New Burma Road: Watch for the geopolitical landmines

John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — With the historic visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Burma, the highest profile American diplomatic contact in fifty years, the United States has entered a high stakes geopolitical chess game in Southeast Asia.

Burma, a political pariah state has long been courted by China, coveted by India, and shunned by Washington and most Western countries.

Burma's military government has been relocated hundreds of miles to the remote capital city Naypyidaw. The modern city is populated only by government employees forced to relocate and laborers. /Independent

Washington’s proposed engagement is probably prompted by a genuine glimmer of political hope in the country. The U.S. moves are being perceived by the People’s Republic of China as a bold political move on the Mainland’s southern frontier at a time when Beijing has chastised President Barack Obama’s plans to station a miniscule number of American marines in northern Australia. This style over substance military basing is viewed in China as “part of a cold war mentality” and attempt at American encirclement.

Thus the thaw in relations between Burma and the United States is viewed by Beijing as playing in the People’s Republic’s backyard. Adding to the tense drama is Clinton’s push for Burma to break its longstanding and cozy ties to North Korea which include sharing nuclear technology.

Look at the geography. Burma is bordered by China on the north, Thailand to the east, India to the West, and the Bay of Bengal to the South, this land of 55 million remains in the vortex of competing power interests. Historically the country has been in the Chinese sphere or in the orbit of British India. Today Mainland Chinese companies practically vacuum up Burma’s natural resources.

The resource-rich former British colony was once close to the West but since the early 1960’s has been under the grip of a left wing military regime exhibiting a bizarre political mix of nationalism, socialism, and xenophobia. The rulers changed the country’s name to Myanmar and switched the capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, an inland city of gaudy but glittering government buildings in the middle of nowhere.

Given the regime’s systematic human rights abuses, and overt lockdown on political dissent, the USA, Canada and the Europeans have until now rightly shunned Burma’s regime and have imposed tough economic sanctions on the country. During the past decade both the former Bush Administration and the Europeans worked in close political harmony to isolate Burma’s rulers.

The military have often arrested pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, harassed her National League for Democracy, and banned even tepid political dissent. As recently as 2007, political demonstrations supported by the Buddhist majority rocked the regime. Recent political changes have been tentative.

Incredibly worse, when in 2008 the massive Cyclone Nargis slammed into the South East state from the sea, causing massive flooding, the government blocked foreign humanitarian aid. The UN practically had to beg to deliver assistance to hundreds of thousands flood stricken people. At least 80,000 people needlessly died from their government’s arrogance.

Over the years the United Nations has tried to highlight human rights abuses inside the country but has met with little tangible success.

While the road back to Burma for the USA may be paved with good intentions and foreign aid inducements, there are many stumbling blocks on both sides. While the military rulers allowed a quasi-transparent election last year leading to the current civilian government, Burma must release political prisoners, and cease attacks on ethnic minorities.

The U.S. State Department describers Burma government as a “nominally civilian regime comprised primarily of former senior military officers.” Meetings between the recently released pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Ki and a glowing Hillary Clinton set the right tone to be sure but, the Burmese opposition leader conceded that much needs to be accomplished by the government before relations with the world can truly be normalized. Washington would wise to set a step-by-step road map to better ties with incremental moves judged by verifiable changes.

Yet for the Burmese military rulers, the relationship with Washington presents a double-edged sword. The junta desperately need American aid and investment to revive it moribund economy. At the same time this nod of legitimacy gained from Clinton’s high profile visit plays well in this isolated land.

Secretary Clinton’s political probes are all about using American soft power diplomacy to presumably gain hardball political advantages.

During WWII the Burma Road represented the Allied back-door supply route to beleaguered Nationalist China fighting the Japanese. Today the Burma Road signifies sustained new initiatives by United States to bring a glimmer of better relations and hope to the forsaken country of Myanmar. Despite Washington’s wishful thinking, about re-engagement, re-opening the Burma Road to a new policy path should tread carefully.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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