Myanmar/Burma: Inside Challenges, Outside Interests
Medha Chaturvedi ·       

A country once considered the most promising in Southeast Asia is now marred by internal conflicts and external condemnation and suspicion. Myanmar's decline from the highest to the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder is a phenomenon which needs more investigation. Unlike many other books on Myanmar, the book under review examines Myanmar's fall into oblivion through the eyes of several stakeholders - ASEAN members, India and China, the US and the Myanmarese people.

Myanmar had its first elections in two decades on 7 November 2010 and the military junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party swept the majority of votes in a landslide victory. However, the international community has not accepted this outcome and since the release of the symbol of Myanmar's pro-democracy movement, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, international condemnation has intensified further. Published shortly before the elections, the volume analyzes the current and developing situation in Myanmar in three broad areas of engagement and strategic pressures, ASEAN-Myanmar relations and of national reconciliation, with chapters in the book developed from papers presented in a workshop organized at the Brookings Institution.

The first part of the book discusses internal challenges in the country. Lex Rieffel, the editor, discusses the present and developing situation in Myanmar and the events that led to it, noting that Myanmar has the distinction of having the world's longest continuing civil war with no end in sight (p. 4). This brings to fore the issue of ethnic dissent and anger towards the regime. The ethnic groups primarily occupy the borders of the country and pose a major internal challenge to stability. It is pointed out that during Gen Ne Win's socialist leadership, Myanmar was most isolated internationally and instability, armed insurgencies and economic doldrums were at their peak. Myanmar's economic impoverishment, despite abundant resources, has been a bigger tragedy for the country than its political disturbances (p. 8) with American sanctions aggravating the situation.

Suu Kyi's house arrests and the regime's conflict with her party, NLD, are cited as the two primary reasons for problems of national reconciliation (p. 35). The third element of the ethnic minorities has also contributed to this. Non-cooperation between these three elements of Myanmar's possible reconciliation process renders a genuine national reconciliation unlikely under the military rule, and the outcome of the elections will not change that (p. 49).

Maung Zarni talks about previously unsuccessful attempts at Track II diplomacy (p. 58) and disgraced Gen. Khin Nyunt's role in these efforts to highlight the government's weak stand on this alternate means to solve the political deadlock in the country. However, Gen. Khin Nyunt is portrayed to be a pragmatic leader with good intentions. Therefore, with his removal in 2004, these attempts also ended.

The chapter on recapitalization of rural economy by David Dapice gives an insight into what is plaguing the agriculture sector in Myanmar. Paddy and rice production is very high, but it suffers from administrative mismanagement and unfriendly agricultural policies which need immediate correction.

The next segment discusses economic and trade relations of Myanmar with other countries. Sino-Myanmar border trade along Yunnan province has brought gains for both countries. Despite international scrutiny, China has supported Myanmar in border trade (p. 89) through many infrastructure and energy projects. Chinese presence in Myanmar has been further augmented by the Ruili-Mandalay road connecting the two trade hubs. Economic stability is a vital, if not the sole factor for political stability and nation-building in Myanmar. Border trade will continue to serve as a barometer of Myanmar’s progress (p. 97).

Post-colonial Myanmar has had a love-hate relationship with Southeast Asia. However, since of its membership into ASEAN, Myanmar’s relations with the countries of the Association have become more cordial. Countries like Malaysia and Singapore now “quietly regret the decision to admit Myanmar as a member” (p. 101). Three scenarios for Myanmar's future have been highlighted by Michael Vatikiotis: Myanmar will continue to remain detached from southeast Asia and the world, benefitting India and China, Myanmar will partially open up (borrowing a leaf from the Indonesian experience), it may go for economic development without giving up military power, or the military-led government will collapse thereby completely changing the status quo in Myanmar. But, that would lead to further marginalization as has been visible in other examples from Indochina. The author has predicted an unfolding of the second scenario of partial transition post elections where the military holds considerable power while going for economic reforms and openness (p. 109). This would allow Myanmar to closely integrate with the region.

The next part on external interests in Myanmar closely examines how the policies of India, China and the US towards Myanmar impact its progress. China’s policy is characterized by objectives of access to the Indian Ocean, stability in the border areas, energy security, economic cooperation and friendly relations with other developing countries (p. 114). India's interests in Myanmar lie primarily in furthering its ‘Look East policy’, containing China's influence in the region, solving the ethnic minority issues in the northeast and energy security (p. 117). The two countries' extensive involvement in Myanmar has prepared a ground for competition. However, with a permanent UNSC seat with a veto power, an economy bigger than India's and a political structure not obliged to pursue democracy in Myanmar, China seems to be emerging the winner for now (p.125). However, Myanmar is likely to maintain equally friendly relations with both the countries in the long run to gain maximum out of this competition. Moreover, as is evident from Gurmeet Kanwal’s analysis of India-Myanmar relations, India has not been very vocal about pushing for democracy in Myanmar, but supports Myanmar for its strategic importance (p. 144).

ASEAN is now working towards community building which will promote a more systematic regional cooperation (p. 156). Myanmar is a part of the ASEAN Vision 2020 which was adopted in 1997. Ever since, ASEAN has sent out a message for helping Myanmar through ASEAN-led humanitarian operations in Myanmar. ASEAN's role therefore has been primarily defensive with respect to Myanmar.

While most ASEAN countries are supporting Myanmar economically, some of them also tend to follow the US stance when it comes to calling for political reforms. This indicates a fragmented ASEAN policy towards Myanmar which needs clarity. Significant changes in the US policy towards Myanmar have got many ASEAN countries to rethink their policies; however, a consolidated stand by the regional cooperation bloc does not exist.

In his chapter titled ‘Myanmar, North Korea and the Nuclear Question’ Andrew Selth states that rumours about Myanmar’s underground nuclear installments (aided by North Korea), exist but are unverifiable so far. That said, official silence on the issue does raise questions.

The final chapter of the book is a statement by US Assistant Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell, before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in Washington in late 2009 that describes the US's new policy of pragmatic engagement with Myanmar. The US has time and again called for change in Myanmar and encouraged countries like India to take a more proactive role in pushing for this change. However, aware of the ineffectiveness of American efforts and of the 15 year-long sanctions, it is now willing to lift some sanctions and start engaging with Myanmar.

While the book has managed to point out key areas where Myanmar needs to take action, the general tone has been negative, accusing and condemning. A more subtle and recommendatory approach may have been more suitable to discuss a country which is in the process of a transition. Several authors suggest condescendingly the possibility of Myanmar developing even closer relations with India and China, as if it were a bad thing. For Myanmar’s stability, it is crucial for it to align with the two regional superpowers because dealing carefully with external influences will determine also the future course of internal challenges and eventually, chances for internal stability.

Myanmar's transition cannot be expected to happen in a limited timeframe. Adopting democracy by giving up its iron-fisted approach is a long-term complex process; Myanmar should be given time to come to terms with the challenges ahead. Politically and economically-advanced countries that can help Myanmar in this process should come forward when needed to extend a hand with its nation-building efforts. Sanctions and international isolation will keep pushing it further into turmoil, and only engagement will prove helpful in this situation.

Overall, this collection has many commendable parts which show a clear understanding of Myanmar. Problems of national reconciliation and of directing its rich resources towards economic prosperity are examined to provide insights on bringing Myanmar back at par with its better-off neighbours. Several chapters also lay out concrete plans of action to this end. However, in many other parts, the book simply states facts, wrapped in highly judgmental opinions. While a good read, it should not be considered the ultimate text on Myanmar's search for reconciliation and stability.