Some say it is more of a “Winter Thaw” than a “Burma Spring”, but what used to be a pariah nation—the darkened house in the neighborhood—is changing. Just down the road from where Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was held prisoner in her home for more than 15 years, a luxury development with penthouses, a swimming pool, restaurants, and indoor golf is now opening. Rangoon street kids who used to tap on car windows to sell strands of flower necklaces can now be seen hawking real estate listings. Though most people in the country are still scraping by on barely $2 a day, Burma now boasts gastro bars with wi-fi and satellite television. You can rent a cellphone at the airport and drink an iced latte at a copycat Starbucks.
Burma, renamed Myanmar by its military rulers, is making up for temps perdu. At the pricey new French restaurant Agnes I discovered that you can now order a respectable foie gras while enjoying a view of the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda. After years of isolation, Burma is indeed open for business. MasterCard, Ford, and Chevrolet have raced into the market. Coca-Cola jumped in quickly and had to add another bottling site to meet demand. More than 500 businesses are taking a chance on what used to be a blacklisted backwater, investing more than $50 billion since the military started liberalizing the economy in 2011. The growth rate for 2015 is projected to be almost 8 percent.
The Southeast Asia Games in Burma in 2013 were a coming-out party of sorts to celebrate the partially relaxed military rule. The opening ceremony was a lavish extravaganza with Olympic-level fireworks, largely paid for and stage-managed by China. The Chinese not only subsidized the opening and closing ceremonies; they also trained 200 Burmese athletes in China and provided 700 coaches to help make the local team look good. The $33 million in support was a tangible example of Beijing’s new efforts to enhance its soft power in Burma, where Chinese megaprojects have stirred increased resentment.
China is still a major player in this rapidly emerging country, despite steps the new, nominally civilian government has taken to show independence from the colossus to the north. Billions of dollars are at stake, but an even weightier question is which model will have the most influence in Burma’s evolution: China’s authoritarian state capitalism or a Western-style marriage of democracy and open markets?
While much of the news about regional tensions has focused on territorial disputes in the Pacific, an important new venue in Asia’s Game of Thrones is also emerging to the south, in Burma. Why Burma?
- Burma has oil and gas, and China wants to reduce the risk of transporting oil through the Malacca Straits chokehold.
- Burma has vast potential for hydropower resources, thanks to the mighty rivers that flow down from the Himalayas. China wants that electricity to meet its voracious energy needs, and is pursuing some 63 hydropower projects.
- Burma offers a market of more than fifty million people. China currently dominates trade, but the United States wants in on the action.
- Burma is strategically located next to India, the world’s largest democracy and China’s rival for dominance. The United States would be happier if Burma were a more democratic presence in mainland Southeast Asia; China would be happier if Burma did its bidding.
The United States, along with most Western nations, turned away from Burma in 1988 when the military dictatorship cracked down on student protests by killing more than 3,000 people in the streets. Having gunned down its own share of local protesters, China had no qualms about dealing with the brutal generals. Over the years, Chinese investment jumped from $1 billion to nearly $20 billion, nearly half of Burma’s GDP.
That doesn’t mean the Burmese grew fonder of their Chinese benefactors. To the contrary, they have a longstanding fear of being overrun. Burma and China share a 1,300-mile border and have long been uneasy neighbors. There is a history of conflict, from Manchu invasions across the mountains in the 18th century to Chinese Communist incursions in the 20th century. Resentment against Chinese influence sparked riots in 1967. More recently, concern has grown about Chinese military support for ethnic Chinese enclaves in northern Burma. China has provided backdoor military support to the Wa State, a former Communist stronghold that has become a narco-state with its own militia of 30,000 quasi-soldiers. China denies directly providing arms to the Wa, but Jane’s Intelligence Review has reported Chinese assistance in the form of surface-to-air missiles, armored vehicles, and armed helicopters.
Most Burmese also resent the fact that ethnic Chinese dominate commerce in border areas and cities such as Mandalay. They are aware that much of the country’s jade, gems, and teak is being trucked off to China. Burma produces some $4.3 billion per year in high quality jade, and at least half of that is probably spirited over the border into China with little or no taxation. Burma has the world’s only remaining golden teak forest, but the acreage has shrunk dramatically thanks to illegal teak shipments to China. Global Witness reported in 2009 that one truck carrying 15 tons of illegal logs crossed the border into China’s Yunnan province every seven minutes.
Many Burmese also blame the Chinese for the drug trade that seeped in from China after World War II and resulted in the rise of the notorious poppy-growing “Golden Triangle” in northern Burma. Recent reports say opium production rose 26 percent in 2014. Heroin abuse has become so prevalent in northern Burma that syringes reportedly are being used in some villages to make change. Farmers in the border area also complain that human traffickers from China brazenly lure Burmese women to their country with promises of good jobs, only to trap them in slave labor conditions or in the sex trade. Many never return.
