited Myanmar; India and Myanmar signed several cooperation agreements” (http://mm.mofcom.gov.cn/ aarticle/jmxw/200806/20080605635749.html [July 2010]). 26. See www.atchinese.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id= 44813&catid=189%3A2009-03-19-06-15-48&Itemid=110. 27. See http://blog.163.com/zijire@126/blog/static/36066503200798959544/. 28. See http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-08/27/content_11954504.htm. 29. Kyaw Yin Hlaing, Robert H. Taylor, and Tin Maung Maung Than, eds., Myanmar: Beyond Politics to Societal Imperatives (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005), p. 39. 30. Marie Lall, “India-Myanmar Relations: Geopolitics and Energy in Light of the New Balance of Power in Asia,” Working Paper 29 (Singapore: National University of Singapore, Institute of South Asian Studies, January 2009), p. 29.
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31. Ibid., p. 2. 32. “Indian Troops Poised to Enter Myanmar for Joint Operations,” India Defence, July 21, 2005 (www.india-defence.com/reports/47). 33. James, “Myanmar’s International Relations Strategy,” p. 549. 34. Malik, “Myanmar’s Role in Regional Security,” p. 63. 35. Shee, “The Political Economy of China-Myanmar Relations,” p. 39. 36. Ibid., p. 36.
A Strategic Perspective on India-Myanmar Relations
ndia and Myanmar were historically part of the extended British Empire in Asia. Since the two countries became independent at the end of World War II, relations between them have by and large been friendly. At the outset Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and U Nu worked closely with each other in the area of economic development. India even provided some military assistance to Myanmar, and both were active members of the NonAligned Movement. However, relations between the two became strained in 1962. India strongly opposed the imposition of military dictatorship in Myanmar by General Ne Win and supported the prodemocracy forces. The Ne Win regime adopted an anti-Soviet stance at a time when relations between India and the Soviet Union were burgeoning, refused to join the Commonwealth of Nations, and withdrew from the Non-Aligned Movement in 1979. Relations between India and Myanmar did improve from 1988 onward, however, although some tensions remained. India continued to sympathize with prodemocracy groups and awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding to Aung San Suu Kyi in 1993, by which time she had already become persona non grata to the Myanmar government. The isolationist strategy adopted by the State Law and Order Restoration Council further hampered the renewal of full relations between the two countries. After 1993, however, India’s policy toward Myanmar was reviewed and India adopted a more pragmatic and less moralistic stance. This purposeful shift
The author wishes to thank Samarjit Ghosh, associate fellow, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi, for additional research.
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from an idealistic foreign policy to one that was firmly anchored in realpolitik has been the driving force behind the improvement of relations between the two countries. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s focus on the Southeast Asian nations reflected India’s growing interest in its regional neighborhood. Former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran explains India’s quest to reach out to its Asian neighbors in these words: Proximity is the most difficult and testing among [the] diplomatic challenges a country faces. We have, therefore, committed ourselves to giving the highest priority to closer political, economic and other ties with our neighbors in South Asia. . . . Geography imparts a unique position to India in the geo-politics of the Asian continent, with our footprint reaching well beyond South Asia and our interests straddling across different sub-categories of Asia—be it East Asia, West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia or South-East Asia.1 India’s Look East policy was targeted at opening markets in Southeast Asia, and cooperation with Myanmar was important for its implementation. That Bangladesh was a recalcitrant partner in this endeavor further highlighted the importance of Myanmar. Without this shift in policy, the growth of several of India’s northeastern states would have been hindered by the attendant risk of fueling ongoing insurgencies.2 India’s interest in Myanmar and the Look East policy also reflect growing international interest in Asia as an engine of economic growth in the twenty-first century. Myanmar supports India’s quest for a place in the sun and is comfortable with India’s increasing engagement with its immediate and extended neighborhood. 3 For the Myanmar government, the additional purpose of addressing problems in the northeastern states comes as a welcome part of the deal. Moreover, India’s move to engage Myanmar closely reflects its growing concern over Myanmar’s jettisoning its policy of neutrality toward India and China and gradually tilting toward China.4 A number of external and internal factors point to Myanmar’s strategic importance for India: —Myanmar is located at the junction of East, South, and Southeast Asia and functions as a land bridge to Southeast and East Asia. For the government of Myanmar, a policy of engagement with India not only helps balance its excessive dependence on China but also helps to boost its “international image and legitimacy.”5 —Myanmar is the second-largest of India’s neighbors and the largest on its eastern flank. The two countries share a land border of 1,640 kilometers,
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almost all of it unfenced, along which India’s Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram states border Myanmar’s Kachin, Sagain, and Chin states.6 Multiple insurgent groups operate in the northeastern states of India, and they are known to operate from bases in Myanmar. Such groups can be successfully tackled only on a bilateral basis. —Myanmar is a key player in the Bay of Bengal littoral region and shares a maritime boundary with India. Given the increasing significance that India now ascribes to its own centrality in the northern Indian Ocean region, Myanmar now shares in that importance. An unfriendly Myanmar could host a rival naval presence in the Bay of Bengal and complicate Indian security. —Myanmar shares a 2,185-kilometer border with China, which is located next to the disputed section of the India-China border. —Myanmar is said to have the tenth-largest gas reserves in the world, estimated at 90 trillion cubic feet.7 It is in India’s interest to gain from its proximity in the use of these resources. India can provide help by way of investment and technology for exploration as well as production.
A Memorandum of Understanding on Peace and Tranquility in Border Areas was signed by India and Myanmar in January 1994. This document commits both countries to hold talks at the joint secretary and home secretary levels every year, alternately in each country. Thus far, fifteen meetings at the joint secretary level and fourteen at the home secretary level have been held.8 Relations have been further cemented through regular high-level visits, notably Senior General Maung Aye’s inaugural visit in January 2000 and, most recently, his visit in April 2008. The current chair of the State Peace and Development Council, Senior General Than Shwe, visited India in October 2004. This was the first visit to India by a Myanmar head of state in twentyfive years. From the Indian side, Vice President Shekhawat visited Myanmar in November 2003; and President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam’s visit in March 2006 was the first visit by an Indian head of state to Myanmar since Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister in 1987. More recently, Vice President Hamid Ansari visited Yangon in February 2009. The foreign ministers of Myanmar and India have met frequently throughout the last decade. During these visits, several memorandums of understanding and agreements have been signed.9 The key ones are listed in box 8-1.
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Box 8-1. Key Memorandums of Understanding and Agreements between India and Myanmar
2003 Protocol on Consultations between India’s Ministry of External Affairs and Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Establishment of the Joint Trade Committee Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in Communications, Information Technology, and Services between India’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technology and Myanmar’s Ministry of Communication, Posts, and Telegraph Agreement on the Extension of a Credit Line of U.S. $25 Million to Myanmar Agreement on Visa Exemptions for Official and Diplomatic Passport Holders Memorandum of Understanding between India’s Human Resource Development Ministry and Myanmar’s Education Ministry 2004 Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Field of Nontraditional Security Issues (Counterterrorism) Memorandum of Understanding on the Thamanthi Hydroelectric Power Project on the Chindwin River 2005 Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Hydrocarbon Sector 2006 Framework Agreement for Mutual Cooperation in the Field of Remote Sensing Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Petroleum Sector between India’s Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas and Myanmar’s Ministry of Energy 2007 Memorandum of Understanding on Establishing the India-Myanmar Centre for Enhancement of Information Technology Skills at Yangon 2008 Agreement and Two Protocols for the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project Bilateral Investment Promotion Agreement Memorandum of Understanding between India’s National Hydroelectric Power Corporation and Myanmar’s Hydroelectric Power Department for Building the 1,200-Megawatt Thamanthi Hydroelectric Power Project and the 600-Megawatt Shwezaye Project in the Northwestern Chin State of Myanmar
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Bilateral trade between the two countries grew from $273 million in 1980–81 to $995 million in 2007–08.10 India is today the fourth-largest trading partner of Myanmar, after Thailand, Singapore, and China, and the second- largest export market for Myanmar after Thailand, absorbing approximately 25 percent of its exports.11 Whereas the goods imported by India from Myanmar are predominantly agricultural and forest-based products, the exports from India are mainly steel and pharmaceutical products, and the balance is generally in favor of Myanmar. The Border Trade Agreement signed in 1994 specified points for crossborder trade. These have yet to be made fully operational, however. When they become so, the agreement will help enormously in curbing illegal trade and monitoring the movements of insurgents in the border areas between the two countries. The existing border trade points at Moreh and Zowkhathar in India and Tamu and Rhi in Myanmar were recently converted into normal trade links. Avankhu in the state of Nagaland is being developed as a third border trade point.12 Bilateral trade has been declining somewhat because of the greater popularity of products imported from China and other countries. Intimidation by insurgent groups in the border regions has also hampered trade, even though the free movement across the border of the tribal people inhabiting the border areas in both countries, who share ethnic links with their counterparts, has been regulated by a memorandum of understanding signed in 2004.13 The local populations are also unhappy because they are not benefiting much from the trade.14
Oil and Gas
India has been given the right to build, operate, and use an offshore hub for Myanmar gas. The link is to be established between Mizoram in India and Sittwe in Myanmar, and completion of the project is expected within five years. In this way, the landlocked northeastern states will get direct access to international trade and bilateral trade will be boosted. India lost out to China in purchasing Myanmar’s offshore gas resources in Rakhine state.15 The initial pipeline project, which was envisaged in collaboration with Bangladesh, had to be discarded because of unreasonable demands on the part of Bangladesh.16 An alternate proposal to build a pipeline from Myanmar through the northeastern states to West Bengal was deemed economically unfeasible and was shelved in July 2009.17
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India still hopes to tap Myanmar’s bountiful energy resources in the future. This objective can be achieved only through astute diplomacy and friendly relations with the military regime. The latest proposal on the table is to transport gas through a 1,575-kilometer Sittwe-Aizwal-Silchar-Guwahati-Siliguri-Gaya pipeline. In the interim before the pipeline is constructed, India has offered to transport the gas by ship as liquefied natural gas. The Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and the Gas Authority of India Limited hold a 30 percent stake in the exploration of and production from the offshore natural gas fields near Sittwe.18
India completed the 160-kilometer India-Myanmar Friendship Road in 2001 and is currently involved in the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway project.19 The Ministry of Commerce is developing Sittwe port and the open sea route connecting to Mizoram state in northeastern India.20 India has also signed agreements with Myanmar for the construction of the Thathay Chaung hydropower project in Rakhine state,21 joint ventures in the Chindwin river basin that include a 1,200-megawatt hydropower dam at Thamanthi, and a 600-megawatt hydropower dam at Shwezaye. Both dams will be financed by India, and the electricity they produce will be supplied to Manipur state in India.22 At a time when energy security is a paramount concern for all developing nations, New Delhi is working with Yangon toward a hydropower development program that will ensure the supply of power to India while simultaneously developing hydropower resources in neighboring countries.23 India and Myanmar are also working on the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Facility, which, apart from connecting the two countries, will lead to better connectivity across the India-Myanmar border and within India’s northeastern states. The project is designed to connect Indian ports on the eastern seaboard with Sittwe port in Myanmar through roads and riverways.24 Apart from infrastructure projects, India has been consistently providing development aid to Myanmar, totaling more than 100 crore rupees ($20 million) over the past ten years.25 Both countries participate in several multilateral forums, including the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation and the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation group. Myanmar is a full member and India is a summit-level member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). They are also partners in the Forum for Regional Economic Cooperation among Bangladesh,
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China, India and Myanmar (BCIM). In addition, India and Myanmar have signed on to the Trans-Asian Railway Project, which will connect twentyeight nations and allow India to enhance the pace of implementation of its Look East policy and consolidate its relations with Southeast Asia.26
Defense cooperation between India and Myanmar is based on mutual interests and national security considerations. It has been marked by regular exchanges of high-level visits and some bilateral military exercises. The Indian chief of army staff, General V. P. Malik, met with his Myanmar counterpart, Senior General Maung Aye, in Yangon and Shillong in 2000.27 Since then, visits by top officials of all three military services have been a regular feature. Major visits include those by Vice Admiral Soe Thane, commanderin-chief of the Myanmar navy, in April 2007, and Admiral Sureesh Mehta, the chief of naval staff for the Indian navy, in May 2007.28 General Deepak Kapoor, the former chief of army staff, visited Myanmar in October 2009, as did his predecessor, General J. J. Singh, in November 2005. Beginning in 2004, Myanmar, along with other nations in the Asia-Pacific region, has participated in the annual multilateral “Milan” naval exercises and interactions in the Indian Ocean.29 Cooperation in the field of counterinsurgency operations overrides other factors in determining the contours of India’s strategic engagement with Myanmar. The insurgents operating in the northeastern Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram have ethnic links with the tribal people on the Myanmar side of the border. Acts of terrorism initiated by these groups, who claim to represent the tribal people on both sides of the border, have been on the rise since the 1990s, necessitating good relations between the militaries of the two countries. Incidents of drug trafficking and narcoterrorism in the northeastern states have also been increasing. To minimize the potentially dangerous manifestations of drug abuse, India needs to play a proactive role as a balancer and a stabilizer and must ensure that its concentration on traditional security does not divert attention to nontraditional security challenges. India must work with neighboring countries to create both regional and subregional institutions to address these challenges. There is an increasing realization on the part of New Delhi that the insurgent groups cannot be dealt with by military means alone. Joint counterinsurgency operations have been conducted for quite some time. In April–May 1995 the Indian and Myanmar armies conducted a
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successful joint military operation, codenamed Operation Golden Bird, against northeastern insurgent groups including the United Liberation Front of Assam, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, and the People’s Liberation Army (Manipur).30 Forty insurgents were killed and a huge cache of arms was recovered. In November 2001 the Myanmar army raided several Manipuri rebel bases, rounded up almost 200 rebels, and recovered 1,500 guns. Senior General Than Shwe, during his visit in 2004, had assured India of action against insurgents operating from Myanmar, and the Tatmadaw conducted additional operations against them in 2005 and 2006.31 The Tatmadaw launched another military offensive against insurgent groups in 2007.32 In 2008 a Memorandum of Understanding on Intelligence Exchange Cooperation was signed that enables both countries to exchange real-time “actionable” intelligence to deal effectively with insurgents in the border region.33 India has offered, and Myanmar accepted, battlefield training as well as uniforms for Myanmar’s armed forces. India also leased a helicopter squadron to the Myanmar military and offered to help maintain its existing Russian military equipment. Since 2003, joint naval maneuvers and a number of port calls have been conducted.34 Armed forces officers from Myanmar in various ranks have received training from the Indian military in various sites over the years.35 India’s Assam Rifles paramilitary force has the dual role of maintaining internal security in the northeastern states and guarding the Indo-Myanmar border.36 The Indo-Tibetan Border Police also covers the Myanmar border region as part of its duties.37 Both these paramilitary and police forces work in close cooperation with Myanmar counterparts. India has supplied military hardware to Myanmar but has limited its transfers mainly to small arms. Myanmar’s quartermaster general, Lieutenant General Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo, a member of the State Peace and Development Council, visited India in April 2007 and presented a shopping list for military hardware to the chief of army staff.38 Lieutenant General Tin wanted infantry weapons and ammunition in return for providing help in flushing out Indian insurgents. Small arms like assault rifles, light machine guns, and side arms figured prominently on the Myanmar list. India has extended immense help to Myanmar during natural disasters and has usually been the first to deliver humanitarian relief. In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, India launched Operation Sahayata (Operation Help). Two Indian navy ships and two Indian air force aircraft were dispatched to aid the cyclone-impacted people of Myanmar.39 A large quantity of aid was provided in the form of medical supplies and emergency rations.
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The China Factor
China has been consistently raising its profile in Southeast Asia, including Myanmar. It has provided substantial economic, military, and political support to Myanmar despite the sanctions imposed by the West. Consequently, India recognizes that it risks being left behind in economic and trade relations with Myanmar, especially with respect to the oil and natural gas resources that have been discovered and are urgently needed, if it does not engage politically with Myanmar. It is in India’s interest to counterbalance China’s growing influence in Myanmar. China is a major supplier of military hardware to Myanmar. It has provided jet fighters, armored vehicles, and naval vessels valued at close to US$2 billion, using a barter system, as Myanmar has insufficient foreign exchange resources to pay for these arms. China has also helped the Myanmar authorities to modernize their naval bases at Hanggyi, the Coco Islands, Akyab, and Mergui. Thanks primarily to China’s contribution, the Myanmar army is the second largest in Southeast Asia, after Vietnam's. It has expanded from 180,000 to 450,000 personnel in just a few years.40 China has also built an all-weather road from Kunming in southern China to Mandalay in central Myanmar. Trade between the two has increased by multiples, so much so that China is now Myanmar’s third-largest trading partner (after Thailand and Singapore).41 Plans have also been formalized for the transportation of oil and gas through a 1,100-kilometer pipeline from Kyaukphyu port in Myanmar to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province.42 After the completion and activation of this pipeline, China’s dependence on the Malacca Straits will be reduced considerably. From the Indian perspective, China has gained significant strategic space in the Indian Ocean region through its close engagement with Myanmar. There is a lingering belief in India that China will use the opportunity created by the modernization of naval bases and ports to conduct surveillance on Indian maritime activities and naval bases in the Bay of Bengal.43 From the Chinese perspective, Myanmar’s importance cannot be disputed, as close relations with Myanmar give China access by land to the Indian Ocean, allowing it to bypass the South China Sea and the Malacca Straits.44 Myanmar has assured India that it is not leasing any bases to China and has no intention to do so in the future. However, there are persistent reports that it has already leased the Coco Islands to the Chinese government, which has established a maritime reconnaissance and electronic intelligence station there.45 China has made no secret of the fact that it would like to keep
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Myanmar closely engaged by means of military and economic ”cooperation.” Such engagement is a natural outcome of its strategy to keep India off balance and prevent its rise as a competing regional power. In the String of Pearls encirclement strategy that is part and parcel of China’s foreign policy toward India, Myanmar is a key pearl. Although the military junta in Myanmar is domestically strong, it has been unable to stand up to the overwhelming influence of China and is only now realizing the full ramifications of its dependence on China. India views the renewed and steady interest of Myanmar in cooperating with India as an attempt to balance Chinese influence.46
The Nuclear Dimension
Recent reports have indicated that Myanmar has nuclear ambitions—like North Korea, another totalitarian regime. The source of these reports has been the testimony of two defectors whose identities are not known but whose knowledge of the internal workings of the Myanmar government lends considerable credence to their views. (However, the views of these two defectors have not been independently corroborated.) According to the defectors, codenamed Moe Jo and Tin Min, although Myanmar’s interest in a nuclear energy program has been made public, the government has kept secret its plans to build an underground complex below Naung Laing mountain in northern Myanmar with possible North Korean help. This site is close to the civilian research reactor being assembled by Russia.47 Photographs taken of the complex between 2003 and 2006 are reported to show more than 800 tunnels.48 North Korea is suspected of having passed nuclear technology to Myanmar. As the greatest proliferator in the region in the past, China too has come under suspicion for indirectly encouraging the North Koreans. While relations between Myanmar and North Korea were disrupted after an attempt by alleged North Korean agents to assassinate South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan in 1983 during a visit to Myanmar, they were reestablished in 2007.49 North Korea was reeling from the effects of a famine in the late 1990s, while Myanmar was expanding its military arsenal, and thus they were able to help each other out. North Korean ships have been sighted calling at Yangon, a port popular for unloading military cargo, and the tunnels in question are said to have been dug with North Korean assistance. In other words, considerable circumstantial evidence points to Myanmar’s nuclear aspirations. However, knowledgeable commentators have stated that while the international community must maintain a close watch on such
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proceedings, reports to the effect that Myanmar is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons remain unsubstantiated.50 Myanmar is a signatory not only to the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty but also to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, and the 1972 Seabed Test Ban Treaty. The government in Myanmar has adhered to all of these treaties at least since 1988.51 The reactor supplied by Russia is covered by a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, Myanmar has yet to comply with the “additional protocol” imposed on it, which would allow the agency to carry out surprise inspections of Myanmar’s nuclear facilities.52 The situation calls for the international community to be on the lookout. Should evidence merit further action, all measures necessary must be adopted to prevent the rise of another state with nuclear weapons in the region. A sobering lesson in this regard can be found in the rumors about North Korean collusion with Myanmar. If there is any truth in these rumors, it is at least in part a result of the common situation the two nations find themselves in: ostracized by the international community and subject to economic sanctions imposed by the West.
