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China, other Asian nations, and the United States remain unprepared for Myanmar to spark a refugee crisis,

a large-scale conflict along its bordersor even a nuclear breakout.

Myanmar: The Next Failed State?


Joshua kurlantzick
long the countrys northern and eastern borders, the central governments laws and policies are routinely ignored. Ethnic minority militias roam large swaths of territory, skirmishing with the governments army, the battles often leaving entire villages in ruins, burnt to the ground. The national military frequently takes civilians captive; local militias in turn target civilians believed to be aiding the government. The most powerful militia, which has been expanding its forces and buying new heavy weaponry, now has over 20,000 men under arms and has supported itself by building one of the largest narcotrafficking organizations in the world. As fighting flares, refugees flee across the countrys frontiers. Heroin traffickers, gem dealers, and weapons sellers also move across porous borders, supporting insurgent movements and drug dealers in neighboring nations. This could be Pakistan, or Somalia, or Yemen, three of the highest-profile failing states in the world. But this also describes Myanmar, where the government, despite its authoritarian rule, has for years exerted weak influence over border areas, and where today entire regions of the country are becoming ungoverned zones of conflict. (Myanmar is also known as Burma, the name still used by the democratic opposition and the US government.) Since November 2010, when Myanmar held a national election dominated by military parties, the government has sought to disarm the ethnic minority militias roaming many of these areas, or tried to make them part of a regime-controlled border guard force. Not surprisingly, many insurJoshua kurlantzick, a Current History contributing editor, is the Southeast Asia fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Charm Offensive: How Chinas Soft Power Is Transforming the World (Yale University Press, 2007).
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gent groups have resisted laying down their arms, and several are instead boosting their arsenals. As a result, a real possibility exists of an outbreak of armed conflict in these regions, a conflict that would spark even greater refugee flows, and, most likely, accelerate the spread of pandemic diseases and narcotrafficking, both of which flourish amid the instability and chaos in Myanmars frontiers. Renewed conflict could even destabilize the larger region, including parts of China, India, Bangladesh, and Thailand. Unfortunately, any discussion of Myanmar in the United States tends to focus narrowly on the political conflict between the government and the opposition in central Myanmar, led by Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. This myopia ignores the possibility that, at least in its ethnic minority areas, Myanmar is on the verge of becoming a failed state. Indeed, in many ways the countrys long border with China has the potential to be as explosive as the frontiers of Pakistan and North Korea. Yet China, other Asian nations, and the United States remain unprepared for Myanmar to spark a refugee crisis, a large-scale conflict along its bordersor even a nuclear breakout.

fruStration and fury


From the time of independence from Britain in 1948, Myanmars government has had limited authority over its own territory. Shortly after independence, ethnic minority groups began fighting the central government, dominated by ethnic majority Burmans, and at one point the militias drew within miles of the then-capital, Yangon (then known as Rangoon). Eventually, the military pushed the militias back to the northern and eastern regions, but the civil war continued, calming down only in the early 1990s, when the military regime agreed to a series of tenuous cease-fires with the rebels.