So there are plenty of reasons for Burmese to be wary of Chinese, and welcome closer ties to the West. As part of a “normalization” of relations with Burma, the Obama Administration has eased economic sanctions that were beefed up during the Clinton and Bush Administrations. A knowledgeable Burma hand, Derek Mitchell, is now serving as the first U.S. Ambassador to Burma in 22 years. Joint military exercises are in the works. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an historic visit in 2011, followed by President Obama in 2012 and again in 2014.
U.S. diplomats downplay the idea that this courtship is in any way an attempt to counterbalance China’s influence in the region. They maintain that the “pivot to Asia” is a founding precept of the Obama Administration and is simply “in the American interest.” A senior diplomat told me, “We are interested in a stable region, a cohesive region. A stable ASEAN means more economic potential in the region.” Translation from diplospeak: A stable region is less vulnerable to Chinese domination.
Initially, the quasi-civilian government headed by former general Thein Sein moved with surprising speed to open Burma’s society and economy. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest ended finally in November 2010 and she soon won a seat in Parliament. Restrictions on the press and unions were relaxed.
Those were all welcome changes, but the generals in top leadership positions have balked at further reform. Corruption is systemic. Most of the country still lacks electricity. Religious intolerance has flared up. Journalists are being arrested. One was beaten and shot to death; five others got ten-year sentences at hard labor for reporting on a suspected chemical weapons plant. And on a host of key issues—often complicated by Chinese interests—progress has been slow. Four such issues are key.
Peace talks in conflict areas: Despite the recent approval of a draft for a ceasefire, widespread peace has yet to be achieved with ethnic groups that have been fighting for greater autonomy for more than six decades. The fighting in the northern Kachin state has displaced more than 100,000 predominantly Christian villagers; Chinese officials promptly sent refugees who had fled across the Chinese border back to the combat zone. Border tensions flared again this year after clashes between the Burmese military and rebels in the Kokang region, which is largely ethnic Chinese. As a result, China beefed up its presence on the border. When a Burmese plane mistakenly dropped a bomb inside Chinese territory that killed five farm workers, China testily deployed fighter jets.
Political repression: The generals ordered the release of hundreds of political prisoners in 2011, some announced with digital savvy on Facebook. But hundreds more have been arrested since then for peaceful protests. Many are poor farmers whose only offense was protesting the confiscation of their land, often for sweetheart deals benefiting business cronies of the military and Chinese investors.
Religious strife: Recent eruptions of sectarian violence in Rakhine State in western Burma have left hundreds of Muslims dead in a region that includes the nation’s premier beach destinations and a major Chinese oil and gas entrepôt. The attacks have displaced more than 140,000 people, who are now stranded in squalid camps. Human rights organizations say the persecution of these Muslims, known as “Rohingya”, is tantamount to “ethnic cleansing.” When the new U.N. Human Rights Rapporteur, Yanghee Lee, complained about treatment of the Rohingya, an ultra-nationalist monk named U Wirathu publically called her a “bitch” and a “whore.” Instead of apologizing, the Burmese government accused the envoy of meddling.
North Korean affairs: The U.S. government has strongly urged Burma to stop its illicit dealings with North Korea, but sub rosa arms exchanges apparently continued and resulted in new American sanctions against a high-ranking procurement officer. Troubling questions remain about North Korea’s role in Burma’s nascent missile and nuclear programs. In the past, North Korean technicians reportedly entered Burma via flights from China, and military equipment has been transported overland into Burma through China.
Constitutional reform: Although it may appear that the military has relinquished its control, the truth is that the constitution rigged and rammed through by the military perpetuates its control through a “Praetorian Democracy.” An 11-member National Defense and Security Council, composed largely of former generals, is the ultimate authority. The military allotted 25 percent of the seats in the parliament to itself, and controls even more seats through a proxy political party, the Union Solidarity and Defense Party (USDP).
Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party have collected more than five million signatures, nearly 10 percent of the population, on petitions calling for constitutional revisions to reduce military control. High-level discussions have started with the leadership about revisions, but they haven’t happened yet. And the NLD has little leverage to make them happen.
A key stumbling block is Article 59f, which effectively bars Suu Kyi from serving as President. It stipulates that anyone who is married to a foreigner or has children with a foreign passport cannot serve in the top office—and it just so happens Suu Kyi’s late husband was British and her children have foreign passports.
