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Great Game: Reclusive Burmese Military Broadening Its Base?

The momentum of change in the country formerly known as Burma is picking up. From the Financial Times:

Since then, the long-suffering population of Burma (renamed Myanmar by the generals) has witnessed almost unimaginable change. Censorship has been eased to allow debates, criticism and interviews with dissidents in domestic news publications. On the internet, previously inaccessible foreign news and opposition websites have been unblocked. Political exiles such as Mr Yawnghwe have been invited to return. Experts have been appointed to advise on reviving the economy. Parliament has held robust televised debates, has adopted a law permitting independent trade unions and is considering legislation that would make it easier to protest.

Predictably, the press is mostly treating this as a human rights morality tale, and the questions being asked include the perennial moral ones: whether the repentant sinner is sincere, and whether heartless and hypocritical western lobbyists will succeed in getting the west to drop sanctions before the sinner has truly changed.

It’s one of the beautiful and inspiring rituals by which the NGO world keeps its spirits up, but for analysts of world geopolitics wondering whether the 21st century will be an era of chaos and bloodshed as bad or worse than its predecessor or whether it will offer suffering humanity a better life, Myanmar is a power political story, not a morality play.

What seems to be happening is that the junta is joining a general move in the region away from China’s embrace toward closer regional cooperation that ultimately looks toward the US.  The junta, now reinventing itself as a civilian government, seems to think that the risks to its power of too-close a dependence on China are greater than those that flow from a somewhat less-frosty one with the US.  In the short term, easing up on the HR front helps reduce opposition to Burma taking its scheduled turn as the head of ASEAN, the most important regional grouping to which it belongs.  Longer term, the Burmese seem to think that rebalancing their security profile makes sense and being seen as a too-faithful client of China may affect Burma’s regional ties in a negative way.

The question is not how repentant the Burmese are; the question is whether they are interested in realigning, shifting from China to a regional, US-backed focus in their foriegn policy, or just interested in rebalancing — somewhat loosening ties to China without committing themselves to another orientation.  If the former, more changes are likely on a broad range of issues, including but not limited to some additional human rights steps.  If the latter, we may already be near the limit of the changes we should expect.

The geopolitical reader and the serious as opposed to the superficial student of human rights are chiefly interested in the bearing of all this for the changing ‘big picture’ in Asia.  The evolution of the Asian political and security environment means much, much more for human rights in the region (as well as for unimportant little subjects like world peace) than how many political prisoners go free in Burma this year.

The big question is whether China is willing to accept the limits on its assertiveness and influence that will reassure its neighbors and permit the rise of a liberal geopolitical order in Asia.  That will ultimately mean much more for peace, prosperity and human rights than the twists and turns of Burmese policy, and that is the question on which people who seriously follow world events should keep in mind.

If the US government has the geopolitics right and is moving in smart ways to build the right kind of Asian order, then it would be a mistake for human rights groups to attempt to deprive the US of policy flexibility in dealing constructively with Burma’s geopolitical maneuvers.  The only result of their interference would be to degrade rather than promote the possibilities for human freedom in the region.

And if the US has the geopolitics wrong, human rights focused lobbying isn’t the real point.  Friends of human rights in Asia should be much more concerned about whether the US has the right approach to the rise of China overall than about our responses to Burma or other countries in the region.  If the US blows the geopolitics, human rights will go down the tubes across the region as governments everywhere focus on ugly survival policies rather than on building a liberal regional order.  And if we get things right, there will be a long and continuing improvement of human rights throughout Asia as international tensions fall, prosperity rises, and the military and security crowd loses influence to the freedom and growth folks.

The press needs to raise its game in Asia; something much bigger is afoot than a few conventional morality stories about good and bad policies vis a vis human rights.  The future of the world is being shaped before our eyes, and we need to focus on the big picture.

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  • Luke Lea

    What you say makes sense, but China is a very ticklish challenge for everyone concerned, including China herself. How deep is her corruption, how capable her leadership, how real her economic miracle?

    How will she respond to a readjustment to the terms of trade with the U.S. which must almost inevitably occur, and should occur, in my opinion, in the interests of our people? Will she adjust or lash out? And if she does lash out (whatever the trigger) where do we draw the line on the extent of our commitment? Do we bluff?

    You don’t expect us to reduplicate the commitment we had to Europe vis-a-vis the old Soviet Union I presume. You wouldn’t seriously recommend we get involved in another land war in Asia would you? Where would you draw the line?

  • Steven Rood

    I think the piece neglected somewhat the economic difficulties facing the nation, and how engagement on that front might encourage a more liberal order. In particular, the IMF has been asked for assistance, and has engaged in some talks, but is prevented by sanctions from offering a real IMF program of reform.

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