Burma has been, for many outsiders, a forgotten place, a land where little ever changes. Western guidebooks enthuse about the fact that, alone in East Asia, Burmese still wear traditional dress—longyi sarongs—and women wear thanaka, a chalky paste made from bark and applied to the face as a natural sunscreen. Visitors from neighboring nations see in Burma vestiges of the slower, seemingly more relaxed life common forty years ago in Thailand or Singapore. They often single out the open-air teashops, often without electricity, where customers spend hours sipping warm green tea and eating samosas and mohinga noodles beneath a skyline of gold-encrusted temples and crumbling colonial facades.
If visitors know anything about this country of some 55 million people, it’s that for nearly five decades Burma was ruled by a military regime. The junta outlasted nearly every other army in the region, leaving Burma, until the election held in 2010, among the few remaining military dictatorships in the developing world. And Burma’s generals seemed to conform to every image of thuggish men in green. In 1989 they locked up opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), decisively won Burma’s only free election in decades the next year, and then they ignored the outcome. They oversaw massive infrastructure projects built with forced labor, and adopted an acronym for the government—SLORC (later changed)—that sounded like a James Bond villain. They dominated a state media that, in its unswerving fealty to the regime and its bombastic attacks on critics and outsiders, made the Soviet-era Pravda look as flashy and open-minded as Vanity Fair.
The leader of the junta, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, was a man with little formal education who rarely traveled outside Burma or met Westerners. He stashed the country’s wealth overseas while spending minimal amounts at home on health and public education. A leaked video of the wedding of his daughter in 2006 showed her draped in diamonds, and she reportedly received more than $50 million worth of gifts from well-wishers. Than Shwe seemed to make decisions with little real analysis. In November 2005, with no warning, he moved Burma’s entire government from Rangoon, the largest city, to a desolate town in the baking central plains, which the regime named Naypyidaw. Some Burmese alleged that Than Shwe had acted on the advice of his favorite fortuneteller. Others claimed that he had moved the government to Naypyidaw—which, besides being the only town in the region with reliable electricity, was to be ringed by bunkers—in case the United States invaded Burma, a highly unlikely event.
Many foreign officials, writers and companies concluded that the generals were crazy, and that their backward country would never change. “You cannot reason with those chaps,” a Singaporean diplomat who had spent considerable time in Burma told me. “They don’t act like other countries.” Cables written by American diplomats and released by WikiLeaks show that the US embassy viewed Than Shwe as a paranoid leader completely out of touch with his own country, not to mention the rest of the world.
In fall 2007 tens of thousands of Buddhist monks, the most respected figures in Burmese society, rose up against the government, marching through the streets of Rangoon. The Saffron Revolution appeared to have taken the government by surprise, but officials wasted no time in dispersing the protests and raiding the monasteries, locking up some monks and beating and killing others. Meanwhile, in eastern and northeastern Burma, the army allegedly launched campaigns of mass rape, looting and wholesale burning of ethnic minority villages.
Because Burma has seemed so hopeless, and to Western leaders so strategically and economically unimportant, Western policy-makers for years have chosen to isolate it, something never attempted with China or Saudi Arabia, countries with terrible human rights records but where either Western companies have made sizable investments or Western politicians have built strategic alliances. Suu Kyi’s resolute stand for human rights and support for sanctions, broadcast by celebrity advocates and a global network of Burma human rights groups, have only added to Western pressure for isolation. (By contrast, the Dalai Lama, probably the only rights advocate as well-known as Suu Kyi, advises Westerners interested in Tibet to travel there to witness Chinese oppression.) In 1997 the United States imposed sanctions on Burma, barring American firms from making new investments in the country. The sanctions have since been tightened, and in an era of American political gridlock they continue to enjoy the rarest of things, bipartisan support: last year, the Senate renewed the sanctions by a vote of 99 to 1. Europe followed suit, imposing its own version of sanctions.
And yet the portrayal of Burma as isolated and unchanging, its leaders thuggish and crazy, is simplistic. Though the struggle between Suu Kyi and the government still draws most outside interest in Burma, the country is changing rapidly, and may possibly be entering its most optimistic period of reform in decades. Asian investors from China, India, Thailand, South Korea and other nations are pouring capital into Burma. India and China are competing for Burma’s ports, rails, roads, resources and favor. This attention could finally help the country develop, and even resolve its political deadlock; on the other hand, the influx of foreign money, migrants and munitions could exacerbate Burma’s serious internal conflicts, leading to worse inequality and even a new civil war. But whatever happens, Burma’s generals are not just standing back and watching. Far from being stupid or crazy, they have shown themselves to be savvy, skillful politicians, repeatedly playing Western leaders for fools.