Against this tangled backdrop, Congress expressed bipartisan concern when the Obama Administration sought approval for greater assistance to the Burmese military in 2014. Senior officials wanted support for non-lethal assistance to the military, such as training on human rights. But both Republicans and Democrats were reluctant, citing the abuses committed against ethnic and religious minorities and continued commerce with North Korea. “I personally don’t believe that the Burmese military needs to be trained to stop killing and raping and stealing lands from people within their own country”, Joe Crowley (D-NY) protested.
In defense of the military outreach, senior U.S. Defense official Vikram Singh contended that engagement would be an opportunity to shape the military’s outlook and dilute its reliance on old partners and arms suppliers, notably China. “Burma is finding itself having, for the first time in many years, to actually figure out where it wants to place its bets, where it wants to put its cards, who it wants to deal with”, Singh said. “We want to shape the kind of choices that Burma makes.”
The Chinese have not taken the revived U.S. interest in the region lightly. In recent months they have criticized U.S. government policy in harsh terms. The Communist Party-supported Global Times hit back hard when the New York Times ran an editorial in January saying China was responsible for the wholesale looting of Myanmar’s natural resources, often by “outright theft.” The Global Times accused the American newspaper of trying to drive a wedge between Myanmar and China, saying:
The West may believe China is as greedy as their ancestors were, who traded slaves and stripped as much wealth from their colonies as they could. . . . Institutions like the New York Times consider Myanmar a pawn. They don’t care about Myanmar’s progress but rather how the country will help to drag China down. As long as Myanmar stays independent, it will see through the tricks of Western media such as the New York Times.
So the Great Game is indeed on in Burma, and the U.S. government is racing to get even more commercial and cultural ties in place as well as establish military connections. Companies like GE, Hilton, Gap, and even Kentucky Fried Chicken are establishing beachheads. The Fulbright academic exchange program is again up and running. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Bush Presidential Center have started leadership-training programs.
For its part, China sees Burma as a key part of President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” of rejuvenation and regional hegemony. China needs Burma’s resources to make that dream a reality. Burma is an important link in the ambitious new “Silk Road Economic Belt” of rail and road connections linking China with Europe via Central and Western Asia. Burma is also part of the companion “Maritime Silk Road”, which would connect China with Southeast Asian countries, Africa, and Europe. These projects are sometimes described as a “Marshall Plan with Chinese Characteristics.” They will bring billions in infrastructure to emerging economies. In the process, they will provide new markets and resources to China.
While the U.S. government is trying to put out fires in the Middle East, China is moving forward aggressively with new ports, high-speed rail links, and fiber-optic cable connections to Eurasia and Africa. If fully embraced by the European Union and other Eurasian actors, the new versions of the ancient Silk Road could connect 65 percent of the world population to China, with increased trade ties to Nairobi via Mombasa, Istanbul, Athens, Rotterdam, Moscow, and Tehran.
Yes, the U.S. government proposed its own “New Silk Road Initiative” in 2011 to stimulate commerce between Afghanistan and Central and South Asia, but progress has been slow. China claims that fifty countries have stepped up to participate in its plan, although some have expressed private reservations about the political price they may pay for financial ties that bind. In particular, countries next door in Southeast Asia worry that they will become tributaries in greater China’s sphere of influence. Indeed, the Burmese are concerned their country “could become a second Crimea.” That’s how U Than Htut Aung, the chief executive of Eleven Media, explained why his newspapers campaigned vigorously against the $20 billion railroad project in Burma that is part of the Chinese Silk Road plan.
The Kyaukphyu-to-Kunming railway was supposed to follow pipelines that began carrying oil and gas across Burma to energy-hungry China in 2014. That $2.5 billion pipeline deal pumped lucrative sums into the pockets of Burmese leaders, but the companion rail project gave them pause. Did they really want to be bound to another mega-deal that mostly benefitted China? In the end, the Burmese decided “no”; the government allowed a three-year Memorandum of Understanding to expire during the summer in 2014.
Two other controversial projects illustrate the billions of dollars in resources that the Chinese have at stake in Burma: the giant Myitsone Dam and the Letpadaung Copper Mine. Both deals were finalized between December 2009 and June 2010, when China pushed the closure before Burma’s leadership changed in 2011. Both have run into local resistance. One of incoming President Thein Sein’s first acts was to temporarily suspend work on the $3.8 billion Myitsone Dam, which had sparked demonstrations around the country.
Tensions continue to flare at the Letpadaung copper mine, which is jointly operated by the giant Wanbao company of China and a Burmese military conglomerate. When farmers protested land seizures to expand the mine, police officers opened fire. A 56-year-old woman died from a gunshot wound to the head. The assault triggered a loud public outcry. Two Chinese contractors were later briefly kidnapped.
