Wednesday, March 4, 2009

27-7-2007 Burma/Myanmar: Its Strategic importance

South Asian Analysis Group
Paper no. 2316 27.07.2007
Burma/Myanmar: Its Strategic importance
Guest Column by Dr. Tint Swe
Realpolitik meant dealing with repugnant leaders like Ayub Khan and Saddam Hussein: turning a blind eye to their violation of human rights, for the sake of some small advantage over the other superpower. (Niall Ferguson)

The Geographical significance of Burma is obvious and does not change with time. However, in times of its history, there are certain circumstantial factors that define the degree of significance. An Analysis on contemporary history reveals that Burma becomes so significant that it can be either a pawn or a knight in post-9/11 era regional chess game. To justify the policy, habitually while China can stay silent, India has to deal in Realpolitik.
The conventional wisdom of the powerful Burmese Kings was to fight wars with neighbors vis-à-vis dominant neighbors who also invaded when Burmese kingdoms were weak. Burmese history students are made to memorize Ayutthaya and Chiang-Mai of Siam (Thailand), Manipur, Assam and Cachar of India and Chittagong of present Bangladesh. To replicate the military might of such brave kings who repulsed the mighty invaders or gained territories, the current regime of Burma has put sculptures of three kings at the entrance of the newly built Naypyiday capital.

Since the Pyu City-State in the 1st century BC, Burma was part of an overland trade route between China and India. Southeast Asia was at times under the control of Pagan Kingdom, which was finally flattened by Mongols in 1289. King Bayinnaung invaded Manipur in 1560 and Ayutthaya (Siam) in 1569. King Alaungpaya of the last dynasty also regained control of Manipur. King Hsinbyushin returned to Ayutthaya in 1766. Even China feared expansion of Burmese power and sent armies, but Burmese kings successfully held back four Chinese invasions between 1766 and 1769. Burmese general Bandula succeeded in conquering Assam, bringing Burma face to face with British interests in India. Consequently three Anglo-Burmese wars made Burma a province of British India in 1886.

Indians and Chinese in colonial Burma
When the Suez Canal was put in operation, because of the huge demand for Burmese rice local farmers were forced to borrow money with high interest rate from Indian moneylenders, the Chettiars. Colonized Burmese call British Kala-phyu, the whites who brought Indians because most of the jobs, all the power, and wealth went into the hands of the Indian migrants. General Ne Win was compelled to expel all foreigners in 1960s. However, there was a difference between the fleeing Indians and the Chinese who left. All Indians returned to India while the Chinese went to third countries like, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and the United States. While India kept aloof and did not interfere, China openly supported the communist revolt in Burma.

The Burmese freedom fighters sought assistance through both India and China. However it was by chance that Aung San and his comrades got practical help from the ambitious Nippon (Japan). At the climax of independence Nehru was a good friend of Aung San. The best available photo of Burma's historical hero Aung San was when he wore the great coat given by Nehru on his way to London.

Unlike India, Burma did not join the British Commonwealth. But India and Burma were in common while going against Cold War power America for different reasons. Because of Kuomintang activities being supported by America, Burma refused to join the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Likewise India was with East bloc. Again Burma was with India and China at the Bandung Conference of 1955. Interestingly Burma was one of the first countries to recognize Israel and the People's Republic of China.

Current strategic setting
Military ruled Burma became sandwiched between ASEAN and SAARC, the two emerging blocs with different visions in Asia. Ne Win's isolationist rule kept his country out of ASEAN establishment in 1967. However, the current isolated military regime was desperate to join ASEAN and finally they made it despite the international campaign by exiled groups. India's new Look East policy had Burma in mind. The undeclared India's Burma policy was like that of ASEAN - the controversial constructive engagement. Indian patience is so admirable that while the ASEAN which accepted Burma in 1997 has become more and more vocal against Burma and its failure to restore democracy - India maintains silence since her U-turn 5 years ago in 1992.