The Indian government supports national reconciliation and a gradual return to democracy in Myanmar even as it balances its concerns for human rights violations with its strategic interests. In the words of an Indian Ministry of Defense report, “Myanmar’s adoption of a new Constitution, following a referendum in May 2008, paves the way for elections in 2010. India desires a stable Myanmar with an inclusive and broad based national reconciliation process, including [engagement with] ethnic groups.”53 However, there are many vociferous critics of the Indian government’s Myanmar policy. According to one prominent Indian scholar, “India’s stand on the Myanmar question is neither spontaneous, nor ethically grounded, nor even driven by an internal process of policy deliberation. It is impelled largely by international pressure, spearheaded by the United States. This does not speak of a proactive approach worthy of an emerging power with an independent foreign policy orientation.”54 There is dissatisfaction in India over Myanmar’s treatment of the minority Indian population in the country. The Indian population in Myanmar is considered an alien minority, despite its origins in migration that occurred during colonial rule in the late 1800s. Attitudes toward the Indian population have traditionally ranged from considering them a backward and
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impoverished community to hatred for the moneylenders who became influential landlords.55 Myanmar’s citizenship laws deny Indians their rightful claim to a position in society and to compensation for property seized from them under land reforms programs.56 Despite the growing tide of disenchantment among the Indian diaspora from Myanmar, the Indian government has shown little interest in intervening on their behalf with the Myanmar junta.57 The Indian government has had to face its share of brickbats for maintaining the status quo in its relations with Myanmar. It maintained public silence after the verdict in Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial was announced in July 2009 sentencing her to three years imprisonment (later commuted to eighteen months of house arrest). The Indian government’s position was maintained despite the fact that several members of ASEAN, though generally disposed to remaining silent on any issues concerning Myanmar, called on the regime to release Suu Kyi and to hold free and fair elections.58 Even China endorsed UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon’s request to meet both the military regime and Aung San Suu Kyi in July 2009, although the military regime rejected the request. Nevertheless, like other democratically ally elected governments, the Indian government would like to see an early return to democratic rule in Myanmar and a substantial improvement in governance. The economic sanctions imposed by the Western democracies have not deterred the military regime. It appears from recent developments that there is a growing realization on the part of the sanctioning authorities that it would be better to use a mix of policy tools in which sanctions may remain but a process of dialogue with the people and the military regime is initiated.59 The United States government should consider encouraging the member nations of ASEAN to promote better governance in Myanmar rather than punishing both Myanmar and its ASEAN partners for Myanmar’s continuing membership in the ASEAN community. Sanctions have always been a blunt policy instrument. A sanctions regime does little but limit the ability of both parties involved to work amicably within the international community to bring about constructive reform. Incremental adjustments in policy must be made from time to time. If given some encouragement, the military regime may be amenable to winding down some of the harsh practices it has used. India has recently realized that a foreign policy based solely on occupying the moral high ground on every international issue—like the policy it followed during the early decades after its independence—is not a sustainable one now and that economic and strategic objectives must sometimes override other objectives. Hence although the Indian government supports democracy as
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a system of government in principle, it does not interfere in the internal affairs of other sovereign nations. While New Delhi is interested in seeing the political situation in Myanmar normalize, Myanmar is keen to keep its ties with New Delhi on an even keel to further consolidate its policy of regional engagement, reduce its growing dependence on China, and counter pressure from the West in the form of sanctions. India’s long-term strategic interests may well be better served by a democratic regime in Myanmar. However, the Indian government must maintain a pragmatic foreign policy and help build democratic institutions in Myanmar in ways that do not embarrass the military junta. Constructive engagement through official and diplomatic channels—not confrontation—is the key to weaning the military regime away from totalitarian measures. The strategic and security interests of India justifiably outweigh the domestic concerns within India favoring Myanmar’s return to democracy. The solution lies not in attempting to export democracy to Myanmar but in trying to nudge the ruling military regime toward democracy through regional engagement involving all stakeholders.
1. Shyam Saran, “Present Dimensions of Indian Foreign Policy,” in Indian Foreign Policy: Challenges and Opportunities, ed. Atish Sinha and Madhup Mohta (New Delhi: Academic Foundation, 2003), p. 115. 2. See R. Hariharan, “Myanmar: Wishing Away Suu Kyi,” South Asia Analysis Group, Working Paper 2598, February 22, 2008 (www.southasiaanalysis.org/ papers26/paper2598.html); and Anand Kumar, “India-Myanmar Gas Pipeline: With or Without Bangladesh?” South Asia Analysis Group, Working Paper 1474, July 26, 2005 (www.southasiaanalysis.org//papers15/paper1474.html). 3. Relations between the two were further strengthened when Myanmar expressed its support for India’s bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. See “India-Myanmar Joint Statement 2004,” The New Light of Myanmar, October 30, 2004 (www.myanmar.gov.mm/NLM-2004/Oct04/enlm/Oct30_h8.html). 4. “The main reason for India’s shift was the growing concern and uneasiness over Myanmar’s abandonment of its traditional ‘strategic neutrality’ policy and strategic tilt toward China.” Poon Kim Shee, “The Political Economy of China- Myanmar Relations: Strategic and Economic Dimensions,” Ritsumeikan Annual Review of International Studies 1 (2002): 33–53. 5. Jürgen Haacke, Myanmar’s Foreign Policy: Domestic Influences and International Implications (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 37. 6. Zhao Hong, “India and China: Rivals or Partners in Southeast Asia?” Contemporary Southeast Asia 29, no. 1 (2007): 121–43.
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7. Sudha Ramachandran, “China Secures Myanmar Energy Route,” Asia Times, April 3, 2009 (www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/KD03Df03.html). 8. “International Cooperation,” in Annual Report 2008–2009: Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India (New Delhi, 2009), p. 112. 9. See Annual Reports: Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (New Delhi, 1999 through 2008). 10. “India and ASEAN,” India Brand Equity Foundation, June 2009 (www.ibef. org/artdispview.aspx?in=31&art_id=23397&cat_id=400&page=2”). 11. K. Yhome, “India-Myanmar Relations (1998–2008): A Decade of Redefining Bilateral Ties,” Occasional Paper 10 (New Delhi: Observer Research Foundation, January 2009). 12. “India, Burma Agree to Expand Border Trade,” Mizzima, October 17, 2008 (www.mizzima.com/component/content/article/1149-india-burma-agree-toexpand-border-trade.html). 13. “International Cooperation,” in Annual Report 2003–2004: Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India (New Delhi, 2004), p. 46. 14. C. S. Kuppuswamy, “Indo-Myanmar Relations: A Review,” South Asia Analysis Group, Working Paper 2043, November 30, 2006 (www.southasiaanalysis. org/%5Cpapers21%5Cpaper2043.html). 15. C. S. Kuppuswamy, “Indo-Myanmar Relations: Visit of Senior General Maung Aye,” South Asia Analysis Group, Working Paper 2664, April 9, 2008 (www.southasia analysis.org/papers27/paper2664.html). 16. Kumar, “India-Myanmar Gas Pipeline.” 17. Sinderpal Singh, “‘Silence Is Golden’: India’s Current Position on Myanmar,” Brief 124 (Singapore: Institute of South Asian Studies, August 2009). 18. “GAIL Buys 30 pc Stake in Myanmar Oil, Gas Block,” Hindu Business Line, December 9, 2006. 19. “Indo-Thai-Myanmar Highway,” Times of India, December 24, 2003. 20. Kuppuswamy, “Indo-Myanmar Relations: Visit of Senior General Maung Aye.” 21. “India’s Neighbours,” in Annual Report 2007–2008: Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (New Delhi, 2008), p. 10. 22. William Boot, “India to Receive All Electricity from Two Hydropower Projects,” Irrawaddy, September 19, 2008. 23. Anil Sasi, “Power Import Policy on Cards to Boost Hydel Inflows,” Hindu Business Line, August 25, 2008. 24. “India, Myanmar Ink Kaladan Multi-modal Transport Pact,” Indian Express, April 3, 2008. 25. See Annual Reports: Ministry of External Affairs. 26. Sandeep Joshi, “India Signs Accord on Trans-Asian Railway Network,” The Hindu, July 1, 2007. 27. “Army Chief in Myanmar for Talks,” Tribune (Chandigarh, India), January 6, 2000.
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28. Yhome, “India-Myanmar Relations (1998–2008).” 29. See Annual Reports: Ministry of Defence, Government of India (New Delhi, 2004–08). 30. Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung and Maung Aung Myoe, “Myanmar in 2007: A Turning Point in the ’Roadmap,’” Asian Survey 48, no. 1 (2008). 31. See Annual Reports, Ministry of Defence, Government of India (New Delhi, 2004–06). 32. “Myanmar Launches Operation to Flush Out NE Rebels,” Zee News, November 16, 2007 (www.nagalim.nl/news/00000802.htm). 33. “International Cooperation,” in Annual Report 2008–2009.” 34. “Indian Navy,” in Annual Report 2003–2004: Ministry of Defence, Government of India (New Delhi, 2004). 35. Annual Reports, Ministry of Defence, Government of India (New Delhi, 2004–06). 36. “International Cooperation,” in Annual Report 2003-04, p. 46. 37. “Police Forces,” in Annual Report 2003–2004: Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India (New Delhi, 2004), p. 92. 38. “Top Myanmar Gen in Delhi with Military Shopping List,” Indian Express, April 24, 2007 (www.indianexpress.com/news/top-myanmar-gen-in-delhi-withmilitary-shopp/29186/). 39. “India’s Neighbours,” in Annual Report 2008–2009: Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (New Delhi, 2009), p. 9. 40. Sudha Ramachandran, “Yangon Still under Beijing’s Thumb,” Asia Times, February 11, 2005 (www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/GB11Ae01.html). 41. Kuppuswamy, “Indo-Myanmar Relations: Visit of Senior General Maung Aye.” 42. Jyoti Malhotra, “Myanmar Pipelines Confirm China’s Place in Bay of Bengal,” Business Standard, June 29, 2009. 43. See Binoda Kumar Mishra, “Security Implications of Greater India- Myanmar Interaction,” Indian Foreign Affairs Journal 4, no. 2 (2009): 81–96; and Singh, “‘Silence Is Golden.’” 44. Thrassy N. Marketos, China’s Energy Geopolitics: The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and Central Asia (New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 108. 45. Sudha Ramachandran, “Myanmar Plays off India and China,” Asia Times, August 17, 2005 (www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/GH17Df01.html). 46. Mishra, “Security Implications of Greater India-Myanmar Interaction.” 47. See B. Raman, “Is Myanmar Acquiring Nuclear Weapons?” Rediff News, Aug ust 3, 2009 (http://news.rediff.com/column/2009/aug/03/guest-is-myanmaracquiring-nuclear-weapons.htm); and Denis D. Gray, “Is Myanmar Going Nuclear with North Korea’s Help?” ABC News, July 21, 2009 (http://abcnews.go.com/ International/WireStory?id=8132769&page=1). 48. R. S. N Singh, “Myanmar: Nuclear Programme and Its Implications,” Centre for Land Warfare Studies, Issue Brief 11, September 10, 2009 (http://claws.in/index. php?action=master&task=416&u_id=78).
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49. Raman, “Is Myanmar Acquiring Nuclear Weapons?” 50. David Mathieson, of Human Rights Watch, and Andrew Selth, of Griffith University, cited in Gray, “Is Myanmar Going Nuclear with North Korea’s Help?” 51. Naorem Bhagat Singh, “Myanmar and Nuclear Weapon Prospect: Is India Concerned?” Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, Article 176, September 21, 2009 (http://sspconline.org/article_details.asp?artid=art194). 52. Gray, “Is Myanmar Going Nuclear with North Korea’s Help?” 53. “The Security Environment,” in Annual Report 2008–2009, Ministry of Defence, Government of India (New Delhi, 2009), p. 8. 54. Praful Bidwai, “Failing the Foreign Policy Test,” Frontline 24, no. 20 (2007). 55. V. Suryanarayan, “The Indian Community in Myanmar,” South Asia Analysis Group, Working Paper 3523, November 26, 2009 (www.southasiaanalysis.org// papers36/paper3523.html). 56. “South East Asia,” chap. 20 in Report of the High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora, 2001 (www.indiandiaspora.nic.in/diasporapdf/chapter20.pdf [July 2010]), p. 262. 57. Suryanarayan, “The Indian Community in Myanmar.” 58. Singh, “‘Silence Is Golden.’” 59. Kurt M. Campbell, “U.S. Policy toward Burma,” September 28, 2009 (www. state.gov/p/eap/rls/rm/2009/09/129698.htm).
ASEAN’s Policy of Enhanced Interactions
s the most comprehensive regional organization in Southeast Asia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has endeavored to include every Southeast Asian country in its fold and to keep member states committed to common regional objectives.1 Of paramount importance to ASEAN members is the common desire for every Southeast Asian nation and all its peoples—regardless of political system or ideology—to live in peace with one another, cooperate within ASEAN on issues of common interest, join hands in addressing issues of common concern, and work with the international community, particularly ASEAN’s dialogue partners, in building lasting regional peace and security and promoting sustained economic growth and social progress. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was founded by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand on August 8, 1967, at the height of the cold war and escalation of the conflict in Vietnam. Few people at the time foresaw that it would survive the political and international turmoil of the day and last into the twenty-first century. The longevity of the organization must come as a pleasant surprise to its five founding father nations, who did not even bother to set up a secretariat until nearly ten years later, at the first ASEAN Summit in Bali in February 1976. Burma was invited to join ASEAN at the beginning, in 1967, but General Ne Win declined for fear of compromising the strict neutrality of his country. (Burma had left the British Commonwealth after gaining independence on January 4, 1948.) The Burmese prime minister U Nu took part in the AsianAfrican Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in April 1955, which subsequently led to the establishment in 1961 of the Non-Aligned Movement. Sandwiched
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between India, the world’s largest democracy, and China, the world’s largest communist country, Burma chose neutrality as its political strategy, a strategy referred to at the time as the Burmese way toward socialism. Rightly or wrongly, at the time of its establishment ASEAN was perceived as an anticommunist bloc. After all, the five founding member states were fiercely anticommunist in their national security policy, and most of them were fighting active communist insurgencies at home. The Philippines and Thailand would subsequently join the United States in supporting South Vietnam in its escalating war with North Vietnam. Moreover, both the Philippines and Thailand were part of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, set up by the United States and its Western allies to contain China. As a group, ASEAN opposed Vietnam’s invasion of Kampuchea (Cambodia) and supported the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea in resisting the Vietnamese occupation of the country during the 1980s. It was then that ASEAN and China learned to work with each other in connection with their common strategic interest in Kampuchea. The end of the cold war, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Vietnamese withdrawal from Kampuchea, and the Paris Peace Accords of 1991 set the stage for a new era of peace and rapprochement in Southeast Asia. The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) and Vietnam acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia in 1992 and became observers in ASEAN. When Vietnam joined ASEAN in July 1995 as the seventh member state (Brunei Darussalam joined as the sixth in January 1984), a new era for Southeast Asia and ASEAN was firmly in place. The nations of Southeast Asia were no longer divided along ideological fault lines. Based on its collaboration with ASEAN over Kampuchea during the 1980s, China began to appreciate the merit and potential of ASEAN and started developing formal ties with it in the early 1990s. Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen met with ASEAN foreign ministers during the July 1991 ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Kuala Lumpur. He was then invited as a guest of the host country, Malaysia. A similar ASEAN meeting was also held with Soviet deputy prime minister Yuri Maslyukov. Both China and the Soviet Union were then designated as consultative partners of ASEAN. Three years later they joined ASEAN and its dialogue partners in establishing the ASEAN Regional Forum. China, the Russian Federation, and India were accorded dialogue partner status in ASEAN in July 1996. Burma, which officially changed its name to Myanmar in 1989, did not take part in the Paris Peace Accords of 1991. Myanmar acceded to the Treaty
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of Amity and Cooperation on July 27, 1995, during the yearly AMM in Bandar Seri Begawan, and became an observer in ASEAN. On the next day, the ceremony inducting Vietnam into ASEAN was held. Myanmar further deepened its ties with Southeast Asia when Senior General Than Shwe, chair of the State Law and Order Restoration Council, joined the heads of state from the other nine Southeast Asian countries in signing the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty on December 15, 1995, on the sidelines of the fifth ASEAN Summit in Bangkok.2 On this occasion, ASEAN leaders stated in their summit declaration, “ASEAN shall work towards the speedy realization of an ASEAN comprising all Southeast Asian countries as it enters the 21st century.”3 At the first “informal” ASEAN summit in Jakarta on November 30, 1996, ASEAN leaders further agreed that Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar would be admitted into ASEAN simultaneously, though the actual timing of their admission would be announced in due course. ASEAN leaders also met with Cambodia’s first and second prime ministers, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen, Prime Minister Khamtay Siphandone of Laos, and Senior General Than Shwe. They discussed, among other things, cooperation in the Mekong subregion. After the meeting, the leaders of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar made a historic joint visit to the ASEAN Secretariat for a briefing by then ASEAN secretary-general Dato’ Ajit Singh. Dato’ Ajit Singh reported to a special meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Kuala Lumpur the following spring that Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar had made proper preparations to join ASEAN and had the capability to meet all of the obligations of ASEAN membership. He recommended that these three countries be admitted into ASEAN at the earliest opportunity. The ASEAN foreign ministers agreed and decided to schedule the formal admission of the three countries during the foreign ministers meeting in Subang Jaya, Malaysia, in July 1997. However, owing to what ASEAN foreign ministers described as the “unfortunate circumstances which have resulted from the use of force” between the troops loyal to Prince Norodom Ranariddh and the supporters of Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, in early July the ASEAN foreign ministers decided to delay the admission of Cambodia until a later date and to proceed with the admission of Laos and Myanmar as scheduled.4 Laos and Myanmar were admitted into ASEAN on July 23, 1997. The following day, Myanmar’s foreign minister Ohn Gyaw stated in his address to the opening ceremony of the foreign ministers meeting that the admission of Myanmar into ASEAN represented “a significant moment in the
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contemporary history of my country as Myanmar now stands proudly as part of the ASEAN family, an integral part of Southeast Asia in spirit and in letter.”5 The ASEAN troika at that time, consisting of the foreign ministers of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, visited Phnom Penh in July and August 1997 to help mediate and end the power struggle between Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen. The ASEAN side urged Prime Minister Hun Sen to abide by the terms of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement; all ASEAN member states were signatories of the agreement and thus had a legitimate concern about any violent violation of these agreements. One important fact that cannot be overlooked was that ASEAN offered its assistance and was invited by Cambodia, particularly by Foreign Minister Ung Huat, to assist as a mediator. Some semblance of mutual understanding and consent did exist for ASEAN to play its role by dispatching its troika. This took place while Cambodia was only an observer in ASEAN and still desired to join ASEAN as soon as possible. Cambodia could not take part in the special meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers in Kuala Lumpur on July 10, 1997, when ASEAN decided to delay the admission of Cambodia and to offer its mediation assistance. On the other hand, once Myanmar joined ASEAN two weeks later, ASEAN’s initiative to offer any assistance to help realize or speed up political reconciliation in Myanmar was thereafter subject to the consent of Myanmar as well as to the concurrence of all other member states for ASEAN to attempt to play a mediating role. Indeed, Prime Minister Hun Sen was displeased with what he perceived as ASEAN’s interference in the domestic political affairs of Cambodia. But King Norodom Sihanouk gave his blessing to the ASEAN troika during an audience in Phnom Penh on July 17, 1997, and Prime Minister Hun Sen received the troika in Phnom Penh twice in the next few weeks. He concurred with Foreign Minister Ung Huat that joining ASEAN should continue to be a high-priority foreign policy objective for Cambodia. Cambodia was admitted into ASEAN on April 30, 1999, at a ceremony in Hanoi, and the vision of a unified Southeast Asia under the ASEAN-10 became a reality. However, keeping all ten member states working happily together still required a great deal of effort and ingenuity.