Such controversy has created major uncertainty for Chinese investors. China’s investments in Burma during 2012–13 declined to $407 million after years of billion-dollar growth. China’s current priority seems to be protecting its legacy investments from further damage with ostentatious support for events like the Southeast Asia Games and political charm campaigns.
Future relations may hinge on Burma’s general elections this November. All the seats in parliament will be up for grabs, and leadership could change at the top. President Thein Sein, the deceptively mild-mannered acolyte of the old regime, has said he will not seek another term, but he has been consolidating his power and might bow to requests from his military brethren to stay the course. Other contenders might include House Speaker Shwe Mann, another former general who is a sometime ally of Suu Kyi, and Commander in Chief Min Aung Laing, a hard-line general who has openly thwarted democratic reforms.
And what about Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been at the forefront of the democracy movement in Burma for 27 years? The Nobel Laureate will turn seventy on June 18. Though her health is sometimes fragile, she is expected to lead her party to significant gains, unless she decides to boycott the elections over the generals’ refusal to seriously address constitutional reform. If she abjures a boycott, several questions remain. Will the NLD be able to overcome government roadblocks to become more of a force in Parliament? Will minority-ethnic regions be allowed to gain more representation? How much power will the military insist on retaining? Might even a fairly nasty military government faking a democratic system still lean closer to the United States than to China? If so, are we in for more of the oldest debate in town, this time with Burmese characteristics: the compulsions of raison d’état versus the missionary call of human rights and democracy promotion? It could be.
In some ways, the current situation echoes that of the 1950s, when newly independent Burma had a weak democracy and a large and rising Chinese neighbor. Faced with the choice of allying with the growing Communist bloc or the Western democracies, President U Nu proclaimed Burma a non-aligned nation determined to stay buddies with everyone. The idea was to give Burmese independence room to grow and to force both power blocs to seek Burma’s favor.
Today, Burmese leaders are attempting to chart an independent course again by zig-zagging away from the relationship with China to date other countries. Regional powers India, Thailand, and Japan are on Burma’s dance card, as well as the United States and Russia. When tenders were awarded for offshore oil and gas exploration, the winners included Royal Dutch Shell, U.S.-based ConocoPhillips, Oil India, Italy’s Eni Myanmar, and France’s Total. Top telecommunications contracts have gone to Norway and Qatar.
That doesn’t mean Burma has thrown China into the river delta, or that China won’t dominate Burma’s future. That could be, too. Beijing has continued currying favor by hosting a steady stream of red carpet visits for Burmese government leaders as well as key members of the NLD.
China’s moves to insinuate itself into its neighbor’s economic and political affairs reflect a traditional strategy. As Henry Kissinger has observed, the Chinese play foreign affairs like they play their ancient game of Wei qi (known in the West by its Japanese name, Go.) Wei qi works as a test of wills. Players take turns placing stone pieces on a board, building up positions of strength, while working to surround and capture the opponent’s stones. The balance of power may shift back and forth as each player reacts and plans ahead. By game’s end, the winner may not be apparent to the untrained eye but will have the margin of dominance the players will recognize. As Kissinger describes it, wei qi is about patient, subtle encirclement. China’s leaders, he observes, were brought up on the concept of shi: the art of understanding matters in flux. They understand that wei qi is about a long campaign. Their time horizons are decades or even centuries, not presidential terms. They are banking that their web of interests in Burma’s economy will be difficult to untangle.
China also has carefully courted Burma’s favor in ASEAN, which Burma chaired in 2014. Five ASEAN nations—Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam—claim sections of the South China Sea, where China is asserting its own claims. In the past, China has insisted on negotiating the disputed boundaries with other claimants individually, while ASEAN members have proposed negotiating collectively. Burma’s support has gained even more value to China. At a recent meeting of ASEAN leaders in Kuala Lumpur, Burma kept mum about the South China Sea controversy, to China’s advantage.
Mizzima, a pro-democracy publication published in India, voiced its concerns about the power struggle in Burma in this way:
When the history books on Myanmar are written a generation from now, will President Thein Sein’s political and economic reform era go down as the point when the West sold out or woke up? When the history books are written, will President Thein Sein’s reform process be portrayed as a genuine attempt by the Myanmar military to come in from the cold and bring real democracy to their troubled people? Or will it be described as a silent coup in which the military was able to con the West and maintain their grip on power while holding on to their ill-gotten gains and avoiding retribution?
The magazine might well have added, “Which of the great powers contending for treasure in Burma will have the greatest influence on what comes after the Burma Spring? Which country will bend the arc of history in a positive direction in the region—or not?” And so, the Asian Game of Thrones moves to a new level.