Both Burmese and international media were stirred at the mood of national jubilation experienced in Burma for the first time visit to the country by a sitting U.S. President. Especially, the joyous mood of the Burmese people was reflected when tens of thousands of people spontaneously lined up at the road to greet President Barrack Obama. The Burmese disposition was marked by ‘Myanmar Times’ in its full front page photograph of President Obama – captioned meaningfully as “O- Burma”.
The country facing a long isolation, sanctions and world –wide condemnation for abuse of human rights and violations of democratic aspirations of the people, was brought into the international limelight following Obama’s visit on November 19.
And Obama’s visit to Burma, immediately after being elected for the second term, was historic in the sense that it is expected to energize the pro-democracy reforms after 50 years of military rule that turned the rich country of the region into the poorest one. The visit was also aimed to attain American strategic and economic interests in a most promising region of Asia. Knowingly, Obama did not miss to highlight that his visit carries much bigger strategic significance in focusing Asia’s new gained centrality in America’s foreign policy. This was understandably spelt out in his remark in Rangoon University.
Highlighting the importance of Burma that inspired him to visit the country, President Obama said “You live at the crossroads of East and South Asia” that borders the “most populated nations on the planet”. Stating the long history of Burma that reaches back thousands of years, and the role Burma can play in emerging Asian order he admitted before the 1,500 influential audience of the host country that they have the ability to help and determine the destiny of the fastest growing region of the world.
The visit was mainly meant to substantiate the reorientation of American foreign policy that was formally known as “Asian Pivot” with an intention to engage the countries in Asia- Pacific and particularly in Chinese neighborhood.
Few days after his Burma visit Obama secured a significantly positive concession – a formal announcement from Burmese government that it would sign an agreement with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that would bind it to declare its nuclear assets.
It seemed Burma was making preparations for this declaration since last year when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had asked Burmese leaders to respect the international agreement and enter into a nonproliferation regime that would work as a basic condition for normalization of relations with her country and world community
Little was known about Burma’s nuclear facility that was supposed to have developed by it with the clandestine deal with North Korea since 2005 and some accord reached between the two countries in 2008 on building medium-range, liquid-fueled ballistic missiles for Burma. Obviously, when Burma opens its nuclear facilities for IAEA inspectors, it could also offer some critical answers to the nuclear question that is being raised about weaponization of North Korean nuclear program.
Obviously, China’s growing strategic clout coupled with its immense economic power has been a constant source of American apprehension at a time when its weakened economy has forced it to severely down size its defense budget and retreat from some of its defense obligation that are part of its strategic alliances with countries particularly in Asia- Pacific and Eastern Europe. American inability to finance the military shift that its new Asian policy demanded, may turn into a rhetoric and that in due course of time may erode American credibility in Asia and this may help china win the ground.
A country of 60 million- Burma, is richest in invaluable teak wood forest, precious stones and has huge reserve of natural gas and oil. It has immense hydro power potential. Its significant geo- strategic location between South Asia and South East Asia gives it unparallel economic advantage. Besides the long coast line in vital waters of Bay of Bengal that extends up to most strategic part of Indian Ocean and the extensive border with both India and China offers Burma an exceptional geo-political leverage that could give its people tremendous prosperity, power and dignity provided that its resources and its geographical location is wisely translated into state policy and actions. Also its border with Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand has given Burma additional geo-political advantage in managing its relations with major Asian and global power as well.
A New Journey and a New History
Dictatorship in any name and shape has been the greatest scourge not only to the particular nation and its people but also to the total humanity as well. For dictators, under the pretense of some principles and practices they developed to validate their authoritarian regime, people in many parts of the world have become poor and wretched. So is Burma – one of the most promising countries in the region – with a thriving economy. It initiated a vibrant democracy after it formally gained independence in 1948.The following 10 years had seen intense challenges posed by communist and ethnic groups that turned into some kind of civil disorder. But the country was able to survive with its representative democracy. However, the political crisis that continued – inspired General Ne Win take the rein of government in 1958. He returned the power to the elected government in 1960, but sadly in 1962; General Ne Win staged a coup and took total control of the government as the military ruler. He organized a new political party called Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP that held power for the next twenty-six years. The political system he introduced was known as “Basic Democracy” a la to Nepal’s ‘Panchayati Prajatantra’ and Sukarno’s Guided Democracy in Indonesia. Ne Win ran the state of Burma without any free and fare election. The people were completely denied the democratic freedoms that are natural to democracy.