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Partly because of its long isolation, Burma has been a difficult place to research for many foreign academics, and its sclerotic education system has been an impediment for any Burmese wanting to develop the skills to become a capable historian. Alone among Burmese writers, Thant Myint-U, a 45-year-old historian educated at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Cambridge (where he has also taught), has gained international renown, and his perspective on the country holds considerable weight. He is also the grandson of U Thant, the third secretary general of the United Nations and a revered Burmese diplomat.
In his writing and interviews, Thant Myint-U has become the foremost advocate of a new Western engagement with Burma. In The River of Lost Footsteps (2006), a compelling blend of memoir and Burmese history, he argued that a country as ethnically diverse as Burma, patched together artificially by the British and having few unifying structures when it gained independence in 1948, all but required strong, centralized rule. It ultimately materialized in 1962, when after a succession of weak, unstable elected governments the armed forces seized power. This strand of Thant Myint-U’s argument was understandably controversial. He seemed to be suggesting that Burma had not been ready for democracy, even though many of its equally diverse neighbors, which also had been left in ramshackle condition by the British, had come to enjoy democratic rule and high growth. He appeared to go out of his way to minimize the enormous appeal to the Burmese of Suu Kyi and the NLD, essentially calling them irrelevant, even though Suu Kyi remains by far the most popular public figure in Burma. He sometimes seemed to blame Suu Kyi for the lack of dialogue between her and the generals, even though during most of the past two decades she has languished under house arrest.
But beyond apologetics for military rule, Thant Myint-U made some powerful arguments in The River of Lost Footsteps for changing Western policy on Burma. Most fundamentally, he argued that fifteen years of isolation achieved few results: the generals who were in power in the mid-1990s, when Western nations imposed sanctions, remained so in the late 2000s. He revealed Burma’s suffering, though he failed to acknowledge that it has been caused as much by the junta’s economic misrule as by international isolation. Still, it didn’t help that Burma has received only a fraction of the aid of neighboring Laos, run by an equally repressive regime. Burma has one of the worst HIV/AIDS crises in Asia, and many areas of the country have life expectancy and infant mortality rates that rival the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Where China Meets India, a sequel to The River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint-U advances the second part of his argument for changing Western policy: isolation is useless because Burma is changing anyway, becoming a bridge between two rising global giants. Writing of his travels through the borderlands of China, India and Burma, Thant Myint-U hopes to demonstrate how this region of Asia, home to more than 600 million people, is integrating, and how Burma will be at the center of it. If the West does not join Asian nations in aiding, investing in and interacting with the Burmese government, he argues, the power of Burma’s leaders will remain undiminished and the West will be hampered strategically. It will lose access to the Indian Ocean and other trade routes as well as to important sources of petroleum, and it will lack leverage over Burma’s government, which has the second-biggest army in Southeast Asia, a worrisomely close relationship with North Korea and, possibly, nuclear ambitions. But if Western nations do engage with Burma, they can benefit from the new Asian trade, aid and investment flowing into Burma, and help ensure that it benefits the Burmese people rather than only their rulers.
In Where China Meets India Thant Myint-U is on less sure ground than in The River of Lost Footsteps. In the sections focusing on Burma, he remains a fluid storyteller and sharp polemicist, able to blend vivid anecdotes of his youth with policy arguments and analysis of the country’s rich history. He speaks the language; he understands how Burmese history has shaped the country’s relationships among ethnic groups and between the military and civilian politicians; and he expertly explains the country’s complex past as a crossroads of cultural, ethnic and religious influences from China and India. If he sometimes offers too much detailed history of Burma’s wild northeastern hinterlands, he exquisitely captures how and why this region, where stark valleys and mountains have divided ethnic groups for centuries, has resisted centralized government. For the Rawang, one of the people living in these highlands, “even salt is a treasured commodity, and for salt they will hunt the few tigers left in the valleys.” But when Thant Myint-U travels to the Indian and Chinese regions along the Burmese border to examine the new Asian integration from the other side, his confidence and storytelling skills often falter. Unable to speak Chinese, and far less familiar with China’s Yunnan province or India’s northeastern states (an area rarely visited even by Indian writers), he too often recycles tropes and stereotypes, or provides long summaries of recent Chinese and Indian history that add little to his book. He even succumbs to one of the oldest China-travelers’ tricks, reciting and mocking the strange English translations of menu items in China.
