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    Southeast Asia
     Jul 11, 2012

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 globally.

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.

It's not 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 Burma.

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.

Sorry, 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 constitution.

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.

They 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.

Follow the 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.

Opportunity 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.

After many 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 common bond.

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 endures.

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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Failed path to peace in Myanmar
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