Constructive Intervention, Flexible Engagement, and Enhanced Interactions
Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim created quite a stir in Southeast Asia when he proposed a policy of constructive intervention.6 He
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called on ASEAN to help Cambodia in strengthening the electoral process, fostering legal and administrative reforms, developing human capital, and strengthening civil society and the rule of law. However, Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and foreign minister Abdullah Badawi did not support this bold new idea; they did not seem to believe Malaysia or ASEAN could be effective in such an initiative. On the other hand, Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan liked the idea and adapted it as a Thai proposal for “flexible engagement” with Myanmar. In an address delivered in June 1998, Surin asserted, “It’s time that ASEAN’s cherished principle of nonintervention is modified to allow ASEAN to play a constructive role in preventing or resolving domestic issues with regional implications.” The flexible engagement that Surin proposed would entail “peer pressure” as well as “friendly advice” when a domestic situation or issue posed a threat to regional stability or regional security.7 But the Thai foreign minister won little support from his ASEAN counterparts for his proposal when he presented it during the informal working dinner of ASEAN foreign ministers in July 1998, before the start of the annual AMM. It was during that dinner discussion that Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas urged Surin and other ASEAN foreign ministers to adopt “enhanced interactions” with Myanmar, instead of flexible engagement. The reasoning of Minister Alatas was roughly as follows: —Myanmar has joined ASEAN and become part of the ASEAN family. ASEAN and its member states cannot choose to engage or not to engage Myanmar; there is no such flexibility. —All member states in ASEAN have a common obligation to interact with one another, as part of the same ASEAN family, helping one another in every way possible. —Interactions among all ASEAN member states are inclusive of all issues of common interest and comprehensive in all areas of ASEAN cooperation. —All ASEAN member states—not just Myanmar—should enhance these interactions among themselves, not just with Myanmar. —To enhance is to improve on something existing. —Therefore, the concept of “enhanced interactions.”8 Surin apparently was persuaded by his senior Indonesian counterpart. In his opening address the following day, he said, The principle of noninterference is not the issue and has never been the issue. For the real issue is how we can work together to strengthen ASEAN’s cohesiveness, relevance, and effectiveness in dealing with the new challenges of a new millennium. . . . Dealing with these issues is
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not a matter of choice, but of necessity and urgency. . . . It is not a matter of interfering in the affairs of a country. Rather, it is a matter of being open with one another on issues that impact the region. . . . It is rather a matter of taking more pro-active concern about one another and being supportive of one another whenever needed. It is a matter of enhancing our interactions for the benefit of all.9 Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas did not mention flexible engagement or enhanced interactions in his opening address. But Malaysian foreign minister Abdullah Badawi was more direct about the debate. He denied that the principle of nonintervention prevented ASEAN member states from expressing concerns or even criticizing one another: We have even expressed reservations when necessary. But we do all this quietly, befitting a community of friends bonded in cooperation and ever mindful of the fact that fractious relations undermine the capacity of ASEAN to work together on issues critical to our collective being. . . . Unless ASEAN countries are ready to discuss greater integration between them, I see little benefit in discussing this divisive issue of interfering in each other’s internal affairs.10 Lest it be forgotten, one of the cardinal principles of ASEAN is sovereign equality. When an ASEAN member state says something is a domestic affair, it is understood that interference or intervention in any form is not welcome. East Timor and Aceh used to be Indonesia’s internal affairs and were never discussed in any official ASEAN meeting during the era of President Suharto. In recent years, Thailand has insisted that the political and security problems in its three southernmost Muslim-dominated provinces are internal affairs that can best be handled by Thai national efforts. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra threatened to “walk out and return home” should any ASEAN leader raise Thailand’s “Deep South” issue at the 2004 ASEAN Summit.11 The separatist movement in Mindanao, on the other hand, is an internal affair of the Philippines; yet that country has welcomed assistance from ASEAN member states, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia, and the international community. Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as Libya and Turkey, have rendered varying kinds of assistance to the Philippines on the Mindanao issue. Some bilateral issues between two ASEAN member states have never been raised before the ASEAN community because the two parties concerned have not seen any need to explore a regional solution. This is the case of
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Sabah between Malaysia and the Philippines. Sometimes, however, one party may wish to bring its bilateral dispute with a neighbor to ASEAN, against the wishes of the other party. A recent example is the Preah Vihear temple dispute between Cambodia and Thailand.12 In the case of the overlapping claims in the South China Sea, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have welcomed ASEAN support in their dealings with China on the dispute. ASEAN member states and China managed to agree on the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002. But their wish to formulate a political code of conduct for the South China Sea has made little progress so far. One objection is that not all parts of the sea are under dispute. The proposed code of conduct should be more specific, to be applicable only in the disputed areas of the South China Sea. By respecting one another’s sovereign equality in the ASEAN context, ASEAN member states avoid discord. At the same time they increase their willingness to discuss more and more sensitive issues quietly and amicably. Over time, they have gained mutual trust and confidence, which enables them to advance to a higher level of regionalism and community building. In the meantime, several new ASEAN agreements have been signed to bind member states into more specific regional cooperation on transnational issues that have a potential impact on all peoples in the ASEAN region. They include the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (signed on June 10, 2002, entered into force on September 25, 2003), the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (signed July 26, 2005, and entered into force on December 24, 2009), the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (signed January 13, 2007), and the ASEAN Convention on Counter- Terrorism (signed on January 13, 2007). Sovereign equality and noninterference have not stopped ASEAN member states from working together on transnational issues such as haze, terrorism, H1N1 avian influenza, human trafficking, HIV/AIDS, and narcotics trade that no single government can cope with or effectively handle alone. In other words, it is now commonly recognized in ASEAN that noninterference is not absolute.
New Paradigm for Community Building
Toward the end of the last millennium, ASEAN began to think big and become more systematic in promoting regional cooperation. ASEAN Vision
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2020 was adopted at the second informal summit in Kuala Lumpur in December 1997. This was followed by the Hanoi Plan of Action, adopted a year later, the first step in realizing Vision 2020, with a strong emphasis on accelerating economic and financial cooperation in the wake of the “Tomyam Goong” (the name of a spicy shrimp soup in Thailand) financial crisis of 1997–98. Still bigger ideas emerged in the Bali Concord II, adopted in October 2003. The Bali Concord II heralded the start of a highly ambitious mission to build by the year 2020 an ASEAN community on three pillars: political and security cooperation, economic and financial cooperation, and sociocultural cooperation. At the 2007 ASEAN Summit, the deadline for community building was moved up to 2015.13 The heads of government of the ten member states of ASEAN signed the ASEAN Charter on November 20, 2007. After ratification instruments had been deposited by all ten member states, the charter entered into force on December 15, 2008. The ASEAN Charter is the most important legal instrument produced by the organization. It is an international agreement binding ASEAN’s ten member states, and it has been registered as such with the UN Secretariat. The ASEAN Charter reiterates in its preamble adherence “to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” As the charter affirms, one of the purposes of ASEAN is “to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, with due regard to the rights and responsibilities of the Member States of ASEAN.” Among the fourteen principles of ASEAN, the rule of law and principles of democracy are once again reiterated. The charter commits member states to “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government” (art. 2, para. 2[h]) and calls for “adherence to multilateral trade rules and ASEAN’s rules-based regimes for effective implementation of economic commitments” (art. 2, para. 2[n]). The charter states that “ASEAN, as an inter-governmental organization, is hereby conferred legal personality.” For the first time in its history, ASEAN was asserting its independent legal status, both in its member states singly and in the international domain. The charter guarantees equal rights and obligations for all member states. Membership obligations include taking “all necessary measures, including the enactment of appropriate domestic legislation, to effectively implement the provisions of this Charter and to comply with all obligations of membership” (art. 5, para. 2).
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As an intergovernmental organization, ASEAN is very democratic. Consider the following evidence: sovereign equality is one of the principles (art. 2, para. 2[a]); every member state is equal in representation and participation; chairmanship is rotated annually; there is no weighted voting right or veto power; decisions are made by consultation and consensus; and member states make equal contributions to the annual operational budget. Sovereign equality begets noninterference.14 But noninterference is not absolute when a state joins a regional grouping like ASEAN and takes part in its community-building endeavors. Hence in the charter, two new principles have been introduced: “shared commitment and collective responsibility in enhancing regional peace, security and prosperity” (art. 2, para. 2[b]) and “enhanced consultations on matters seriously affecting the common interest of ASEAN” (art. 2, para. 2[g]). All the principles in article 2 of the charter must be accepted and upheld as a whole; a member state cannot observe some principles and ignore the rest. Unlike the European Union, ASEAN has never prescribed political criteria for membership. Upon admission of new members, the charter merely lists the following: geographical location in Southeast Asia; recognition by all ASEAN member states; agreement to be bound and to abide by the charter; and ability and willingness to carry out the obligations of membership (art. 6). ASEAN may be the only regional organization in the world with such political diversity. The range of political systems among its member states extends from the far left (Laos and Vietnam are ruled by their respective Communist parties) to the far right (Myanmar still has a military-led government, and Brunei Darussalam is a sovereign sultanate with the sultan serving as both the head of state and the prime minister), with different types of parliamentary or republican democracies in between. The only other international body with such political diversity is the United Nations. How far ASEAN regional political cooperation can and will complement national efforts in democratization remains to be seen. At least, when member states cooperate within ASEAN, they are quite willing to democratize the organization. In the charter, for example, ASEAN professes “to promote a people-oriented ASEAN in which all sectors of society are encouraged to participate in, and benefit from, the process of ASEAN integration and community building” (art. 1, para. 13). In chapter V, the charter allows that ASEAN may “engage with entities which support the ASEAN Charter, in particular its purposes and principles” (art. 16, para. 1). These entities, listed in annex 2 of the charter, include parliamentarians in the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly, business organizations, think tanks
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and academic institutions, accredited civil society organizations, and other stakeholders in ASEAN.
ASEAN and the International Community on the Issue of Myanmar
During her first official visit to Indonesia as the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton visited the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta to meet with ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan on February 18, 2009. The historic visit to the secretariat, according to the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Cameron R. Hume, “underscores the U.S. commitment to the ASEAN region and appreciation of Indonesia’s leadership role in ASEAN.” Secretary Clinton let it be known then that “the U.S. is ready to listen.” During their discussion, Surin urged Clinton to increase U.S. support for ASEAN’s community building and to keep open the American market for exports from ASEAN member states. His message was straightforward: help ASEAN succeed and the United States will have one less region in the world to worry about. As for Myanmar, Surin’s message was similarly simple: help ASEAN help Myanmar by, for example, increasing U.S. support for the ASEAN-led humanitarian operations to assist the survivors of Cylcone Nargis in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Delta. This is where ASEAN’s comparative advantage lies in its interactions with Myanmar. Secretary Clinton listened and then told ASEAN just what it wanted to hear. During a press conference at the ASEAN Secretariat, Clinton announced the intention of the Obama administration to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. This move, she explained, was intended to foster a strong U.S. relationship and a productive U.S. presence in Southeast Asia. The U.S.-ASEAN partnership, she added, is important to the new U.S. approach to development and democracy. Secretary Clinton attended the ASEAN-U.S. ministerial dialogue in Phuket on July 22, 2009. She announced the U.S. plan to open a mission to ASEAN in Jakarta and to elevate the U.S. dialogue partnership with ASEAN by assigning a resident U.S. ambassador to ASEAN. Thus the United States will become the first ASEAN dialogue partner to appoint a resident ambassador to the organization who is not concurrently the country’s ambassador to Indonesia.15 After the ministerial dialogue, Secretary Clinton signed the accession instrument for the United States to accede to the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. On the following day she took part in the
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ASEAN Regional Forum and held several bilateral talks with other foreign ministers in attendance. Her active participation was a sharp contrast to that of her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, who skipped the ministerial dialogue with ASEAN and the forum twice in her four-year term (2005 in Vientiane and 2007 in Manila). On September 23, 2009, Clinton attended a meeting of the Group of Friends on Myanmar hosted by the UN secretary-general. 16 This participation implied an increased interest in Myanmar on the part of the United States. (Normally the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations would attend such a meeting.) After the meeting, Clinton announced the Obama administration’s new policy approach to Myanmar at the United Nations headquarters in New York: “The United States will begin a direct dialogue with Burmese authorities to lay out a path towards better relations on . . . democracy and human rights; cooperation on international security issues such as non-proliferation; areas of mutual benefit, such as trafficking in persons, counter-narcotics; and recovery of WWII-era remains.”17 The new U.S. policy approach to Myanmar seemed good enough to win support from Aung San Suu Kyi. Her spokesman told the media in Yangon, “[Daw Suu Kyi] said she had always supported the idea of engagement. However, that engagement should be done with both the military government and the democratic forces.”18 On September 25, 2009, Aung San Suu Kyi sent a letter to Senior General Than Shwe to suggest ways to convince Western governments to lift political and economic sanctions on Myanmar. She requested and obtained permission to meet with Western diplomats to discuss how to remove the sanctions.19 This represented a change in her attitude toward the sanctions, which she had previously welcomed as a way to put pressure on the Myanmar government and military leadership. Consequently, the European Union approved a new five-year Livelihood and Food Security Trust Fund of 35 million euros to support programs to improve job and food security in Myanmar’s Rakhine, Chin, Shan, central Myanmar, and Kachin regions. Back in New York, Myanmar’s prime minister General Thein Sein addressed the UN General Assembly on September 28, 2009. He is the most senior Myanmar government leader to attend the UN General Assembly in fourteen years. Before him, General Maung Aye, vice chair of the State Peace and Development Council, attended the assembly in October 1995. The presence of the prime minister of Myanmar at the UN General Assembly could signify the readiness of his government to engage the world community, including the United States, more actively.
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In his address to the General Assembly, Prime Minister Thein Sein stated the following: —Sanctions cannot legitimately be regarded as a tool to promote human rights and democracy. —Sanctions are being employed as a political tool against Myanmar, and the government of Myanmar considers them unjust. Such acts must be stopped. —The transition to democracy is proceeding. . . . The government is taking systematic steps to hold free and fair elections.20 The first ASEAN-U.S. Summit, including all ten ASEAN leaders, was held with President Barack Obama on November 15, 2009, immediately after the end of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore. In the recent past, President George W. Bush had met with only seven ASEAN leaders on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meetings in Los Cabos (2003), Pusan (2005), and Hanoi (2007).
ASEAN’s Stand on Myanmar
On the issue of the long-standing internal conflict in Myanmar, the ASEAN Secretariat and the organization’s other nine member states have consistently —defended the membership of Myanmar in ASEAN —opposed any discrimination directed at Myanmar in ASEAN’s external relations and cooperation with any dialogue partner or other external party21 —continued to support Myanmar’s quest to join Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation as soon as the moratorium on organization membership is lifted —supported Myanmar’s joining the annual ASEAN-Europe meeting, along with Laos and Cambodia, starting from the fifth meeting in Hanoi in October 2004 —encouraged and supported dialogue and cooperation among all parties concerned with achieving peaceful resolution to the political problems and national reconciliation in Myanmar —supported the prompt implementation of Myanmar’s seven-step roadmap to democracy, as expressed, in particular, at the 2003 ASEAN Summit in Bali —encouraged Myanmar to keep fellow ASEAN member states fully informed of progress as well as setbacks in implementing various measures in the roadmap —supported the ASEAN chair when interacting with Myanmar —supported the good offices of the UN secretary-general and his special envoy to Myanmar
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—supported and participated in the concerted efforts of the Group of Friends of Myanmar in the United Nations —called for the immediate release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners, especially since the 2003 summit —encouraged Myanmar to help defend the common interests of ASEAN22 —had no direct formal contact with Aung San Suu Kyi or other Burmese exile groups nor recognized any Myanmar exile groups —expressed readiness to support Myanmar in ensuring free and fair general elections in 2010 —supported Myanmar’s active participation in ASEAN activities, including the Initiative for ASEAN Integration aimed at narrowing the development gaps between old and new member states as well as within needy member states —taken an active leadership role in mobilizing ASEAN and international support for the operations to provide humanitarian assistance to survivors of Cyclone Nargis, under the Tripartite Core Group of ASEAN, the United Nations, and Myanmar —supported capacity building for the Myanmar government, including attachment to and training at the ASEAN Secretariat, as well as recruitment of Myanmar nationals to work in the ASEAN Secretariat23 —supported Myanmar’s invitations to host ASEAN meetings, including meetings held in Naypyidaw Taking together, these actions and advocacies indicate that ASEAN and its member states know what to do and how to work with Myanmar. Their collective stand is consistent with ASEAN’s paramount value of keeping every member state inside the ASEAN fold happily cooperating with all other member states in the process of community building. Myanmar’s membership in ASEAN serves the long-term interest of all parties concerned with Southeast Asia. Trying to ostracize or isolate the country runs against the common beliefs and unique values of ASEAN. The ASEAN member states believe that every Southeast Asian nation and its people have a legitimate role to play and that together they can play this role constructively in building the ASEAN community.
1. Timor-Leste, which gained independence in May 2002, is actively preparing for ASEAN membership and has expressed its wish to join the group by 2012. The country has been regularly invited to attend opening ceremonies at the ASEAN
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foreign ministers meetings and ASEAN Summit meetings as a guest of the host country and lately as a guest of ASEAN (which denotes a higher status). Timor-Leste started participating in the ASEAN Regional Forum at its twelfth annual meeting in Vientiane, Laos, on July 29, 2005. On January 13, 2007, Timor-Leste acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. In a January 2007 meeting in Cebu, the ASEAN foreign ministers assured the deputy prime minister of TimorLeste, Jose Luis Guterres, that ASEAN membership for Timor-Leste was a question not of whether but of when. Guterres attended the opening ceremonies at a later meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Phuket in July 2009. The Thai host noted with appreciation the high-level representation of Timor-Leste at the meeting, saying that it signified the continued strong interest of the country in learning about ASEAN and preparing for its eventual membership. Papua New Guinea has been a special observer in ASEAN since the late 1980s. In March 2010 Papua New Guinea expressed renewed interest in ASEAN membership and received an expression of support from Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. However, a moratorium on new members is in effect until 2015, with the understanding (at least on the ASEAN side) that it would continue to affiliate with the Pacific Islands Forum. Papua New Guinea was the first nonregional state to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (on July 5, 1989) and took part in founding the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1994. 2. First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen both signed for Cambodia. The 1995 treaty entered into force on March 27, 1997. So far, only China has expressed its readiness to sign the protocol to support the treaty. Four other nuclear weapon states (France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) have raised some objections, on issues such as the zone of coverage, which includes continental shelves, and the 200-mile exclusive economic zones of the treaty’s signatory states. 3. See full text of the Bangkok Summit Declaration on the ASEAN Secretariat’s website (www.aseansec.org/5189.htm [July 2010]). 4. See Joint Statement of the Special Meeting of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers on Cambodia, Kuala Lumpur, July 10, 1997 (www.aseansec.org/1826.htm). 5. Opening statement of H. E. Mr. Ohn Gyaw, the Union of Myanmar (www. asean.org). 6. “Crisis Prevention,” Newsweek International, July 21, 1997. 7. Surin Pitsuwan, opening statement, Thirty-First ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and Post-Ministerial Conference, Thammasat University, Bangkok, Thailand, June 12, 1998 (www.asean.org). Surin Pitsuwan and Anwar Ibrahim were among the founding members of the Asian Dialogue Society. The founding members were a group of Southeast Asian intellectuals and politicians (including M. R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra, now the governor of Bangkok, the Thai journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn, and the Singaporean think tank scholar M. Rajaretnam) aspiring to build a better Asia through international dialogue and cooperation. The society had funding
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support from the Hans Seidel Stiftung, the Canadian International Development Agency, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Sasakawa Foundation, the Nippon Foundation, and UNESCO, among others. 8. These points are based on the recollection of the author, who accompanied the ASEAN secretary-general to a working dinner of ASEAN foreign ministers in Manila on July 23, 1998. 9. Surin, statement, June 12, 1998. 10. Mr. Abdullah Badawi, opening statement, Thirty-First ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and Post-Ministerial Conference, Thammasat University, Bangkok, Thailand, June 12, 1998 (www.asean.org). 11. As it turned out, however, the Thai prime minister briefed his counterparts from Indonesia and Malaysia on the Deep South issue during their meeting on the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle in Vientiane before the start of the tenth ASEAN Summit. 12. ASEAN foreign ministers were briefed by Cambodia and Thailand on the border temple dispute during a working dinner in Singapore’s Botanic Garden on July 20, 2008. While Cambodia welcomed ASEAN’s involvement, Thailand objected on the ground that there were existing bilateral border mechanisms that could be used to address the dispute. Nevertheless, Singapore, as the chair of ASEAN, issued a statement saying that the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting also decided to offer its facilities to be placed at the disposal of Cambodia and Thailand in the event that they felt the need for further support to find an early resolution to the issue. 13. See the Cebu Declaration on the Acceleration of the Establishment of an ASEAN Community by 2015 (www.asean.org) (ASEAN summits). One of the main reasons for the acceleration was that ASEAN risked losing its economic competitiveness if its economic integration toward one ASEAN market and regional production base moved too slowly. The ASEAN economic ministers were the first to agree on realizing the ASEAN Economic Community by 2015. The ASEAN foreign ministers thought it would be incongruent (or even divisive) to move faster on the economic pillar than on the other two pillars. Therefore, they recommended the acceleration of the ASEAN Political and Security Community and the ASEAN Sociocultural Community by 2015 so that all the three pillars would advance in tandem. 14. ASEAN certainly did not invent noninterference. The principle is recognized in the UN Charter and in international law. However, the principle is enshrined in the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. Article 2(b) asserts “the right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion.” Article 2(c) includes “non-interference in the internal affairs of one another” as part of the regional code of interstate conduct in Southeast Asia. 15. Scott Marciel, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, was appointed U.S. ambassador to ASEAN on April 11, 2008 (holding both positions at the same time). He became the first ambassador to ASEAN more than eight months before the ASEAN Charter—which under article 46 encourages
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ASEAN’s friends and partners to accredit their ambassadors to ASEAN—entered into force on December 15, 2008. By the end of 2009, twenty-eight other nonregional governments had appointed ambassadors to ASEAN. Most of these are concurrently ambassadors of their respective countries to Indonesia. 16. The Group of Friends includes Australia, China, the European Union, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Vietnam. 17. Based on a U.S. nonpaper on U.S. policy on Burma, which was shared with the ASEAN Secretariat. A U.S. delegation visited Myanmar for official talks and factfinding in November 2009. It was led by the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell. 18. Quoted in “Suu Kyi Backs U.S engagement with Burma,” Mail and Guardian Online, Rangoon, September 25, 2009. 19. “Aung San Suu Kyi Seeks to Meet Western Diplomats,” Jakarta Post, September 29, 2009. 20. Based on the prepared text of Thein Sein’s address released by the UN Secretariat (www.un.org/ga/64). 21. From 2007 to 2009, Myanmar was the country coordinator for the ASEAN– New Zealand Dialogue Partnership. New Zealand could not host any ASEAN– New Zealand meeting, even though it was New Zealand’s turn to do so. Hence the ASEAN–New Zealand Dialogue Partnership was virtually frozen during this period. Myanmar is now the coordinator of the ASEAN-Russia Dialogue Partnership and no such problem for Russia is foreseen. Myanmar hosted the ASEAN-Russia Joint Cooperation Committee meeting in Yangon on November 24–25, 2009. 22. Myanmar was “encouraged” to skip the ASEAN chairmanship in 2005–06 and the chairmanship of the ASEAN economic ministers meeting in 2006–07. 23. In 2009 there were three Myanmar nationals working in the ASEAN Secretariat. In 2012 it will be Myanmar’s turn to nominate a deputy secretary-general to serve a three-year term in the ASEAN Secretariat.