In the 1950s and early ’60s, newly independent Burma briefly seemed like a potential success story. It had abundant natural resources and an educated middle class. Even today, despite years of grinding poverty, it remains a society of bibliophiles: the bookstalls in central Rangoon, selling tattered copies of old Penguin classics, attract far more interest than similar stalls in wealthier neighbors like Thailand. In the 1950s the World Bank considered Burma one of the countries in East Asia most likely to thrive. But after the military takeover in 1962, paranoid dictator Ne Win imposed what he called the Burmese Way to Socialism. Almost all industry was nationalized. Many foreigners were thrown out, and visitors were permitted entry only on short-term transit visas. “Rangoon in those days—in the late 1970s and early 1980s—seemed entirely cut off from the late twentieth century,” Thant Myint-U recalls. “There were few telephones or cars on the streets, almost no television…o supermarkets or modern shops of any kind…. Rangoon was like a big empty movie set.” Ne Win’s rule had destroyed the economy. Inflation soared, and millions of Burmese fled the country, with many taking jobs as house cleaners or unregistered factory laborers in Thailand. Fearing that schools were becoming gathering places for protest movements, the Burmese regime closed most of the universities for years.
In 1988 a deteriorating economy and rising inflation sparked massive popular protests. Ne Win officially stepped down, and after the brief jubilation of the 1990 victory, Burmese politics turned dark again. Suu Kyi was back under house arrest, then released briefly in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, and then jailed again. The NLD stagnated under enormous repression, with many of its frontline members jailed or exiled, and its leaders aging. News of Suu Kyi and her party disappeared from the state press. When I visited the organization’s dilapidated headquarters in Rangoon several years ago, I found only elderly men in faded but carefully creased longyis sitting around a few battered tables. On University Avenue, where Suu Kyi’s lakeside house is located, stony-faced army officers immediately turned me away.
Also in the early 2000s, international aid organizations trying to work in Burma often found their efforts stymied, with the government either skimming much of their assistance or refusing to give Western aid workers access to populations in need. Mobile phones were essentially banned; the regime made them so expensive that only a few rich people and government insiders could buy them. The Internet was available only in a few large cities, and even then was heavily filtered and monitored.
But in the past five years, the isolation has begun to crack. In the sections of Where China Meets India devoted to Burma, Thant Myint-U captures well a country warily but determinedly opening up to the world. In Ruili, along the Burma–China border, he finds a prosperous, modern town. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I visited it, Ruili had become infamous in both Burma and China as a destitute, wild place full of underground casinos, prostitution, heroin and AIDS. Emaciated addicts lay sprawled in alleyways, and shops sold little other than basic necessities and illicit jade. Today Thant Myint-U finds Ruili, on both sides of the border, almost sedate: well-to-do Burmese traders stroll streets lined with palms and upscale storefronts displaying DVD players and golf clubs. Chinese tourists pose for photographs in Ruili’s central square, or hunt for karaoke bars rather than a heroin fix.
This growth and cautious change is apparent in Burma’s largest cities as well. Mandalay, the second city and the last seat of Burma’s monarchy, was until recently a forlorn town. The generals had built an ugly concrete replica of the old walled royal palace, but it attracted few visitors, and the decrepit shops along many streets stocked goods coated in the dust of the long hot season. But today, central Mandalay looks more like Beijing. Massive indoor shopping malls dominate the central skyline, surrounded by new hotels and coffee shops catering to Chinese businessmen and upscale young Burmese. Late-model sedans and new pickups jostle for space on increasingly crowded roads.
Though the regime had begun to abandon the Burmese Way to Socialism in the 1990s, in recent years it has stepped up the pace of liberalization. Last year it privatized many creaking industries. Some of these state assets were delivered into the hands of a small group of regime cronies and family members; one former American diplomat with long experience in Burma said that rather than a military regime, the country is becoming a kind of “mafia state” with tycoons similar to the oligarchs of post-Soviet Russia. In a country with a per capita income of less than $3,000 at purchasing power parity, these nouveau riche cruise around Mandalay and Rangoon in tricked-up SUVs with tinted windows. Burma’s richest man, a tycoon named Tay Za who has close links to the regime, controls a fortune worth at least $1 billion and treats visitors to displays of his many luxury cars.
Still, the economic changes have also slowly opened up space for ordinary Burmese entrepreneurs, some of whom have been able to piggyback on the Chinese and Indian capital entering the country. According to several estimates, as many as 1 million Chinese migrants have moved to the area around Mandalay in the past ten years, and the number appears to be growing by the day. With Burma’s banks completely unreliable, Burmese businesspeople, as well as Chinese migrants, have turned to informal Chinese lenders for cash. Chinese and Indian businesspeople can provide skills and training unavailable in Burma; new Chinese-run supermarkets and electronics stores are bringing to the country a range of products unavailable just five years ago. Chinese tourists are flocking not only to Ruili but also to the cities of central Burma, and in the future the country’s long, pristine coastlines could become beach resorts. Though Burma’s official economic statistics are notoriously exaggerated, they do reflect a general trend of solid, sustained growth. Burma’s currency, the kyat, was once so worthless that shopkeepers preferred to trade for food, soap or other goods. It is now gaining in value against the US dollar. This past year, Burma received some $20 billion in foreign investment, according to reports in the Diplomat, a leading Asia publication.
This economic opening appears to have carried over into politics. Perhaps recognizing that they need to allow some degree of political openness in order to create the stability that even Chinese and Thai investors desire, Burma’s generals have retreated over the past year. In November 2010 the government held a national election for a new Parliament, the first since the annulled 1990 election. Though the election was hardly free and fair—army-backed parties enjoyed enormous advantages, and Suu Kyi’s repressed NLD chose not to contest the election—it was not a complete disaster. A small group of democratic-minded politicians, who had broken away from the NLD, won seats in Parliament and have offered genuine parliamentary criticism of the government for the first time in decades. The generals officially stepped into the background, and a civilian government, led by a potentially reformist former general named Thein Sein, took over governing. Thein Sein enlisted the aid of a close ally of Suu Kyi, and he called on all Burmese exiles—many of whom had fled because of political repression—to return to the country for a new, more open era. Thein Sein even admitted that Burma had fallen badly behind its Asian neighbors, a tacit signal of his belief that years of military rule had been disastrous.
In recent months the pace of reform in Burma has sped up rapidly, shocking even longtime observers, and making some wonder whether the country has finally reached its moment of real democratization, and whether Thein Sein is a Southeast Asian F.W. de Klerk. Released from house arrest in the days after the election, Suu Kyi met with Thein Sein and has since launched a dialogue with the government. Even many ardent human rights activists say that this appears to be the most optimistic time in Burma since at least 1990. Suu Kyi began traveling around the country. The opposition leader gave an interview to the Burmese press for the first time in decades; the publication, a news journal, quickly sold out. She has since been appearing regularly in the local press, and vendors on the streets of Rangoon and other cities sell photographs and other memorabilia showing Suu Kyi’s face, which just a few years ago would have landed them in jail. Publications not focusing on politics have increasingly been able to go to press without running their articles by censors. The government has invited officials from the International Monetary Fund and other big Western donors to come to Burma and offer suggestions for reforms. It has established a national human rights body. This past autumn, the Burmese censorship chief proposed that all censorship be lifted. Burmese officials invited Suu Kyi to attend the annual national ceremony of Martyrs’ Day on July 19, commemorating the assassination of leaders of Burma’s independence movement. Most notably, in October the government announced an amnesty for more than 6,000 prisoners, including approximately 200 accused of political crimes. It was the most substantial amnesty in years; the government also said that it was ready to work with Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. Suu Kyi has declared herself satisfied with her talks with the government, and seems extremely optimistic about Burma’s future. She has publicly stated that she believes Thein Sein is sincere about his desire for reform. Freed again to enter politics, Suu Kyi says she plans to run in the next parliamentary by-elections, which she will surely win; a victory would put her in Parliament for the first time, the equivalent of Nelson Mandela going straight from Robben Island to a seat in the center of power.
