Soldiers and Diplomacy in Burma: Understanding the Foreign Relations of the Burmese Praetorian State by Renaud Egreteau and Larry Jagan
Strong Soldiers, Failed Revolution: The State and Military in Burma, 1962-1988 by Yoshihiro Nakanishi
Reviewed by Bertil Lintner
CHIANG MAI - Myanmar's most powerful institution, the military, has managed to retreat into the background and largely avoid the scrutiny of foreign analysts and experts who have focused on the country's supposed transition to democratic rule, the need for
constitutional change and a flawed peace process aimed at bringing various ethnic insurgent groups that have fought for decades for autonomy under the government's control.
Two new books should help fill this analytical gap. Soldiers and Diplomacy in Burma: Understanding the Foreign Relations of the Burmese Praetorian State is a study of the role of the military in Myanmar's foreign policy by French academic Renaud Egreteau and Anglo-Australian freelance journalist Larry Jagan. Strong Soldiers, Failed Revolution: The State and Military in Burma, 1962-1988 is a detailed account of military politics in broad context by Japanese Southeast Asia scholar Yoshihiro Nakanishi.
Both books have merits and shortcomings. Soldiers and Diplomacy in Burma contains a wealth of information about Myanmar's past and present relations with China, India and Japan, as well as neighboring Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. Strong Soldiers, Failed Revolution, on the other hand, includes at least 50 useful tables with the names and ranks of officers and government officials and their respective places in the country's military hierarchy that are not easily found in other literature on Myanmar.
However, both books fall short of their stated objectives: to analyze the role of the military in what, at least on the surface, appears to be sweeping changes in the country's contemporary political landscape. Egreteau and Jagan begin by describing regional rivalries between India and China - and Southeast Asian nations - which have often positioned Myanmar in the middle of the competition. Yet later in the volume the authors dismiss these rivalries, implying that they are not of any actual significance.
Nor is China's role in Myanmar, currently its largest investor and for decades its chief diplomatic backer, sufficiently examined or analyzed. More importantly, the role of the United States in wooing Myanmar away from China's embrace is almost entirely overlooked. Myanmar-US relations are mentioned only in passing and raised more in the context of distant history than in the current pitched struggle for influence in the country and the region beyond.
Few serious international observers believe that the driving force behind the US's recent shift from a policy of isolation to engagement is the promotion of democracy and human rights in Myanmar. Behind that window dressing lie strategic interests that have put Myanmar at the center of the "pivot" towards Asia by the President Barack Obama administration. The US finally changed policy course on the realization that decades of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation had only pushed Myanmar deeper into China's arms.
Alarm bells began to ring in Washington when it was discovered that Myanmar had established a military relationship with North Korea. Leaked documents detailed a secret visit to Pyongyang by then number three in the Myanmar military hierarchy, General Thura Shwe Mann (who is now the speaker of the lower house of parliament) in November 2008, where he signed a Memorandum of Understanding with General Kim Kyok-sik, Chief of General Staff of the North Korean army.
At the same time, many powerful people within Myanmar's military establishment were growing worried about the extent of Chinese influence in their country and concluded that after decades of diplomatic jousting it was necessary to open up to the West - although they were fully aware that there would be a price to be paid for improved relations with the US, European Union and other Western democracies, seen in the release of hundreds of political prisoners, allowances for the political opposition to operate freely and unfettering of the news media.
Yet Egreteau and Jagan dismiss well-documented reports on Myanmar's relations with North Korea, including the rice-for-guns barter trade between the two countries, as "unsubstantiated rumors". The authors make the astonishing claim that the US State Department and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton "feel that Burma [Myanmar] does not have the capacity to build up threatening networks with North Korea". (p374) The assertion runs contrary to public statements by Clinton and other US officials who have expressed grave concern over military-related exchanges and deals between the two rogue countries. Egreteau and Jagan also seem to take at face value president Thein Sein's "pledge that Burma ... had ceased its military ties with the North Korean regime". (p381)
Significantly, Naypyidaw's military cooperation with North Korea - and overall ties with China - were at the top of Clinton's agenda during her historic visit to Myanmar to meet Thein Sein in December 2011, the first meeting between such a high-ranking US official and a Myanmar head of state since 1966. Washington has since continued to apply pressure on Naypyidaw to sever the relationship or risk future engagement, including military-to-military contacts.
