Sunday, December 19, 2004

Washington’s Push for Change and Reconciliation in Burma, Asia Resists

Washington’s Push for Change and Reconciliation in Burma, Asia Resists

Zarni, Free Burma Coalition

Almost exactly 16 years after the Tatmadaw leadership reasserted its control in the country plagued by near total anarchy, the United States Senate passed unanimously a resolution on September 22, 2004 calling on the United Nations Security Council to take appropriate actions on Burma. The non-binding resolution frames the issue of Burma under the State Peace and Development Council as a “threat to security in (South East Asian) region.”

As such, the resolution has raised hope - and possibilities, perceived or real, - among the hard-liners in the Burmese opposition diaspora, that view the US call for UN Security Council intervention as a clear indication that the United States is serious about democratic change in Burma. This latest move among American politicians clamoring for change in our country is well-meaning. However, it begs the question as to the real impact it may have on the policies and behavior of the SPDC which feels itself to be under siege from the West.


Contrary to the conventional wisdom among the proponents of isolating and punishing the Burmese generals, international pressures have not yielded the desired result of securing Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom, let alone any tangible consequences in terms of change in Burma. There are factors which explain why the (Western) policy and strategy of applying increased pressure on Rangoon have failed to accomplish the stated objective of change and reconciliation in our country.

First, there is a deeply shared worldwide resentment of the United States’ unilateral projection of its power. Indeed, “Renewing the Atlantic Partnership,” a Council on Foreign Relations report of an Independent Task Force co-chaired by Henry A. Kissinger and Lawrence H. Summers, identifies, with concerns, as one of the major developments in international relations “the sharp upturn in anti-American sentiment (even) in many European countries.” The highly publicized public opinion survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press also noted that America’s image abroad further erodes. While the United States still instills awe and fear around the world it has lost the moral high ground on issues of human rights and democracy. It is little wonder that the latest Congressional Burma resolution is viewed with skepticism in Asia.

Second, the erosion of the United States’ international image coincides with the growing, positive perception, especially in Asia, toward China’s rise politically, economically and diplomatically. While Washington appears to have taken the velvet gloves off in its conduct of US foreign policy, Beijing’s new generation leadership is projecting a kinder and gentler image of China. China has pursued trade promotion policies in South East Asia, which were formulated during Mao’s successor - Deng Xiaoping - since 1978 when Deng launched domestic economic reforms in China and moved away from Mao’s centrally command economy and, equally important, from supporting (Communist) revolutionary movements in neighboring countries. Nowhere is this attitudinal change more apparent than in the pragmatic acceptance of China as a positive trading partner and a strategic ally by the Association of South East Asian Nations, which was created in 1967 primarily out of fear of the Red China under Chairman Mao.

Noting the change in global alliances as a result of the widely unpopular Iraq war, Dr. Helen James, a former Australian government advisor, writes pointedly that “many Southeast Asians no longer fear China as they did four decades ago, and are preparing to plug into China’s increasing economic power to bolster their own economies as the U.S. economy has weakened. If current trends continue, in five years time this bloc could be strong enough to start to take a more independent stance toward the United States.” It is not entirely coincidental that ASEAN has thus far resisted successfully Washington’s push for multilateral punitive actions against Burma’s State Peace and Development Council. Further, the bloc’s resistance has been rendered more effective when the world’s two most populous nations - China and India - take similarly pragmatic stance toward Burma. Even Australia, the United States’ subordinate ally, joined this Asian resistance against the United States’ attempts to impose her one-size fit-all, sanctions policy toward Rangoon.

Third, there is common recognition among long-time Burma watchers, as well as pro-democracy supporters regarding ending the political impasse in that country. Without China’s “heavy-lifting,” change in Burma is inconceivable. From Beijing’s perspective, Burma is too valuable a strategic asset for China to allow any pro-American government to be installed in Rangoon. In addition to being a potentially significant market and still with exploitable natural resources, including natural gas and oil, south of its economically backward, southernmost province of Yunnan, Burma is extremely attractive to Beijing as a strategic asset: Burma is Beijing’s only access to the Indian Ocean where it is believed to have an interest in building a nuclear submarine fleet in the future; China and India also express a serious interest in restoring and expanding the old “Burma road” as their fast growing economies will need new trade routes.
Fourth, the old East-West divide which Rudyard Kipling immortalized appears to have re-emerged surrounding the “principled” stance taken by the European Union over the inclusion of Burma at the Asian-Europe Summit (ASEM) scheduled to be held in Hanoi, Vietnam on October 7-8 this year. Not to mention the influential Asian governments in Tokyo, Beijing, Jakarta, New Delhi and Bangkok, the Cambodian government has threatened to boycott ASEM if EU, under pressure from the Anglo-American alliance of U.S. and U.K., insisted on barring Rangoon from the summit.

