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Obama Goes to Myanmar

Fri, Nov 16, 2012

East Asia, Strategic Deterrence

By Konstantin PENZEV (Russia)

Obama Goes to Myanmar

On November 9, the White House Press Office officially confirmed that President Obama “will travel to Bangkok, Thailand; Rangoon, Burma and Phnom Penh, Cambodia from November 17-20. In Thailand, he will meet with Prime Minister Yingluck to mark 180 years of diplomatic relations and reaffirm the strength of our alliance. In Burma, the President will meet with President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi and speak to civil society to encourage Burma’s ongoing democratic transition. In Cambodia, the President will attend the East Asia Summit and meet with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.”

Obama’s visit to Myanmar is particularly interesting. Until now, no American president has ever visited this country — not because it is unimportant, but only because a military junta ruled the country before 2011. The junta was suspicious and unfriendly towards the United States. It felt that way not because military governments have little liking for democratic regimes.

For example, General Pinochet, the head of Chile’s junta, was completely loyal to the United States. Nor do Pakistan’s generals disdain the money that comes out of America’s budget. In the end, the existence of a whole pack of “our sons of bitches” across a broad international political spectrum clearly indicates that military dictators are not fundamentally opposed to democratic states, especially when they provide financial support to deserving soldiers.

In March 2011, Myanmar took a step towards democracy after 50 years of military rule. General Thein Sein was appointed interim prime minister to replace ailing Prime Minister Soe Win in the spring of 2007, and the appointment was made permanent after Soe Win’s death. Since taking office, Myanmar’s newly elected leader has expressed a willingness to institute democratic changes. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Myanmar somewhat later, apparently to discuss building democracy with interested members of the native community in an Asian country that has been totalitarian for a thousand years.

Clinton found their arguments quite reasonable, and she promised to help promote democratic reforms in Myanmar and consider easing sanctions against the Myanmar government.

The international media reported that on September 20, 2012 the White House lifted its economic sanctions against Myanmar’s head of state Thein Sein and Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann. As a rule, sanctions are imposed on and lifted from a country, but if the media’s wording is correct, Myanmar’s democratization process has some interesting nuances. These nuances could derive from the deeply personal motivations of individual Myanmar leaders. Thein Sein and Shwe Mann still have careers in the military dictatorship, and if they have been suddenly smitten with love for democracy, especially Western-style democracy, it is unlikely to have been caused by a change in their worldview.

“Easing sanctions is a strong signal of our support for reform,” said President Obama.

As we know, the universally recognized leader of democracy in Myanmar is the internationally known human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2008.

On September 30, 2012, Thein Sein said he would accept opposition leader Aung Suu Kyi as a future president if she is elected by the people. Speaking at the UN General Assembly, he said that Myanmar’s reforms are irreversible. In a BBC interview, the Myanmar junta’s last leader and current “democrat and human rights defender,” Thein Sein, said he is committed to democracy and he and Aung Suu Kyi are working together.

He said democracy has triumphed again, progress is being made, and Western values are once again appealing to ordinary people around the world who dream of freedom.

Things are not that simple, however. There are several aspects to Myanmar that officials do not talk about much. They are in no way connected with democratic reform and human rights.

Actually, Myanmar’s importance in international politics and the global economy approaches absolute zero. There is, however, a “but.” A few countries take an interest in the country because of its geographic location — its common border with China and its direct access to the Indian Ocean. The construction of oil and gas pipelines from China through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean would let Middle Eastern hydrocarbons bypass the Strait of Malacca in transit to China. This passage provides China with about 80% of its energy imports and is currently controlled by the navies of the United States and some of its Southeast Asian allies.

It is easy to understand the special attention that Beijing has paid Myanmar for the last 20 years. Chinese corporations virtually control the country’s economy. As of August 2012, Chinese investments in Myanmar’s economy totaled $14.14 billion. China is Myanmar’s largest investor and trading partner. The Chinese government provides systematic economic support to Myanmar’s government and is virtually its only arms supplier. In addition, according to some estimates, Myanmar is home (legally or illegally) to 3 million Chinese. Since China is a member of the UN Security Council and has the right to veto decisions in that body, it prevents the UN from imposing sanctions on Myanmar.

The US government is not interested in democratic change in this country, whose name it has been unable to learn and which it still calls Burma, any more than it is interested in democracy in Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, etc. The White House mainly wants to block China’s short access to the Indian Ocean and tightly control energy supplies to the Chinese economy. Everything else is secondary and of little interest to Washington.

What does the Myanmar junta’s sudden love for American-style democracy mean?

First of all, the White House could simply and without fanfare buy off the junta leaders or blackmail them by freezing their foreign bank accounts. This routine method is used systematically by the guys in Washington and their cronies at Langley. Second, the initiative could have come from Myanmar’s top leadership, some influential members of which obviously did not like being too highly dependent on China.

Here then is the question. What will Thein Sein do? Will Myanmar become a pawn in the military-strategic games of the United States, or will it attempt to somehow “have it both ways,” i.e., try to achieve a balance in its relations with the United States and China and derive as much benefit as it can. The latter is unlikely. It would be very difficult.

We should obviously expect Myanmar to come under US protection. But we should not forget that China may react very strongly. For China, the issue is about more than protecting its multibillion-dollar investments and opportunities. It also has to do with China’s geopolitical opportunities for loosening the United States’ naval stranglehold.

Several unpleasant things may happen in Myanmar politics in the near future: an attempted coup, a rebellion by separatists, social upheavals, etc. The US State Department and the CIA are not the only ones able to make things like that happen.

Source: New Eastern Outlook

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. john Says:

    Great article- when I hear our government(USA) praising democratic reforms in another country it means tht there is a scramble beginning for a natural resource(oil,water resources,sex trade,drug trade, farmland).

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