Clinton tests the Myanmar mystery
By M K Bhadrakumar
If the incumbent United States Secretary of State were Henry Kissinger and if
Myanmar were China, or if world politics were caught in the throes of a Cold
War, Hillary Clinton would have probably paid an official visit to Bangkok, and
after having eaten red-hot Thai chicken curry for dinner on Tuesday, would have
feigned tummy upset, with her spokesman dissimulating that the doctor advised
her to rest through Wednesday and Thursday - whilst she took off unseen for
Indeed, the perspective on Clinton's visit to Myanmar needs to begin with the
way she undertook it in a trail of publicity. Kissinger expected to hold
substantive talks in Beijing. and he estimated that secrecy was the need of the
hour. He knew it also suited the Chinese leadership, as the two adversaries,
harmed each other so much, would combine forces.
That a priori understanding was lacking in the present case. Again,
Myanmar, though a large-enough country of 60 million people (in an area the
size of France and Britain combined) and a neighbor to China, is not China's
adversary, and is ultimately irrelevant to the breathtaking saga of the
Put differently, China's rise is the most profound shift in global power in all
of the past five or six centuries since the Islamic world gave way to the West,
and it is not something Myanmar hopes to slow down.
Nor was the world in the middle of a cold war when Clinton arrived in Myanmar.
Indeed, it is far from inevitable that a cold war may erupt. China is not an
ideological adversary but happens to be a street-smart practitioner of the
global market system created by Great Britain in the 19th century and
reinforced by America through another century. It is neither in China's
interest nor in the US's to destroy that system through conflict or war.
'Flickers of progress'
The hard-boiled rulers of Myanmar can comprehend these fundamentals. Just ahead
of Clinton's arrival, Commander of the Armed Forces Min Aung Hlaing departed on
a visit to China. This is the second high-ranking visit from Myanmar in the
past six months. In May, Myanmar President Thein Sein went to China for his
first state visit after assuming office in March.
Clinton got a taste of Myanmar's "nativist traditions", wondering whether Min
Aung Hlaing's tour of China was a choreographed sequence with a moral attached
to it. While Clinton told Thein Shein she was "encouraged" by Myanmar's recent
policy changes, the president merely hailed the "new chapter" in relations with
US and said her visit would prove a "milestone", which was an accurate
statement of fact. (Clinton is only the second US secretary of state to visit
Myanmar, after a gap of 50 years.) If the American side intended that Clinton's
visit was a reward for Myanmar rulers' reforms ("flickers of progress", as
President Barack Obama put it) and an incentive for them to "do more", the
latter didn't make any promises.
Clinton was accorded a distinctly low-key welcome, with just a handful of
officials to receive her at the tarmac, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Myo
Myint. Indeed, she set for herself a modest goal, which was to "determine for
myself and on behalf of our government what is the intention of the current
government with respect to continuing reforms, both political and economic."
However, there was something very meaningful the Myanmar government conveyed by
scheduling the official visit by the Prime Minister of Belarus, Mikhail
Myasnikovich, in the very same week as the US secretary of state's. Thus,
Clinton arrived at an airport that was decorated with a massive red banner
welcoming the leader of Belarus, a country her predecessor, Condoleeza Rice,
once called "the last true remaining dictatorship in the heart of Europe".
Like Myanmar, Belarus too is subject to US sanctions. As Clinton's motorcade
passed through Myanmar's empty streets, she could see that no one got carried
away. She said later she was keeping back concessions to the regime, promising
only to "match actions with actions", and the onus is on them to extract the
Unsurprisingly, Clinton's meeting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi took
the breath away. Great rhetoric followed. Yet, the government's reforms so far
were induced neither by the US sanctions nor the quiet "constructive
engagement" that Myanmar's Asian neighbors opted for. As the BBC's South Asia
analyst Marie Lall succinctly put it,
"The new government needs to be
given credit for re-assessing the country's position in light of three
phenomena: Burma wants the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asians] chair in
2014, needs the ASEAN free trade area in 2015 for its economy to thrive, and
the current government wants to win the 2015 elections.
"Overarching these objectives though is the major interest of assuring the
security and stability of the state which is now thought best achieved through
reform rather than repression ... Burma is not about to turn into a
Western-style democracy, but Nay Pyi Taw has set out on a strong path for
reform, which will benefit the Burmese people. The first priority for the
government is now to set the economy right... so as to improve the living
standards of ordinary Burmese. The government is well aware of the economic
problems the country is facing. If the government is allowed to continue on its
present path change will be gradual but life-changing for those living inside
The last day of Clinton's visit was overshadowed
by reports of the initialing of a pact by the representatives of the Shan State
Army South and the local government at the state capital of Taunggyi. The
army-backed regime made sure the event got registered as the outcome of its
peace initiative forming part of a series of reformist moves initiated in the
Actually, a dispassionate look at Myanmar's decision to suspend the
construction of the Myitsone dam would reveal the complexity of the emergent
matrix. A momentum is surely building in Myanmar. But how far Washington is
responsible for it or is coping with it is the big question.
Beijing protested loudly over Myitsone. Even more uncharacteristic was
Beijing's public allegation repeated ever so often that the US played a role in
persuading Thein Sein to block the dam and in playing up the protests against
its construction. In the East, you don't say things loudly - except for a good
The Chinese protests seem exaggerated, since other dams are still being planned
and there hasn't been the slightest whiff of a backlash against the overall
Chinese presence. Trade between China and Myanmar touched US$5.3 billion in
2010 and China remains Myanmar's biggest foreign investor with $15.8 billion in
China's Vice President Xi Jinping received Min Aung Hlaing last week in
Beijing. Xi said, "The friendship forged by the leaders of the older
generations has endured changes in the international arena ... China will work
with Myanmar to further bolster the comprehensive strategic partnership of
cooperation," he said. Xi proposed the two military forces to enhance exchange
and deepen cooperation. Interestingly, Xi advised Myanmar to "properly settle
problems and maintain a sound momentum of development".
Arguably, China could create strategic space for Myanmar to negotiate better
with the US. The road ahead for the US is going to be tricky. But Washington is
not new to this predicament in the post-cold war setting with its overall
global influence on the wane.
In Kyrgyzstan, after staging a successful color revolution in 2005, the US
remains the bronze medalist. Former Kyrgyz president Roza Otunbayeva was
portrayed as "moderately pro-Western", but she also conceded that Kyrgyzstan's
future ultimately lies with Russia because of the country's economic and
security concerns and its long history with Russia.
In Uzbekistan, where the US abandoned the punishing sanctions regime, China
still does remarkably well. The real gainers have been the Central Asian
states, which gradually mastered the art of accommodating the vital interests
and core concerns of competing big powers and getting something substantial in
Washington is left with no choice but to dismantle the sanctions regime on
Myanmar. Clinton announced that the US will no more veto the aid packages of
the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But the game is about
finding the pretext to dismantle the sanctions regime without making it appear
that the US is keen on Myanmar's resources or the pushback against China. In
short, the US should accept that nationalist Myanmar makes an interesting ASEAN
country - beautiful and bountiful with a lucrative market although politically
odious now and then.
Even assuming Aung San Suu Kyi may lead her country in a near future - which of
course isn't a foregone conclusion in a country as diverse and a society as
plural - the matrix doesn't change.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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