The "great game" that is now playing out in Myanmar involves not only China and US, but also India, the European Union, other Western countries, Japan and the two Koreas. Recent developments in Myanmar's foreign relations cannot be fully understood without a comprehensive analysis of Myanmar's place in these intensifying regional power politics.
The authors also dismiss detailed intelligence reports of signals intelligence stations and similar installations, to which China at the very least supplied equipment and is believed to use in order to monitor vital supply lines of oil from the Middle East and other crucial trade, because their own "field trips" to Myanmar have shown otherwise. In military-run Myanmar, foreign travelers are not allowed anywhere near sensitive military installations.
Extensive research, primarily by Australian signals intelligence scholar Desmond Ball, show clearly that China has been involved in helping to establish new and modernize old listening posts along and off the Myanmar coast and should be taken more seriously than the authors' assessments.
The importance the authors attribute to the role of Myanmar's supposed "xenophobia" in formulating foreign policy and dealings with "outsiders" is also questionable. This reviewer has during more than 30 years of covering Myanmar found its various peoples extremely hospitable and eager to learn from outside influences. Xenophobia - and extreme nationalism - are simply tools that authoritarian governments all over the world deploy to drum up domestic support for their regimes. The authors rightly recognize this to some degree but also refer more generally to "historic" roots of "xenophobia is Burma" (p56) and "traditional xenophobic nationalism". (p260)
Strong Soldiers, Failed Revolution may be written in slightly quaint language but in many ways is a more useful resource for understanding the complexities of power politics in Myanmar. From a scholar's perspective, Nakanishi examines various entities and individuals within the military establishment to trace how it became the country's most powerful institution.
He describes relationships between top commanders and the rest of the officer corps, between different military officers and their respective units, and how civilian politics has always taken a back seat to military affairs in Myanmar's recent history.
That is important to understand in today's Myanmar, where too much emphasis has been placed on the activities of political parties and personalities and what has is said in parliament, which was established after a blatantly rigged election in November 2010 and acts as a preserve of military power.
While Egreteau and Jagan seem to have lost their analytical way in the labyrinths of regional power games, Nakanishi pays only scant attention to the role of outside powers and how these have affected internal developments and the military's perception of its role in Myanmar politics.
Nakanishi may be criticized for paying too much heed to the old supposed "ideology" of Myanmar's defense services, as outlined in the post-1962 coup document "The System of Correlation between Man and His Environment" and other obscure writings. Even casual talks with former army officers would reveal that few, if any, took the doctrine's foggy notions on the mental history of mankind and the "universal law of transience" seriously, even when they were in active service.
Nevertheless, Nakanishi's book is a valuable addition to the existing literature on the subject, including Myanmar expert Mary Callahan's groundbreaking study Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma, which was published in 2003. Because of restraints put on her research by Myanmar's military establishment during her time in the country, Callahan was able to cover only developments up to the first coup d'etat in 1962. Nakanishi brings readers up to date with more information about the present power structure in a country where the military is still very much in control.
Soldiers and Diplomacy in Burma: Understanding the Foreign Relations of the Burmese Praetorian State by Renaud Egreteau and Larry Jagan. National University of Singapore Press, Singapore (2013). ISBN: 9789971696733. Price: US$32; 541 pages.
Strong Soldiers, Failed Revolution: The State and Military in Burma, 1962-1988 by Yoshihiro Nakanishi. National University of Singapore Press, Singapore (2013). ISBN: 9789971697020. Price: US$38; 541 pages.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Myanmar and India's Northeast, including Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia's Most Volatile Frontier and Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.
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