2011 has been a year of dramatic change in the international arena. Late winter saw the flames of the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East and
North Africa, tumbling the long-standing regimes of Egypt and Tunisia in a few short weeks and sparkin
g revolution and war in Syria and Libya, with further turmoil around the region. The summer brought renewed fiscal crisis to Europe, and Yuletide came with the unexpected death of Kim Jong-Il and the bizarre ascension of his elusive son Kim Jong-Un to power. It may have been easy to neglect news of gradual reform from Burma/Myanmar during this annus mirabilis.
This would be a mistake, for as Secretary Clinton stepped off her jet in Burma earlier this December she entered a state that in appearance is disavowing its inheritance as a regime which mercilessly assaulted Buddhist monks on the streets of Rangoon and crushed democratic protest only a few years before. Than Shwe, the commander-in-chief and head of state since 1992, resigned in March in favor of the more moderate Thein Sein. Several thousand political prisoners were soon released from internment. Aung San Suu Kyi, who seemed destined to live out her life as the beloved (by the West, at least) and imprisoned symbol of democracy, was released from her long-standing house arrest. Suu Kyi has even been allowed to register her political party in forthcoming elections. The Myanmar regime has even begun an initiative to woo Burmese expatriates to come home, promising opportunities for investment and political access.
Foreign powers have quickly responded to these inviting gestures from the Myanmar regime. Sectetary Clinton’s trip to Burma (the first visit of a high-ranking American official since 1962) was both a show of support for the release of Suu Kyi and a subdued signal to China. Burma has long been within China’s close sphere of influence, and China, along with Thailand, has been one of the leading (and in reality closer to only) investor in the isolated state. The Burmese termination of a planned Chinese-funded dam close to the Sino-Burmese border in September shocked Beijing, and has led to Chinese speculation that America’s renewed interest in Burma is another example of the United States’ purported increasingly offensive presence in the Asia-Pacific region to counter growing Chinese influence. Other regional players have recently acknowledged Burma. ASEAN, based in Singapore, has promised Burma its titular presidency for 2014, and India is constructing roadways between Burma and the eastern Indian frontier.
The question remains about why foreign powers would be eager to improve relations with this isolated and backwater impoverished nation. The honest answer is location. Burma straddles the crossroads of Southeast Asia, sharing long borders with India, China, and Thailand. The State Department describes Burma as a “resource-rich country with a strong agricultural base”. The country has a smaller population than either Vietnam or neighboring Thailand yet is larger than both in size, with the majority of the country’s geography occupied by the lush and fertile Irrawaddy watershed. Burma is a major rice producing region, and its mines are full of precious gems, especially rubies. 90% of the world’s rubies come from Burma. It is easy to imagine neighboring China and India, greedy for land and riches, eagerly licking their lips in anticipation of plundering Burma of its precious booty.
It is too early to predict Burma’s political and economic trajectory. Hopefully the Myanmar regime will hold true to its vow of honest elections and allow non-military actors, including Suu Kyi, to participate in future democratic endeavors. Charade or not, the recent reform-minded motions from Burma are most certainly an attempt to develop the nation’s economy and gain leverage in the Southeast Asian region. China comes to Burma expecting a subservient vassal. Hungry India, pressured by an outrageously-high population in a region of tight ecological stress, hopes for access to vast natural resources. Thailand, Vietnam, and the other ASEAN nations need partners in their quest to avoid Chinese hegemony of Southeast Asia. And the United States (and Australia, with its increased naval presence in the Indian Ocean) desires a check on Chinese influence.
How should Burma proceed first? My earnest response would be to ease tourism restrictions. Not only would a flush of cash flow in, as shown by American and Australian love for travel to tropical Buddhist nations like Vietnam and Thailand, but it would be an honest signal that the Myanmar regime is committed to both investment and international dialogue. New Burmese roads do not have to only go from Mandalay north into China, as the Japanese dreamed in World War II. If Burma is committed to reform they will build roads not just to China but across the region, across the sea to America, and around the world.
Photo credits to “Free Picture” at http://picture30.blogspot.com/2011/06/naypyidaw-pictures.html.