Following the 1988 popular protests, Aung San Suu Kyi – the daughter of the prominent Burmese leader -Aung San, who had engineered the independence of Burma from the British, rose to prominence as the leader of the main opposition party -the National League for Democracy (NLD). In 1990 Suu Kyi fought the elections despite under rigorous house arrest. The NLD secured 82 percent of the vote but, the military government refused to acknowledge the results of the election and annulled it despite the fact that it was held under their tight control. Instead they continued their rule with ruthless brutality inviting bigger isolation from the international community.
For about two decades the country seemed to be in slumber. But suddenly in 2007 it grabbed international headlines following the widespread demonstration by the Buddhist monks. The demonstration named as “Saffron Revolution” shook the military rulers.
Again in May 2008, a fatal cyclone hit the country killing some more 1, 40,000 people. The government entirely lacked the resources and capacity to run the relief programs against such natural calamities. This eventually aroused resentment among people that continued to soar up until the government announced a political reform. A new constitution was drafted and put up for the referendum. Amid criticism the referendum claimed overwhelming popular majority.
As per the provision of the new constitution, general elections were held in Burma in November 2010. A military backed political party – Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) swept the elections. Although the elections could not be claimed as free and fair, but it turned out to be a land mark event in current history of Burma. After a week of the election Aung San Suu Kyi was released. And after another four months Thein Sein – a former army general was sworn in as the first civilian president of Burma after half a century long military rule.
In November 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi stated that she was willing to stand for the parliamentary by- elections to be held in early 2012. Immediately thereafter her party was reregistered and in a dramatic strategic move on the part of United States, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a historic visit to Burma and promised with President Thein Sein that if his government proceeds with further democratic reforms strong improvement in bilateral relations will be materialized soon.
In the parliamentary by – elections held in April 2012 Aung San Suu Kyi was elected and her party swept the elections. As a result of this positive development European Union suspended all its non- military sanctions against Burma. It was followed by high profile visits by foreign leaders including British Prime Minister David Cameron, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Singh during his visit in May this year signed some more one dozen agreements for promoting bilateral trade and development activities in border region including strengthening of the diplomatic ties.
Indubitably, if Burma’s commitment to democratic governance is not betrayed and if it continues to engage with the international community, it has every possibility to gain the forgotten prosperity that it enjoyed before military rule.
Ups and Down in Burma’s Relations with China?
Burma’s highly significant geo-strategic location and its isolation from the world community had been a God send gift for China’s major interest defined in terms of political, energy and economic security. Its comparatively disadvantageous geographical locations vis-à-vis India to become a major naval power could be well compensated with closer relations with Burma. Therefore for years, Burma remained close to Beijing and resisted the international pressures against its ruthless military rulers. This helped Burma face the hardships imposed by the sanctions of Western countries.
Burma’s relations with Beijing was also instrumental in keeping its house in order and maintain basic functioning of its economic life with huge Chinese investments in all sections of national economy – from development of its immense natural resources to infrastructures and from tourism and agriculture to shopping mall and housing. This way China secured most lucrative economic opportunities and stronghold on its strategic assets especially in Burmese coast line and upper Burmese region.
According to Saul Bernard Cohen – the noted geo-political analyst, Beijing interests in upper Burma stem from the geographical proximity to its Yunnan province and Tibet. If Burma moves further closer to the China it would also enable the Asian giant exercise greater leverage upon Laos, Thailand, North Eastern India and Bangladesh.
Lixin Geng – a Chinese scholar from Yunnan University states that Burma is vital especially in China’s regional development strategy as well as in its active involvement in Greater Mekong Sub- regional Development Program that combines Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Yunnan Province of China and to enhance its military presence in Southeast Asia.
According to Geng, Burma stands as a “land bridge” for China to revive its “South West Silk Road” from Yunnan province to Burma and further westward to South Asia and Europe. It also helps China to develop its south Western part of inland China. Burma also works as a bridge between China and successful economies of South East Asian countries.
From security perspective Lixin Geng elaborates Burma’s strategic significance for China to mark its strong presence in Indian Ocean and ensure multi directional easy access to both Indian and Pacific Oceans for its world class blue water navy that it considers vital for its economic and political security. It would shorten the distance by 3000 km, reducing the distance by five to six days.