The Last Bus to Naypyidaw
yanmar was admitted into the ASEAN family in 1997. In the face of strong objections from the West and certain civil society organizations in the region, ASEAN insisted on welcoming Myanmar’s regime, claiming that the admission served the organization’s long-term interests. It wanted to engage the rulers of Myanmar constructively to moderate the regime’s repressive policies. It wanted to counter China’s increasingly tight embrace of the Myanmar junta and its growing influence inside Myanmar, considered a potential threat to ASEAN.1 The organization’s approach to Myanmar underwent multiple modifications over the years, from constructive engagement to flexible engagement and then to forward engagement.2 The ten member countries of ASEAN had their own views and interpretations of these multiple modifications, reaffirming their independence vis-à-vis Myanmar. None of the positions seemed satisfactory. Along the way, Myanmar exploited ASEAN’s mechanisms, taking advantage of the group’s strict principle of noninterference as a political shield. Sadly, many ASEAN members themselves have also suffered from a legitimacy deficiency. This condition allowed Myanmar to manage its domestic affairs without outside interference and moral policing from ASEAN members. Because ASEAN membership is irreversible, and because the Myanmar regime’s behavior has become more unpredictable, ASEAN has embarked on an effort to reconstruct certain identities for Myanmar to justify its membership and to cloak ASEAN’s own discomfort.
Fiction versus Reality
The incongruity between ASEAN-constructed Myanmar and the reality inside the country resurfaces every so often. In 2009 at least three significant incidents seriously challenged ASEAN’s standing on Myanmar.
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First, in May, the Myanmar junta decided to press charges against Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, over a bizarre episode wherein an American entered her residence uninvited, which the junta interpreted as a violation of the terms of her house arrest. While ASEAN practiced its usual diplomatic rhetoric, calling for the unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the junta found her guilty and extended her house arrest for another eighteen months.3 The sentence effectively bars the National League for Democracy leader from participating in the upcoming election in 2010. Second, in late August there were armed clashes between the Tatmadaw and the Kokang militias, despite previous ceasefire agreements. ASEAN’s concentration on the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta’s reconciliation with the National League for Democracy had eclipsed the fact that the underlying causes of ethnic conflict in Myanmar had not been addressed.4 Third, in September Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced what would become a watershed in U.S. policy toward Myanmar. No longer depending solely on sanctions, the United States was adopting an engagement approach, forming a dual-track policy on Myanmar, and would soon begin a direct dialogue with the junta’s representatives. Although the shift in U.S. policy on Myanmar was welcomed by ASEAN, it could potentially further undermine ASEAN’s position vis-à-vis Naypyidaw. During the past twelve years, myth has unmistakably taken a central stage in ASEAN’s policy toward Myanmar. ASEAN re-created Myanmar’s military regime, the State Peace and Development Council, as a political entity filled with hope and possibility for a thriving democracy. ASEAN’s constructive engagement was designed to make that come true. The group believed that its regional approach would be able to foster change in Myanmar. An envoy from ASEAN was appointed to convince the Myanmar regime to open itself up politically. The real Myanmar, however, has remained unchanged. It has been content to be the black sheep of the ASEAN family. The junta’s refusal to release Aung San Suu Kyi and its continued disregard of the human rights of its own people not only debunked the constructive engagement approach but also gave the lie to ASEAN’s highly romanticized Myanmar policy. ASEAN legitimized Myanmar’s seven-step roadmap to democracy without having looked at it carefully to determine whether it was a real step forward for the country or whether it warranted ASEAN’s support. In an interview, former ASEAN secretary-general Rodolfo Severino noted that ASEAN had fallen into its own “oblivion trap.” Consequently it has become more difficult to criticize Myanmar’s so-called democratization process, especially the junta’s
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scheme to exclude Aung San Suu Kyi from the 2010 election and perpetuate the military’s position in politics.5 ASEAN has also embraced a view of China as possessing overwhelming power over Myanmar. In 1997 ASEAN was in a hurry to pull Myanmar out of the orbit of Chinese influence. Throughout the following decade, the perception of Chinese influence has been intensified by a more visible Chinese presence in Myanmar, through the influx of Chinese migrants into northern Myanmar, and a flood of Chinese investment that has threatened to dominate the Myanmar economy. This perception has kept ASEAN from seriously addressing difficult issues with Myanmar for fear that doing so would drive the regime further into China’s arms. As an example, Thailand was reluctant to criticize the Myanmar regime because of its dependence on gas from Myanmar. The Thai government was concerned about its energy shortages and thus avoided upsetting the Myanmar junta, which might turn its back on Bangkok and look toward energy-hungry China instead. In reality, ASEAN has never understood the true nature of Sino-Myanmar relations and has often adopted the opinion of Western governments and the media. The complexity of Sino-Myanmar relations served to obstruct ASEAN’s own efforts to deal with the Myanmar issues more directly and honestly. However, the recent exchange of fire between the Tatmadaw and the Kokang militias underscores the complexity of the relationship between China and Myanmar. Ian Storey has argued that the Kokang incident illustrates that the State Peace and Development Council is capable of undertaking actions that challenge Beijing’s interests and belies characterizations of Myanmar as China’s client state. Fighting at the border could severely disrupt bilateral trade, much of which is conducted at the border, which would adversely affect China’s landlocked southwestern provinces. It could trigger an outpouring of refugees into China whom the authorities would be forced to feed and house. According to the UN high commissioner for refugees, as many as 37,000 Kokang refugees fled in August 2009 to the Chinese border towns of Nansan and Genma. Moreover, construction of the Kyaukphyu-Kunming pipelines, which China considers a strategic necessity, could be suspended, as the proposed route passes close to potential battle zones.6 From this perspective, Myanmar has successfully demonstrated independence in its relations with China.7 The shift in U.S. policy toward Myanmar under the Obama administration has emerged as a wake-up call for ASEAN. All along, ASEAN seemed to believe that it had been the sole provider of legitimacy to the State Peace
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and Development Council, while the global community was punishing the regime with harsh sanctions, which made its role indispensable. Seeing ASEAN as Myanmar’s only sanctuary, some ASEAN leaders were convinced that the organization would be able to influence the regime and dictate its behavior, simply because nobody else could offer the same legitimacy. As a point of fact, Myanmar made it known that it would disallow any outside pressure. From petty to serious matters, Myanmar cares very little about ASEAN’s reputation and credibility. The junta relocated its capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw without informing other ASEAN members. It changed its mind at the last minute and objected to the participation of Ibrahim Gambari, special adviser to the United Nations’ secretary-general, in the 2007 East Asia Summit in Singapore, where he was expected to receive a briefing on the situation on Myanmar in the aftermath of the junta’s crackdown on street protesters in September 2007. The Myanmar regime brushed aside ASEAN’s offer to lead the reconciliation process, judging it to be an act of intervention. It has effectively exploited the differing regional and international approaches to its own advantage, from flirting with ASEAN’s constructive engagement in the 1990s to tilting toward the United Nations in recent years and now to reaching out to the United States. At this hour, according to some analysts, the junta apparently considers the United States, not ASEAN or the United Nations, as the real provider of legitimacy.8 This development raises a serious question about the future of ASEAN and how it can remain in the driver’s seat as it manages regional issues such as democratization in Myanmar. Kurt Campbell, the U.S. State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, may emphasize that the United States will continue to coordinate closely with ASEAN as a means of reinforcing the fundamental message of reform to the Myanmar regime.9 But ASEAN’s role is at stake. ASEAN is confronted with two options: either give up on Myanmar or quickly jump on the last bus, driven by the United States, to Naypyidaw.
ASEAN’s Critical Hurdles
Evidently, ASEAN has chosen to jump on the U.S. bandwagon and to downplay its own failure to persuade Myanmar to undertake serious political reforms. After the meeting of the Group of Friends on Myanmar at UN headquarters in New York on September 23, 2009, Singapore’s foreign minister George Yeo declared, “Singapore welcomes the shift in position by the
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U.S. and Europe—the decision to engage Myanmar while keeping sanctions in place for the time being. We believe this would enable the United States and Europe to have more influence in the political evolution of the country.”10 The Singapore media swiftly congratulated the new U.S. policy, while interpreting the policy shift as ASEAN’s own success. “ASEAN can take satisfaction in the Obama Administration’s new track. The group has been no less aggrieved over the junta’s abuse of the constitutional process and the long detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, but it stuck by its policy of engagement and it disputed the usefulness of sanctions.”11 Once again, ASEAN’s support for the new U.S. policy is merely a reaction to the changing strategic interests of Washington in Naypyidaw. How can ASEAN be certain that the U.S. policy shift will not have a negative impact on its own position in Myanmar? Has ASEAN ever defined its own strategic interests in this member country? As the United States is modifying its policy toward Myanmar, signs that ASEAN might be marginalized are clearly detectable. According to Larry Jagan, the United States began its high-level talks directly with senior representatives of the Myanmar government in Beijing in July 2007, brokered by the Chinese government.12 But the follow-up meeting collapsed because of the junta’s crackdown on antigovernment demonstrators two months later. Not until the concerns over Myanmar’s renewed ties with North Korea and the State Peace and Development Council’s nuclear ambition reached new heights was the United States compelled to consult with certain ASEAN members, notably Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The consultations took place during the ASEAN Regional Forum on July 23, 2009, in Phuket, Thailand. ASEAN might have anticipated the review of U.S. policy toward Myanmar after President Obama assumed office in January 2009. At the forum meeting, however, sanctions seemed to be very much on the mind of Secretary Clinton, partly because the United States had become increasingly suspicious of the elusive relations between Myanmar and North Korea and partly because the ASEAN Regional Forum took place in the middle of the controversial trial of Aung San Suu Kyi. Even at that point, ASEAN did not anticipate that the United States would establish a direct dialogue with the Myanmar regime. As the likelihood of ASEAN marginalization increased, the group started to realize that its influence over Myanmar had long since passed a critical threshold. Economic and political factors may be responsible for ASEAN’s growing constraints in dealing with the Myanmar issue. Some ASEAN members clearly do not want political issues to disturb business opportunities in Myanmar, and some continue to restrain themselves by adhering tightly to
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the nonintervention principle as they interact with the Myanmar regime. But the most critical hurdle, arguably, stems from the lack of a concerted effort and a unified stance among ASEAN members on how to collectively tackle the political malaise in Myanmar. During the past decade, not only has the ASEAN approach greatly differed from that of the rest of the world, but each ASEAN member has also had its own way of defining the Myanmar problem. These differences persist in ASEAN.
Thailand’s policy toward Myanmar took a sharp turn when the Democrat Party came to power at the beginning of 2009. The government of Abhisit Vejjajiva impatiently discarded the business-oriented Myanmar policy of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Abhisit’s government has been particularly vulnerable because it has no record of civilian supremacy over the military nor a commitment to democracy and reconciliation. Therefore, Abhisit has been forced to construct his own legitimacy by appearing to advocate democratic principles both in his domestic and foreign policies. His strategy served Thailand well, as the country was the chair of the ASEAN Standing Committee in 2009. In May Abhisit released a statement on behalf of ASEAN expressing “grave concerns” over the way the junta handled the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi. ASEAN’s statement infuriated the Myanmar leadership. Myanmar foreign minister Nyan Win took a swipe at ASEAN for “deviating” from its noninterference policy: “Some countries in our region and others have a strong interest in the case of John Yettaw and Aung San Suu Kyi. But their interest in the case has been found over-proportionate, overlooking the principles of non-interference in internal affairs, and should not have happened.”13 Not long after that, the Tatmadaw launched attacks against the Karen National Union to disturb trade and create insecurity along the ThaiMyanmar border. In another attempt to secure legitimacy at home, in August 2009 the Abhisit government rallied support from fellow ASEAN members to request that Senior General Than Shwe grant a pardon for Aung San Suu Kyi. Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia supported the Thai initiative, although in the end Thailand failed to get full ASEAN support for its initiative. Some members, like Vietnam, saw it as a violation of the nonintervention principle. Moreover, this idea was completely overshadowed by the visit to Naypyidaw of U.S. senator Jim Webb in the same month. The Thai government has been relatively unenthusiastic about the shift in U.S. policy toward Myanmar. The Foreign Ministry released a statement on
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September 30, 2009, that supported the new U.S. policy direction: “Thailand and ASEAN have consistently used an engagement approach with Myanmar, for the benefit of Myanmar and her people as a whole. In this regard, Thailand stands ready to work closely with ASEAN, the United States, the United Nations, and other stakeholders to engage with Myanmar in a constructive and concerted manner to ensure substantive political development in Myanmar.”14 Indeed, the dilemma for Thailand is how to exploit the U.S. presence in Myanmar for its benefit and at the same time remain independent from the U.S. approach to Naypyidaw. Abhisit once said, “I insisted that ASEAN countries and western countries have the same goal or opinions but it does not mean that we can resort to the same procedure. We have different conditions particularly between countries in the region and countries far from [Myanmar]. We have different relationship policies.”15
After years of political turmoil, Indonesia has finally emerged as a reborn democracy and is now considered the most stable democratic state in Southeast Asia. Accordingly, the country has become more vocal about promoting the region’s democratization. The successful political transition has made Indonesia less patient with ASEAN’s progress in this direction. While the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is seeking to reinvent its role in ASEAN in a more proactive way, some members of the House of Representatives, others across a number of political parties, and some leading think tanks, have all been pushing for a more radical change in the country’s perception of ASEAN. Rizal Sukma, executive director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has called for a “post-ASEAN foreign policy” because of the failure of ASEAN as an effective organization. He alleges that ASEAN continues to ignore critical issues, such as the role of the ASEAN human rights body. Instead, ASEAN defends Myanmar at various international forums, including the International Labour Organization and the UN Security Council: “We should stand tall and proclaim that enough is enough. It is enough for Indonesia to imprison itself in the ‘golden cage’ of ASEAN for more than 40 years. Indonesia needs to begin formulating a post-ASEAN foreign policy. ASEAN should no longer be treated as the only cornerstone of Indonesia’s foreign policy. For Indonesia, ASEAN should constitute only one of the available platforms through which we can attain and fulfill our national interests. Some of our foreign policy initiatives, such as the Bali Democracy
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Forum, the G20, and strategic partnerships with global and regional major powers, have already shown signs toward that direction.”16 With this new attitude, Indonesia loudly hailed the U.S. decision to engage the reclusive Myanmar junta, urging the latter to respond positively to the appeasing gesture from Washington.17 If the shift in U.S. policy toward Myanmar could possibly marginalize ASEAN, Indonesia’s post-ASEAN foreign policy would serve the country well in the new regional order. Indonesia has already expressed its interest in playing a leading role in Myanmar. Previously preoccupied with its own democratization, Indonesia is now paying more attention to the situation in Myanmar to bolster its own democratic credentials. Jakarta is in the position to do so because it does not have substantial economic interests in Myanmar. It also wants to carve out a niche for itself that is commensurate with its status as ASEAN’s largest and most populous member.18
Singapore takes every opportunity to stress its seemingly pro-U.S. foreign policy. This position extends to its support for the shift in U.S. policy toward Naypyidaw. The city-state has been at the forefront in responding to the United States’ new move in Myanmar. Foreign Minister Yeo was among the first ASEAN personalities to applaud the landmark U.S. decision. Over the years, Singapore has successfully maintained its channel of communication with Myanmar’s top leaders, thereby signaling its championing of engagement. Singapore has been one of Myanmar’s top trading partners, with annual bilateral trade of more than $1 billion. At the same time, this relationship has been occasionally beset by various allegations, including that Singapore has supplied the Tatmadaw with arms used to suppress dissidents.19 More recently, it was reported that the junta has siphoned off from the national coffers some $4.85 billion in revenue generated by Total and Chevron’s Yadana gas project and has deposited almost all of the money offshore with Singapore’s Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation and DBS Group—an allegation promptly dismissed by the banks concerned.20 Among its ASEAN partners, Myanmar seems to have been most comfortable in its interactions with Singapore. Former prime minister and senior minister Goh Chok Tong became the first foreign leader to meet Senior General Than Shwe, in June 2009, following the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi. His visit came at a time when relations between Myanmar’s military regime and ASEAN had soured over the trial. It was clear that the ongoing political crisis in Myanmar presented ASEAN with a critical challenge as the organization
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was pushing ahead with plans to introduce a charter that encompassed a regional human rights body. Thus while in Naypyidaw, Goh expressed ASEAN’s concern over Myanmar’s political situation. However, Than Shwe was not enraged by Goh’s repeated call for the emancipation of Aung San Suu Kyi. Instead, Goh was given the red-carpet treatment during his fourday trip to Myanmar. Myanmar analysts believe Goh’s message carried more weight than those from other ASEAN nations.21 As a small state, Singapore values multilateral cooperation and has sought to identify itself with ASEAN so as to reduce the pressure from bigger powers within the organization. As a result, Singapore has seen itself as one of the key players in ASEAN. It supports ASEAN’s role in Myanmar and opposes sanctions. Singapore strongly backed ASEAN’s initiative in acting as a bridge linking Myanmar and the United Nations in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. Robert Chua, Singapore ambassador to Yangon and also dean of the diplomatic corps, played a significant role in the Tripartite Core Group (consisting of ASEAN, the United Nations, and the Myanmar government) that led the Nargis relief effort. From this perspective, Singapore will be tempted to use its connections inside Naypyidaw to facilitate the new U.S. dialogue with the junta—a win-win foreign policy option for the city-state.