Why have Burma’s rulers allowed this seeming opening, and why have China and India made substantial investments in a country still notorious for economic mismanagement and opaque decision-making? Than Shwe is older and frailer than in the 1990s and early 2000s, and, according to several diplomats, may simply want to be sure that he can retire in peace and with his and his family’s great stolen wealth untouched, rather than face some kind of democratic revolution in the future, which might result in his arrest. He surely does not forget that the former military leader, Ne Win, was put under house arrest at the end of his life, along with his daughter. By moving into the background while keeping his wealth, Than Shwe might be able to avoid the same ending. And because Suu Kyi has not expressed support for prosecutions of former military rulers, the regime may believe that a slow, gradual reform process with her involved is its best bet to retain significant amounts of money and power behind the scenes.
And as Thant Myint-U notes, although urban areas of China and India have benefited enormously from decades of growth, the outlying rural regions of both countries have benefited much less, and today income inequality in China is like of that in Latin American nations like Brazil. Most worrying to Chinese leaders, it is in these poorer, more rural areas that the majority of China’s thousands of protests occur each year. Eastern India is almost as much of a threat to the government in Delhi: it is home to numerous separatist insurgencies, many of them fed for years by guns and men migrating across the porous border with Burma. Burma’s poverty and instability have had a similar effect on Yunnan. For years, heroin and methamphetamines have flowed from Burma’s wild northeast into southwestern China, bringing with them high rates of HIV, which is one reason Yunnan was the first region in the country to face a severe heroin crisis.
To develop rural India and China, and to reduce the possibility that poor, unstable Burma will further destabilize their border regions, the governments in Delhi and Beijing must create new development, trade routes and markets for exports from their rural provinces. The routes through Burma to new ports on its coast are the shortest and most obvious path. “Yunnan will be made into China’s gateway to South Asia and southeast Asia,” one Chinese businessman told Thant Myint-U. It is a sentiment I have heard repeated, ad nauseam, by Chinese officials and academics. China has proposed a high-speed rail line to connect it to Burma’s coast, and has started to revive the old “Burma Road” from World War II, a decaying link across the north.
Burma’s long coastline, astride the contested Indian Ocean, also has strategic significance for China and India. In Monsoon, Robert Kaplan speculates that in a century that will be dominated by Asia, sea power, more than land power, will become critical, as Asia’s contested areas are shared bodies of water like the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean rather than the kind of internal land masses fought over by European powers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some strategists, including Thant Myint-U, see a new “Great Game” emerging in Asia, with the region’s rising superpowers competing for sea lanes and resources, with Burma in the middle. The most conspiracy-minded Western strategists see China building a “string of pearls”—a series of ports, bases, satellite states and intelligence-gathering outposts throughout South and Southeast Asia—that will eventually usher in Chinese dominance. The reality will likely be somewhat more mundane: China is indeed courting allies across South and Southeast Asia, and building up some facilities, but is still decades from challenging the United States as the region’s dominant naval power. Many nations in the region want a balance between Beijing and Washington rather than to choose one or the other.
And then there is oil. China and India lack significant domestic deposits, and the Chinese government remains terrified that if it ever clashed with the United States, Washington could use its navy and alliances to shut off shipments of oil to China, many of which travel through the narrow Malacca Strait in Southeast Asia. Driven by this fear, China has made its own deals with traditional suppliers like Saudi Arabia while also cultivating newer oil producers, particularly those where, because of Western sanctions, Chinese firms have an open playing field. Chinese companies have begun to build an oil pipeline that will soon transport roughly 240,000 barrels of oil to China from Burma. Add to that the enormous power generated by new Chinese-built dams in Burma, and the country has become of vital importance to Beijing. Western oil companies, too, barred from new investments unless they had made them before 1997, see in the Burmese fields a potential future gold mine, if US–Burma relations improve.
Contrary to the belief of many Western officials, this influx of Chinese money and businesspeople has not made Burma a satellite of Beijing. To be sure, China’s vast investment and aid in Burma has helped the regime and the country, and Beijing has repeatedly protected Burma from diplomatic censure at the United Nations. China has become a major arms supplier to the Burmese regime, and in recent years a parade of Chinese senior officials have arrived in Rangoon to pledge their undying friendship. But Burma’s rulers fear China as much, if not more, than any other foreign power. China lies right on their doorstep, and before Beijing launched its own reforms in the 1970s, it supported communist rebels inside Burma. Many of Burma’s top generals cut their teeth as younger army officers fighting these China-backed rebels; according to Burmese analysts, several of the generals retain a visceral hatred of China. Among average Burmese, appreciation of the cash, goods and tourists flowing into the country from China is mitigated by fear, and anger, that Chinese products now dominate Burmese markets, and that Chinese firms are buying up Burma’s natural resources, often while employing Chinese, rather than Burmese, laborers to handle the excavation. These resource deals are also destroying Burma’s environment and the livelihoods of many Burmese: tens of thousands of families have been forcibly relocated, with minimal compensation, to make way for the oil and gas pipelines, among other development projects, while some of the hydropower dams reportedly have been constructed with little care for the protection of local rivers or watersheds. In one sign of this rising resentment, an argument that erupted between Burmese and Chinese businessmen in Mandalay in June over a botched gem deal disintegrated into a tense standoff and near-riot.
