Burma: On the Brink of Implosion

The world’s most populous democracy and its new economic engine are both busy modifying positions on Burma, their much smaller but troublesome neighbour. India and China have growing economic interests there, yet seem to have come to very different conclusions about how to protect them.

The World Today
3 minute READ

Dr Gareth Price

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

Professor Kerry Brown

Former Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

Over the last two decades, Burma’s return to the headlines has never been for the right reasons. Since the last major uprising in 1988, the country has been trapped in political stasis. The net effect of this has been a greater isolationism by the military junta, so that, seventeen years after holding elections which were then overturned and ignored, the top leadership is even more insular and cut off than a quarter of a century ago.

The recent visit by the United Nations raporteur Ibrahim Gambari fulfilled its minimum objectives – a meeting with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and with the leader of the junta, 74-year-old General Than Shwe. Violence has been damped down.

Demonstrators, more through blank fear than any positive reconciliation with the regime, are lying low. But the danger now is to assume that the current Burmese government can just muddle through. They evidently cannot, and the country remains a tinder box ready to explode.

The international community either puts as much pressure directly, or indirectly, on the regime now, and stands at least a chance of seeing change. Or it waits to deal with a complete implosion, with the real likelihood of UN peacekeeping forces needing to go in to govern a country that has fallen apart, in one of the most sensitive areas in the world.

China’s reach

This year is different to 1988 in one important respect. China today is wholly unlike the China that existed then. It has become a global economic powerhouse with significantly more military clout, and much greater influence in the region. And, as its involvement in the negotiations through the Six-Party Talks has proved in North Korea, while Beijing may remain quiet and modest about its influence, when it really matters, it is surprising what pressure it can bring to bear.

China does not want to see instability in the region, especially during the build up to next year’s Olympic Games. There are enough issues with Washington at the moment, without adding this as a further source of tension. And in the last three years, from the Prime Minister Wen Jiabao down, China has given numerous signs it needs to see action in Burma, to support its considerable trade interests there.

We should be under no illusions. China acts from very different imperatives to the west. It does not disapprove of the regime because of any issues over Burma’s human rights or democratic credentials; though at times it may use the same language as the west. There is no lobby in China from these two areas putting pressure on the government to act.

China’s main issue with Burma is simply that its government is economically and politically incompetent. It has run down the economy of what should be one of the wealthiest countries in the region, so it now ranks as one of the poorest in the world. And because of this, the military rulers have created instability, with the results the world has seen in the last few weeks.

China’s public message might be that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. But as it proved with North Korea earlier this year, when its cage is really rattled, it can be surprisingly effective at getting responses from regimes others cannot reach.

The Burmese leadership is probably now getting the clear message that it needs to do something to prevent further demonstrations of political instability; compromise and reform are required. Sending the troops in, as the Chinese know all too well, is an action with diminishing returns. And Beijing will be wholly pragmatic and unsentimental, despite the talk of historical brotherhood, if it needs to abandon the regime.

Looking east

While Burma’s other giant neighbour, India, has called for a ‘more inclusive and broad-based’ process of political reform, it has appeared reluctant to press the regime. At the height of the demonstrations its petroleum minister, Murli Deora, even visited Burma’s new capital, Nay Pyi Taw, and oversaw a signing ceremony for three deep-water exploration blocks between India’s ONGC Videsh and the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise worth $150 million.

The foreign policy of both China and India is couched in terms of non-interference in the affairs of other countries, China appears to have accepted that this is untenable as economic engagement with other countries grows. But as India’s economic links expand, it appears to be increasingly keen on non-interference.

Back in the 1980s India was a strong supporter of the pro-democracy movement in Burma. But this changed in the mid-1990s as India developed its Look East policy, intended to bolster relations with countries in East Asia. And Burma was important for this as a transit route, and as a source of gas to meet India’s growing energy needs. Most of all, India’s Burma policy was driven by a fear of increasing Chinese influence in its neighbour. This, in turn, has been exploited by the Burmese generals. Increasingly aware that China has little interest in who rules Burma, provided that it is stable, they have tried to use Delhi as a counter-balance to Beijing.

Both China and India are acting in their national interests. Ironically perhaps, this means the world’s largest democracy appears to be cosying up to the generals, while China would prefer that Burma was democratic, and respected human rights, at least in order to preserve stability.

Their shared interest in Burmese stability is important. While the generals are in most senses appalling, they have managed to hold together an artificial country, replete with numerous ethnic conflicts. Indeed, the generals have signed a number of peace deals with various ethnic minorities in the past few years, though not with the Karen National Union. In the event that the generals fled with their loot, would these conflicts flare up again and precipitate a flood of refugees to Burma’s neighbours?

For the west, recognising the genuine concerns of India and China is paramount if the situation in Burma is to improve. Putting human rights concerns to one side, the key point is that the country is currently highly unstable, and on the brink of implosion.

Political reform is vital not just for human rights, but as a means of ensuring stability.