‘There is a New Cold War in Asia’: Bertil Lintner

By The Irrawaddy 12 September 2016

The Irrawaddy asks Swedish journalist, author and Burma expert Bertil Lintner about the changing US-Burma relationship, as Burma’s State Counselor and Foreign Minister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visits the US this week.

During Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to the US, do you see the US easing sanctions further, or removing them entirely? Would that be wise?

There are certain sanctions that I believe will not and cannot be lifted, for instance the arms embargo, as long as there is a civil war, and sanctions against certain individuals, some of the so-called cronies, who have been and still are involved in the arms trade and outright criminal activities such as drug trafficking.

The Obama administration is interested in engaging the Burmese military—providing non-lethal assistance and education. Members of some ethnic groups have expressed concern and opposition to this. Under the Ne Win government (1962-88), Burma received arms from the US and some intelligence officers were even trained in the US. Do you see military-to-military engagement being expanded if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi gives the go ahead? After all, she is part of the armed forces family, because her father was the founder of the military. She always insists on having a professional army that is loved by the people. What role do you think she will play?

Under the 2008 Constitution, Burma’s armed forces are autonomous, in the sense that it takes orders only from the commander-in-chief, not the elected government—so Suu Kyi’s role in this regard is very limited. It is only in personal conversations with military officers that she may be able to influence the military. Will they listen to her? That remains to be seen. As for now, it seems to be the other way round. By asserting that they are behind the elected government, the military can capitalize on the legitimacy of that government, especially when it comes to stripping ethnic armed organizations of their claims to legitimacy.

The media has reported that Burmese generals prefer US training and weapons to Chinese variants and are tired of being dependent on China. But we are also seeing more military engagement between China and Burma.

Burma is strategically too important to China to let it go and become a US ally. It’s China’s outlet to the Indian Ocean, and oil- and gas-lines have been built from [Arakan] State to China’s Yunnan province. It is also clear that China has not given up hope that the Myitsone [dam] project will be resumed. There are also other China-sponsored hydroelectric power projects in Burma, for instance on the Salween River. Therefore, China has unleashed a charm offensive with promises to build hospitals and to improve Burma’s infrastructure. And, let’s face it, Burma can’t ignore China, a powerful neighbor. The US is, after all, far away.

Do you think the US’s engagement in Burma has more to do with countering rising Chinese influence than anything else? 

We have to bear in mind that human rights and democracy are not the two most important issues that determine US foreign policy.

There is a new Cold War in Asia with an increasingly assertive China on one side and a loose alliance of the US, India and Japan on the other. In May this year, the US announced that it would lift its arms embargo against Vietnam, hardly a democratic nation that respects human rights, but a very useful ally against China.

In 2011, Burma began to drift away from the close alliance it had had with China since crushing the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, [a move that] was welcomed by the US. In fact, Burma is the only example of the US managing to expand its influence at the expense of China’s. But it is a rollback situation that the US has to handle carefully because democracy and human rights are still important issues to many congressmen, senators and civil lobby groups in Washington.

What do you think of the conference organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC on Tuesday. Some Burma watchers consider it controversial because some participants were supporters of the former U Thein Sein government?

I took a look at the names on the panel and was surprised to see how one-sided it was. Not a single independent voice, only old, pro-Thein Sein people which, by extension, means people who would be more critical of the NLD than of the military.