Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Kyi To the Great Game East

Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to India is part of the new feel-good Myanmar story. But is ‘democratic concern’ the real reason driving the world’s attention?
By Bertil Lintner

MANY FOREIGNERS know her only as the “the Lady”. The Myanmarese call her “Auntie”. For pro-democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi, her visit to India on 13 November was a homecoming of sorts. For India, there is more to it than a chance to welcome someone, who, for decades, has been heralded as a symbol of the fight for democracy. It means ensuring its presence in the geopolitical arena that Myanmar has now become.

Photo: Ishan Tankha
Suu Kyi had first come to India in 1960 when her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, was appointed Myanmar’s ambassador to the country. She went to high school here and later attended Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi before moving to St Hugh’s College in Oxford in 1964. In 1986, Suu Kyi and her late husband, Michael Aris, went to Shimla as fellows at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, from where she wrote her first political essay, “Burma and India: Some Aspects of Intellectual Life under Colonialism.” That was two years before she returned to Myanmar to become the leader of a massive, popular movement against the military dictatorship that had held her country in an iron grip since a coup d’état in 1962.

For a decade-and-a-half, Suu Kyi was incarcerated in her own home on University Avenue by the shores of Inya Lake in a northern Yangon suburb. She was under house arrest when the Nobel Peace Prize was conferred upon her in January 1991. Even in September 2007, when Buddhist monks took to the streets to ask for national reconciliation, they marched past the street leading to her house.

Now Suu Kyi is free and has the people on her side. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide victory in the April 2012 byelection. Wherever she went, tens of thousands of people lined up the streets to cheer her on and listen to her speak. The presence of bigscreen televisions, expensive sound systems and other paraphernalia at her rallies were clear indications of support from the private business community, which had until recently, almost exclusively linked with the military junta.

But, the hard work starts now. For Suu Kyi, the transition from an imprisoned popular icon to an elected member of the Lower House of the Myanmar Parliament has not been easy. She wears the uneasy crown of being the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero Aung San — who was assassinated in July 1947, half a year before the British left the country — with the world looking at her expectantly. How will she handle Myanmar’s role in the region? How will she handle relations with India, the US, China and Japan? No one really knows because Suu Kyi has never had a chance to lead the country, and she has been cut off from the outside world for years. To the disappointment — and alacrity — of many, she has been strangely silent about the sufferings of the people in Myanmar’s minority areas, where the military continues to terrorise civilians, and where thousands of refugees have sought shelter near the Chinese border.

At the same time, it would be unfair to say that she does not recognise these problems. Suu Kyi is critical of foreign mediation efforts in the civil war because they emphasise on development over constitutional reform and the rights for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. The question is how can that be achieved under the terms of the present, undemocratic Constitution and without the full support of the still powerful military? To her credit, that may be exactly why Suu Kyi decided to take part in the April byelection.

Since the 1988 uprising, when she had been demonised within the military, often with the unmistakable message that she is enemy No. 1, Suu Kyi could not meet the soldiers and explain her point of view. Now, as an elected MP, she can do that as a quarter of all seats in the Lower House are reserved for the military, and she has been successful to an extent in doing that. “At first, some of them (the military rank and file) seemed nervous, but they were not hostile,” she told me in her house in Naypyidaw in October. In August, a few military representatives were replaced because they had become “too friendly” with her — and so-called hardliners took their place, among them an officer who was identified as the one in charge of crushing the 2007 monks’ movement. Clearly, breaking the hold the military enjoys is not going to be easy.

It was evident from my discussions with her that Suu Kyi has her own agenda and refuses to be a pawn. But it is also clear that the government has earned a lot of goodwill by releasing her from house arrest, and letting her travel to Europe, the US, and now India, to promote “the new Myanmar”, without having to give up an inch of its power.

IN THE United States, President Barack Obama has hailed Myanmar’s moves towards an open, democratic society as one of the main foreign policy successes of his administration. Almost exactly a year ago, in late November 2011, his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, paid a much-publicised visit to Myanmar, the first by a high-ranking US official in more than 50 years. Democracy and respect for human rights in a country — Myanmar had neither for half a century — are said to be on the US president’s agenda, as it was for Secretary Clinton.

