The release of more than 200 political prisoners on January 13 and the subsequent decision by Washington to announce its readiness to send an ambassador to Burma are the latest steps taken by both governments to normalize relations. Since the Burmese military opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators, killing thousands, in 1988 – and ignored the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy in the 1990 general election – the United States has been Burma’s fiercest critic, in more recent years imposing trade and financial sanctions on the country’s military regime and its business cronies.
In early December, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma – the first by a high-ranking US official in half a century. She praised what she called “democratic reforms” initiated by its new government led by Thein Sein, a retired general now the country’s president. Meeting with pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, Clinton said it was encouraging to see Burma on the road to democracy.
But as the dust settles, it’s become increasingly obvious that the absence of democracy and respect for human rights is not the only US concern in Burma. A new, streamlined US military strategy now points to Asia, and much has changed since March 1989. Only months after the blood-drenched uprising for democracy, Burton Levin, then US ambassador, told the Washington Post: “Since there are no US bases and very little strategic interest, Burma is one place where the United States has the luxury of living up to its principles.”
The following year, Burton left Burma and was not replaced. In the meantime, Burma developed a close political, economic and military partnership with China – seen by many analysts as a result of the West’s isolation of the regime. Burma’s immediate neighbors, especially India, view China’s planned construction of gas and oil pipelines to the Indian Ocean – and a possible military umbrella to protect that lifeline – with concern. Perhaps even more alarming is the presence of North Korean tunnelling and missile experts in the country. Building North Korean-aided missiles in Burma would complicate regional strategic balance.
So, it’s high time for the US to change the policy and send a new ambassador.
What else the United States has promised Burma in exchange for normalizing relations is a matter of conjecture, but a partial lifting of sanctions and granting Burma access to international monetary institutions have been mentioned.
So far, Burma appears willing to play ball with Washington. This first became evident on September 30, when President Thein Sein announced that he had decided to suspend the China-backed US$3.6 billion joint-venture Myitsone dam project in Kachin State. The Chinese threatened to sue the Burmese government for breach of contract, but in the end took a wait-and-see attitude. China perhaps does not want to jeopardize its investment in strategically important oil and gas pipeline in a pique over the cancelled dam. Over the past few years, widespread dissatisfaction within the Burmese military over the country’s heavy dependence on China has also become evident. It’s not forgotten that China during the 1960s and 1970s gave massive support to the insurgent Communist Party of Burma. More recently, illegal immigration coupled with China’s domination of local commerce and rising ownership of land stoked Burmese nationalist sentiments, risking destabilizing splits inside the military, still by far the country’s most powerful institution.
Significantly, the first item brought up by Thein Sein during his meeting with Clinton was the importance of Myanmar’s relationship with China. She expressed support for good relations with Burma if “reform efforts maintain momentum.” In mid-January, Clinton said the US “will further embrace” Burma if “the government releases all remaining political prisoners, ends violence against minorities – and cuts military ties with North Korea.”
Burma’s relations with North Korea have troubled Washington for years. Nearly every month since the early 2000s, North Korean ships have docked in Burmese ports, carrying “cement” or “general cargo” according to shipping records. The ships usually carry rice on return journeys, indicating a barter arrangement. Burma, which has plenty of rice and little hard currency, is paying North Korea with food, which it badly needs. Both countries, targeted with sanctions, have difficulties using international banks for trade.
As a YaleGlobal report revealed in 2009 North Korean technicians have been spotted at construction sites of underground bunkers and tunnels and the defense industry complex at Minhla in central Burma, where the regime is believed to be developing a Scud-type missile based on North Korean designs. In June 2009, the US Navy chased a North Korean freighter Kang Nam 1, with suspected weapons cargo, forcing its return to North Korea. UN Security Council Resolution 1874 permits a search of North Korean ships suspected of carrying illegal cargo.
The last recorded attempt to ship military-related equipment from North Korea to Burma took place in spring 2011, several months after Thein Sein became president and government officials claimed no further cooperation with North Korea. At the time, Gary Samore, special assistant to US President Barack Obama on weapons of mass destruction, told South Korean media that the ship, also forced to return to North Korea, may have been bound for Burma carrying small arms or missile-related items. But other ships are known to have made it through.
Apart from meetings with Thein Sein, Clinton also held talks with Thura Shwe Mann, a former general who is the speaker of the Burmese parliament’s Lower House. In November 2008, Shwe Mann led a secret delegation to North Korea where Burmese guests inspected air-defense systems and missile factories, and signed a military cooperation agreement with Pyongyang.
In exchange for distancing Burma from China and severing military cooperation with North Korea, the ruling generals desire full access to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other international financial institutions, as well as a lifting of sanctions against individuals close to the regime and their businesses, imposed by the George W. Bush administration.
Thein Sein and the powerful military also recognize the need for providing some icing on the cake for the United States and the European Union, which imposed similar but more limited sanctions, to accept Burma’s nominally civilian regime that took over after rigged elections in November 2010. Recent prisoner releases and easing of internet and press censorship should be seen in this context. The regime has also convinced Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to participate in April by-elections, with several meeting held between her and Thein Sein. Evidently, the regime has realized that it’s better to absorb her into the established order rather than let her remain a democracy icon, personifying popular opposition to the regime.
At the same time, Burma cannot turn its back on China. The two countries share a long border, while the United States and the European Union are distant powers of lesser importance for the regime’s long-term survival as well as day-to-day trade and other bilateral relations. China may still yet react to Burma’s new honeymoon with the United States. But Burma no longer is a country where the United States has “very little strategic interest.” On the contrary, Burma is rapidly becoming the focus of superpower rivalry, one more spot in Asia where US security interests are clashing with China’s.
Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist based in Thailand and the author of several works on Asia, including Blood Brothers: The Criminal Underworld of Asia” and “Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan. Rights:Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal