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November 16, 2012Posted in: Exclusive, Politics
This is the first of a series of articles the Hater will feature on the political and cultural milieu of Burma, Thailand and Asia, in general. Our new Hater Foreign Correspondent, Damien Miles-Paulson, is on the ground over there, probably chain smoking furiously and severely distraught from fever dreams or diptheria, reporting via siphoned wi-fi in the canteen of an American-style sweat shop, somewhere on the Thai/Burma border.
As the title implies, this is a guide to Obama’s upcoming visit to Burma/Myanmar. It provides a geographic context and a political cast of characters, creating a lexicon for readers of the Hater to better understand Burma and the meaning of Obama’s visit. If successful what follows will illustrate that this visit and the subsequent speeches and statements that will be made are a prime example of the Obama Doctrine of Foreign Policy and Diplomacy in a Post-Arab Uprising World.
President Obama’s official visit to Burma/Myanmar is unprecedented.
In a mere twenty months Burma has gone from being an internationally reviled Pariah State to having the Official Presidential Seal placed on the newly minted democracy. As a recent article in the Washington Post points out, Presidential visits to countries that have made similarly dramatic changes usually come after years, decades or never (read the WaPost article HERE). Post-apartheid South Africa wasn’t blessed with a Presidential visit for eight years. And yet here we are twenty months removed from the first democratic reforms in Burma for over sixty years, and Mr. Obama’s first foreign trip after his re-election is to Burma and Southeast Asia. Why?
Take out your atlas, or pull up a map on the internet. Find Southeast Asia. One only need look at a map to understand Burma’s importance both economic and geopolitical, which are more or less the same thing, especially in this time era of the so-called Rise-of-China.
I hate to break it to the folks in the United States and Europe, but China is Risen.
The Rise implies that it is an ongoing process, a work in progress, that China is a country that has not yet matured. This is not the case. When viewed from the vantage point of Asia, it is impossible to deny that not only China but all of Asia is moving to the center of the world, a place it has historically occupied and is comfortable occupying. Gone are the easy days when the United States and Europe were the Sun around which the world orbited. The cosmology of the world has shifted.
Let’s return to the map and look at where U.S. wars, both covert and overt, are being conducted. The Hater has reported on US involvement in Yemen, a country which lies on important trade routes. Look to Afghanistan and it’s geographical position at the center of the ancient Silk Road which linked China to the rest of the world. As we continue onto Libya, the US and UN involvement there was as much about mitigating Chinese influence in Africa as it was about anything else. Now trace your finger back to Asia, specifically to Burma.
Burma is a large country (about twice the size of France), it is also a diverse country, socially, linguistically, culturally, religiously, ethnically and geographically. Burma is resource rich, due in large part to sixty years of economic stagnation and the resulting inability to exploit said resources. In the extreme north of Burma the eastern reach of the Himalaya spill in. Travel down south and you’re in your postcard version of a Southeast Asian vacation, all deserted tropical beaches and picturesque fishing villages along the Andaman Sea. Next, look at the countries bordering Burma, you have the other rising (or risen) global power of India to the west, just south of that you have Bangladesh, to the east you have a narrow strip of land connected to Lao and just south of that the long border with Thailand.
All you dope heads will know that where these three borders meet is the famed opium producing area of the Golden Triangle.