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What is more, the longtime rule of the military, though the parliament, held in the new capital of which has run the country in various iterations Naypyidaw, is subject to absurd restrictions, insince taking power in a coup in 1962, has triggered cluding time limits on sessions that sometimes top frequent political outbursts in Yangon and other out at 15 minutes. It would be a mistake to concities. Most recently, in 2007 thousands of monks clude that nothing has changed in Myanmar, conprotested in the streets of Yangon. These demcluded the International Crisis Group in a recent onstrations, known as the Saffron Revolution, report on the countrys post-election landscape. eventually led army troops to fire on the clergy, the These changes are unlikely to translate into dramost revered figures in Myanmars Buddhist socimatic reforms in the short term, but they provide a ety. The army also rampaged through monasteries, new governance context, improving the prospects beating and jailing many more monks. for incremental reform. Despite this uneven history, Myanmars poHowever, the 2010 elections also had many tential for meltdown has increased significantly negative repercussions for Myanmars stability. in recent years, due to several political developThey added to the sour, angry mood of much of ments. After essentially ignoring the countrys last the populace. Some Burmese activists recently free election, in 1990, won by Suu Kyis National have asked, if countries like Egypt and Tunisia League for Democracy (NLD), the military governcould launch popular uprisings that successfully ment spent over a decade writing a new national overthrew ruling regimes, why could Myanmar constitution. The charter was designed to authonot do the same? And, compared to 1990 or even rize elections that would still allow the armed 2007, frustration among average Burmese is today forces to maintain power, from behind the scenes, much higher, and the potential for protest to spiral by reserving a percentage of parliamentary seats into violence more palpable. for the military and allowing Although Myanmars senior generals virtual veto economy has posted moderpower over parliamentary ately high growth rates over A Burmese nuclear program could legislation. the past five years, the repotentially trigger other Southeast Last November, with the gimes poor economic manAsian nations to develop their constitution finished, the agement has led to multiple own nuclear programs. armed forces finally allowed bank panics and rising food elections. The NLD boycotand fuel prices. Income inted the vote, arguing that the equality is soaring. A new run-up to the polls was heavily weighted against class of tycoons linked to the military, many of the oppositionthough several smaller opposiwhom flaunt their wealth in ostentatious ways, tion and ethnic parties did contest the elections, has grown rich on the privatization of state assets, along with two larger parties linked to the milion trade in natural resources, and on other contary. To few peoples surprise, the main military cessions. Average peoples anger at these nouveau party, known as the Union Solidarity and Developriches has erupted into violence on several occament Party, dominated the elections, which were sions recently, and there has been a string of unexdeemed unfree by most rights groups and were not plained bombings at prominent Yangon nightlife attended by impartial observers. spots and gathering places. The 2010 elections have, in some ways, led to a In addition, average Burmese no longer possess civilianization of Myanmars government. Instead the optimism that characterized popular protests of senior generals running the country, the new in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time when presidenta former general who presided over much of Asia and Eastern Europe was undergothe crackdown on the 2007 Saffron Revolution ing democratic revolutions and many Burmese behas appointed some capable technocrats, includlieved their nation would too. Today, the mood in ing adviser U Myint, a respected academic and the countrys major cities is far sourer and more close friend of Suu Kyis. From total dominance by explosive than in the past: Small skirmishes bemilitary leaders, power has diffused, albeit slightly, tween troops and average Burmese escalate into to a larger group of ministers and politicians. violence more quickly than before. The small opposition parties that contested the To be sure, the Myanmar regime still maintains elections and won seats in the national assembly its grip on power through co-option and force. have enjoyed some ability to scrutinize legislation, By drastically improving the militarys social ser-

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2011, the Burmese military launched an attack against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of the larger ethnic minority militias. The KIA has fought back intensely, and the combat threatens to spread into other parts of the country. Civilians have begun fleeing many of the areas of eastern and northern Myanmar where fighting is picking up, and are traveling across borders into China and Thailand. The latter already houses some diSSenSion in the rankS 100,000 Burmese refugees whom the Thai governStill, even among middle-ranking military ofment would like to send back to Myanmar. ficers, frustration has mounted in recent years. Renewed conflict in the ethnic minority regions Senior General Than Shwe this year officially is causing more problems than refugee flows. In resigned as head of state in favor of his handthese areaswhere the military uses rape as a picked successor, Thein Sein. But Than Shwe weapon of war, prostitution is rife, and interstill controls enormous influence from behind nal displacement is commonthe most virulent the scenes, is 78 years old, suffers from numerstrains of HIV/AIDS in East Asia have emerged, and are spreading into China, Thailand, and Laos. Reous ailments, and has not made clear an apparnewed conflict likely will spark higher rates of HIV ent succession plan for leadership of the military. and other pandemic diseases, as well as increased (Than Shwes number two in the armed forces, narcotrafficking and gunrunning, which could deVice Senior General Maung Aye, is 73, is known stabilize Thailand, China, Bangladesh, Laos, and for hard drinking, and appears to have little departs of India. sire to assume the top role.) Many younger ofAlready, refugee flows ficers are angry at how the into Bangladesh have led most senior leadership has to tensions and riots on enriched itself and a small Average Burmese no longer possess Bangladeshs eastern borcircle of cronies: The wealth the optimism that characterized der, while arms trafficking of the senior leadership has popular protests in the early 1990s. into Indias northeast, itself not trickled down to lowerhome to a number of inlevel officers and field comsurgent groups, has added manders. A leaked video of to the combustible political situation there. And the wedding of Than Shwes daughter, at which while Thailand has decades of experience hanshe was draped in diamonds and received presdling Burmese refugees, Bangladesh and China ents from fawning admirers as if she were some are poorly prepared for an influx. The Myanmar kind of princess, stoked resentment among offirefugees who have entered Bangladesh live in fetcers as well as the broader public. Most important, the 2010 elections seem to id, disease-ridden makeshift camps; some flee by have convinced the military that it now has the rickety boats, and often drown on the high seas. support and power to go after the ethnic militias, Across the border from Myanmar in southwestern a very dangerous conclusion. In recent months, Chinas Yunnan province, the Peoples Armed Pothe army has launched attacks against some of the lice and Peoples Liberation Army also are poorly smaller ethnic minority armies, but the larger miprepared for large-scale refugee inflows. litias, such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), tentative engagement which has over 20,000 men under arms, have been Despite these serious threats, few policy makers purchasing new heavy weaponry and inking alliin the United States have paid attention to Myanances with other ethnic armies to fight the governmars ethnic minority areas. Because the United ment together. States has not had an ambassador in Myanmar in During the cease-fires, the UWSA and other militias have become wealthy exploiting not only the years, and keeps its embassy in Yangon, not the drug trade but also the timber, gems, and other new capital of Naypyidaw, few American officials natural resources of Myanmars frontiers, and they have ever even met the senior leaders of Myanare loath to hand these economic opportunities mars regime, much less had any substantial interback to the central government. In the spring of actions with them.