But the reality is somewhat different. Myanmar has not seen a change of government; it is the old, military-dominated regime that has reinvented itself — and done so successfully. After years of being a pariah in the eyes of the international community, Myanmar has suddenly become the darling of the West. Foreign dignitaries are lining up to visit the country to “encourage democratic reform” — as if that, and not strategic and economic interests, was their main concern. India has been less hypocritical, but has nevertheless also hailed the political progress that has taken place since a quasi-civilian government led by Thein Sein, a retired army general, assumed power in March last year after — it has to be remembered — a completely rigged election in November 2010.

For, behind all the hype and official rhetoric, there is an issue that few talk about, but one that is the most important reason why Myanmar’s ruling generals decided to change their course. It is also the reason that the same outside powers, which had at one time denounced the military junta, have been almost unanimously euphoric in their assessments of the country today. That issue is the China factor.

The 1988 uprising that made Suu Kyi famous was met with unprecedented brutality. Thousands of people were gunned down when the military moved in, not to assume power, which it already had, but to shore up a regime overwhelmed by popular protests. Not surprisingly, in the wake of the massacres, western countries, led by the United States, condemned the carnage. Later, sanctions were imposed on the regime, but they were always half-hearted and had little, if any, effect in terms of foreign trade. Still, Myanmar was turned into an international outcast and that prevented its access to funding by the UN and other agencies.

China, which had long coveted Myanmar’s forests, rich mineral and natural gas deposits, and its hydroelectric power potential, took full advantage of the situation. In fact, it had already made its intentions clear in the 2 September 1985 edition of the Beijing Review, an officially sanctioned news magazine and a mouthpiece of the Chinese government. An article titled “Opening to the Southwest: An Expert Opinion,” written by Pan Qi, a former vice-minister of communications, outlined the possibilities of finding an outlet for trade for China’s landlocked southern provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean.

It also mentioned the Myanmar railheads of Myitkyina and Lashio in the north and northeast, and the Irrawaddy River as possible conduits for Chinese exports. Pan Qi’s article was the first time a Chinese official had outlined his country’s designs for Myanmar, and why the country was so important to them economically.

Until this point, China had supported the Communist Party of Burma (which always used the old name for the country) and other insurgent groups, but after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the ascendance of the pragmatist Deng Xiaoping to power, Beijing’s foreign policy shifted from supporting revolutionary movements in the region to promoting trade.

THE FIRST border trade agreement between Myanmar and China was signed in early August 1988, days before the uprising began in earnest. After the movement had been crushed and sanctions were put in place, China moved in and rapidly became Myanmar’s most important trade partner. It helped Myanmar upgrade its antiquated infrastructure and supplied massive amounts of military hardware. In the decade after the massacres, China exported more than $1.4 billion worth of military equipment to Myanmar. It also helped Myanmar upgrade its naval facilities in the Indian Ocean. In return, the junta gave Beijing access to signals intelligence from key oil shipment sea-lanes collected by the Myanmar Navy, using equipment supplied by China.

The strategic balance of power in the region was being upset in China’s favour — and that became an immediate and pressing concern for New Delhi’s security planners. This concern provides a new aspect to the age-old strategic rivalry between India and China, and another reason for India to counter China’s influence over Myanmar.

But China’s real resource play came later. In November 2008, China and Myanmar agreed to build a $1.5 billion oil pipeline and a $1.04 billion natural gas pipeline. The inauguration ceremony marking the start of construction was held on 31 October 2009 on Maday Island on Myanmar’s western coast. The pipelines from the Bay of Bengal to Kunming, in China’s Yunnan province are designed to allow Chinese ships carrying fuel imports from West Asia to skirt the congested Malacca Strait. In September 2010, China agreed to provide Myanmar with $4.2 billion worth of interest-free loans over a 30-year period to help fund hydropower projects, road and railway construction, and information technology development.

Western sanctions did not cause Myanmar’s economic — and strategic — push 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 Myanmar. This has, in return, caused the West — the US as well as the EU — to rethink its Myanmar policy. At the same time, the country’s growing dependence on China has caused considerable consternation within Myanmar’s military leadership.

US strategic 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 Myanmar. 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. When it was revealed in the early 2000s that Myanmar and North Korea had established a strategic partnership, Washington was alarmed.

North Korea was providing Myanmar with tunnelling expertise, heavy weapons, radar and air defence systems, and, it is alleged by western and Asian intelligence agencies, even missile-related technology. Pictures of massive underground complexes — tunnels, bunkers and storage facilities for everything from food to tanks — were leaked to me in June 2009, and appeared on Yale Global Online, a website published by Yale University in the United States. The revelation caused quite a sensation, and a witch-hunt was unleashed for those who had leaked the photos.