China is also engaged in developing deep water port and naval facilities in Burmese territory adjacent to Bay of Bengal from where it can build surveillance capacities to monitor Indian military movements. Not only this China has also encouraged Burma to develop strong military ties with Russia, Pakistan and North Korea and try its best to maintain global strategic balance in its favor through such alliances.
Among the great global power China is comparatively poor in energy resources. But its huge population, the size of the economy and its aim to become the world’s largest economy within next decade needs unhindered supply of energy sources from Russia, Central Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Within another two decades China will be importing oil that will be five times more than it imports today. And in this regard Myanmar plays a vital role in providing easiest route to oil supply to its inland territories that it imports from Middle East, Latin America and Africa. Besides, China understandably, has invested billions of dollars in developing Burma’s huge oil and gas reserves and hydro-power potential as well.
But the history took a U turn when on September 30, 2011, President Thein Sein dropped a bombshell in Burmese parliament. He made a dramatic announcement about halting a $3.6 billion hydro power project named as Myitsone dam. President Sein hinting the strong opposition against the project from the ethnic Kachin rebels and Aung San Suu Kyi’s party as well – clarified that the dam was contrary to the will of the people.
The Myitsone dam project that was being developed jointly by Burma and China at the head of Irrawaddy River is located at the confluence of the Mali and Nmai rivers in Northern Burma. The dam due for completion in 2019 would be one of the world’s tallest at 152meter high and would create a reservoir of some 766 square kilometer that according to BBC is slightly bigger than Singapore and would displace thousands of ethnic Kachins.
The huge construction project that began in December 2009, is situated in an environmentally sensitive, earthquake prone area where armed ethnic minority Kachin fighters, are “battling the Burmese army, and which had become a unifying cause for the political opposition,” Rachel Harvey of BBC mentioned.
According to Harvey, Beijing was “exploiting the void created by international sanctions, has moved rapidly to exploit Burma’s rich natural resources”. Furthermore,most of the electricity generated by Myitsone’s envisaged power plant with of 6,000 megawatts capacity was due to export to China. As elaborated by Alan Raybould and Jonathan Thatcher of the Reuters – about 90 percent of the electricity generated from the project is expected to go to China and Myanmar will be receiving about $500 million annually that would make some 20 percent of its revenue.
Development of New Policy Shift in Sino- Burma Relations
China’s irritation at the suspension of Myitsone project could be realized; however it is not visibly loud. China seems following a silent diplomacy for the time being. In an interview with a Chinese daily Lu Qizhou, the President of China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) involved in building Myitsone Hydropower project, says that China wanted to match with other developed countries in developing hydro power that is already above 60 percent – e.g. 72 percent in America, 67 percent in Japan, 90 percent in France, 95 percent in Italy and over 60 percent in Norway. According to Qizhou as hydropower is the technologically most proven and most economic renewable energy, therefore China’s Hydropower development rate that has reached 50 percent now, will reach about 75 percent in 2020. That means the total hydropower resource of China will be over 100GW by then.
The CPI president has also highlighted that although Burma is one of the few countries in the world having abundance of hydropower resources, the current rate of development and utilization in Burma is only 2.45 percent, which is in “extreme disproportion to the resources it possesses”. Therefore China has decided to invest in the upstream- Irrawaddy hydropower project located near the China-Myanmar border, it is mutually beneficial and double winning hydropower project that can meet Myanmar’s power need for industrialization and provide clean energy for China.
The life of the Myitsone Hydropower Station as designed is said over 100 years and it will be handed over to Burma – free of charge after 50 years. Before that Burma will “gain economic benefits of USD 54 billion via taxation, free electricity and share dividends, far more than CPI’s return on investment during our operation period”. After the project is handed over, the Burmese government will have a “fixed assets increase worth tens of billions US dollars, in addition to hundreds of billions US dollars of direct economic benefits” Qizhou asserted.
What Lu Qizhou did not miss to say was that in course of time the suspension will be more complicated and challenging for Burma. In a mildly threatening tone he said that sudden suspension of the project is very bewildering and if this means construction halt or cancellation then it will lead to a series of legal issues and compensation.