vice networks, it has made average Burmese who want better health care or schooling for their families dependent on military connections. And, by moving the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2005, the regime isolated its top soldiers from most middle-class Burmese, making it easier for the government to create riot control task forces willing to fire on civilian protesters.

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Perhaps more than with any other nation in the world, human rights and democratization dominate US policy toward Myanmarin part because of Americas limited strategic interests in the country. But coming into office, the Barack Obama administration announced that it would undertake a review of American policy toward Myanmar, and following the review senior officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell, announced plans to embark on tentative engagement with Myanmars government. This engagement strategy enjoyed the support of US Senator Jim Webb, an influential voice on Myanmar who heads the Asia subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Webb, like some other proponents of engagement, worried that by essentially abdicating Myanmar policy (except for continuing long-standing sanctions), Washington was allowing China to gain a greater strategic and economic foothold in the region. Indeed, China in recent years has built closer ties to Myanmar. The xenophobic and paranoid regime, which includes senior generals who cut their teeth fighting insurgents backed by Maoist China in the 1960s, fears Beijing as much as it fears any outside power. Yet Chinas clout in Myanmar has grown substantially over the past decade. As many as one million Chinese businesspeople have moved to the country, primarily to northern Myanmar, and dominate agricultural trade, smallscale retail, and other industries in areas around Mandalay, Myanmars second-largest city. In the center of Mandalay, new malls, hotels, and coffee shops cater almost exclusively to Chinese immigrants, who can pay in renminbi and go to clubs where local Burmese are not allowed. Chinas major state-controlled energy companies also have benefited. Last year, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) began construction of pipelines from offshore areas of Myanmar to Chinas Yunnan and Guangxi provinces that will pump 240,000 barrels of oil per day in their first phase, as well as 12 billion cubic meters of gas per year. When they become operational in 2013, the pipelines will allow China to diversify its petroleum imports away from the Middle East and Africa, and to reduce the percentage of its petroleum shipped through the volatile Malacca Straits. Even so, over the past year, as the US engagement strategy has delivered only minimal benefits, even some advocates of engagement with Myanmar such as Webb have started to rethink their

support. During visits to the country, Assistant Secretary Campbell has been refused meetings with the most senior generals. American officials were disappointed that, despite foreign criticism, the Myanmar regime did not allow serious monitoring of last falls elections. Speaking at a conference on Myanmar held in Washington in April 2011, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Y. Yun, responsible for Myanmar, told the audience that the Obama administrations engagement policy has had no success with the Burmese regime. In the near term, any lifting of trade sanctions appears extremely unlikely. In fact, Myanmar sanctions are a rare example of bipartisanship in todays Congress: In the most recent legislation, the sanctions were reauthorized in the Senate by a vote of 99 to 1.