None of my sources were arrested, but they went on to send me shipping manifests from Yangon and Thilawa ports listing the arrival of North Korean ships, which delivered “miscellaneous goods” to the Myanmar military and carried back rice. It was evidently some kind of barter agreement. Cash-strapped Myanmar and North Korea, which was, and still is, in desperate need for food to feed its near-starving population, had reached a deal that suited both countries.

IT WAS high time for the US to shift tracks and “engage” the Myanmar leadership, which anyway seemed bent on clinging on to power at any cost, no matter the consequences. The 2010 election, no matter how fraudulent, was just the opportunity that Washington needed. Myanmar suddenly had a new face and a country run by a Constitution, not a junta. It was the perfect time for Myanmar’s ruling generals to launch a charm offensive in the West, and for the United States and other western countries to begin the process of détente — and of pulling Myanmar from its uncomfortable Chinese embrace and close relationship with North Korea.

At the same time, many staunchly nationalist Myanmar military officers have become dissatisfied with the heavy dependence on China as well as uncontrolled immigration of Chinese nationals into the north of the country. The first blow to China came in October 2004, when the then prime minister and former intelligence chief Lt Gen Khin Nyunt was ousted. The Chinese, at first, refused to believe that their man in Myanmar, Khin Nyunt, had been pushed out. Nevertheless, both sides managed to smooth over the incident, and bilateral relations appeared to be returning to normal. Then, in 2009, Myanmar troops moved into the Kokang area in the northeast — an area inside Myanmar populated by ethnic Chinese — pushing more than 30,000 refugees, both Chinese nationals and locals, across the border into China.

Still, China refused to acknowledge the signs, until September last year, when the Thein Sein government announced it would suspend a $3.6 billion hydroelectric power project in Kachin state. The dam at Myitsone, where the Mali Hka and Nmai Hka rivers converge to form the Irrawaddy, would have been the world’s 15th tallest and would have submerged 766 sq km of forestland, an area one and a half times the size of Puducherry. Under the 2006 deal, 90 percent of power generated from Myitsone would have gone to China. This was the final straw. China has threatened to take legal action against the Myanmar government for breach of contract. It is now clear that Sino-Myanmar relations will never be the same again.

BUT THE strategic change in Myanmar didn’t happen overnight. In the year Khin Nyunt was ousted, an important document was compiled by Lt Col Aung Kyaw Hla, a researcher at Myanmar Defence Services Academy in Pyin Oo Lwin, an old British hill station in the highlands northeast of Mandalay. His 346-page top-secret thesis, A Study of Myanmar-US Relations, was leaked to me last year by a trusted source in the military. “Read this, and you’ll understand why all these changes are happening,” he told me. I did, and it was astonishing reading. The Myanmar-language document outlined the policies, which are now being implemented to improve relations with Washington and lessen dependence on Beijing. The establishment of a more acceptable regime than the old junta has made it easier for the Myanmar military to launch its new policies, and to have those taken seriously by the international community.

The thesis states quite bluntly that having China as a diplomatic ally and economic patron has created a “national emergency”, which threatens the country’s independence. Aung Kyaw Hla — probably a committee of army strategists rather than one single person — 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 a 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 democratisation.

If bilateral relations with the US were improved, the master plan suggests, Myanmar would also get access to the badly needed funds from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other global financial institutions. The country would then emerge from “regionalism”, where it currently depends on the goodwill and trade of its immediate neighbours, including China, and enter a new era of “globalisation”. At the same time, the dossier identifies individuals, mostly western academics, known for their opposition to the West’s sanctions policy, and somewhat curiously suggests that “friendly Indian diplomats” could be helpful in providing background information about influential US Congressmen — the first time the Myanmar military had mentioned India in such positive terms. After the 1988 uprising, India expressed its support for the pro-democracy movement, and let Myanmar exiles operate relatively freely from offices in New Delhi and Kolkata.

The master plan is acutely aware of the problems that must be addressed before Myanmar can lessen its reliance on China and become a trusted partner with the West. The main issue at the time of writing the document was the detention of 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.” She was released from her house arrest in Yangon, and relations with the United States did indeed improve, exactly along the lines suggested by Aung Kyaw Hla in 2004. In the end, it seems that Myanmar has successfully managed to engage the US rather than vice versa. While paying lip service to human rights and democracy, Sino-Myanmar relations and North Korea, not human rights and democracy, were actually on the top of Clinton’s agenda when she visited Myanmar.

