Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The United States and Its Allies: The Problem of Burma/Myanmar Policy

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The United States and Its Allies: The Problem of Burma/Myanmar Policy

Article excerpt

The debate on appropriate policies towards Myanmar amongst the United States and its allies is, at best, sotto voce. (1) It is a virtual murmur, heard in quiet circles but overpowered by peripheral and an acutely urgent and insistent policy cacophony about the Middle East, Northeast Asia, terrorist issues and other desiderata. The United States has paid sporadic attention to the wide variety of issues in that country, and has only done so focused on human and democratic rights, and at the insistence, arguing fortissimo, of a few vocal members of Congress. They have been prompted by carefully coordinated, if fragmented, human rights and expatriate Myanmar groups. Insofar as the American public has heard of that country, it is likely through the name of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leading figure of the opposition to military rule.

Allies of the United States, namely Japan, Thailand, Australia and the European Union (EU), have taken significantly different, if nuanced, positions on how to cope with, and induce change in, a society with an obvious and egregious record of human rights abuses towards its multiple peoples. (2) Although all deplore the continued detention of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi who has been under house arrest since 2003 and for many previous years, these states differ on how to affect reform in that society. Information is controlled and foreign access to the higher circles of the military is severely curtailed in Myanmar. The policy spectrum ranges, at its most restrictive, from the United States, which has imposed the most comprehensive sanctions, through the EU, Australia, Japan and Thailand. Thailand's policies have been in a state of flux since the 19 September 2006 military coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who had been more accommodating towards, and had business interests with, the regime.

The opprobrium by which all the above former donors treat at least aspects of the military regime is not matched by other neighbours of Myanmar. China, however much it may quietly be concerned with events in Myanmar, seeks stability and access and remains the staunchest supporter of that government with both military and economic assistance. China evidently has strong geopolitical interests in Myanmar, which can provide it with access to the Bay of Bengal, the Malacca Straits, oil and gas pipelines to southwestern China, and a market for goods manufactured in China's southwestern provinces. India, which despite present amicable relations with Beijing, considers a rising China allied with both Pakistan and Myanmar as a potential threat, effectively flanking Delhi. The Chinese virtual inundation of Myanmar through military and economic aid, investment, and illegal immigration of considerable magnitude (the Chinese are perhaps four per cent of the total population or about two million people) (3) seems to surround a vulnerable India, which still remembers its losses during the 1962 Sino-Indian border war. The Chinese are economically visible and have access to credit and wealth and thus are increasingly significant in the economy. Some estimate that Lashio, an important city north of Mandalay, is 50 per cent Yunnanese Chinese, while the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has indicated that Mandalay itself, the seat of Myanmar culture, has a population of whom 20 per cent are from Yunnan.

Thus, India has diametrically shifted its policies from reproach in the first few years following the military coup of 1988 to assistance towards the military in Myanmar. (4) The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) (of which Myanmar has been a member since July 1997) has and has had too many undemocratic skeletons in its member states' political closets to object too vociferously to military rule in Myanmar, although it seemed embarrassed by the international vilification of that regime that has spilled over onto ASEAN itself. …

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