LONDON-Once a closed society, Myanmar, previously known as Burma, has emerged since 2010 as one of the world’s democratic hopes. But amidst the euphoria surrounding a seemingly miraculous transformation, American policy makers have missed one essential fact: Myanmar functions as at least five countries struggling to escape overlordship of a sixth. National reconciliation is Myanmar’s greatest need and should be, with an eye toward China, America’s Myanmar policy’s highest priority.
Ethnic Baman or Burmans make up the majority of the country’s 60 million people. Buddhists of the central lowlands, Burmans dominate the government, economy and army. Other significant ethnic groups include the Kachin (who are Christians) bordering China; the Shan (Buddhists) bordering China, Laos and Thailand; the Karen (Christians and Buddhists) bordering Thailand; the Chin (Christians and Buddhists) bordering India; and Muslims bordering the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh.
The struggle of non-Burmans for an equal place in the country and the opposition of ethnic Burmans is the story of modern Myanmar. Here is the chronology.
In 1947, just before British rule ended, non-Burmans were promised a federal system with strong provincial governments, much like Canada or Switzerland. Once in power, the Burman-dominated state reneged. Armed rebellions, some still ongoing, followed.
In 1962, with a constitutional convention poised to institute equal representation in a national assembly, the Burman-dominated army staged a coup. For the next fifty years, Myanmar stagnated under brutal, repressive and corrupt generals whose tactics included mass rape and ethnic cleansing.
Beginning with the so-called 8888 (for August 8, 1988) strikes and demonstrations that included both Burmans and non-Burmans, a pro-democracy movement arose across the country. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the country’s founding hero, emerged as its leader.
In 1990, her party won a new round of elections. The military nullified the vote and placed The Lady, as she came to be known, under house arrest. The West retaliated with economic sanctions. China, indeed all Asian countries, ignored the sanctions, leading to the rise of China as a major influence in Myanmar – and a later reaction against China that is the shaping force in the country today.
“China is corrupt and rotten to the core,” one Myanmar businessman told me earlier this year. The Chinese have taken Myanmar’s resources on terms approaching theft. By 2010, Myanmar’s rulers were convinced that they needed an offsetting great-power relationship. So beginning with Aung San Suu Kyi in November that year, they began freeing political prisoners. A new constitution followed, as did multi-party elections early last year. But few in the West noticed that the constitution left the military free of civilian control and did not mention ethnic group rights. Instead, the U.S. government ignored the non-Burman ethnic groups.
For example, the Pentagon established military to military exchanges with the Burman-dominated army. Yet unless and until the military includes all ethnic groups, Myanmar can never be a viable nation. Similarly, when President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in the past two years, neither met with members of the non-Burman leadership, a major lost opportunity.
Meanwhile, U.S. corporations doing business in Myanmar have not been encouraged to engage with non-Burman ethnic leaders. They should be pressed to respect the property rights of local people, not hide behind Burman claims of eminent domain. In particular, they should make sure that just compensation is given when land is taken.
In the past month, a conference among many of the country’s ethnic groups convened in what organizers called “the liberated area.” The conference’s closing statement called for replacing the current constitution with one that a broad cross section of national groups would draft. The non-Burmans’ goals included establishing the long promised federated state and a national government that incorporated federal principals, a defense force made up of all ethnicities and a peace negotiation among “the ethnic forces, the democratic forces and the government” to be held in a neutral place in the presence of international observers.
It is time for the United States to play a more informed role in Myanmar’s development. American diplomats should encourage the Burman elite to engage seriously with the ethnicities. They should impress upon the Burman leadership that it will be all but impossible to achieve the great goal of pulling away from China without political and humanitarian reform. Western governments will not remain engaged with a country that commits atrocities against its own peoples. Internal strife will keep Myanmar in a perpetual state of weakness.
Meanwhile, Washington needs to realize that reducing China’s economic hold on the country will require more than encouraging western corporations to invest. The United States should welcome the role of strong indigenous economic players. At the moment, it treats many of them with hostility.
For example, in Myanmar, the State Department has blacklisted about 100 individuals and companies it considers “cronies” of the old regime. Some are truly bad actors: heroin dealers and human traffickers. Others are only guilty of doing business with their country’s government when it exercised absolute control over the economy.
One of Myanmar’s leading businessmen is Tay Za, a Burman with hotel, aviation, mining and agricultural operations. Called the country’s first billionaire, he employs about 40,000 people. What sense does it make to keep this man on the blacklist after we have struck from that same blacklist the military figures with whom he did business?
Consider our 19th Century Robber Barons. What would Americans have thought if foreign governments had declared them beyond the worldwide pale? How can we preach reconciliation in Myanmar when we show no willingness to reconcile with Tay Za, his brother crony Zaw Zaw and others who are similarly clean?
For the West, much rides on the success of Myanmar’s move away from China. Occupying one of the world’s most strategically significant locations, the end of Myanmar’s pariah status is making possible previously inconceivable international investment in the country’s infrastructure. Within a few years, Myanmar could become a thriving cargo corridor linking southern China and, via new roads and upgraded ports, the rest of the world. Equally significant, it could provide an overland alternative to the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, allowing shippers to by-pass the Straits’ pirate-infested eastern approaches. Its oil and gas and other mineral potential is just beginning to be developed.
Myanmar’s challenge is similar to South Africa’s a quarter century ago. Today South Africa is at peace with itself. The key was reconciliation among rival racial groups and a large dose of realism about keeping the nation’s major economic players engaged. The world prays for the return to full health of the father of that achievement – Nelson Mandela – as he convalesces in a Pretoria hospital. Myanmar’s Burman elite might ponder the lesson of Mandela’s triumph. America’s policy makers should as well.