Vietnam’s view of the new U.S. Myanmar policy is important in part because Vietnam assumed ASEAN’s chairmanship at the beginning of 2010. Although Vietnam and Myanmar are fellow members in various regional organizations, such as the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy and the Greater Mekong Subregion, the bilateral relationship has not progressed far because there are no deep historical ties between them.22 In 2007 UN special adviser Gambari paid an official visit to Hanoi to exchange views with the Vietnamese leaders on the Myanmar issue. Deputy Prime Minister Pham Gia Khiem told Gambari that as a former victim of embargo and blockage policies, Vietnam would not support any embargo or blockage on Myanmar but would respect the Myanmar people’s right to self-determination.23 Vietnam’s opposition to Western sanctions justified its reluctance to unambiguously endorse demands for political transition in Myanmar. Jürgen Haacke has argued that this was more or less clearly linked to concerns about the incumbent regime’s own political future as well as concerns about any ASEAN role in amplifying external pressure.24 In August 2009 Vietnam made a strong statement indicating that it refused to support calls by other
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ASEAN members for Myanmar to free Aung San Suu Kyi. “It is our view that the Aung San Suu Kyi trial is an internal affair of Myanmar,” said Vietnamese government spokesman Le Dung.25 As the most impassioned advocate of traditional understandings associated with the “ASEAN way” and its application to Myanmar, Vietnam’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2010 could bring a certain awkwardness. So far, the Vietnamese government has kept quiet about its view of the shift in the United States’ Myanmar policy. Although Vietnam successfully normalized its relations with the United States, that does not automatically mean it would cheer for U.S. direct intervention in Myanmar. Taking its current stance to the extreme, it is possible that, as the ASEAN chair, Vietnam will assume responsibility for protecting the group’s core values and therefore seek to shrink the range of opinion. (Vietnam disagreed with the scheduled Gambari briefing at the East Asia Summit in 2007, arguing that it would represent interference in Myanmar’s domestic affairs.) Vietnam could also find itself in conflict with other more liberal members, such as Indonesia, in competing to redefine the role of ASEAN.
The United States’ Tangible Move
To reaffirm his government’s seriousness about its new policy, U.S. assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell paid an official visit to Myanmar on November 3–4, 2009, the first high-ranking American diplomat to visit this country in fourteen years. Campbell seemed to be a good choice to represent U.S. interests in interacting with the regime. He came across as genuine in his immense interest in and concerns about the situation in Myanmar. He might not have known everything about the junta, yet Campbell was not shy in consulting experts while seeking opinions regarding the best way to deal with the Myanmar regime. Campbell’s approach was refreshing, and it proved practical during his first visit to Myanmar.26 Campbell met with both the ruling generals and Aung San Suu Kyi.27 His visit symbolized a thaw in U.S.-Myanmar relations and an end to the United States’ official policy of isolating Myanmar. But Campbell strongly stated that the objectives of U.S. policy remained unchanged. He called on the military government, represented by Prime Minister Thein Sein, to open a dialogue with the opposition and the ethnic minority groups that have been struggling for a measure of autonomy. He also urged the junta to allow Aung San Suu Kyi more freedom to meet with people concerned with the political process, particularly her own party’s senior executives. Campbell declared, “The goals
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of the new U.S. policy are strong support for human rights, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners, and the promotion of democratic reform.”28 While the conversation between Campbell and Aung San Suu Kyi was not made public, it was reported in the press that the U.S. diplomat would seek Suu Kyi’s opinions on the sanctions against her country, on how she perceived the reconciliation process and the upcoming general election, and on how Myanmar might move forward in the postelection period. It is too early to call the new U.S. policy shift a success. Yet Campbell’s visit has certainly elevated the level of optimism in this reclusive country. When President Obama attended the first ASEAN-U.S. Summit in Singapore in November 2009, he reiterated his unbending demand for tangible political developments as part of the process of improving relations between Naypyidaw and Washington. Obama was the first U.S. president to initiate a dialogue with a Myanmar leader since 1966. He raised the issue directly with Prime Minister Thein Sein and reiterated the U.S. demands already conveyed to the Myanmar junta by Campbell. Obama insisted on the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, an issue that saw a sharp difference in viewpoint from some members of ASEAN. In the twenty-eight-point joint statement, the leaders of ASEAN “welcomed the high-level dialogue and the policy of the United States to engage with the Government of Myanmar” but did not specifically request Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. The two sides “underscored the importance of achieving national reconciliation” and stated that “the general elections to be held in Myanmar in 2010 must be conducted in a free, fair, inclusive and transparent manner in order to be credible to the international community.”29 There was no explanation why ASEAN omitted the request for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, when it had many times in the past called for her freedom. Observers speculated that ASEAN did not want the United States to use the summit as a platform to belittle both the group and Myanmar. Whatever the reasons might have been, differences between the United States and ASEAN in their approaches to Myanmar remain. These could become more contentious as the United States further deepens its new relations with Myanmar. Campbell returned to Naypyidaw on May 10, 2010, for his second visit in six months. The timing of his visit could not have been more crucial. The NLD had decided to boycott the upcoming election following the enactment of the Union Election Commission Law, which stated that anyone currently serving a jail term would be banned from joining a political party and participating in the election. This law effectively barred Aung San Suu Kyi’s involvement in the election.30 In a statement issued at the end of his visit,
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Campbell said, “We are profoundly troubled by the response of the Burmese leadership [to the change in U.S. policy].”31 While in Myanmar, Campbell held discussions with Aung San Suu Kyi as well as a number of Myanmar government officials, including foreign minister Nyan Win, information minister Kyaw San, and science and technology minister U Thaung—Myanmar’s former envoy in Washington, who is the point person for Myanmar’s engagement with the United States. Key issues raised by Campbell were the disappointing election laws, the absence of a credible dialogue among all stakeholders in Burma, the continued incarceration of political prisoners, increasing tensions between the central government and the ethnic minorities, and possible noncompliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which imposed sanctions on North Korea related to its nuclear weapons program.
The Bus Is Leaving
It is clear that ASEAN members have reacted to the shift in the United States’ Myanmar policy on an individual basis. No attempt has been made for a regional response, confirming the perception that ASEAN’s policy on Myanmar remains fragmented. There is also no guarantee that even if ASEAN as one unified entity ramps up its support for the new U.S. policy, the members can work in harmony. Min Zaw Oo has argued that the U.S. engagement with Myanmar will be quite different from the way ASEAN does business.32 Democratization and human rights will still be among U.S. policy goals in Myanmar. But the most crucial aspect of U.S. policy will probably be its approach to the 2010 election. Washington does not want to abandon its moral code altogether and thus will need a plausible reason to maintain its policy shift on Myanmar. By contrast, most ASEAN members will be satisfied with the completion of the election and disinclined to question the new regime’s legitimacy. More critical is the possibility that the diverse views within ASEAN could be highly self-defeating. ASEAN’s position on Myanmar has appeared unchanged since Myanmar joined the group twelve years ago. What is worse, forty-two years after its creation ASEAN members have not yet seen it fundamentally important to define the group’s strategic interests and to demonstrate its solidarity and maturity. True, the principle of noninterference has in recent years been toned down. But the degree of commitment in new essential areas, such as human rights protection and democratization, has remained low.
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ASEAN’s shortcomings do not lie only in the various perceptions of its members. Organizational weakness has greatly impeded its progress. As repeatedly noted here, ASEAN’s permanent position is to react to events. Its Myanmar policy has been mainly driven, and sometime provoked, by the opinion of Western governments and the international media. ASEAN’s lack of strategic thinking could potentially lead to misinterpretations of the true situation. For example, while ASEAN’s main focus has been to call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, none of the member states has ever delved deeper into the lingering conflicts between the junta and the many ethnic minorities. It is now time for all ASEAN members to design an integrated strategic policy on how best to deal with Myanmar if they wish to truly encourage political change in this member state. The global community is watching how ASEAN will readjust its position now that the United States has made a significant change in its policy toward Myanmar. Such a question only reinforces the view that ASEAN reacts to, rather than anticipates or initiates, events. It is therefore fair to conclude that since ASEAN has failed to take the lead in addressing Myanmar’s political deadlock, it has indeed marginalized itself. With or without the U.S. policy shift, ASEAN must define its strategic interest in Myanmar. This process is long overdue. If it fails to do so, ASEAN might actually miss this last bus to Naypyidaw.
1. Robert I. Rotberg, “Prospects for a Democratic Burma,” in Burma: Prospects for a Democratic Future, ed. Robert I. Rotberg (Brookings, 1998), p. 2. Also see David Arnott, “China-Burma Relations,” in Challenges to Democratisation in Burma: Perspective of Multilateral and Bilateral Responses (Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2001) (www.burmalibrary.org/docs3/ BURMA_beyond_2000.pdf [July 2010]), p. 7. 2. See Pavin Chachavalpongpun, “Neither Constructive nor Engaging: The Debacle of ASEAN’s Burmese Policy,” in Between Isolation and Internationalisation: The State of Burma, ed. Johan Lagerkvist, pp. 201–22, Working Paper 4 (Stockholm: Swedish Institute of International Affairs, 2008). 3. “Thailand, as the ASEAN Chair, expresses grave concern about recent developments relating to Daw Aung San Aung San Suu Kyi, given her fragile health. In this connection, the Government of the Union of Myanmar is reminded that the ASEAN Leaders had called for the immediate release of Daw Aung San Aung San Suu Kyi.” ASEAN Chairman’s Statement on Myanmar, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand, May 19, 2009 (www.aseansec.org/PR-ASEANChairmanStatementonMyanmar.pdf).
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4. Tania Branigan, “Thousands Flee Burma as Army Clashes with Kokang Militias,” The Guardian, August 28, 2009 (www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/aug/28/ burma-shan-refugees-fighting-china). 5. Rodolfo Severino, interview with author, October 5, 2009, Singapore. 6. Ian Storey, “Emerging Fault Line in Sino-Burmese Relations: The Kokang Incident,” China Brief 9, no. 18 (2009) (www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1& tx_ttnews[tt_news]=35468&tx_ttnews[backPid]=7&cHash=3cc6a7017c>). 7. This material is covered in the author’s interview with the Washington Times. See Michael Standaert and Simon Roughneen, “Myanmar Refugees Return as Fighting Cools,” Washington Times, September 3, 2009. 8. Chua Chin Hon, “Thaw in US-Myanmar Ties,” Straits Times, October 5, 2009. Chua quotes Singapore lecturer Bridget Welsh: “When people talk about the issue of acceptance (of the legitimacy of the upcoming elections in Burma), they are really referring to this recognition from the United States,” Asia News Net, May 10, 2009 (www.asianewsnet.net/news.php?id=8067&sec=1). 9. Kurt Campbell, “U.S. Policy toward Burma,” testimony before the Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Washington, September 30, 2009 (http://foreign.senate.gov/testimony/2009/Campbell Testimony090930p.pdf). 10. George Yeo, comments to the media after the meeting of the Group of Friends on Myanmar at the United Nations headquarters in New York, September 23, 2009 (www.news.gov.sg/public/sgpc/en/media_releases/agencies/mfa/press_ release/P-20090924-2). 11. “Myanmar: ASEAN Stands Vindicated,” editorial, Straits Times, September 29, 2009 (http://app.mfa.gov.sg/pr/read_content.asp?View,13603). 12. Larry Jagan, “U.S. Policy Shift on Burma Gets Mixed Reactions,” Inter Press Service, September 25, 2009 (http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=48589). 13. Martin Petty, “Myanmar Says Suu Kyi Trial ‘Not Political,’” Reuters, May 28, 2009 (www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE54R2DU20090528). 14. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand, Press Release 470-2552, September 30, 2009. 15. Quoted in Usa Pichai, “ASEAN Will Not Expel Burma: Thai PM,” Mizzima, July 24, 2009 (www.mizzima.com/news/regional/2499-asean-will-not-expel-burmathai-pm.html). 16. Rizal Sukma, “ASEAN Needs a Post-ASEAN Foreign Policy,” Jakarta Post, June 30, 2009. 17. Ary Hermawan, “Indonesia Lauds U.S. Policy Shift on Myanmar,” Jakarta Post, September 28, 2009. 18. Simon Roughneed, “Indonesia Steps into the Spotlight,” Irrawaddy 17, no. 6 (2009) (http://irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=16673). 19. Leslie Kean and Dennis Bernstein quote Professor Mya Maung, who claimed that Singapore’s economic linkage with Myanmar is one of the most vital factors for
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the survival of Myanmar’s military regime. This link was also central to the expansion of the heroin trade. Leslie Kean and Dennis Bernstein, “Burma-Singapore Axis: Globalising the Heroin Trade,” Covert Action Quarterly, no. 64 (Spring 1998) (www. singapore-window.org/804caq9.htm). 20. “Total, Chevron Enriching Burma Junta,” Agence France-Presse, September 10, 2009 (news.theage.com.au/breaking-news-world/total-chevron-enrichingburma-junta-20090910-fivd.html). 21. Aung Zaw, “As Burma Draws Fire, ASEAN Gets Burned,” Irrawaddy 17, no. 4 (2009) (www.irrawaddy.org/print_article.php?art_id=16215). 22. Jürgen Haacke, “ASEAN and Political Change in Myanmar: Towards a Regional Initiative?” Contemporary Southeast Asia 30, no. 3 (2008): 351–78, 360. 23. “Vietnam Supports National Reconciliation in Myanmar,” VietNamNet, November 25, 2007 (http://english.vietnamnet.vn/politics/2007/11/756612/). 24. Haacke, “ASEAN and Political Change in Myanmar,” p. 361. 25. Quoted in Sahil Nagpal, “Vietnam Disagrees with ASEAN over Aung San Suu Kyi,” TopNews Indonesia, August 14, 2009 (www.topnews.in/vietnam-disagreesasean-over-suu-kyi-2201675). 26. Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, interview, Washington, October 29, 2009. 27. Campbell did not meet with Senior General Than Shwe, nor apparently did he request such a meeting. 28. “Kurt Campbell, Aung San Suu Kyi Meet in Burma: A First in 14 Years,” Associated Press, November 4, 2009 (www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/11/04/kurtcampbell-aung-san-su_n_345059.html). 29. “Enhanced Partnership for Enduring Peace and Prosperity,” Joint Statement, First ASEAN-U.S. Leaders Meeting, November 15, 2009 (www.aseansec.org/24020. htm [June 2010]). 30. “Burma Law Formally Bars Aung San Suu Kyi from Election,” BBC News, March 10, 2010 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8559048.stm). 31. “Purposes and Principles of U.S. Engagement in Burma,” Statement by Kurt M. Campbell on May 10, 2010, Rangoon, Burma, U.S. Department of State (www. state.gov/p/eap/rls/rm/2010/05/141669.htm). 32. Min Zaw Oo, “Inevitable US Policy Shift on Burma: Why and How,” Mizzima, September 7, 2009 (www.mizzima.com/edop/commentary/2729-inevitable-us-policy shift-on-burma-why-and-how-.html).
Myanmar, North Korea, and the Nuclear Question
ince the late 1990s there has been a steady trickle of reports in the news media and on activist websites that Myanmar is developing a close relationship with North Korea.1 These reports invariably hint at secret military programs with dire consequences for regional stability. During the latter part of 2009, these reports increased in frequency, and warnings about links between these two pariah states grew stronger. They included accusations that Pyongyang was helping the Naypyidaw regime develop the world’s first Buddhist atomic bomb. If accurate, these reports would be grounds for serious concern. Before drawing any firm conclusions, however, it is important to separate rumor from reality and what is actually known from what is assumed or is the product of speculation.
Apart from occasional stories about the military government’s human rights violations, Myanmar does not often feature in the mainstream news media. North Korea is mentioned more often but until recently was rarely linked with its fellow “outpost of tyranny,” as former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice described the two countries in 2005.2 In a remarkable confluence of events, however, between June and October 2009 seven developments tied Myanmar and North Korea together in the news media and thus in the public imagination. The first development was the publication on June 9 of several photographs showing underground facilities being constructed in Myanmar. Over
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the following weeks, more photographs were released purporting to reveal a “network of secret bomb-proof tunnels.”3 The Democratic Voice of Burma claimed that between 600 and 800 tunnels were being built, with the help of North Korea. The purpose of these facilities was not clear, but activist groups cited the photographs as evidence of nefarious dealings between Naypyidaw and Pyongyang. The second development was the departure from North Korea on June 17 of the cargo vessel Kang Nam I, apparently bound for Rangoon. It was claimed that, in violation of a UN Security Council resolution passed earlier that month, the ship was carrying “Scud-type missiles,” nuclear weapon components, or even nuclear weapons. The Kang Nam 1 was shadowed by a U.S. destroyer until June 29, when it turned around and headed back home. It was widely believed that North Korea wished to avoid an inspection of the vessel by states supporting the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative. The third development took place on July 21, when the U.S. secretary of state spoke at a press conference in Thailand, where she was attending a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. She said that the United States took seriously growing concerns about military cooperation between Pyongyang and Naypyidaw. She believed such cooperation would be “destabilizing for the region” and “pose a direct threat to Myanmar’s neighbors.”4 Hillary Clinton revealed that the United States’ concerns included “the transfer of nuclear technology and other dangerous weapons” from North Korea to Myanmar.5 Two days later, Japanese police announced that they had issued a second warrant for the arrest of Ri Gyong Go, president of a Tokyo-based trading company. Ri was suspected of illegally exporting to Myanmar, in 2008, an instrument for grinding magnets. According to press reports, this device could be used to develop missile control systems and centrifuge machines for uranium enrichment. Ri was initially arrested on June 29, 2009, on suspicion of attempting to export to Myanmar another machine, reportedly used “for developing missiles.”6 Also in July, Myanmar opposition groups obtained a report of the visit to North Korea in December 2008 by a delegation led by Myanmar’s joint chief of staff General Thura Shwe Mann. The leaked report described the inspection of several military bases and arms factories. It also referred to a draft memorandum of understanding outlining proposals for closer defense cooperation between the two countries. The memorandum covered North Korean assistance with military training programs and the construction of underground bunkers and arms shelters in Myanmar.
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Throughout this period, there was a lively debate on Internet sites about various unidentified facilities in Myanmar, which had been found using commercial satellite imagery. These facilities were suspected of being related to a nuclear weapons program. One building—known as the Burma Box— was said to be located at a place identified by Myanmar “defectors.”7 Some observers claimed to have found the signatures of a nuclear reactor and a uranium processing plant. These six stories prepared the ground for the publication on August 1, 2009, of a report by two Australian researchers stating that, according to two Myanmar “defectors,” Naypyidaw had embarked on a secret nuclear weapons program. Since then, news outlets around the world have cited claims that the regime decided in 2002 to build a nuclear reactor and develop a nuclear weapon. The reactor was said to be hidden underground at Naung Laing, near Pyin Oo Lwin. This project reportedly included all key components of the nuclear fuel cycle. According to the two Australian researchers, technology and expertise for the project was being provided by North Korea. They estimated that if everything proceeded according to plan, by 2014 Myanmar could produce “a bomb a year, every year.”8 These seven developments created a sensation. Yet it is worth putting these reports into a broader context and examining them more closely. For, considered from a more critical perspective, the picture is not as clear as it might first appear.
