People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 13

March 25, 2012


Myanmar: Changing Equations


Yohannan Chemarapally


TILL the middle of 2011, Myanmar was among the countries the West was actively targeting for regime change. But by the end of that year, after the ruling military junta sent emissaries to western capitals promising accelerated “democratic reforms,” there has been a dramatic policy change towards Myanmar by the West. Many of the economic sanctions unilaterally applied by the West are now on the verge of being lifted after the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited the country in late 2011.




It was the first high profile visit by an American official in more than 50 years. The visit came immediately after President Barack Obama announced that the US was backing the ASEAN nations in their territorial disputes with China. While announcing the visit of his secretary of state at the Bali ASEAN summit in November, President Obama said that Clinton “would explore whether the United States can empower a positive transition in Burma and begin a new chapter between our two countries.” President Obama and other senior administration officials have been openly proclaiming since late 2011 that the United States considered China as the main challenger to its status as the sole superpower. The Pentagon’s latest war doctrine lays great emphasis on containing China in the Asia-Pacific region. Clinton’s visit was widely interpreted in the American media as being part of the Obama administration’s efforts to check the rising power of China in the region.


Clinton’s visit was soon followed by those of the French foreign minister Alain Juppe, the British foreign secretary William Hague and the Japanese trade minister Yukio Edano. The European Union (EU) has lifted travel sanction on senior Burmese officials. Until recently, only countries in the region, like China, India, Thailand and Singapore, engaged meaningfully with the government in Yangon. The West, led by the US, had on the other hand, imposed draconian economic sanctions on the country and at the same time was exerting pressure on countries like India to distance themselves from the military led government. Hillary Clinton, before reaching Yangon, had said that developing countries should be “smart shoppers” and should be careful about taking assistance from countries that were more interested “in extracting resources, than in building capacity.”


The US secretary of state had two well publicised meetings with the icon of the struggle for democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi. She was released from house arrest in 2010 soon after the holding of elections supervised by the army. The election, though far from being free and fair, were the first to be held in twenty years. The party lead by Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD), banned from contesting two years ago, has since been allowed to once again openly participate in politics. Under the 2008 constitution, the parliament has very little power. The military will continue to have a constitutional veto on decisions made by the parliament or the president. The military is guaranteed 25 per cent of the seats in the parliament. Suu Kyi’s decision to contest in a parliamentary bypoll in April is being viewed as a tacit endorsement of the 2008 constitution. Many in her own party have criticised her decision to seek a seat in parliament.


Clinton harped on America’s abiding support for the struggle for democracy and said that she was visiting the country to gauge the “true intentions” of the military junta. After meeting with the Burmese president, Thein Sein in the new administrative capital, Naypyidaw, Clinton welcomed the new steps taken by his government. She had come with a list of demands which included freeing of political prisoners and ceasing of hostilities with the rebellious ethnic groups like the Karens and the Kachins. Hundreds of political prisoners, including a few high profile ones, have since been freed. A cease fire agreement has been reached with the Karen National Union (KNU) in January. The Karen insurgency has been going on for more than 60 years. The government has ordered a general ceasefire. Ethnic minorities make up around 40 per cent of Burma’s population.




Clinton’s visit had taken place just after the military government cancelled a multi-billion dollar deal with China to build a hydro-electric project. The Myitsone Dam was to be built on the Irrawaddy River. The government, while announcing the decision to cancel the project, said that the construction of the dam would go “against the will of the people.” The proposed dam had come under criticism from environmental groups and there were a few scattered demonstrations against the project. The 3.6 billion dollars dam was China’s biggest single investment in the country. It was supposed to part of a network of seven dams that would provide power for industry in Southern China. China is involved in other important energy related projects. China’s National Petroleum Corporation has been building a gas and petroleum pipeline from Burma’s southern coast into China that would bypass potential choke points like the Malacca Straits where the US Navy has a strong presence. Interestingly, the gas from the immense Shwe reserves in Arakan state was first offered to India by the Burmese authorities. It was only after India dragged its feet on the offer that China came into the picture. China has invested 11 billion dollars in Myanmar in 2010-2011 alone.


The decision to suddenly cancel the gas project was made during the visit of Burmese foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin to Washington in September. He was the first senior official to visit Washington since the military junta took power. During her visit, the US secretary of state indicated that Washington would no longer stand in the way of IMF and World Bank loans to Myanmar. The US itself has loosened its purse strings. American aid officials have started visiting the country in droves to earmark development projects. American business views resource rich Burma as the “new frontier.” The military government has already offered generous terms for western investors and has advertised the country as “the most attractive in the region.” The military government is all set to approve a law that will give investors tax exemption up to eight years. Burmese workers are among the lowest paid in the region. Trade union activity is severely curtailed by the military run government.  




Thein Sein declared the US secretary of state’s visit as a “historic milestone” and expressed the hope that it would “open a new chapter in relations” between the two countries. One of the senior political advisors to the Burmese president, Nay Zin Latt, told Time magazine, that because of western sanctions, the country had no other option but to “take what China had to offer.” He said that if western sanctions were lifted, “it will be better for everyone in Myanmar.” Another senior adviser to the president, Ko Ko Hliang was also candid enough to admit that the events of the “Arab Spring” had influenced the government’s decision to cosy up to Washington. The military men currently in power are well aware that they will not be easily able to crush popular revolts like in the past. They also know about the West’s propensity to use street protests to intervene militarily and bring about regime change.


Suu Kyi too has warned against an “Arab Spring” type uprising in the country and has instead called for “change through peaceful means.” She has also virtually rubberstamped the military’s transition plan to democracy when she gave the go ahead for the re-registration of the NLD. According to reports in the western media, the Obama administration had made Suu Kyi’s release in 2010 as the first precondition for the lifting of sanctions and the eventual normalisation of relations.


A new chapter seems to have indeed opened up in relations between the US and Burma. In January, Washington announced that it was sending an ambassador after a gap of 10 years. Since the Clinton visit, three separate delegations of US officials have visited the country. Reports from Washington in the second week of February have said that the CIA director, David Petraeus, is to visit Myanmar later this year. American officials in Bangkok, where the CIA director was recently on an official visit, told the media that CIA director would be making the visit on the instruction of the secretary of state. A trip by Petraeus would be an indication that the two countries are heading for greater cooperation in security related issues. The two countries had cooperated in the 1980s when the military was combating various insurgencies, including one led by the Burmese Communist Party, which at the time had the tacit support of China.


The Burmese military and political establishment has historically tried to remain equidistant from its two big neighbours --- China and India. Now with China outpacing India economically, sections of the Burmese elite could have come to the conclusion that the US would be a better bet to counter balance the growing Chinese influence. Washington too has been trying to cash in on India’s growing apprehensions about China’s growing clout in Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi, from available indications, has become particularly close to the West in recent years.


It is no secret that she was upset with New Delhi after close relations were established with the military junta in the mid-nineties. New Delhi had openly stated that the sanctions on Burma were counterproductive. The two countries have also established strong security links, cooperating closely in anti-insurgency operations along the 1,640 km long unfenced border. In July 2010, during the visit of President Than Shwe to India, a “mutual legal assistance” agreement was signed. The agreement provides for the repatriation of Indian insurgents held in Burma.