The distinguishing features of the military regimes that have ruled Burma since 1962 have been xenophobia, gross economic mismanagement, and a quick finger on the trigger if dissent should somehow surface among the closely watched population. However, the current regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), is an extreme example of all these faults.
As the ‘saffron revolution’ unfolds in Rangoon, the SPDC has moved quickly to prevent communication to the outside world by mobile phones, but it is too little too late on this occasion, unlike in military suppression of dissent in 1962, 1974 and 1988, which took place away from the world’s gaze.
The two countries with the strongest influence over Burma are India and China. Despite their fractured relationship, it would be in China’s interest to explore seriously with India the possibility of cooperation to effect change in Burma through persuasion, and so defuse the possible international ramifications of the current situation.
China’s preponderant stake in Burma is threefold. It is interested in stability in a country that has a long border with southwest China, which in turn is a long way from Beijing. The economic relationship is particularly useful to southern China and has increased immeasurably as a result of recent offshore gas discoveries and contracts to pipe gas into Yunnan
China ‘s interest in stability in Burma is of course increased by the tolerance the SPDC displays towards China’s semi-colonisation of large areas of Burma although this comes hand in hand with apprehension about a possible pogrom (former Burmese President General Ne Win turned on the Chinese minority in 1967 when it showed sympathy with the Cultural Revolution in China). Thirdly, China has a general interest in having a regional status and would not wish to appear helpless in the face of intransigence by a small neighbour, whether it be Burma or North Korea.
The saffron revolution also differs from past civilian uprisings because of the leading role of Buddhist monks. The societal effect, including within the military, could well be profound, even if the military leadership exploits its undoubted capability to pressure and split the movement. We are also yet to see the international ramifications. Remember how the insensitive repression of Buddhists by the Diem government sealed its fate and alienated much public opinion, including in Asia.
The underlying cause of the current discontent in Burma, as in 1988, is pervasive economic hardship fanned by the rise in the price of cooking oil. Once this discontent boils to the surface there is no quick fix.
The one issue on which China and India should be able to agree is that Burma needs a change of economic course and it is clear that this cannot be achieved under the present leaders. The challenge is how to effect political transition to a form of government which can perform economically; which will make Burma eligible for international aid; and which offers some hopes of an orderly transition to civilian government, in partnership with military. For China and India to see that this is where their own interests lie, and be able to talk about it, will require either enormous statesmanship or a further round of even worse chaos.
As far as India is concerned, its situation is complicated as it has to balance conflicting interests. Its economic stake in Burma is growing, but its relationship is primarily a military one, based on cooperation on border security and in balancing China’s influence. But the Indian military, and the Indian Government, have a far bigger security stake in their relationship with the US. Partly this relates to India’s relations with Pakistan and partly to India’s keen interest in becoming part of an Asian Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) program. George Bush could quietly threaten to rule that out unless India changes policy on Burma. Some advocates for Asian TMD further argue that it has to be soundly based on association democracies the US, Japan, Australia, India and India’s democratic credentials suffer somewhat from backing the Burmese junta.
The immediate future for the Burmese people is grim. They must feel as though marooned on a glacier, moving imperceptibly but always down, with the occasional avalanche.
The situation requires an international rescue operation using diplomacy that is subtle but has teeth. While China and India are the core countries, most Asian countries and institutions, and of course the UN, have their own reasons for becoming involved. Australia has a role as a concerned and imaginative middle power, but it is poorly defined, with conflicting statements by the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister on tightening economic sanctions.
Alexander Downer described constitutional change in Burma as glue flowing uphill. It is also an accurate description of his foreign policy on Burma.
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