Stroke of luck
Dictators are by and large lucky to stay in power. West or East it does not matter to them who rules Burma as long as oil and gas are made available. When on-land natural resources are about to the depleted in earlier years of the coup, the discovery of huge natural gas has helped Burmese Generals to remain in power by doing business with energy-hungry governments. Although all cities in the Middle East are highly illuminated, Rangoon and Mandalay dwellers are having electricity in six hour shifts. While Burmese gas goes to the neighbors, the entire country in Burma has been cutting trees for using fire wood for cooking.

China factor
It is an irony that the military regime of Burma is so strong that it cannot be toppled by its own people but it is a weak government in the eyes of other nations. The weak government of Burma is unable to stand up to the growing influence of China in economy and politics. China always yearns for a weak government in Burma that has a cold relationship with the West. China and Burma, having a common border of more than 2,000 kilometers, have had a long-standing Paukphaw (fraternal) friendship. Now for Burma the real national menace are the Chinese settlers and their deep rooted influence in all sectors. It is the unforeseen spin-off of dependency of the current regime on China that is slowly turning Burma into another Tibet.

India factor
In fact, the northeast insurgency of India was only an additional factor of the wider geopolitical consideration of India in their new approach to Burma. The Burmese Kachin organization had already been tamed and all NE groups have left the KIO training camps. It is during the new Look East policy that the new anti-India groups has started enjoying sanctuaries provided by the military regime with whom India has been trying to get close. It has been exactly 15 years and India is yet to dig up any substantial cooperation by the Burmese regime to suppress Indian insurgency. In fact India looks East to the dictatorship on her eastern border.

Sino-India factor
After 50 years, the discarded the Uncle Sam highway (the Burma Road) has become one of strategic importance. China and India agreed to revive for different as well as for shared reasons. What is in common is that China wants Yunnan province and India the northeast region to develop. But China looks for market to sell and India not for trade but to buy. But both have security interests, which could be uncomfortable to Burma. The regime of Burma craves for neither trade nor business but for money from both of them. Historically the two neighbors have made two different U-turns when it comes to Burma. Chinese turn took more years and was forceful with – arms supplies and political support to communist party of Burma (CPB) and arms and political support to the military regime. India took less time and was different – psychological and service (All India Radio) to pro-democracy movement and arms sales and blind political support to the military regime.

Minor strategic considerations
The billion plus population of India and China do not care about the five digit number of refugees. But Thailand bears the refugee burden most. The immigrants from Bangladesh and Burma are of different kind. Burmese politicians once made use of them as vote banks.

Burma is an 85% Buddhist country and religion was manipulated for good and bad purposes. U Nu won elections partly for his favors to Buddhism. The regime, which could kill and disrobe the monks and loot the golden pagodas, pretends to be the well-wishers of Buddhism to lure its people. Likewise Buddha tooth relic diplomacy is to please China, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India.

The Burmese military intelligence apparatus is known for its excellence for knowing where a needle is in a heap of hay. The authorities are clear where paddy or wheat has to grow. So for poppy too. Among the neighbors only China and Thailand took serious notice of narcotic drugs routed from Burma. Among other countries, only America took measures to eradicate drugs that originate from Burma. But like human rights violations, drug is not a strong force to pressurise the junta of Burma. Enough is not being done.

It is a pity that the Analysis & decision makers in India underestimate the mindset of Burmese generals who cannot be compared with the generals from other regimes of Asia or Africa. Yes it is more important for Burmese people to read their killer generals' mind correctly. But foreign governments should also accurately read the actions of the Burmese Army. Did they keep promises? Did they respect the international charters and agreements? – Why are they silent?

For the independence of Burma, Japan or Britain never took the credit. But now both the democratic and undemocratic blocs deserve credit for allowing the lengthy military control in Aung San Suu Kyi's Burma. The typical Burmese hate to hear from the so-called high profile foreign diplomats who always utter sweet words to the Jailor-Killer Generals.

(Dr. Tin Swe is an elected member of Parliament from Burma from the NLD now living in F-15, Vikas Puri, New Delhi and can be reached at his mobile- 981-000-3286, e-mail The views expressed are his own)

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