The Historical Background
Since they both achieved independence in 1948, Myanmar and North Korea have enjoyed a checkered relationship.9 Myanmar established full diplomatic relations with both Koreas in 1975. The Ne Win government took pains to balance the demands of North Korea and South Korea for diplomatic support and trade. However, during the late 1970s Myanmar’s relationship with Pyongyang became a little stronger than that with Seoul, as Ne Win and the Burma Socialist Program Party forged direct links with Kim Il-sung and the Korean Workers Party. The relationship with North Korea collapsed in 1983, after Pyongyang sent three agents to Rangoon to assassinate South Korean president Chun Doo Hwan, who was making a state visit to Myanmar. Ne Win considered the attack against Chun not only a violation of Myanmar’s sovereignty but also a personal insult. He severed diplomatic relations between Rangoon
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and Pyongyang and withdrew recognition of North Korea as an independent state. Kim Il-sung later made several attempts to restore ties but was repeatedly rebuffed. Ironically, it was Myanmar’s ostracism by the West after the abortive 1988 prodemocracy uprising that gave North Korea its chance to reestablish links. Shunned by its usual aid donors and arms suppliers, the new military regime in Rangoon turned to China and the former Eastern-bloc countries for assistance. It also developed relationships with states that were out of favor with the United States. Contacts were made with North Korea in the early 1990s, leading to the restoration of diplomatic relations in 2007. Even before then, however, there were a number of bilateral agreements and arms sales. Reliable information is scarce, but it seems that in 1990 Myanmar purchased some small arms ammunition from North Korea. This deal was reportedly followed in 1998 by the purchase of about a dozen field guns. Around 2002 the regime may have opened discussions with Pyongyang about the purchase of a small submarine. The following year there were reports that Myanmar’s military leaders were interested in acquiring short-range ballistic missiles from Pyongyang. The latter deals do not appear to have gone ahead, however, probably because of pressures from Washington. The periodic visit of North Korean freighters to Myanmar since then, and the secrecy surrounding their cargoes, has led to speculation that other deliveries of conventional arms and military equipment have occurred. For example, there were reports in 2007 that North Korea had supplied Myanmar with some truck-mounted multiple launch rocket systems. Claims have also been made regarding the sale to Myanmar of various kinds of missiles, including short-range ballistic missiles. However, none of these arms deals has yet been confirmed. The bilateral relationship seemed to reach a turning point in 2003. North Korean technicians were observed on Myanmar military bases, and it was reported that North Korean aircraft had unloaded heavy equipment in central Myanmar. It was also reported that the Daesong Economic Group, which had a record of conducting clandestine activities on Pyongyang’s behalf, was dealing with the regime.10 Later it was claimed that the Namchongang Trading Company—which probably assisted Syria with its secret nuclear reactor project—had sold some sophisticated dual-use equipment to Myanmar.11 The implication of these reports was that North Korea was helping Myanmar with a secret nuclear program. Since then, there have been numerous reports in the news media and on activist websites accusing Myanmar and North Korea of conducting
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suspicious activities. Most have lacked hard evidence. Even so, it has become evident that North Korea has developed strong military ties with the State Peace and Development Council. The links between the two states have caused unease in Washington and among Myanmar’s neighbors. The actual nature of the relationship, however, remains the subject of debate.
Rumors and Realities
Over the past twenty years, Myanmar has significantly increased its military capabilities. The armed forces have been expanded and modernized. The regime has also strengthened Myanmar’s defense infrastructure and constructed a range of underground facilities. It was logical for Naypyidaw to ask Pyongyang to assist in these projects. Both are authoritarian regimes fearful of external intervention. Pyongyang needs Myanmar primary products, which Naypyidaw can use to barter for North Korean arms, expertise, and technology. North Korea has considerable experience in subterranean engineering. Many of the underground facilities depicted on the Internet are probably for military purposes. The generals have long feared an attack from the air and have taken measures to protect against such a threat. However, some of the tunnels pictured are quite modest and, despite efforts at concealment, would be vulnerable to attack by a modern air force equipped with the latest weapons. A few are likely to be related to civil engineering projects. More important, none of the photos supports claims of a secret nuclear reactor or a nuclear weapons program. Press coverage of the Kang Nam 1 incident seems to be another case of public commentary running ahead of the facts. The ship was indeed going to Rangoon, but it returned to North Korea at Naypyidaw’s request. Its cargo remains a mystery. Reports that it was carrying short-range ballistic missiles have never been confirmed. The claim that it was transporting nuclear weapon components, or nuclear weapons, is even less credible. Indeed, the most recent news reports suggest that the ship may have only been carrying small arms. Before claims that the Kang Nam I was carrying strategic weapons to Myanmar are dismissed entirely, however, it is worth remembering the export of dual-use technology from Japan in 2008 and the attempt to do so again in 2009. They are not the only occasions when Naypyidaw has tried to acquire high-precision machinery for which there have been few logical explanations—apart, that is, from the manufacture of weapons or weapon components. In 2006 and 2007 Myanmar imported some machine tools from Europe, which aroused the suspicions of proliferation analysts.
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Yet such purchases do not necessarily mean that the State Peace and Development Council is engaged in a secret program to develop weapons of mass destruction. Myanmar has a large defense industrial complex. Faced with the threat of a comprehensive arms embargo after 1988 and suspicious even of its current suppliers, the regime has sought to become more self-sufficient. It is possible that Myanmar is trying to develop a capability to manufacture more sophisticated arms. The report on Shwe Mann’s visit to North Korea, for example, suggests that Myanmar wishes to produce its own ballistic missiles. Caution also needs to be exercised about the identification of various facilities around Myanmar as part of a secret nuclear weapons program. For example, the Burma Box was revealed to be nothing more than an industrial workshop.12 Indeed, suspicions that this building was some kind of nuclear facility had been dismissed by the International Atomic Energy Agency some six months earlier.13 Not all unidentified facilities in Myanmar can be discounted as easily, but the Burma Box fiasco demonstrates how speculation about secret weapons programs can take on a life of its own. Bear in mind too that Hillary Clinton did not say North Korea was passing Myanmar nuclear weapons technology. After mentioning—confusingly—the possible transfer of “nuclear technology and other dangerous weapons,” she said, “I’m not saying it is happening, but we want to be prepared to try and stand against it.” Moreover, she referred only to “dealings” between Pyongyang and Naypyidaw that were “perhaps” taking place.14 The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific later stated that he was “not aware of any direct evidence” to support claims of nuclear weapons technology transfers to Myanmar.15 Few of the claims made by the two Australian researchers in August 2009 were new. Rumors about a secret nuclear reactor and weapons program had been circulating in Thailand and on activist websites for years.16 While some of the defectors’ claims are plausible, their testimony needs to be treated with caution. Defectors are rarely reliable or disinterested sources. Some of their claims cited in the press are incorrect, while others have lacked the necessary context.17 There are other reasons to be cautious. Myanmar would have to overcome enormous financial, technical, and practical obstacles to develop all elements of the nuclear fuel cycle, build an underground reactor, and make a deliverable nuclear weapon. Even for more developed, technologically advanced, and better resourced countries, these would be daunting challenges. If North Korea is as deeply involved in a Myanmar nuclear weapons program as the defectors claim, then such obstacles may not be insurmountable. Even so,
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suggestions that Myanmar could produce a nuclear weapon by 2014 and a “handful of devices” by 2020 must be considered extremely optimistic.18 Relations between Myanmar and North Korea have clearly come a long way since 1983. North Korea is selling Myanmar conventional arms, sharing its military expertise and experience, and helping upgrade Myanmar’s defense infrastructure. It is likely that North Korea is also aiding Naypyidaw’s arms industries, and it is possible that Pyongyang is passing “nuclear technology” to Naypyidaw. It still cannot be confirmed, however, that North Korea is helping Myanmar build a nuclear reactor and fuel-processing facilities, with the aim of producing a nuclear weapon.
Myanmar’s Nuclear Ambitions
Arguably, of all the Southeast Asian countries, Myanmar has the strongest strategic rationale to develop nuclear weapons. Since 1988 Myanmar’s military leaders have feared external intervention, possibly even an invasion to restore democratic rule. These fears have waxed and waned over the past twenty years, but they have never gone away. Indeed, they have been kept alive by the aggressive rhetoric leveled against the regime by the United States and some other members of the international community, the economic sanctions imposed against Myanmar, and the support given to the country’s opposition movement. An invasion of Myanmar has never been a serious prospect, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the impact such threat perceptions have had on the regime’s security policies. Some Myanmar generals are clearly attracted to the idea of acquiring a nuclear weapon, in the belief that possession of weapons of mass destruction would give Myanmar the same status and bargaining power that they believe is now enjoyed by North Korea. The key question, however, is whether this is just wishful thinking or indicates a serious attempt by the regime to pursue a nuclear weapons program. In 2000, when Myanmar’s military government announced that it planned to purchase a small reactor from Russia, activist groups warned that the generals were not to be trusted. They accused the regime of planning to develop a nuclear weapon to threaten the international community and resist pressures to reform. They cited the regime’s long record of duplicity, its fear of external intervention, and its customary disregard for international norms of behavior. They dismissed assurances that the proposed Russian reactor was for peaceful research and would be placed under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.
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After 2003 others warned against Myanmar’s relationship with North Korea, even then suspected of spreading sensitive nuclear technologies. For example, the then chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard G. Lugar, called Myanmar a potential “source of instability throughout South and Southeast Asia.” Noting the increasing contacts between Myanmar and North Korea, he stated that “the link-up of these two pariah states can only spell trouble.”19 At the time, these suspicions were greeted with skepticism.20 Myanmar had a long record of opposition to nuclear weapons and was party to all the major nonproliferation agreements. Its financial reserves and level of technological development were very low. It was struggling even to maintain its basic civil infrastructure. The country’s higher education system had collapsed. After an inspection tour in 2001, the International Atomic Energy Agency declared Myanmar to be completely unready for the construction of even a small Russian research reactor. Since then, however, the situation has changed. Thanks to natural gas sales, Myanmar now has large foreign exchange reserves that could be used to fund a nuclear program.21 The armed forces can boast an extensive network of military training, research, and development institutions. Russia is providing technical instruction for a large number of Myanmar servicemen and officials, including some in the nuclear field. Items of sophisticated equipment have been imported, and it is possible that expertise and sensitive technologies are being provided by North Korea. In these circumstances, the question of whether Myanmar has embarked on a covert nuclear weapons program may now depend more on issues of intention and political will than on matters of resources, expertise, and practical management. Myanmar has not made any public response to the spate of news reports in 2009, but during U.S. senator Jim Webb’s visit to Naypyidaw in August of that year a senior official told him that Myanmar did not have a secret nuclear program. Similar assurances were given to the Japanese foreign minister in October. Predictably, the international response to these statements has been mixed.
The Official Silence
All these developments have raised concerns, but without hard evidence few claims can be verified. Indeed, some reports have prompted more questions than they have answered. One of the most intriguing questions is why so few governments and international organizations have made official statements
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specifically addressing this subject, despite all the publicity it has received. Most puzzling of all, given its usually strong stance on Myanmar, is the U.S. government’s continued silence. The Bush administration had no love for Myanmar’s military regime, which it took every opportunity to criticize. At the same time, the administration made nuclear nonproliferation one of its highest priorities. The United States condemned countries, such as Iraq, Iran, Syria, and North Korea, that it believed were pursuing nuclear weapons programs or spreading nuclear technologies. At no time, however, did the Bush administration accuse Myanmar’s government of trying to build a secret reactor or develop nuclear weapons, with or without North Korean assistance. Throughout this period, Washington was watching developments in Myanmar closely. Since 2006 the United States has known about the Myanmar defectors on whose testimony the two Australian researchers based their August 2009 news stories. Indeed, the researchers suggested that a third Myanmar defector was “picked up” by U.S. intelligence agencies in 2008, presumably to be interviewed about Naypyidaw’s nuclear ambitions.22 Yet even when armed with the apparent revelations of all these defectors, the Bush administration remained silent about Myanmar’s nuclear status. As rumors of a secret nuclear program grew in frequency and scope, the administration came under pressure from activists and members of Congress to accuse Naypyidaw of developing nuclear weapons. Yet it refused to do so. This position prevailed even in 2006, when Washington conducted a campaign in the UN Security Council for Myanmar to be branded a threat to international peace and security. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Bush administration remained silent on this issue because it did not have the evidence on which to make a public case against Naypyidaw and Pyongyang. The Obama administration has investigated this matter closely, as part of its review of U.S. policy toward Myanmar. It has reiterated U.S. concerns about nuclear proliferation and North Korea’s activities, but it too has refused to confirm that Myanmar is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. In July incoming assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell told Congress that he would watch all external support for Myanmar’s nuclear activities, including from Russia and North Korea, but he made no reference to a secret weapons of mass destruction program. Following Hillary Clinton’s remarks in Thailand, the State Department conceded that the United States did not have “a good sense of the military cooperation between Myanmar and North Korea.”23 After the dramatic news stories that August, official U.S. spokespersons repeatedly refused to answer
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questions about Myanmar’s reported nuclear ambitions, other than to say it was an intelligence matter. This continuing reticence suggests that while the United States is concerned about Naypyidaw’s relationship with Pyongyang, it still does not have hard evidence of a secret nuclear weapons program. Indeed, the United States seems to have accepted Myanmar’s assurances that it will implement UN sanctions against North Korea, which prohibit arms and nuclear technology transfers. In September 2009 Washington announced plans for closer engagement and increased dialogue with Naypyidaw. U.S. officials have stated that their discussions will cover nuclear proliferation and Myanmar’s relations with North Korea. Yet such a significant policy shift would seem unlikely if the United States believed Naypyidaw was already well advanced on a covert nuclear weapons program, with Pyongyang’s help. A few other governments have commented on this issue, but none has confirmed the existence of a secret nuclear program. In 2006, for example, the British government said that it was “not able to corroborate” reports about the alleged transfer of nuclear technology from North Korea to Myanmar.24 In October 2009 London was still referring to “unconfirmed reports” of nuclear cooperation between Pyongyang and Naypyidaw.25 In August 2009 senior Thai officials refuted news reports that Myanmar was building a secret nuclear reactor.
In tackling the nuclear issue at a policy level, governments and international organizations face a number of seemingly intractable problems. The greatest is the sheer difficulty of determining whether or not Myanmar actually has a secret nuclear program and, if so, how far it might have progressed. This is clearly proving a real challenge, even to agencies with enormous resources and highly sophisticated technologies. Understandably, foreign officials looking at this issue are being very cautious. No one wants a repetition of the mistakes that preceded the 2003 Iraq war by giving too much credibility to untested intelligence sources or by underestimating a country’s capabilities. Particularly in the highly charged political environment that surrounds consideration of Myanmar’s complex problems—not to mention proliferation issues more generally—no government is going to accept claims of a secret nuclear weapons program without investigating them thoroughly. If, for the sake of argument, evidence of such a program were found, then another problem arises. The military government has shown that it
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is determined to decide its own security policies, according to its perceptions of Myanmar’s national interests. If it has embarked on a weapons of mass destruction program out of a fear of external intervention, then there is unlikely to be any progress toward halting the program until those fears are assuaged. Yet in the current political climate the United States among others would find it difficult to offer the Naypyidaw regime the kind of security guarantees this would probably require. Should the international community try to force Naypyidaw to abandon a clandestine nuclear weapons program, it would face another set of problems. Over the past twenty years, many countries have tried to make the regime surrender power, release political prisoners, and adopt more humane policies through diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, and other punitive measures. Yet as Hillary Clinton acknowledged in February 2009, this approach has been demonstrably unsuccessful. Indeed, it has probably hardened the regime’s resolve to resist external pressures. Countries enjoying closer ties to Myanmar, such as China and India, would doubtless share international concerns about a secret nuclear program. Their influence with the military government is not as great as is often claimed, however, and it is likely that in dealing with Myanmar on this issue they would encounter many of the same problems as the regime’s critics. In halting a serious nuclear weapons program North Korea’s cooperation would be vital, but Pyongyang is unlikely to be responsive to international pressures. Naypyidaw does not appear to fear international criticism or the threat of increased sanctions. Myanmar occupies a critical geostrategic position and is rich in natural resources. The regime knows it is unlikely to be abandoned by Myanmar’s powerful and energy-hungry neighbors. If Myanmar were found to have a nuclear weapons program, then it could be expelled from ASEAN.26 Even if that were to occur, however, the generals seem prepared to see Myanmar return to its pre-1988 isolation and poverty if that is the price they must pay to remain masters of the country’s destiny. As the international community has repeatedly been reminded since Myanmar’s armed forces took back direct political power in 1988, there are few practical ways to influence a government that is deeply committed to its self-appointed role in national affairs, does not care for the welfare of its own people, does not observe international norms, and is protected by powerful friends and allies. If that government has embarked on a secret nuclear weapons program, then the international community faces a real policy challenge.
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On security-related issues, Myanmar and North Korea are information black holes. Given the isolated and secretive nature of both regimes, it is difficult to determine the precise nature of their relationship. Both countries are at the center of emotive and highly politicized debates about human rights, nuclear proliferation, and regional security. The picture is further clouded by rumors and speculation in the news media and on activist websites. There is the danger, too, of individuals and groups encouraging anti-Naypyidaw or anti-Pyongyang sentiments for partisan political reasons. Any suggestions of a secret nuclear weapons program, however, particularly one conducted by a country like Myanmar, must be cause for concern. Some of the information that has leaked out of the country in recent years seems credible, and other snippets of information have emerged that, taken together, raise suspicions. No one should underestimate the lengths to which Myanmar’s military leaders will go to stay in power and to protect the country—and themselves—from perceived threats. With this in mind, many observers are looking to the Obama administration to settle Myanmar’s nuclear status once and for all. The Burmese JADE Act enacted by the U.S. Congress in July 2008 stipulates that, within 180 days, the secretary of state must issue a statement describing “the provision of weapons of mass destruction and related materials, capabilities, and technology, including nuclear, chemical, and dual use capabilities” to Myanmar.27 That deadline has already passed without the appearance of any statement. The world is still waiting for an authoritative public statement from the U.S. government or some other credible source that will put all the rumors, blogs, and newspaper stories into their proper perspective. Until that appears, Myanmar watchers may have to be satisfied with the findings of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which concluded in September 2009 that there was insufficient information to make a well-founded judgment about Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions and the North Korean connection.28
1. See Andrew Selth, Burma and North Korea: Conventional Allies or Nuclear Partners? Regional Outlook 22 (Brisbane, Australia: Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, 2009). 2. “Rice Names ‘Outposts of Tyranny,”’ BBC News, January 19, 2005 (http:// news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4186241.stm).
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3. “Myanmar’s ‘Secret Tunnels’ Revealed,” Al Jazeera, June 25, 2009 (http://english.aljazeera.net/news/asia-pacific/2009/06/20096255353936689.html). 4. Quoted in Glenn Kessler, “U.S. Concerns Growing about N. Korean Military Ties with Burma,” Washington Post, July 22, 2009 (www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2009/07/21/AR2009072101021.html). 5. “Secretary Clinton Interviewed in Thailand,” Secretary Clinton Blog, July 23, 2009 (http://secretaryclinton.wordpress.com/2009/07/23/secretary-clintoninterviewed-in-thailand/). 6. Mari Yamaguchi, “Japan Holds 3 Accused of Trading for N. Korea,” Taiwan News, June 30, 2009 (www.etaiwannews.com/etn/news_content.php?id=990278& lang=eng_news). 7. See, for example, “The Box in Burma: Preliminary Analysis,” Verification, Implementation, and Compliance, August 13, 2009 (www.armscontrolverification. org/2009/08/box-in-Burma-preliminary-analysis.html). 8. Hamish McDonald, “Revealed: Burma’s Nuclear Bombshell,” Sydney Morning Herald , August 1, 2009 (www.smh.com.au/world/revealed-Burmax2019snuclear-bombshell-20090731-e4fw.html). See also Daniel Flitton, “Burma and the Bomb,” The Age, August 1, 2009 (www.theage.com.au/world/Burma-and-thebomb-20090731-e4h6.html?page=-1). 9. Andrew Selth, Burma’s North Korean Gambit: A Challenge to Regional Security? Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defense 154 (Canberra: Strategic and Defense Studies Centre, Australian National University, 2004). 10. Bertil Lintner and S. W. Crispin, “Dangerous Bedfellows,” Far Eastern Economic Review, November 20, 2003, pp. 22–24. 11. Kessler, “U.S. Concerns Growing about N. Korean Military Ties with Burma.” 12. James Fallows, “About That ‘Ominous’ Building in Burma,” Atlantic Monthly, August 20, 2009 (http://jamesfallows.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/08/ about_that_ominous_building_in.php). 13. Mark Hibbs, “IAEA Probes Myanmar Data, Discourages New Research Reactors,” Nuclear Fuel, August 10, 2009, pp. 3–4. 14. Quoted in “Secretary Clinton Interviewed in Thailand.” 15. “Admiral Timothy Keating Discusses U.S. Strategic Interests,” Australian Broadcasting Commission, Lateline, September 1, 2009 (www.abc.net.au/lateline/ content/2008/s2673745.htm). 16. See, for example, Roland Watson, “Plagiarism in the Burma Nuclear ‘Scoop,’” Dictator Watch, August 3, 2009 (www.dictatorwatch.org/). 17. Andrew Selth, “A Reply to Des Ball: Burma’s Nuclear Programs: A Need for Caution,” Security Challenges 5, no. 4 (2009): 127–31. 18. “Burma’s Bomb Alive and Ticking,” Bangkok Post, August 2, 2009 (www. bangkokpost.com/news/investigation/21362/Burma-s-nuclear-bomb-alive-and-ticking). 19. R. G. Lugar, ”Seeds of Trouble from Burma,” Washington Post, September 28, 2003.