It must be noted that opium production in the area is actually on the upswing after years of dwindling crops (a similar trend occurred after US occupation of Afghanistan), though the crop of choice for many years has been Methamphetamine, whose production the Burmese Junta has actively supported. Due to foreign pressure the Burmese Junta worked to eradicate the opium trade but because Methamphetamine is exported only to neighboring countries, the world turns a blind eye. The Methamphetamine Trade has provided large amounts foreign currency to the Junta. When the Burmese Junta made peace agreements with the Opium Lords of the North the Junta insisted that they cease producing opium. The Cartel leaders were placed under house arrest in comfortable mansions in Rangoon and the Junta awarded them lucrative concessions to operate transportation networks in the capital. In place of opium the Cartels set up giant mobile Methamphetamine labs in the Northern and Eastern jungles. Thanks to the porous nature of the border between Thailand and Burma and the endemic corruption that accompanies the drug trade there is little to halt the trafficking of Methamphetamine into Thailand, which is one of the worlds largest consumers of the drug. In Thailand the raw Methamphetamine is mixed with caffeine and made into a pill called yaba, literally ‘madness drug’. Now let’s go back from that digression to the Golden Triangle and the border with Thailand. The two countries are separated by small rivers and dense jungle and steep mountains. On the Thai side there are many refugee camps and most of the towns within reach of the border are of a mixed Thai and Burmese migrant character though the Burmese present in the refugee camps are mostly not Burmans but Shan, Karen, with smaller groups of Cachine, Mon, Wa, Muslims and Rohingya, to name a few. This border area has been the site of a long civil war, with fighting between the Burmese Junta and the Karen people, a fight which has often spilled into Thailand.
There are two strategically important geographical features, especially for Obama and the United States. Though India is a major regional and world power because it happens to be an ally of the United States and a long time partner of the Burmese Junta, it is not why Obama is visiting Burma. When much of the world was isolating Burma, the Indian Government turned to Burma for help battling tribal Naga separatists in the Northeast of India. Burma was and continues to be a militarized country, one that has sixty years of experience fighting their own separatist movements in remote areas. They used their ill gotten experience to train the Indians in counter-insurgency. With Burmese assistance India was able to gain the upper hand and force a ceasefire. Despite having military and diplomatic ties, India doesn’t need Burma as a trading partner. The Burmese market, because of widespread poverty, is rather small, though in the future Burma could offer India links to the Chinese market and to Southeast Asia, but at this time India does not need what Burma offers, which is geographical access to China.
This brings us to the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea, which covers the whole southern border of Burma. The sea brings trade.
Now pull back a little from the map and you will see that China has no water access to the south, west or North, their only access is on the Pacific side. To illustrate how landlocked whole expanses of China are look at Urumqi, in Xinjiang Provence. Urumqi is the most landlocked city in the world, meaning, it lies farther from all oceans than any city in the world. As you can see, Western China is about as remote from the sea as you can get. China has tried to compensate for this by expanding rapid rail links from east to west (China’s rail network and public transportation network makes ours in the United States look like a model train set in your uncle’s attic. They have the fastest trains in the world and will soon pass the United States in terms of total rail miles, though at this point the rail lines they have moves much more efficiently than in America).
Rail access from China and across Burma to the Indian Ocean would drastically cut travel time for goods and, most importantly for China’s voracious energy needs, oil imports from the Middle East. This is called the Two Oceans Policy by China. Chinese Communist Party officials see Burma as nothing more than a bridge to a proxy coast line, a port, offering quicker sea routes to the Middle East and Europe. From the Chinese perspective an added benefit to Indian Ocean access is that most ships will not need to pass through the rather narrow and vulnerable Straights of Malacca, at Singapore, the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The Straights of Malacca are controlled by the West and are vulnerable to blockade. One could shut down the Malacca Straights without a large force. On a side note, you can see in China’s recent rhetorical battle with Japan the Chinese desire to build a huge Navy. China is putting vast amounts of resources into increasing their Naval prowess. Up until a couple of years ago, Burma’s main, or even sole, major trading partner was China. There were plans in place for high speed rail links between Kunming, in Yunnan Province, Southwestern China and Mandalay, in Burma, continuing onto the coast. Kunming is a booming city, the economic hub of Southwestern China, with it’s own high speed rail link to Eastern China. There were also plans to build oil pipelines from the sea into Yunnan, but of course, this is where the United States comes in.
America seeks to mitigate China’s influence in the world. They do not seek to isolate China but America see’s that the only way to maintain it’s importance is to secure it’s role, and US companies role, as a go between, by controlling infrastructure and access.
If we look to our map once again, to the southwest of China lies Nepal, India and Pakistan. China and India have fought many wars along their shared border (in fact on your map you will see that the India/Chinese border is not a solid line but a series of hashmarks weaving in and out of each other, as neither country can agree where the border actually is). To this day their borders remain more or less closed to all traffic. Next door we have Pakistan, a country on the verge of collapse and an increasingly fragile US ally to boot. Directly to the west of China are the Central Asian Republics, which are only just now emerging from their post Soviet stupor. All are strong US allies, especially Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, each key launching pads for the war in Afghanistan. To the north of China you have Russia. Like India and China, Russia and China have never had a great relationship. China knows that Russia’s importance has long been on the wane. This may change if the North seas continue to melt, giving Russia some of the best and quickest shipping lanes in the world, but in the mean time Russia is fairly insignificant to China. Then you have Mongolia, which is a strong and little known partner of the US. Both the US and Canada invested heavily in Mongolia, and for a country of only four million they receive a disproportionate amount of aid and attention from the US. Moving east you have South Korea, a staunch US ally, and Japan, another strong Ally (one reason why the recent sexual scandal at a military base in Japan was dealt with so quickly is that the US is keenly aware that with each passing year Japan becomes more fatigued by the US military presence on their territory). To the south is Taiwan, a US friend. A little further out to sea you have the Philippines where the US maintains a large military presence. Coming back to the mainland, just south of the large mega-cities of Southern China is Vietnam, an American ally despite the obvious historical tensions (Vietnamese hate and distrust of China runs much deeper than their disdain for America, the Chinese dominated Vietnam for a thousand years. Vietnam’s old name, Annam, means pacified south in Chinese). Next door is Laos, a lovely but fairly unimportant landlocked state. Coming back almost full circle, we have Thailand, America’s closest ally in Southeast Asia. Then we are back in Burma, the only hole in diplomatic fence the US has built around China. From this simple geographical/diplomatic outline, it makes sense that US involvement in Burma is on the upswing. Obama’s visit is meant to plug that hole.
From a rather boring (I apologize) lesson in geography this primer moves onto the cast of characters. You have the aforementioned players, the United States, who we know, and China, who we have also met. We have also briefly met African and Middle Eastern oil.
Now is the point when we ask ourselves this, “What the fuck do I know about Burma/Myanmar?”
Take a moment…
Our answer will undoubtedly be a name, and that name is Aung San Suu Kyi. But what do we know about her? Yes, that she won the Noble Peace Prize, but why? We’re not sure. Was it because she was under house arrest for a while, or because she was like the Burmese Gandhi? This is about all that most people in the US and elsewhere know about Burma. I didn’t know much more myself, until I started reading into it, until I moved over here. The only other thing I remembered were the divine, chain smoking, hard drinking, prepubescent warrior twins who could not be killed and fought a small war against the Burmese government about ten years ago.
Indeed, one of the most repeated facts about Burma is not a fact at all but just the idea that no one knows anything about the place, that the country, aside from periodic blips or calamities, has been absent from global consciousness since World War II. With Obama’s visit this will change over night.
But back to Aung San Suu Kyi. Why did she win the Nobel Peace Prize? To talk about that we must talk about another cast member, the Burmese Junta, who are they? The short answer is that they are military men. A secretive, uncharasmatic bunch, who have brutalized the people of Burma since WW II. To learn more about the Junta and about Burmese history, I recommend reading The River of Lost Footsteps.
Originally the Junta was made up of a group of young men who had been trained by, and fought with, the Japanese during WWII. At the end of the war, as the outcome became clear, they switched sides and helped the Allies force the Japanese out of Burma. A man named Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, then forced Colonial England out of Burma. Aung San is the national hero of Burma. Shortly after independence Aung San was assassinated and the General Ne Win came to power. He would go onto to control Burma until the Uprising of the 8th of August 1988.
One would think, based on news reports, that the US hasn’t had any contact with Burma for many years, this isn’t true. It was only when the Junta threw out the results of the election in 1991, elections that swept Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy to power, that the US disengaged with the Burmese Junta. Despite supporting the Junta through years of violent civil war, the post-Cold War US withdrew military and economic support from the Junta.
Up until the early Nineties the Junta was seen by the US as a sort of bulwark against Red China, a role the Junta had played since the Revolution in China, when Mao defeated Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang, who fled to Taiwan and to Southeast Asia. Burma has been important for the United States, as it relates to China, since WWII. Burma as strategic location is not a new idea, it is just that the reasons for Burma’s importance have changed. In the past the US even offered training and equipment to the Burmese Junta, an offer they have been quick to renew.
As I said, the Junta has held power, in one form or the other, since WWII, and they have been fighting a civil war and violently repressing any dissent all those years. As a result Burma has often been called a perfect Orwellian Nation, which is fitting seeing as how Orwell spent years as a colonial officer in Burma before returning to England where he wrote 1984 (there is a great great book on Orwell and Burma called Finding Orwell in Burma).
The Junta has been fighting each of Burma’s many ethnic groups (there are over 130 distinct ethnic groups in Burma) for as long as the nation has existed. The largest ethnic groups, aside from the majority Burman, are the Karan, Shan, Mon, Rakhine, Chinese and Kachin. Each ethnic group has had, at one time or another, it’s own army fighting for a separate nation, for basic human rights, or sometimes, fighting out of habit. Burma has also been home to a militant communist party, a group that has long had support from China. Like US support of the Junta, Chinese support of communist insurgents ended in the 80′s or 90′s. Because of the various conflicts and the countries ethnic diversity, the Burmese Junta has only had minimal control of the country since independence. The Junta has only had constant control of central Burma, the Burman Heartland as it is called, the Irrawaddy delta, the lowland area’s around Mandalay and Rangoon, but they have never had control of any of the border areas of the country, even to this day this remains true.
Now, back to Noble Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. She was awarded the prize in recognition of her opposition to the Junta and because she was the figure head of a movement that brought the country to the brink of a democratic revolution without he use of violence.
Okay, now we have a rather basic cast of characters. I could go on and on, books have been written on the subject, and at the end of this primer I will include a list of books for continued reading.
To sum it up rather crudely, the reason the Junta is reviled in Burma and in the world at large is because of the brutality with which they have waged their unending wars on their own people. They have engaged in genocide, mass incarceration and torture, ethnic dilution via a policy of violent rape in the ethnic areas of the country, scorched earth policies in these same areas, the mass murder of revered Buddhist Monks, using child soldiers, mining huge swaths of the country and through having one the worlds worst health care system, many infirm have had no choice but to rot for the last sixty years, once again, the list could go on and on, but is important to note that these atrocities are more or less on going, or could go off at any time, as has happened in Arakan state with the violent clashes between the Rakhine and the Rohingya, and in Cachine State in the north where a war will be fought and villages will be burned even as Obama visits and shakes hands.
So, exactly how have things changed? It’s not that the regime, the Junta, has lost power, or that there has been a change of government, all the same leaders are still in power. What happened then? Twenty months ago moderately free elections were held, Aung San Suu Kyi and thousands of political prisoners were set free, Suu Kyi was elected to parliament, the state censorship board changed names, the Junta was supposedly dissolved and the transition to a civilian government took place, cease fires were called in most of the country, the junta moved into the more legitimate channels of democracy.
Burma was re-branded.
And this is where the Obama Doctrine comes into play, and where the Arab Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring again, enter. The Uprisings in the Middle East began just before the Junta held elections. As we all know, the Arab Uprisings were high profile, violent affairs that made the leaders of the world shake for a moment. The after effects of the Arab Uprising were profoundly felt in the US, where they were reconstituted as the Occupy Movement. These were unpredictable, uncontrollable movements and the US floundered in response. The Obama administration had no idea what would fill the vacuum created by the Uprisings and subsequent regime changes. From a US standpoint unpredictability is the most dangerous thing in the world, they want to know who is going to be in power, they want to have some influence and that is why the US spreads democracy, because it is easy to control and usually requires only small scale violence, or so-called legitimate violence. The US manipulate democratic governments without losing too much face and without costly military intervention. This is a core tenant of Obama’s diplomatic approach, post-Arab Spring. His approach is a movement away from the old idea that Dictators are the easiest to control (he may be an asshole but at least he is our asshole). Obama’s new policy is engagement no matter what. He wants to see quick transitions, just as we saw in how Obama dealt with the coup in Honduras, move on as quick as possible, hold elections, engage with the new government, sign a deal or two to legitimize the government and forget about it and move on.
The Arab Spring confirmed Obama’s view about how diplomacy and foreign policy should be handled, it also showed him that something has to be done before the problem grows out of control.
As much as this trip to Burma is about Burma, he will make his cursory remarks about human rights, democracy and the like, he will whisper to the Junta, to the government, that they need to deal with the violence in Arakan state because if you don’t they are creating a power vacuum into which violent radicalism can seep and take root, whether it is Islamic Radicalism (which, I must say, has nothing to do with Islam, it is like identifying all of Christianity with the violently anti-gay American Evangelical preachers in Uganda), or the radicalism of the ultra-nationalist sort, he is going to whisper that they can’t let the violence get too far out of hand, not because he or the government cares all that much, or has any real desire to stop the horrible violence, but because one of the hallmarks of a good American style democracy is that if shit like that is happening it has to happen through legal channels, through the mechanization’s of the state, state violence is okay if it is through legitimate democratic means. A good American Style Democracy must control violence. Indeed, this trip is less about Burma and more about a platform where the Obama Doctrine can be outlined.
From the platform of Burma he hopes to send a message to countries like Iran and Venezuela (it is too late for Syria). Obama is saying, “Listen, look at what happen in the Middle East, you’re going to lose your ass, your whole government, what we demand is not that you leave power, you can stay in power, as far we’re concerned, you just have to change the way you are doing things structurally, you can keep your power, just move into straight capitalist democratic models where you have increased interaction with the US and the outside world, open your markets and resources up just a little, you’ll still get rich, we’ll sign off on your democracy, we’ll do it quickly, it won’t take years, you don’t have to make any real changes, or show long term commitment to change, just twenty months worth.”
As I have said, in terms of a political shift, what is happening in Burma is unprecedented. Obama’s visit is clearly meant to avoid any future Egypt’s, Libya’s or Syria’s. The US doesn’t want war with Iran, they would have been happy with Qaddafi, Assad and Mubarak staying in power but the people wanted changes. The US wants to illustrate that countries must make certain concessions, accepting responsibility for past crimes, like those committed over sixty years in Burma, is not one of those concessions. Obama is making it clear that Burma, and similar countries, will never be held accountable for their crimes, they will never be held to justice. Obama and the United States are making it clear that history doesn’t matter. He is exporting one of America’s greatest ideas, some would call it forgiveness but in reality what Obama is offering is the national cult of forgetting, of amnesia. To use Obama’s favorite phrase, a phrase that has infected the American vernacular and mental space, we must always be “Moving forward, going forward.” Let the past be the past, even if it is happening today, it will soon be the past, don’t dwell on it, move on, we won’t hold you accountable, you will be richer than you ever imagined, you won’t even have to run your own country any more, you can move off the pariah list. By visiting Burma, Obama is subtly saying something very important to the Burmese Government, he is awarding them a key international right, at least according to the United States, the right to a monopoly over violence within your borders. Now, in the case of Burma, they are free to fight the same battles but not be viewed as a violently oppressive regime. Though now the wars will more likely be fought through capital investment, through centralization, through a free press and the cultural bleach of global popular culture.
The US has already invited Burma to observe large military games that take place in Thailand every year, called Cope Tiger, where other ASEAN nations and the US practice fighting insurgencies.
To conclude this long winded primer, Obama’s visit is important for two reasons, it completes the infrastructural wall America has constructed around China and, of equal importance, it sets an example to other pariah regimes that changes will come quickly if you make the right reforms. You too can get a visit from Barack Obama. This trip will become a key part of any future study of the Obama Doctrine, though how those studies are written will largely depend on how things unfold. It could be that Obama is being played by the Junta and when shit flares up again and, in the long term, there is little real change, Burma will be a condemnation of the Obama doctrine. Yet, if this works, which appears likely, and Obama’s message is heard and spreads beyond Burma, then this trip could mark a turning point in American foreign policy, and more tangibly, it will mark the beginning of better days in Burma.