nuclear worrieS
A failing state in Myanmar could even lead to nuclear proliferation. Over the past year, vague concerns that the Burmese military regime had interest in building a nuclear program have become far more serious, and extremely frightening. While three or four years ago most American and Asian observers viewed stories of Myanmars nuclear and ballistic missile programs as little more than rumors, in the past year they have begun to regard these reports very differently, as more credible evidence has emerged of the Burmese regime importing nuclear and missile technology and material from North Korea. Last year, the Democratic Voice of Burma (a nonprofit media outlet run by expatriates in Norway) and Al Jazeera (the Middle Eastbased news organization) conducted the first significant, independent examination of Myanmars nuclear ambitions. Relying on reports from high-level military defectors who had visited key installations, the news broadcasters found that the Burmese government may be importing technology designed to process uranium, trying to develop uraniumrefining capacities, and launching programs to build technology needed to make weapons-grade uranium and other nuclear components. Their report also concluded that North Korea was the major outside state assisting Myanmars ambitions. The broadcasters used satellite photos and other images to uncover a series of suspicious facilities in Myanmar. Both Burmese and North Korean military officers appeared to be going in and out of the facilities, which seemed to have no civilian use. Other news reports, relying

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on Burmese defectors, have found that the North Koreans are helping Myanmars military build reinforced underground facilities and tunnels that could be hidden from satellite photography and possibly resistant to air strikes. Meanwhile, Thailand and the United States have intercepted or turned back suspicious North Korean ships docking in Myanmar that appear to be offloading machine tools that would have no use in the Burmese economy other than for a nuclear or missile program, or both. In May 2011, the US Navy intercepted a North Korean ship suspected of bringing missile technology to Myanmar. After a standoff at sea and diplomatic pressure from the United States and Asian governments, the North Korean vessel was forced to return home. Many of these reports are inconclusive. Nevertheless, the simple fact that Myanmar and North Korea have embarked on close military-to-military cooperation, and that the Myanmar regime has refused to allow outside inspectors to see its facilities, is cause for great concern.

limited leverage
American and Asian intelligence communities know even less about Myanmars nuclear ambitions, or the armed ethnic armies operating in Myanmars northeast, than they do about notoriously hermetic North Korea. Chinese leaders of course have more interactions with top Myanmar officials. But in private even the Chinese express mystification at many of Myanmars actions and frustration at Beijings difficulty in delivering any important messages to the Burmese leadership. In the most obvious example of Chinas lack of real leverage over Myanmar, during the summer of 2009 the Burmese military, despite warnings from Beijing not to do so, launched an offensive against one of the ethnic minority militias operating in northern and eastern Myanmar, a group called the Kokang, which is comprised primarily of ethnic Chinese. The offensive pushed tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese refugees across the border into China, and forced Beijing to scramble a large deployment of the Peoples Liberation Army to the border region. For the Burmese military, a nuclear program could serve as the ultimate guarantor of its survival, while for North Korea, the Myanmar connection appears to be providing vital hard currency and foodstuffs in return. It is difficult to overestimate the paranoia of Myanmars top officials: They

have long believed, with no evidence, that the United States might one day attack their country to force them out of power, and they surely have watched the uprisings against Arab authoritarians with some degree of concern. A nuclear program would put the Myanmar government in violation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Nuclear Weapons Free Zone treaty, a landmark nonproliferation agreement ratified by all of the regional organizations member states. Thus far, Myanmar has denied it is building a nuclear program, and so it has not had to publicly confront the possibility that it is breaking a treaty it signed. But such a development would be a foreign policy catastrophe. It would put the most dangerous weapons into the hands of a regime that, other than North Korea, is probably the most isolated and unpredictable of any government in the world. A Burmese nuclear program could potentially trigger other Southeast Asian nations to develop their own nuclear programs. Already, a conventional arms race has begun in Southeast Asia. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the amount spent on weapons purchases in Southeast Asia nearly doubled between 2005 and 2009 (the latest figures available), and these increases are expected to continue in coming years. Thailands military in particular, long accustomed to skirmishing across the Burmese border, fears that its unpredictable neighbor, not even in full control of its own country, could gain more sophisticated weaponry. The Thai military has been boosting its budget for potential combat with Myanmar, as well as for cracking down on its own domestic opposition. Thailand and Vietnam also have expressed interest in building civilian nuclear programs that could potentially be converted to military use. A Burmese nuclear breakout clearly would have serious implications for the ASEAN nuclear free treaty. If Myanmar went nuclear, with little serious response from the ASEAN nations, it would reveal the treaty as essentially meaningless. It would call into question whether such regional nonproliferation regimes could ever work, given that Southeast Asia is a region with considerable unity, relatively wealthy states, and a longstanding organization that could help enforce the treaty. Most worrying of all, it is not hard to imagine a nightmare scenario in which nuclear material and technology could slip out of the control of the re-