Many theories have been invented in relation to the recent development in Burma and nature of its relations with China after the cancellation of Myitsone Project. According to Jeffrey A. Bader it is the reflection of desire of the Burmese people to escape from the “growing dependence on China by establishing the basis for renewed relations with the West.”
Hannah Beech in TIME mentions that the main beneficiaries of the Chinese development contracts were the Burmese generals and their business cronies while one-third of Burmese lived under the poverty line. Quoting the vice-president of the Myanmar Chamber of Commerce Hla Maung Shwe, Hannah has written that the popular mindset in Burma is that the former President from the junta -Than Shwe was selling Myanmar to China. According to Maung Shwe when the “Chinese come here, even their cooks, their drivers, they are all Chinese. This is not the right way. Resentment against China is growing in Myanmar.”
As narrated by acclaimed Burmese writer Thant Mint U in his book – Where China Meets India – Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, ethnic Chinese in border region of Burma were creating problems for Burmese government and since 1990 there has been Burmese military operations against them. Mint – U further states that the ethnic Chinese enclaves in Sino – Burmese border regions were engaged from insurgency to drugs trade and illegal weapons production and transportation. But the Chinese officials across borders were taking Burmese territories inhabited by ethnic Chinese militias as useful buffers. Officials of Yunnan province in China had been considering the Burmese territory as “mini Chinas, and used them as footholds for their influence inside the Burma frontier.” This was consistently creating suspicions in Burmese ruling circles for years.
These led Burmese officials find ways to mend their relations with United States and find a new balance in its relations with China. At times they did not miss to hint Chinese officials that they must not be taken for granted. United States too keenly and assiduously was monitoring these developments and in November 2009, at a regional Summit in Singapore President Barrack Obama warmly shook hands with Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein in his own initiation.
It was the first such gesture expressed by a U.S. president in a period of two decades and reiterated his offer to Burmese leader that United States was eager to improve relations if Burma pursues democratic reforms and frees political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi. Thein Sein too expressed his appreciation on the part of Obama and claimed that it will be a new chapter in the relationship to all the countries in the region. Obviously between the periods of three years the history has been created and authenticated.
An Asian Century means greater role for Asia in securing a global order that is stable, prosperous, just and equitable and inevitably it would have its solid foundation in Asian land and waters. And countries like Burma that joins all the three major economic and military power centers of Asia, can play a pivotal role on hinging the possibly unhinged major power relations in Asia in both land and waters.
Equally challenging has become the new global order – characterized by a unified global economy but polarized by so many conflicting strategic domains. Global leaders with the mind set of 20th century –cold war – that to some large extent were fueled by their isolated economy, are making preparations for the 21st century.
The contradictions lie there. There are regions and no regions. America first time in its history has claimed that it is a Pacific country. It will also remain as an Atlantic country what so ever. China has a pan Asian geography extending from East Central and West Asia and with defining role in South and South East Asia. Centrality of India in Indian Ocean gives it a tremendous strategic edge over other global powers. After all the Russia with its huge geography extending from East Asia to Eastern Europe- with massive natural resources and military hardware has ability to turn the course of global order in either way.
The greatest limitation 21st Century has imposed to major powers is that no country with whatever level of military might can fight with each other. All their most advanced military weapon system that would have cost them billions of dollars is mainly meant for deterrence purpose. The limitations of their economy, population, markets and resource constraints will never allow them disrupt their mutual relationships only at their own cost. Therefore seemingly confrontational approach among major power relations in exploiting the geo-political cleavage existing in regional power paradigm, ultimately it is balance that will prevail.
In this regard Burma has an invaluable message to offer – first it was for itself, next it was to India, then to United States and last to China. Time will explain how they will learn it.
About the author: Keshav Prasad Bhattarai
Keshav Prasad Bhattarai is the former President of Nepal Teachers’ Association,Teachers’ Union of Nepal and General Secretary of SAARC Teachers’ Federation.
He writes for Eurasia Review. Earlier he worked as a columnist in an English language weekly from Nepal – ‘The Reporter’ and Rajdhani – a Nepali language daily. Before that as a freelancer, he wrote for different Nepali newspapers.
For his long association with national and international trade union movement, he usually prepares concept papers on educational issues, economic development, trade union movement and democratic development for different organizations in Nepal from the perspective of teachers’ trade union but in a critical way.
Keshav Prasad Bhattarai has also authored three books -- two of them are about Nepal's Relations with India and one on educational issues.