Fifth, the State Peace and Development Council has apparently been able to capitalize on its geo-political assets, as well as the allure of strategic, non-renewable resources such as natural gas and oil, in fending off pressure from the West. The SPDC has built, with obvious success, its own geo-political and economic support base with nations that do not welcome the rise of American unilateralism. The three nuclear powers - Russia, China and India - have adopted rather pragmatic policies toward Rangoon, pursuing close cooperation bi-laterally in knowledge and technology transfer, trade promotion, and security matters. Even Washington’s key strategic ally - Israel -embraces the Burmese military leadership, continuing on with the 5-decades of bi-lateral, close cooperation between the two nations. Israel is currently training over 100 Burmese state’s scholars in agriculture and development. At present, no less than 600 Burmese state’s scholars in science and technology are studying in Russia which is reportedly assisting Rangoon in acquiring nuclear technology, including building a reactor in Burma. West Germany helped built an arms factory in Burma and was, with Japan, the only other country which Burma kept close cooperation even during General Ne Win’s self-imposed isolationist rule. Today German private industry carries on with its cooperation with Rangoon in various economic projects, including mining and gas exploration.

The above is the real picture which emerges from the careful examination of the geopolitical context in which national interests drive the Burma policies of all sovereign governments except the United States. Apart from Washington’s reported concern for the generals’ nuclear ambitions, it does not seem that the United States views Burma as a strategically important place or a potential trade partner. What is noteworthy is not the fact that Washington has taken a “principled” stand toward Burma on human rights and democracy, but why. The simple answer is Washington does not have any serious strategic or economic interests to be gained from Burma.

Washington’s vociferous pro-sanctions, pro-isolation policy has given the National League for Democracy and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a false and unrealistic hope in that the United States is prepared to squander its political and diplomatic capital for a small nation with little or no strategic interests for the Americans. As a matter of fact, Washington needs to use - and does use - any and all leverages it has in pursuing the real U.S. interests in the international arena. Those interests include trade, energy, bilateral security cooperation from other national governments in support of its “global war on terror,” the prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the acquisition of WMD by Islamic fundamentalist non-state actors hostile to the United States.

Human rights and democratization are the professed concerns of the United States, but they are not deemed American interests. Irrespective of the winner in the coming presidential elections this November, these American interests change little as they have come to constitute new founding blocks of U.S. foreign policy post 9/11; the only difference will be how they are pursued. The generals have repeatedly called Washington’s bluff, knowing that in spite of the latter’s strident calls for reforms and release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Americans no longer have any leverage in Burma, especially when given the fact that Washington has no credibility with other nations on issues of human rights and democratization.

In light of the afore-mentioned explanatory factors, it appears that the increasing reliance of the National League for Democracy on Washington as its staunchest supporter, and concomitant unrealistic expectations as to what the latter is able - or prepared - to do, either effectively or constructively, in support of the NLD’s principled, but highly unrealistic push for the kind of democratic process it desires, may well remain delusional. There has emerged an unspoken acknowledgment that however admirable Aung San Suu Kyi and her election-legitimized NLD, they will likely remain locked in the continuing political stalemate to the detriment of the longer term change for the better in Burma. Certainly, this is the acknowledgment which neither the top leadership of the NLD nor Washington would share.

The State Peace and Development Council has adjusted itself to the political realities. It has reached the uneasy conclusion that Washington is not going to back down from its current Burma policy. For maintaining punitive actions against a Least Developed Country with no serious American strategic interests costs the United States little or nothing. It would be of little or no surprise that the generals who have demonstrably been willing to break with Burma’s past which suffered from General Ne Win’s self-imposed isolationism, may be envisioning the future of Burma, as well as their own, without any meaningful interaction with the United States.