China and Burma: Not Only Pauk-Phaw

By Bertil Lintner 8 June 2017

Part 4 of a 5-part series.

2011-to present: Burma-US Relations, Its Complicated

Western sanctions did not cause Burma’s economic—and strategic—fall into the hands of the Chinese, as many foreign observers have argued. But Western policies certainly made it easier for China to implement its designs for Burma. This, in return, caused some in the West to criticize a policy of isolating Burma and “handing it over to China.” These concerns were outlined as early as June 1997 in a Los Angeles Times article by Marvin Ott, an American security expert and former CIA analyst. “Washington can and should remain outspokenly critical of abuses in [Burma]. But there are security and other national interests to be served…it is time to think seriously about alternatives,” Ott concluded.

But the turn took some doing. Between 2000-2008, the George W. Bush administration’s bipartisan Burma policy not only maintained sanctions put in place by Congress during the Clinton administration but added new ones in an attempt to support Burma’s democratic forces. In the wake of the 2007 Saffron Revolution’s popular uprising and the regime’s disastrous response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the Bush administration did seek to take advantage of additional space to support civil society on the ground by expanding humanitarian assistance and other programs inside the country, but overall it maintained a hard line against the regime’s leadership.

The revelation in the early 2000s that Burma and North Korea had established a strategic partnership helped to tip the balance in Washington. North Korea reportedly was providing Burma with tunneling expertise, heavy weapons, radar and air defense systems, and—it is alleged by Western and Asian intelligence agencies—even missile-related technology. Some leading foreign policy voices, such as then-Senator Jim Webb, began arguing that it was high time to shift tracks and start to engage the Burmese leadership, which seemed bent on clinging on to power no matter the consequences. When the Obama administration came into office on a platform of reversing Bush-era foreign policy, many saw an opening for a change on Burma as well.

The November 2010 election in Burma, which formally ended junta rule by Senior General Than Shwe and brought the Thein Sein government to power, was blatantly rigged and fraudulent. Nonetheless, it was seen as an opportunity that the West needed to mend fences with the Burmese leadership. Burma suddenly had a new face and a country ostensibly run by a constitution, not a junta. With a new administration in Washington, it was also the perfect time for Burma’s former generals to launch a charm offensive in the West, and for the United States and other Western countries to begin the process of détente. Both the US and Burmese leadership viewed pulling Burma from its uncomfortable Chinese embrace and close relationship with North Korea as a key element of this new era.

In early December 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a high-profile visit to Burma, the first such trip by a top-ranking Washington official in more than 50 years. Clinton’s visit to Burma was followed by a visit by President Obama in November 2012, who returned to Rangoon two years later as the country finally took its turn as chair of ASEAN. In May 2013, Thein Sein became the first Burmese head of state to visit the United States since Gen. Ne Win was there in 1966. By the time Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Washington for a September 2016 visit as State Counselor, US-Burma relations had been almost completely normalized. On the occasion of her visit, she and President Obama announced the lifting of all remaining economic sanctions.

In order to understand Burma’s rather dramatic policy shift, it is instructive to look deeper into what was discussed in inner circles of the military in the early 2000s. Then condemned and isolated by the international community, the ruling military junta announced in August 2003 a seven-step “Roadmap to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy.” That plan called for the drafting of a new constitution, general elections, and convention of a new parliament that would “elect state leaders” charged with building “a modern, developed, and democratic nation.”

The “roadmap” was made public, but at the same time a confidential “master plan” that outlined ways and means to deal with both the international community, especially the US, and domestic opposition was also drawn up. The authors of that plan are not known; however, an internal military document written by Lt-Col Aung Kyaw Hla, who is identified as a researcher at the country’s prestigious Defense Services Academy, was completed and circulated as early as August 2004, less than two months before Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, “China’s man”, was ousted.

The Burmese-language document, received and reviewed by this author, outlines the thinking and strategy behind the master plan. It is, however, unclear whether “Aung Kyaw Hla” is a particular person, or a codename used by a military think-tank. Anecdotal evidence suggests the latter.

Entitled “A Study of Myanmar [Burma]-U.S. Relations,” the main thesis of the 346-page dossier is that Burma’s recent reliance on China as a diplomatic ally and economic patron has created a “national emergency” that threatens the country’s independence. According to the dossier, Burma must normalize relations with the West after implementing the roadmap and electing a government so that the regime can deal with the outside world on more acceptable terms.

Aung Kyaw Hla goes on to argue that although human rights are a concern in the West, the US would be willing to modify its policy to suit “strategic interests.” Although the author does not specify those interests, it is clear from the thesis that he is thinking of common ground with the US vis-à-vis China. The author cites Vietnam and Indonesia under former dictator Suharto as examples of US foreign policy flexibility in weighing strategic interests against democratization.

If bilateral relations with the US were improved, the master plan suggests, Burma would also get access to badly needed funds from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other global financial institutions. The country could then emerge from “regionalism,” where it depended on the goodwill and trade of its immediate neighbors, including China, and enter a new era of “globalization.”

The master plan clearly articulated the problems that must be addressed before Burma could lessen its reliance on China and become a trusted partner with the West. The main issue at the time of writing was the detention of pro-democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who Aung Kyaw Hla wrote was a key “focal point”: “Whenever she is under detention pressure increases, but when she is not, there is less pressure.”

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi speaks with supporters outside her home, where she was placed under house arrest for seven years, in Rangoon on November 13, 2010. (Soe Zeya Tun/ Reuters)

While the report implies Suu Kyi’s release would improve ties with the West, the plan’s ultimate aim—which it spells out clearly—is to “crush” the opposition.

The dossier concluded that the regime could not compete with the media and non-governmental organizations run by Burmese exiles, but if US politicians and lawmakers were invited to visit the country they could help to sway international opinion in the regime’s favor. In the years leading up to the recent policy shifts, many Americans, including some congressmen, did visit Burma and often proved less critical of the regime than they previously had been.

In the end, it seems that Burma’s military leaders successfully managed to engage the US rather than vice versa. As a result, relations with the United States have improved rapidly, exactly along the lines suggested by Aung Kyaw Hla in 2004. Both China and North Korea were high on the agenda when Clinton visited Burma in December 2011. Subsequently, strategic and economic concerns have risen up the bilateral agenda even as human rights and democratization have been steadily de-emphasized.

Today, the two old adversaries, Burma and the United States, increasingly end up on the same side of the fence in the struggle for power and influence in Southeast Asia. Frictions, and perhaps even hostility, can certainly be expected in future relations between China and Burma—but barring some unforeseen event, Burma will no longer be seen by the United States and elsewhere in the West as a pariah state that has to be condemned and isolated.

Read Part 3 of the series here. Tomorrow: Part 5. Recovering Influence and Checking Rivals

This article was originally published here by The Project 2049 Institute, a policy group based in the US.