Worried that China had secured an advantage in the competition for Burma’s natural resources, ports and sea lanes, India has in recent years reversed its policy. In the 1990s, as Thant Myint-U notes, some Indian officials had tried to assist Burmese democracy activists, and India’s then–defense minister George Fernandes, a prominent human rights advocate, even allowed some Burmese exiles to take shelter in his family compound. But soon Delhi shifted its Burma policy 180 degrees. Rather than criticize the Burmese junta, it now engaged the generals under a policy called Look East, hosting Than Shwe on a state visit during which, with no obvious irony, he visited the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation. India ignored international resolutions condemning the Burmese regime’s massive human rights abuses, and launched a policy to boost Indian investment in Burma, particularly in the petroleum industry. Delhi began providing arms to Burma, and in fall 2007, during the Saffron Revolution in Rangoon, India’s petroleum minister traveled to the country to sign new agreements.
But while Burma could become contested territory, as Thant Myint-U notes, it also increasingly links the Asian giants. For decades, East Asia and South Asia were divided by the Himalayas, and by the poverty and ruggedness of Burma. No longer. China’s and India’s grand plans to build overland rail and road links through Burma as part of a new Asian architecture could, one day far in the future, link Asia into a single market like the European Union—assuming China and India can peacefully coexist.
The Obama administration came into office determined to rethink America’s relationships with the world, and Burma was no exception. Responding to the arguments of sanctions critics like Thant Myint-U, as well as the real humanitarian need in Burma and the worry that Washington could lose ground to Beijing in Asia, the White House early on commissioned a review of its Burma policy, and announced that officials would begin trying to cautiously engage the Burmese regime. This decision did not please most lawmakers in Congress, which largely determines US policy on Burma. Congress upheld tough sanctions and repeatedly warned administration officials not to move quickly on any rapprochement with Burma. Democratic Senator James Webb, the influential head of the Asia subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee, did not support sanctions, and his criticism of them revealed how the administration’s push for engagement with Burma was grounded in fear. “We are in a situation where if we do not push some form of constructive [American] engagement [with the regime], Burma is going to basically become a province of China,” Webb told a group of reporters. “It does us no good to be out of there.” Webb and others also believed, with some good reason, that the Burmese leadership desired new American engagement in order to provide some strategic balance with their dependence on China.
Webb and advocates of engagement have delivered other warnings. Though there have been rumors for several years that Burma’s generals had nuclear ambitions, over the past two years they have gained substance. A report on Burma’s nuclear ambitions, aired on Al Jazeera and relying on information from military defectors, suggested that the Burmese government may be mining uranium and launching programs to build the technology needed to make weapons-grade uranium and other nuclear components. The report concluded that North Korea was the major outside state assisting Burma. Many of these allegations were supported by an analysis of Burma’s nuclear ambitions produced by the respected Institute for Science and International Security. ISIS analyzed satellite photos of a range of suspicious facilities in Burma and said that some could be storing technologies—machine tools that could be used to make centrifuge parts—that seemed to have no real use in the civilian economy. Western and Southeast Asian intelligence organizations have found that Burma was importing parts believed to be for a ballistic missile program. They also have intercepted suspicious North Korean ships docking in Burma that appear to be offloading machine tools that would have no use other than in a nuclear or missile program. American officials, who once had played down any chance of Burmese nuclear ambitions, took note; privately, many worried that if the United States did not take a closer interest in Burma, the country would be able, with North Korean help, to build a weapons program in hidden bunkers in the center of the country. In November, Senator Richard Lugar, a longtime foreign policy expert, said that his office had had information for at least five years that Burma may be trying to build a nuclear program with the help of North Korea.