On a visit to Canberra at the same time, President Obama stated that, “with my visit to the region, I am making it clear that the United States is stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific region”. The United States is a Pacific power, Obama said, and “we are here to stay”. But he was quick to add: “The notion that we fear China is mistaken. The notion that we are looking to exclude China is mistaken.” That statement was about as convincing as Thein Sein’s assurance that he had suspended the Myitsone dam project in the north because he was concerned about “the wishes of the people”, which he said at that time in a speech before the Myanmar Parliament.

FOR NOW, Myanmar and the United States may have ended up on the same side of the fence, but whatever happens, no one expects the relation to be without some unease. Decades of confrontation and mutual suspicion still exist. And a powerful strain in Washington to stand firm on human rights and democracy will complicate matters for Myanmar’s rulers, who are still unwilling to relinquish their control over the State machinery. Then there is China. Myanmar may be pleased that the reliance on a dominant northern neighbour might be lessened, but with so many decades of ties and real, on-the-ground projects underway, the relationship with Beijing isn’t nearly dead yet — and China is clearly taking the new signals from Myanmar seriously.

In February and March this year, the Beijing-based Chinese-language weekly Economic Observer ran a series of articles on the suspension of the Myitsone dam, trying to analyse what went wrong with China’s relations with Myanmar. On 14 October, the Global Times, a tabloid published under the auspices of The People’s Daily newspaper, said in a commentary that China needed to “attach more importance to grassroot voices” in its dealings with Myanmar. According to Myanmar journalists, reporters from The Global Times are now calling them with questions about Suu Kyi, which never happened before.

How India will handle this new situation remains to be seen, but it is obvious that Myanmar’s drift away from China is welcome in New Delhi — and that Suu Kyi, still immensely popular among the Myanmar public, would be treated with utmost respect during her visit to India. Myanmar remains a vital link in India’s business-driven “Look East” policy, a gambit aimed at expanding trade, investment and influence to Southeast Asia. But before that can succeed, India has to find a lasting solution to the ethnic insurgencies and other security problems in its Northeastern hinterlands. To India’s chagrin, many of those rebels, ethnic Nagas, Manipuris and Kukis, maintain sanctuaries in remote areas on the Myanmar side of the border. These rebel forces are also known to have obtained weapons from various clandestine sources on the Sino-Myanmar border. Some of these weapons originate in China while others are made in secret gun factories in areas in northeastern Myanmar not controlled by the Central government at Naypyidaw.

Despite these difficulties, trade between India and Myanmar is booming. Before 1988, apart from smuggling activities, there was scant commercial activity along the two countries’ shared border. Bilateral trade more than doubled between 2005 and 2010, expanding from $557 million to $1.2 billion. Myanmar ships mainly agricultural goods and natural resources, while India exports machinery, industrial equipment, pharmaceuticals and consumer goods. India-Myanmar trade is beginning to rival that of the booming cross-border trade between China and Myanmar, which has been brisk for almost two decades.

India also has plans to build a 1,200 MW hydroelectric power station on the Chindwin river, across from India’s Northeastern region, and is involved in several infrastructure projects inside Myanmar, including major road construction projects to link the two nations. In short, India is busy opening its west-east corridor through Myanmar to protect its economic as well as strategic interests.

Not surprisingly, the Obama administration has expressed its support for India’s “Look East” policy. On 23 November last year, US Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes said: “The president very much welcomes India’s Look East approach. We believe that just as the United States, as a Pacific Ocean power, is going to be deeply engaged in the future of East Asia, so should India as an Indian Ocean power and as an Asian nation.”

SUU KYI is not likely to discuss these issues during her visit to India, but she is nevertheless an important player in this “new Great Game in the East”. And there is every reason to believe that she is emotionally much more attached to India than China. She was 15 when she first came to New Delhi in 1960, an impressionable age in anybody’s life. Now, as a people’s representative, and not a persecuted leader, there is so much she has to offer.

It was during her teenage years in India that Suu Kyi acquired her lasting admiration of non-violence embodied in the life and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. In the 1970s, when she lived in New York, her intellectual inspiration came from Martin Luther King Jr, in whose speeches she found similarities with the ideals of the Mahatma. And India must have played that card — and not China — during her visit to New Delhi, just as Obama in his official statements will be highlighting democracy and human rights. But both India and the United States have one main, and common, interest in Myanmar: how to counter China’s growing influence in the region — and beyond. Courting a popular leader like Suu Kyi is part of that game.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent of Far Eastern Economic Review and author of Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier