COMMENT A need for balance in
Myanmar By Tim Heinemann
While crisis in the Middle East holds
everyone's attention, engagement with Myanmar has
greater enduring strategic importance. Myanmar is
arguably China's front door to the Indian Ocean,
Middle Eastern oil, African natural resources and
European markets beyond.
The real contest
here is not military, and it is not ultimately
about economics alone. It is also not just about
superpower competition between America or China,
but is rather about which 21st-century engagement
and development model merits stature. In this
context, it is more importantly about the US,
United Kingdom and European Union winning enduring
friends in the region in a very
daunting new century in
which China shows its expanding influence
More than anything else, this
stature will be defined more by moral dominance
and dominion. This has now become a test of what
both American and European ingenuity can summon up
in proving what has been learned at a high price
in Iraq and Afghanistan, across the Middle East
and in all other Western attempts at engagement
and development in tough neighborhoods around the
world. Myanmar is now center stage as a field of
contest between East and West.
about democracy The international
community readily rallies to prominent
personalities who espouse this. Nobel laureate and
pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi fits this
pattern. While she has been given merited
attention for all she stands for, this narrow
coverage now distracts governments and the public
from focusing on grander and more enduring issues
to be faced in Myanmar, which is also known as
It should be understood that Suu
Kyi's "democracy first" battle cry has in certain
ways been viewed as antagonistic to the ethnic
minorities in Myanmar. This is because "majority
rule" in Myanmar has meant "tyranny of the
majority" ever since the end of World War II.
Ethnics see that the first order of business is
"matters of national reconciliation" among all
ethnic groups - Burman majority and non-Burman
ethnic minority alike.
Their point is that
there is a need for balance of political, military
and economic power among all groups. This is a
reality that the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) has painfully experienced
itself in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it has
invested heavily in central governments but not
handled engagement of ethnic power brokers well in
these highly feudalistic societies. Democracy can
be built on a foundation of balance, but the cart
needs to come before the horse.
it's not enlightenment The world has
swooned to gestures made by the new reformist
government in Myanmar under President Thein Sein.
Many are hungry for a real success story but may
be seeing more than really exists.
Myanmar's past regimes have spent decades
refining what some call a "thugocracy for profit".
Military-dominated government has secured its
power by stealing ethnic lands super-abundant in
natural resources. Profit from this has fueled the
power of Myanmar's general officer corps, which
has secured other business monopolies, as well as
political power assurances in its new
Over the years, the generals
have had to cozy up to China as their chief
benefactor and backer. This has come at
considerable cost in terms of China's encroachment
into almost every facet of Myanmar life. The
simple truth is that Myanmar is China's front door
to Indian Ocean dominance and economic expansion.
Burman elites are now fearful of being totally
dominated by China and so, out of necessity, must
engage the West as a counterbalance.
also feel that Western business practices may be
much more profitable for them than China's, which
tend to be exploitative and monopolistic. The
point here is that this may be just real politick
for survival, not the enlightened reform that much
of the world hopes for.
money While international attention focuses
on the good potential of Myanmar, the generals are
continuing business as usual in the shadows and on
the frontiers. Thein Sein does not control these
active and retired power brokers, who have always
"run the show" managing a massive repressive
apparatus that has been based on bloody tribute
from the bottom up.
These generals insist
on retaining all stolen ethnic lands rich in oil,
natural gas, gold, precious gems, uranium,
hydro-power potential and strategic ports and
international trading routes. They know of no
other way to make money and stay in power.
International corporations and governments,
meanwhile, are looking the other way at
human-rights abuses across the land, because the
profitability of doing business with
military-linked elites has been so lucrative.
It is thus unlikely the generals are going
to give all this up now. As a demonstration of
this, the Myanmar Army is now attacking ethnic
Kachin defense forces and villagers with over 120
battalions, while it reinforces and expands its
bases and outposts in Karen State as it negotiates
peace in the same breath.
in adversity While all this appears grim,
there is a viable solution. It rests with fairly
engaging ethnic minorities, which comprise
approximately 40% of Myanmar's populace, seven of
its 14 states, host the majority of the country's
natural resource wealth and dominate almost all of
its international borders. The tipping point comes
when military generals learn that they would make
much more profit by partnering economically with
ethnics than by fighting them.
decades, Myanmar's generals have never beaten
ethnic resistance forces, which by some estimates
kill government soldiers at ratios of up to 100:1.
While it is unlikely that continued political
maneuvering will produce enduring solutions under
a constitution rigged to favor the generals, it
makes much better sense for all stakeholders to
focus on shared economic development as their
The hope of prosperity for
all, instead of profit for a few elites, is
fertile ground to be explored as the way forward.
It has the potential to bridge over to political
solutions over time as trust is carefully built on
a foundation of inclusive economic prosperity.
America and the international community are well
to focus here, as the payoff can be considerable.
All could use a good success story that actually
Tim Heinemann is a
retired US Army Special Forces officer, who has
been working with the pro-democracy ethnic
resistance movement in Burma/Myanmar since 2004.
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