In 2011, for the first time in years, senior administration officials visited Burma, and the White House appointed a special envoy to coordinate American policy toward the country. Since the reformist moves by Thein Sein, American officials have hinted that they might try to remove sanctions and take other steps toward rapprochement. In a sign of this quickly building engagement, President Obama announced in November that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would visit Burma later that month, the first trip of such a senior American official to the country in more than fifty years. During the trip, officially classified as a fact-finding mission, Clinton sat for a lengthy meeting with Thein Sein and praised his initial reform efforts. She also held a long meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. Following the visit, the Obama administration announced a small initial aid package for Burma—likely less than $2 million—and promised not to block World Bank and IMF programs that might provide monitoring and assistance to the country. Though these were small steps, they were much more than the United States had attempted in dealing with Burma in two decades, and administration officials suggested that if reform continued, the United States might normalize ties with the Burmese government.
In some ways, Thant Myint-U’s hopes for Western policy are starting to be fulfilled. Looking to the United States, European nations have also begun reconsidering their Burma policies. Some American companies, such as construction giant Caterpillar, have again begun to consider investing in Burma, in the likelihood that sanctions will at some point be lifted. Like Thant Myint-U, they argue that having a greater diversity of investors in the country will benefit average people, who now have to rely on investment from China, which comes with minimal adherence to labor and environmental standards. Before sanctions, Western investors in Burma did not have a sterling reputation. Some had been linked to the army’s abuses, including forced labor along their pipelines. Yet Burma today is one of the few countries in the world where the United States still enjoys wide popularity, in part because the polarizing global debates about the Iraq War did not circulate there, and in part because many Burmese think that American aid, investment and closer relations would provide a critical balance to growing dependence on China.
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And yet, as happens so often in US policy, the danger is that the pendulum could swing too far in the other direction, too quickly. Suu Kyi’s release, the fall 2010 election, the statements by the new president Thein Sein, the call for Burmese exiles to return home—these are many promising signs, but the Obama administration has taken a gamble by sending Clinton to the country. It could wind up embarrassed, as the Bush administration was after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Libya and was embraced by Muammar el-Qaddafi. The Burmese regime has shown promising signs before, and military leaders still wield the most power. The military officially holds one-quarter of the seats in Parliament, military-backed parties control most of the rest and current and former military officers dominate the new civilian ministries. If Suu Kyi is truly planning to rebuild the NLD, she could be playing a dangerous game, as Than Shwe reportedly still despises her. When Suu Kyi previously tried to rebuild the NLD in 2003, she visited the district of Depayin. Hordes of government-sponsored thugs attacked her motorcade with knives and clubs, killing at least seventy of her colleagues. Suu Kyi was saved only because her driver accelerated through the mob.
In the northeast and other ethnic minority areas, meanwhile, the Burmese government appears to be cracking down harder. In recent months it has torn up fragile cease-fire agreements it signed more than a decade ago with many ethnic minority militias, sparking renewed conflict, abuses by the army and large-scale refugee flows. Already, although Thein Sein has proposed a cease-fire for all the insurgencies and talks on permanent peace deals, the government has at the same time gone back to fighting with the Kachin Independence Army; if other militias join in, a large swath of the country could once again be consumed by civil war, extinguishing any hopes for economic and political development.
That the Burmese generals might not be sincere could hardly come as a surprise, and yet supposedly savvy, sophisticated Western leaders have been fooled before. This time Thein Sein looks far more sincere than anyone in the past, and Suu Kyi has indicated that she believes he is committed to pushing reform forward. Some skepticism is warranted. In the mid-1990s, and again in the early 2000s, some Burmese officials appeared dedicated to reform. At that time, the government also held limited dialogue with Suu Kyi, briefly freed her from house arrest and courted Western investors and officials. Pleased by these seemingly positive developments, the outside world responded by pouring in investment, allowing Burma to join important regional organizations and stepping up aid. And both times, when the generals had gotten what they wanted from the West, they slammed the door shut: Suu Kyi was tossed back in jail, investments were nationalized, political opponents were targeted and aid organizations were forced out of the country. Reform-minded officials were placed under house arrest or jailed. Still, the recent reforms are more substantial than in those previous eras of glasnost, and Burma’s future seems more up in the air.
Today the generals again seem to want a degree of international legitimacy, greater investment from the West and possibly higher standing in regional organizations. But despite Thant Myint-U’s theories, it’s hard to be optimistic that they will trade away their control of the country for these gains.