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20. See, for example, Andrew Selth, Burma and Nuclear Proliferation: Policies and Perceptions, Regional Outlook 12 (Brisbane, Australia: Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, 2007). 21. Sean Turnell, “Burma’s Insatiable State,” Asian Survey 48, no. 6 (2008): 958–76. 22. McDonald, “Revealed: Burma’s Nuclear Bombshell.” 23. Deputy spokesman Robert Wood, daily press briefing, U.S. Department of State, Washington, July 22, 2009 (www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2009/july/126321.htm). 24. United Kingdom Parliament, “Burma,” answer from Ms. Margaret Beckett to Mr. Hague, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, June 5, 2006 (www.publications. parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmhansrd/vo060605/text/60605w0061.htm#0606071 2000009). 25. United Kingdom Parliament, “North Korea: Nuclear Power,” answer from Mr. Lewis to Mr. Pritchard, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, October 14, 2009 (www. theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2009-10-14c.291973.h). 26. “Myanmar May Have to Leave ASEAN If It Has a Nuclear Plant,” MCOT.Net, August 8, 2009 (http://enews.mcot.net/view.php?id=11215). 27. HR 3890: Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act of 2008, 110th Cong. (www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h110-3890). 28. Preventing Nuclear Dangers in Southeast Asia and Australasia (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2009), p. 115.
kurt m. campbell
The New U.S. Policy of Pragmatic Engagement
r. Chairman, Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, and Members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me here today to testify about U.S. policy toward Burma and a possible new direction for U.S.-Burma relations. I appreciate this opportunity to discuss the overarching assessments that helped shape our review. The Administration launched a review of our Burma policy seven months ago, recognizing that political and humanitarian conditions in Burma were deplorable. Neither sanctions nor engagement, implemented alone, have succeeded in improving those conditions and moving Burma forward on a path to democratic reform. Moreover, it was clear to us that the problems Burma presents, not only to its people, but to its neighbors, the wider region and the world at large, demand that we review and reconsider our approach. In addition to taking a hard look at the current situation inside Burma, we also focused on emerging questions and concerns regarding Burma’s relationship with North Korea, particularly in light of the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1874. This resolution prohibits member states from engaging in trade with North Korea in virtually all conventional weapons as well as in sensitive technologies, including those related to ballistic missiles and nuclear and other WMD [weapons of mass destruction] programs. Our policy review also was informed by the fact that, for the first time in recent memory, the Burmese leadership has shown an active interest in engaging with the United States. But, let me be clear: we have decided to engage with Burma because we believe it is in our interest to do so.
Statement before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Washington, D.C., October 21, 2009.
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We have consulted widely throughout the review process with Congress, other governments, and key stakeholders such as non-governmental organizations, business leaders, academics, and representatives of international organizations. We also have consulted with the National League for Democracy and other democratic activists inside Burma. The conclusions of our policy review, announced last month, reaffirmed our fundamental interests in Burma: we support a unified, peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Burma. While our goals in Burma remain the same as before, the policy review confirmed that we need additional tools to augment those that we have been using in pursuit of our objectives. A policy of pragmatic engagement with the Burmese authorities holds the best hope for advancing our goals. A central element of this approach is a direct, seniorlevel dialogue with representatives of the Burmese leadership. We hope a dialogue with the Burmese regime will lay out a path forward towards change in Burma and a better, more productive bilateral relationship. Through a direct dialogue, we will be able to test the intentions of the Burmese leadership and the sincerity of their expressed interest in a more positive relationship with the United States. The way forward will be clearly tied to concrete actions on the part of the Burmese leadership addressing our core concerns, particularly in the areas of democracy and human rights. We will also discuss our proliferation concerns and Burma’s close military relationship with North Korea. Burma has said it is committed to comply fully with UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874. Nevertheless, we remain concerned about the nature and extent of Burma’s ties with North Korea. Full and transparent implementation of these resolutions is critical to global peace and security, and we will be looking to the Burmese authorities to deliver on their commitments. We expect engagement with Burma to be a long, slow, and step-by-step process. We will not judge the success of our efforts at pragmatic engagement by the results of a handful of meetings. Engagement for its own sake is obviously not a goal for U.S. policy, but we recognize that achieving meaningful change in Burma will take time. We will work to ensure that the Burmese leaders have an absolutely clear understanding of our goals for this dialogue and the core issues on our agenda. A fundamentally different U.S.-Burma relationship will require real progress on democracy and human rights. We will continue to press for the unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners; an end to conflicts with ethnic minority groups; accountability of those responsible
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for human rights violations; and the initiation of a genuine dialogue among the Burmese government, the democratic opposition, and the ethnic minorities on a shared vision for the way forward in Burma. This last issue is critical, since only the Burmese people themselves can determine the future of their country. Our intent is to use our dialogue with the Burmese authorities to facilitate that process. Only if the government of Burma makes progress toward these goals will it be possible to improve our bilateral relationship in a step-by-step process. In this regard, we are pleased to see that Labor Minister Aung Kyi, who is the government’s liaison to Aung San Suu Kyi, has met with her twice in the past few weeks in an apparent response to a recent letter Aung San Suu Kyi sent to Senior General Than Shwe. We are also pleased she was permitted to meet with diplomatic representatives from the United States, Australia, and the European Union, per her request to the Senior General. While we welcome these steps, we also note the need for concrete results. Aung San Suu Kyi needs to be able to meet with members of her own party, and the dialogue with the government should continue and be expanded to include all relevant stakeholders. The Administration’s own senior-level dialogue with the Burmese government began with a first meeting in New York on September 29. I led the U.S. delegation, and my counterpart on the Burmese side was U Thaung, the Burmese Minister for Science and Technology and former Ambassador to the United States. The Burmese Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Than Swe, also participated in the discussions. These were substantive talks that lasted approximately two hours. We laid out our views clearly and I stressed to U Thaung that this dialogue is an opportunity for Burma if the authorities are ready to move forward. This was an introductory meeting. It will take more than a single conversation to resolve our differences. We intend to go to Burma in the next few weeks for a fact-finding mission. During that trip, we will talk to the Burmese government, representatives of the ethnic nationalities, and the democratic opposition, including the National League for Democracy “Uncles” and Aung San Suu Kyi. We will keep you informed as this process moves ahead. In parallel to the dialogue on our core democracy, human rights and nonproliferation concerns, we hope to identify some initial positive steps the Burmese could take in other areas that would help build momentum in the talks and could potentially allow the United States to respond in an appropriate manner. There are a number of areas in which we might be able
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to improve cooperation to our mutual benefit, such as counter-narcotics, health, environmental protection, and the recovery of the remains of World War II-era missing Americans. Our dialogue with Burma will supplement rather than replace the sanctions regime that has been at the center of our Burma policy for many years. Lifting or easing sanctions at the outset of a dialogue without meaningful progress on our concerns would be a mistake. We will maintain our existing sanctions until we see concrete progress and continue to work with the international community to ensure that those sanctions are effectively coordinated. We believe any easing of sanctions now would send the wrong signal to those who have been striving for so many years for democracy in Burma, to our partners in the region and elsewhere, and to the Burmese leadership itself. Through our dialogue, we also will make clear to the Burmese leadership that relations with the United States can only be improved in a stepby-step process if the Burmese government takes meaningful actions that address our core concerns. Moreover, in the absence of such actions, we will reserve the option of tightening sanctions on the regime and its supporters as appropriate. Some argue that sanctions should be lifted immediately because they hurt the people of Burma without effectively pressuring the regime. U.S. sanctions, implemented after the crackdown that began in September 2007, have been “targeted”—aimed not at the people of Burma but at the military leadership, its networks and state-owned companies, and the wealthy cronies that support the government often through illicit activities. It is also important to keep in mind the nature of the country’s economic system. Decades of economic mismanagement by Burma’s military leadership have resulted in high inflation, endemic corruption, and poor regulation, which have stifled broad-based economic growth. Burma had an unfriendly business environment well before the imposition of sanctions by the United States, the European Union, Australia, Canada, and others. The country will continue to be an inhospitable place to invest unless the government introduces serious reforms, rule of law, and good governance. We believe that opening up Burma to the outside world can benefit the forces of change working for a better future for the people of this troubled country. Our commitment to the Burmese people is unwavering. We will continue to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the population by expanding our assistance efforts in a manner designed to help those most in need without bolstering the regime. We know it can be done. In the wake of Cyclone
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Nargis, the U.S. Government provided nearly $75 million in aid to the victims of the cyclone through responsible and effective international NGO [nongovernmental organization] partners. We also have broadly licensed financial support of not-for-profit humanitarian activities in Burma, and continue to take care to ensure that U.S. sanctions do not impede humanitarian activities by NGOs. Regarding the elections that the Burmese regime plans to hold in 2010, we need to assess the conditions under which the elections will be held and determine whether opposition and ethnic groups will be able to participate fully. We do not yet know the date of the elections; the authorities also have not published the election laws. Given the way in which the Burmese government conducted its referendum on a new Constitution in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, we are skeptical that the elections will be either free or fair. We will continue to stress to the Burmese authorities the baseline conditions that we consider necessary for any credible electoral process. They include the release of political prisoners, the ability of all stakeholders to stand for election, eliminating restrictions on media, and ensuring a free and open campaign. We will emphasize, and ask that others do the same, that the 2010 elections will only bring legitimacy and stability to the country to the extent that they are broad-based and include all key stakeholders. This is why it is crucial for the regime to begin an internal dialogue now with democratic opposition leaders and representatives of the ethnic minorities. It is only through dialogue that the conditions can be established for all of Burma’s political forces to participate. We also intend to remain engaged with the democratic opposition to ensure that our engagement with the regime is not at crosspurposes with their own objectives. We recognize that we alone cannot promote change in Burma. Many countries in the region have welcomed the results of our policy review. Now that we have taken the step to try to engage Burma, we have made clear we need regional states’ support in pressing for political and economic reform. We will need to work with friends and partners to achieve our goals, including stepped up dialogue and interactions with countries such as China and India that have traditionally close relationships with Burma’s military leaders. I was in China last week and underscored to senior Chinese government officials the need for Beijing to play a positive role in promoting reform in Burma. We will continue to coordinate closely as well with ASEAN, the European Union, Australia, Canada, Japan, and other actors such as the United
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Nations to reinforce our fundamental message on reform to the Burmese regime. We will work with our partners to encourage Burma to be more open and to promote new thinking and new ideas. Since the conclusion of the policy review, we have moved quickly to implement our strategy, but remain realistic in our expectations. We must be prepared to sustain our efforts beyond the planned 2010 elections. Some day a new generation of leaders in Burma will come to power. If the country is more open to the outside world we can hope to influence that transition and encourage Burma’s leaders to take a more positive, constructive, and inclusive path. The process of dialogue itself should give us greater insight into the thinking of Burma’s political leadership and offer opportunities to influence the way in which they look at the world. Pressing for greater openness and exposure to new ideas and new thinking, particularly among members of the up-and-coming generation of leaders is likely, in the long run, to be the most effective means of encouraging change in Burma. Thank you for extending this opportunity to me to testify today on this pressing and vitally important issue. I welcome any questions you may have.
About the Contributors
David Dapice David Dapice has been a professor of economics at Tufts University since 1973. He has also been the chief economist for the Vietnam Program at the Harvard Kennedy School since 1990 and has recently worked on economic policy in Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Xiaolin Guo Xiaolin Guo is senior research fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. She is the author of State and Ethnicity in China’s Southwest (Brill 2008). Gurmeet Kanwal Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal is currently director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) in New Delhi and is a former director of security studies and senior fellow of the Observer Research Foundation. In the Indian Army, he commanded an infantry brigade and an artillery regiment. He has a Master of Science degree in defense studies and a Master of Philosophy degree in strategic studies and management. Kyaw Yin Hlaing Kyaw Yin Hlaing is an assistant professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong. His most recent publication is “Setting the Rules for Survival: Why the Burmese Military Regime Survives in an Age of Democratization” (Pacific Review, vol. 22, 2009). He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mandalay and master’s and doctoral degrees from Cornell University.
202 About the Contributors
Li Chenyang Li Chenyang is a professor and director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, acting director of the China Society for Southeast Asian Studies (CSSAS), and vice director of the GMS Study Center at Yunnan University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in the Burmese language from PLA (People’s Liberation Army) University of Foreign Languages, his master’s degree from Peking University, and his doctorate in world history from Yunnan University. Maung Zarni Maung Zarni is a research fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics (LSE) and a visiting senior fellow, Institute of Security and International Affairs, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand. He frequently comments on Burma affairs in the media, is a columnist for Irrawaddy, and contributed to the LSE’s Civil Society Yearbook 2010 (forthcoming, Blackwell). He founded and directed the Internet-based Free Burma Coalition (1995–2004). Pavin Chachavalpongpun Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow and lead researcher for political and strategic affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. He received his doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and is the author of A Plastic Nation: The Curse of Thainess in Thai-Burmese Relations (2005). Lex Rieffel Lex Rieffel is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, which he joined in 2002 after eighteen years with the U.S. Treasury Department and seven years with the Institute of International Finance. His most recent publication is Out of Business and On Budget: The Challenge of Military Financing in Indonesia (Brookings, 2007). He has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Princeton University and a master’s degree in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School, Tufts University. Andrew Selth Andrew Selth is a research fellow with the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. He has studied Burma as a diplomat, intelligence analyst, and research scholar. He holds a doctorate in Asian studies from Griffith University and has also been awarded degrees in history and international relations from the Australian National University. His latest major work is Burma’s Armed Forces: Power Without Glory (Norwalk, 2002).
About the Contributors 203
Termsak Chalermpalanupap Termsak Chalermpalanupap is director of political and security cooperation at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia. He received his bachelor’s degree in international relations from Chulalongkorn University and his master’s and doctoral degrees in political science from the University of New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1982 and 1986, respectively. Michael Vatikiotis Michael Vatikiotis is regional director for the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. He is a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and has been a writer and journalist in Asia for twenty years. He is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, earned his doctorate from Oxford University, and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Maryland.
Abdul Kalam, A. P. J., 136 Abhisit Vejjajiva, 171, 172 Accidental reconcilers, 57 Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response, 156 Agreement on Promoting Investment and Protection between Myanmar and India, 123 Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, 156 Agriculture: and cross-border trade, 90; and rural recapitalization, 77–85; substitute crops in opium-producing areas, 127–28 Agriculture Department (U.S.), 78 Alatas, Ali, 16, 154, 155 Albright, Madeleine, 22 Annan, Kofi, 19 Ansari, Hamid, 136 Anti-risk strategy, 129 Antiterrorism cooperation, 122, 140, 156 Arms sales: from China, 120, 142; from India, 123; from North Korea, 184, 187; from Russia, 130; from Singapore, 173 ASEAN. See Association of Southeast Asian Nations Asian-African Conference (1955), 150 Asian Development Bank, 27 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, 90, 161 Asia World Group, 94 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), 150–80; charter adoption by, 2, 157; and China’s Myanmar policies, 15; community building paradigm, 156–59; constructive intervention
policy, 16, 153–56, 167; critical hurdles for Myanmar policy, 169–75; Cyclone Nargis response by, 16, 108–09, 159; and India’s Myanmar policy objectives, 116; and international community, 159–61; and Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions, 191; position on Myanmar, 16, 17–18, 161–62, 166–69; reconciliation role of, 59, 65; and state collapse scenario, 108; and U.S. policy, 26, 175–77, 199. See also specific member nations Aung Kyi, 39, 63, 197 Aung San, 5, 44 Aung San Suu Kyi: and 1990 elections, 1, 6–7; and 2010 elections, 176; and ASEAN policy on Myanmar, 162; and India’s Myanmar policies, 122, 145; and National Convention, 60; and reconciliation, 4; and sanctions, 21, 34; second house arrest of, 35–37; and Singapore, 174; third house arrest of, 37–39, 167; and track-two initiative, 63; and U.S. policy shift, 160, 196 Ayeyarwady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy, 174 Badawi, Abdullah, 154, 155 Balance-of-power strategy, 130 Bali Concord II, 157 Ballistic missiles, 186 Bangladesh: cross-border trade with, 91; and Forum for Regional Economic Cooperation, 139; and India’s Look East policy, 135 Ban Ki-Moon, 19, 65, 145