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Together, the United States and China also could increase contacts with the ethnic minority armies, in order to monitor nontraditional security threats in the ethnic areas and, ultimately, to help broker a renewed truce that allows for greater aid, prevents the resumption of conflict, and keeps Myanmars borders stable. And together, Washington and Beijing could monitor Myanmars potential nuclear program and, eventually, increase the policy optionS pressure on Naypyidaw to reveal far more about Despite significant concerns about Myanmar, its intentions, since China certainly does not want given the regimes isolation, the United States disthe junta building a nuclear infrastructure. tance from Myanmar, and the relative importance Beijing could use its leverage over North Korea of other regional actors like China, India, Singato pressure Pyongyang to halt exports of possible pore, and Thailand, American options toward dual-use technology and material to Myanmar, Naypyidaw remain limited. The junta does seem to and to open its facilities in Myanmar to Chinese crave Washingtons recognition, in part to use the inspectors, if not to international bodies. China United States to hedge against Chinas influence in and the United States, along with other regional Myanmar. But Congress has imposed tough sancactors like India, Thailand, and Singapore, could tions, and other than isolating the juntas bank acshare intelligence on Burmese weapons purchases counts in places like Singapore and Dubai, which and shipping manifests, to make it harder for the are viable options, there is relatively little more the Myanmar regime to use middlemen to purchase US lawmakers can do to punish the regime. potential dual-use technologies. Still, renewed conflict Washington, Beijing, and military rebellions and the Southeast Asian could lead to a failing state nations also could raise Few policy makers in the United States and spreading regional the international profile of have paid attention to Myanmars disorder. A growing nuthe ASEAN Nuclear Weapethnic minority areas. ons Free Zone. By raising clear program could prove the profile of the treaty even more disastrous. Givthrough high-level advoen these possibilies, Washcacy, the United States, China, and the Southeast ington needs to pay closer attention to Myanmar, Asian nations could set the stage for Myanmar to going beyond the existing sanctions policy. be punished seriously if it breaks the treaty. Such a The United States can use the crisis in Myanpunishment could include expulsion from ASEAN. mars ethnic-minority areas to work more closely Membership in ASEAN provides the Myanmar rewith Beijing to help stabilize Chinas border regime with its greatest international legitimacy and gions with Myanmar. In contrast to the Korean the possibility of being evicted would constitute a Peninsula, Myanmar offers a real opportunity for US-China cooperation: Washington and Beijing significant threat to the regime. have fewer differences on hard security conflicts China also could use its influence over several in Myanmar, and the stakes in the country are far of the most powerful ethnic militias, such as the UWSA, to help negotiate a new series of cease-fires lower than on the Korean Peninsula. However, the between them and the Burmese regime. These potential dangers to Chinain the forms of drugs, cease-fires would aim to prevent renewed conflict HIV, and refugees flowing across Myanmars borin the countrys north and east. They presumably dersare high. would grant greater autonomy over local resourcAlready, China has shown more willingness to es to the ethnic groups, offering them financial cooperate on Myanmar, helping facilitate Ameriand political incentives to disarm and place their can meetings with junta officials and more pubtroops in a national army of reconciliation, the licly rebuking Naypyidaw for fomenting instabilregimes major goal. Such measures, if they were ity than it would ever dare do with Pyongyang. successful, might help avert a meltdown in this Together, Washington and Beijing could boost hulooming failed state. manitarian aid into the ethnic minority areas.

gime, which, though powerful, is also notoriously corrupt, and into the hands of militias operating in northern and eastern Myanmar. From there, the technology or material easily could be sold to terrorist groups, other countries, or other nonstate actors. As one longtime Myanmar military analyst has said, If the [Burmese regime] gets a nuclear weapon, the whole region will go to hell.