Banking system, 13, 82 Bank Rakyat Indonesia, 82 Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, 139 Border area security, 9, 47, 114 Brown, Gordon, 124 Brunei Darussalam and ASEAN policy, 156 Buddhists, 5, 68 Burma Box, 183, 186 Burma Socialist Program Party, 35, 40, 45 Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 (U.S.), 22 Burmese JADE Act of 2008 (U.S.), 192 Bush, George W.: and Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions, 189; and reconciliation, 66–67; and U.S. policy on Myanmar, 22–23, 161 Bush, Laura, 22 Cambodia: and ASEAN, 16, 156; state collapse example of, 107; and Vietnam, 151 Campbell, Kurt M.: and Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions, 189; testimony on pragmatic engagement policy, 195–200; and U.S. policy shift, 2, 18–19, 24–25, 39, 90, 169, 175–77 Capacity-building programs, 26–27, 162 Ceasefire agreements: in border areas, 89; and cross-border trade, 97; and reconciliation, 8–9, 36, 45–47, 53–54, 68–69 Chevron, 72, 173 China: and ASEAN, 104, 151, 156, 168; challenges for strengthening of relationship with Myanmar, 126–28; cross-border trade with, 91, 95–96, 124; and ethnic minorities in Myanmar, 3; and Forum for Regional Economic Cooperation, 139; historical links to Myanmar, 11; and India’s Myanmar policy objectives, 116– 17, 142–43; India’s policies compared to, 15, 124–25; investment in Myanmar, 125; and Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions, 16, 143, 191; policy content and objectives, 10, 113–15, 118–21; policy results, 125–26; reconciliation role of, 14, 64, 71–72; and status quo scenario, 103, 110; String of Pearls strategy, 15; and U.S. pragmatic engagement policy, 199 China National Petroleum Corporation, 3, 72, 89 Chinese Communist Party, 87 Christians, 5, 68 Chua, Robert, 174 Chun Doo-hwan, 143, 183 Civil servants, 58 Clinton, Bill, 22 Clinton, Hillary: and Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions, 182, 186, 191; and sanctions, 170; and U.S. policy shift, 23, 159–60, 167 Colonialism, 43–44, 102 Commonwealth of Nations, 134 Communist Party of Burma, 6, 11, 15, 87 Community building paradigm, 156–59 Confucians, 5 Constitution: of 1974, 6; of 2008, 7–8, 38, 105; and ethnic minorities, 46; National Convention process for, 7, 38; and state collapse scenario, 108; sustained delay in development of, 104–5 Constructive intervention policy, 16, 153–56, 167 Convention on Counterterrorism, 156 Corruption, 41, 106 Counterterrorism cooperation, 122, 140, 156 Cross-border trade, 86–100; border development mechanisms, 87–90; with China, 91, 95–96, 124; development prospects, 96–97; historical context, 86–87; with India, 91, 124, 138; lack of regulation in, 91; and Ruili economic boom, 91–93; with Thailand, 91, 124 Cyclone Nargis: ASEAN response, 16, 23, 108–09, 156, 159; environmental impact of, 79; India’s response, 141; international response to, 108; and National Convention process, 7; and NGOs, 19; regime response, 64; and rural economies, 77; Singapore response, 174; U.S. response, 23, 198–99 Daesong Economic Group, 184 Daewoo International, 72 Daley, Matthew, 59 Dapice, David, 10, 77 DBS Group, 173 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, 156 Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, 156
Defense. See Military cooperation; Security cooperation Deforestation, 79 Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, 47 Democratic Voice of Burma, 14, 182 Democratization, 118–19, 177, 196 Demographic engineering, 68 Deora, Murli, 123 Diplomatic cooperation, 122 Disaster relief. See Humanitarian relief Drugs. See Narcotics Dual-use equipment, 184, 185 Economic development: as China policy objective, 10, 88, 115, 119–20, 127; and cross-border trade, 86–100; as India policy objective, 15, 123–24, 136–37; as internal challenge, 9–13; and rural recapitalization, 77–85 Education, 10, 13 Electoral process, 8, 47–48 Electricity production: hydropower, 139; and oil and gas sector, 11; and rice sector, 80; supply and demand for, 12 Elites: and elite cohesion, 55; and ethnic minorities, 58; and partial transition scenario, 106; and reconciliation, 57–58, 70–71; in Thailand, 65–66 Emergency Rapid Assessment Team (ASEAN), 108 Energy security: as China policy objective, 114–15; as India policy objective, 117–18, 138–39 Enhanced interaction policy, 16, 153–56 Environmental degradation: and ASEAN, 156; and China’s Myanmar policy, 114, 120, 127; and rural economies, 79; and U.S. pragmatic engagement policy, 198 Equal-distance diplomacy, 128 Ethnic minorities: and Aung San, 44; and China’s Myanmar policies, 14, 119; demographics of, 5; elites among, 58; and India’s Myanmar policy objectives, 117; and narcotics trade, 12; and National Convention, 7; and reconciliation, 3, 43–48, 56; rent-seeking by, 4; Tatmadaw operations against, 2–3 Ethnopolitical mobilization, 57 Euro-Burma Office, 14 European Union: and ASEAN policy on Myanmar, 160; and China’s diplomatic overtures for Myanmar, 121; reconciliation role of, 65; and U.S. pragmatic engagement policy, 199 Export-Import Bank of India, 123 Export permits, 79, 83 External actors, 13–27; international institutions, 19–27; reconciliation role of, 57, 63–67, 69–71. See also specific countries and institutions Extractive industries, 104. See also Oil and gas Fassino, Piero, 65 Financing: of agricultural inputs, 77, 78, 80–81; assistance from China, 119–20 Flexible engagement policy, 16, 153–56 Food and Agriculture Organization (UN), 78 Foreign direct investment: from China, 115, 125; from India, 123–24, 125; in Southeast Asia, 102 Foreign exchange reserves, 13, 188 Forum for Regional Economic Cooperation, 139 Four eights democracy uprising, 35 Frederick Ebert Foundation, 66 Fuel costs, 80, 123 Fukuda, Yasuo, 124 Gambari, Ibrahim, 19, 124, 169 Gas. See Oil and gas Gas Authority of India Ltd., 139 Gemstone trade, 91–92 Globalization and reconciliation, 4, 71–72 Global Witness, 14 Goh Chok Tong, 173–74 Governance recommendations, 27 Grant assistance, 119–20 Greater Mekong Subregion, 174 Group of Friends on Myanmar, 160, 162, 169 Gultang, Johan, 66 Guo, Xiaolin, 12, 86 Haacke, Jürgen, 174 Hanoi Plan of Action, 157 Health sector, 13, 103, 198 High Commissioner for Refugees (UN), 168 Hindus, 5 Hla Min, 61
Humanitarian relief: and ASEAN, 16, 23, 108–9, 156, 162; from China, 120; from India, 141; from Singapore, 174; from U.S., 198–99 Human Rights Council (UN), 20 Human Rights Watch, 14 Hume, Cameron R., 159 Hun Sen, 152, 153 Hydropower, 139 Ibrahim, Anwar, 16, 153–54 Illegal immigration, 12, 96, 114, 120, 127 IMF (International Monetary Fund), 27, 108 India: and ASEAN, 104; challenges for strengthening relationship with Myanmar, 128–29; China’s policies compared to, 15, 124–25; cross-border trade with, 91, 124, 138; and Forum for Regional Economic Cooperation, 140; investment in Myanmar, 125; Look East policy, 15, 116, 135; and Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions, 191; policy content and objectives, 15–16, 115–18, 121–24; policy results, 125–26; reconciliation role of, 144; and status quo scenario, 103, 110; strategic perspective on Myanmar relations, 134–49 India-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, 123 India-Myanmar Friendship Road, 139 India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, 139 Indian Ocean access, 114 Indonesia: and ASEAN policy toward Myanmar, 2, 150, 172–73; economic development in, 102; New Order regime in, 105 Industrial rice estates, 81 Inflation, 13 Informal credit, 81 Infrastructure: agricultural, 79–80; defense, 187; and ethnic minorities, 47; and India’s Myanmar policies, 15, 139–40; and narcotics trade, 12; and partial transition scenario, 105; private development of, 92; in rice sector, 10; and rural economies, 82 Initiative for ASEAN Integration, 162 Insurgent groups: India-Myanmar joint operations against, 126, 140–41; and India’s Myanmar policies, 15, 117, 123, 136; and trade, 138 Intellectual activism, 70 Intelligence corps: India’s cooperation with, 141; and reconciliation, 40–41, 59, 68; and track-two initiative, 61–62 Internally displaced persons, 5, 68 Internal reconcilers, 57 International Atomic Energy Agency, 144, 186, 187–88 International Crisis Group, 14 International Development Enterprises Myanmar, 77 International Institute for Strategic Studies, 18, 192 International institutions: agricultural economic aid from, 82; and ASEAN, 159–61; influences of, 19–27; reconciliation role of, 64–65. See also Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); specific institutions International Labour Organization (UN), 20, 172 International Monetary Fund (IMF), 27, 108 Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, 117 Irrigation engineering, 83 Ivanhoe Mines, 72 Jagan, Larry, 170 Japan: investment in Myanmar, 105; and U.S. pragmatic engagement policy, 199 Jiang Zemin, 126 Jingcheng Group, 93 Kachin Independence Organization, 47–48, 64 Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Facility, 139 Kälin, Walter, 20 Kanwal, Gurmeet, 15–16, 134 Kapoor, Deepak, 140 Karen National Defense Organization, 53 Karen National Union, 46–47, 58, 63, 68, 171 Keong, Voon Phin, 114 Khin Nyunt: and ceasefire agreements, 8–9, 58, 59; and reconciliation, 35, 40–42, 60, 69; and track-two initiative, 4, 62 Kim Il-sung, 183–84 Kokang ethnic minority, 2–3, 167, 168 Kuomintang, 5, 21 Kyaw San, 177
Kyaw Thein, 62 Kyaw Win, 62 Kyaw Yin Hlaing, 3–4, 6, 9, 33 Labor market: and ASEAN, 156; forced labor initiatives of UN, 20; landless laborers, 78; and partial transition scenario, 106; skill level of, 10; and status quo scenario, 110 Lall, Marie, 125 Landless laborers, 78 Lantos, Tom, 23 Laos: and ASEAN, 16; cross-border trade with, 91 Le Dung, 175 Li Chenyang, 14–15, 113 Livelihood and Food Security Trust Fund, 160 Look East policy (India), 15, 116, 135 Lugar, Richard G., 188 Mahathir Mohamad, 16, 154 Malacca Straits, 114, 115 Malaysia: and ASEAN, 101, 150, 156; investment in Myanmar, 105 Malik, V. P., 140 Malnutrition, 80 Mangrove forests, 79 Manipur People’s Liberation Army, 123, 141 Maslyukov, Yuri, 151 Maung Aung Myo, 54, 55, 69 Maung Aye, 41, 122, 136, 140, 160 Maung Suu San, 55 Maung Zarni, 4, 6, 9, 52 McConnell, Mitch, 23 Megaphone diplomacy, 20 Mehta, Sureesh, 140 Mekong-Ganga Cooperation group, 139 Memorandum of Understanding on Intelligence Exchange Cooperation, 141 Memorandum of Understanding on Peace and Tranquility in Border Areas, 136 Microfinance programs, 81 Military cooperation: and China’s Myanmar policies, 14, 142; and India’s Myanmar policies, 117, 122–23, 139–40; with North Korea, 18, 182–83, 187 Military intelligence agency, 40–41. See also Intelligence corps Mindanao and Philippines, 155 Min Zaw Oo, 177 Missile technology, 186 Money laundering, 114 Mukherjee, Pronab, 124 Multinational corporations, 14 Muslims, 5, 6 Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank, 80–81, 82 Myanmar-Bangladesh-India pipeline, 117 Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank, 123 Myanmar-India Joint Trade Committee, 123 Myanmar National Democratic Alliance, 64 Myanmar Times on economic cooperation with India, 123 Naga National Socialist Council, 123, 141 Namchongang Trading Company, 184 Narcotics: and China’s Myanmar policies, 14, 120, 127–28; and cross-border trade, 94; trade in, 12; and U.S. pragmatic engagement policy, 198 Nargis. See Cyclone Nargis National Convention: and 2008 Constitution, 7, 38; and ethnic minorities, 45–46; and roadmap to democracy, 37 National Council of the Union of Burma, 58 National Democratic Alliance Army, 64 National League for Democracy (NLD): and 1990 elections, 1, 6–7; and 2010 elections, 8, 34, 176; and India’s Myanmar policies, 122; and reconciliation, 3, 33, 34–40, 42, 56; and track-two initiative, 61. See also Aung San Suu Kyi National Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (India), 72, 123–24, 139 National Socialist Council of Nagaland, 141 National Unity Party, 40 Natural resources: and China’s Myanmar policies, 115; cross-border trade in, 90, 96; and economic development, 9–10; and ethnic minorities, 46; and reconciliation, 72. See also Oil and gas Ne Win: and armed insurgencies, 5; and ASEAN, 16, 150; and China, 11; and India, 134; and North Korea, 183; and reconciliation, 6, 40; and U.S. economic aid, 21 Nehru, Jawaharlal, 15, 134 Neoconservatives, 66–67 New Democratic Army–Kachin, 47 New Mon State Party, 46 New Order regime (Indonesia), 105 NLD. See National League for Democracy
Non-Aligned Movement, 15, 16, 134, 150 Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), 14, 19, 82, 199 Noninterference principle, 154–55, 158, 171, 177 North Korea: arms sales to Myanmar, 184, 187; investment in Myanmar, 105; and Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions, 2, 16, 18, 143, 181–94; regime ties with, 67, 170, 195 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968), 2, 144 Nuclear weapons program, 18, 181–94; ambitions for, 187–88; historical background, 183–85; and India’s Myanmar policy objectives, 143–44; media coverage of, 181–83; policy challenges of, 190–91; rumors of, 185–87 Nyan Win, 124, 171, 177 Obama, Barack: and ASEAN, 90, 159, 161; on Myanmar as threat to U.S. security, 25; and Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions, 189; and pragmatic engagement policy, 21, 23–24, 160, 176 Ohn Gyaw, 152–53 Oil and gas: and China’s policy objectives, 3, 114–15; and economic development, 10, 11; foreign investment in, 103; and India’s policy objectives, 3, 15, 117–18, 138–39; and rural economies, 83; and status quo scenario, 110 Operation Golden Bird, 126, 141 Operation Sahayata, 141 Outer Space Treaty (1967), 144 Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation, 173 Panglong Agreement, 44 Paris Peace Accords (1991), 151 Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963), 144 Partial transition scenario, 13, 104–07 Pavin Chachavalpongpun, 17–18, 166 Peacemaking patterns and trends, 52–54. See also Reconciliation Petronas, 72 Phado Aung San, 46 Pham Gia Khiem, 174 Philippines: and ASEAN, 150, 156; and Mindanao, 155; and Vietnam, 151 Pinheiro, Paulo Sergio, 65 Pipelines, 11, 89, 117–18, 138–39, 142 Pitsuwan, Surin, 16, 108, 154, 159 Poon Kim Shee, 129 Powell, Colin, 22 Pragmatic engagement policy, 17, 19, 21–26, 167, 195–200 Preah Vihear temple dispute, 156 Precolonial Myanmar, 102 Price stabilization, 79 Principle of noninterference, 154–55, 158, 171, 177 Prodemocracy groups, 42–43. See also National League for Democracy (NLD) Professional reconcilers, 57 Property development, 92 PTT Exploration and Production, 72 Qian Qichen, 151 Ranariddh, Norodom, 152, 153 Rao, Narasimha, 135 Rasgotra, M. K., 116 Razali, Tan Sri Ismail, 19, 62–63 Reconciliation, 3–4, 33–76; absence of dialogue explanations, 40–43; and ASEAN, 59, 65; and China, 14, 64, 71–72; and ethnic minorities, 43–48; external actors’ role in, 63–67, 69–71; and globalization, 4, 71–72; and India, 144; as internal challenge, 3–9; and NLD, 34–40; peacemaking patterns and trends, 52–54; reconciler profiles, 57–58; and Russia, 71–72; SPDC approach to, 34–40, 43–48, 67–69; and Thailand, 65–66; thematic issues in, 54–56; track-two approach to, 58–63; and UN, 37, 64–65, 72 Refugees, 2, 21–22, 122, 168 Refugees International, 14 Regime security, 55 Religious differences, 5 Resource curse, 10 Rice, Condoleezza, 22, 160, 181 Rice sector, 10, 77. See also Agriculture Rieffel, Lex, 1 Ri Gyong Go, 182 Risk-sharing arrangements, 82 Roadmap to democracy, 8, 33, 37, 161, 167 Ruili economic boom, 91–93 Rural economic development, 77–85 Russia: arms sales to Myanmar, 130; and ASEAN, 151; and Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions, 144, 187, 188; reconciliation role of, 71–72; regime ties with, 67
Saffron Revolt (2007), 22–23, 64, 124 Sanctions: Aung San Suu Kyi’s offers to work on lifting, 34, 43; under Bush administration, 22–23; and China’s Myanmar policies, 119, 121; effect of, 20–22, 145; and oil and gas revenues, 104; and U.S. pragmatic engagement policy, 198; and Vietnam, 174 Sao Shwe Thaik, 44 Saran, Shyam, 135 Save the Children, 14 Saw Bo Mya, 58, 66 Seabed Test Ban Treaty (1972), 144 Security cooperation: and China’s Myanmar policies, 114, 120; and India’s Myanmar policies, 122–23, 139–40 Selth, Andrew, 18, 181 Severino, Rudolfo, 167 Sihanouk, Norodom, 153 Singapore: and ASEAN, 101, 150, 173–74; cross-border trade with, 124; economic development in, 102; investment in Myanmar, 105; on U.S. policy shift, 170 Singh, Dato’ Ajit, 152 Singh, Jaswant, 116, 123 Singh, J. J., 140 Single-ocean strategy, 114 Siphandone, Khamtay, 152 SLORC. See State Law and Order Restoration Council Smuggling, 92, 114, 120 Soe Thane, 140 Soil depletion, 79 South China Sea, 156 Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, 16, 152 Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, 151 South Korea, investment in Myanmar, 105 Sovereign equality principle, 155–56, 158 SPDC. See State Peace and Development Council State collapse scenario, 13, 107–9 State Department (U.S.), 189–90. See also specific representatives State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC): and 1990 elections, 1, 7; antinarcotics campaign by, 12; creation of, 35; and reconciliation, 6, 40, 88 State Peace and Development Council (SPDC): and 2010 elections, 1; and ASEAN, 167; and ceasefire agreements, 53; and China, 168; nuclear ambitions of, 170; reconciliation approach of, 67–69; roadmap to democracy, 8, 33, 37, 161, 167 Status quo scenario, 13, 103–04 Storey, Ian, 168 String of Pearls strategy (China), 15 Substitute crops, 127–28 Sukma, Rizal, 172 Superpowers, reconciliation role of, 63–64. See also specific countries Supreme Sangha Council, 6 Tatmadaw: and 1990 elections, 6–7; and 2008 constitution, 55; Karen National Union clashes with, 171; and Kokang ethnic minority, 2–3, 167, 168; and military cooperation, 141; and reconciliation, 3, 4, 53–54, 56, 63 Tax evasion, 91 Technical assistance, 27 Technology as driver of change, 107 Termsak Chalermpalanupap, 16–17, 150 Thailand: and ASEAN, 2, 150, 156, 168, 171–72; cross-border trade with, 91, 124; economic development in, 102; and ethnic minorities in Myanmar, 6; investment in Myanmar, 105; reconciliation role of, 65–66; and refugees from Myanmar, 22; and status quo scenario, 110; and Vietnam, 151 Thaksin Shinawatra, 66, 155, 171 Than Shwe: and ASEAN, 16, 152; and Aung San Suu Kyi, 37, 38, 39, 43, 171; and India’s Myanmar policies, 122, 126, 136; and intelligence corps, 41; and military cooperation, 141; and National Convention, 60; and regime security, 55; and Singapore, 173; and U.S. policy shift, 24, 197 Than Tun, 61 Thathay Chaung hydropower project, 139 Thein Sein, 24, 160–61, 175–76 Thein Swe, 62 Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo, 141 Thura Shwe Mann, 41, 182, 186 Tilly, Charles, 68 Timber sector, 10, 11 Tourism, 88, 92, 106 Track-two initiative, 58–63, 66
Trade: with China, 12; cross-border trade, 86–100; gemstone, 91–92; and India’s Myanmar policies, 15, 138; narcotics, 12; with Singapore, 173; in Southeast Asia, 102 Training programs: for agricultural sector, 83; for security cooperation, 123, 141, 182–83 Trans-Asian Railway Project, 140 Transport costs, 79, 83 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (1992), 151–52, 159 Tripartite Core Group, 109, 162, 174 Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, 117 Two-ocean strategy, 114 Tyagi, S. P., 123 U Nu: and ASEAN, 150; and Buddhism as state religion, 5; and India, 15, 134; and U.S. economic aid, 21 U Thaung, 177, 197 U Tin Oo, 39, 61 Ung Huat, 153 Union Election Commission Law, 176 United Liberation Front of Assam, 123, 141 United Nations: diplomatic efforts, 19–20; Food and Agriculture Organization, 78; High Commissioner for Refugees, 168; and Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions, 2, 177; and reconciliation, 37, 64–65, 72; and state collapse scenario, 108; technical assistance from, 27; and U.S. pragmatic engagement policy, 199–200 United Nations Development Program, 108 United States: and ASEAN policy toward Myanmar, 159–61, 168–69, 175–77; Bush (G. W.) administration policies, 22–23; and China’s diplomatic overtures for Myanmar, 121; economic aid from, 21; funding of anticommunist forces, 5; humanitarian relief from, 198–99; pragmatic engagement policy, 17, 19, 21–26, 167, 195–200; recommendations for, 25–27; and reconciliation, 4, 66–67; and sanctions, 22–23, 145; and Vietnam, 151 United Wa State Army, 64, 69 U.S. Agency for International Development, 23 Vatikiotis, Michael, 13, 101 Vietnam: and ASEAN, 16, 156, 174–75; political culture of, 107; and U.S. policy, 151 Vision 2020 (ASEAN), 156–57 Wahid, Abdurrahman, 105 Webb, Jim, 24, 89, 90, 171, 188 Wen Jiabao, 124 World Bank, 27, 108, 109 World Health Organization, 103 Yeo, George, 169–70, 173 Yettaw, John, 39 Yudhoyono, Susilo Bambang, 2, 172 Yunnan province, 87–88
of any Southeast Asian nation after World War II. In the years since, however, it has dropped to the bottom of the world’s socioeconomic ladder. The grossly misruled nation—officially known as Myanmar—is in the midst of a political transition based on a new constitution and its first multiparty elections in twenty years. That transition, together with a recent change in U.S. policy, prompted this book. Two military dictators have ruled Myanmar with an iron fist for nearly fifty years. A popular uprising in 1988 was brutally suppressed, but it forced the generals to hold an election in 1990. When an anti-regime party led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won by a landside, however, the generals rejected the results, put Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of two decades, and continued to exploit the country’s abundant resources for their own benefit while depriving citizens of basic services. Years of Western sanctions had no measurable impact, but in 2009 the Obama administration adopted a new policy of “pragmatic engagement,” encouraging greater respect of democratic principles and human rights as a basis for eventual removal of sanctions. This thoughtful volume examines Burma today primarily through the eyes of its ASEAN partners, its superpower neighbors China and India, and its own people. It provides insights into the overarching problem of national reconciliation, the strategic competition between China and India, the role of ASEAN, and the underperforming, resource-cursed economy.
Burma had the brightest prospects
David Dapice, Tufts University Xiaolin Guo, Institute for Security & Development Policy (Stockholm) Gurmeet Kanwal, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (New Delhi) Kyaw Yin Hlaing, City University of Hong Kong Li Chenyang, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and Yunnan University (Kunming) Maung Zarni, London School of Economics Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Singapore) Andrew Selth, Griffith University (Brisbane) Termsak Chalermpalanupap, ASEAN Secretariat (Jakarta) Michael Vatikiotis, Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (Singapore) Lex Rieffel is a nonresident senior fellow in Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution. KONRAD ADENAUER FOUNDATION Washington, D.C. www.kasusa.org BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS Washington, D.C. www.brookings.edu
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