How Myanmar is moving ever closer into China’s orbit
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT did not have much time for Burma or the Burmese. The sympathy he felt for Indian demands for independence from Britain did not extend to that other piece of the British Raj now known as Myanmar. In 1942 he wrote to Winston Churchill: “I wish you could put the whole bunch of them into a frying pan with a wall around it and let them stew in their own juice.”
In unforeseen ways, the American president largely got his wish. The military dictatorship under General Ne Win that seized power in Burma in 1962 erected a virtual wall around the country, sealing it off from almost all outside influence. The junta that succeeded him after nationwide protests in 1988 has tried to open up the country. Viewed from the West, its efforts seem vain. Despite a farcical election last year, Myanmar remains subject to Western economic sanctions and its leaders are still largely shunned by their American and European counterparts. The only Burmese politician widely known in the West is Aung San Suu Kyi, an opposition leader who has spent most of the past two decades in detention and whose party is now technically illegal.
Yet Thant Myint-U’s new book shows that it is an illusion to think of Myanmar, as many Westerners do, as small, politically isolated, and economically and geographically peripheral—or as he puts it, “a relatively minor missing link between China and India”. Myanmar is certainly not small. It has perhaps 60m people, and covers an area bigger than France. One of the many ethnic insurgencies strung along Myanmar’s borders, the United Wa State Army, has come to control a territory larger than Belgium.
Moreover, Mr Thant puts Myanmar at the centre of things—exactly midway between Delhi and Mumbai to the west and Shanghai and Hong Kong to the east. Before the generals transformed Rangoon (now Yangon) “from global entrepot to backwater village”, its airport was in British times a hub for all of Asia. Draw a circle around the central city of Mandalay with a radius of just over 700 miles (1,100km), he writes, and it stretches to the states of West Bengal and Bihar in India, to Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in China, as well as to Tibet, and south to cover most of Laos and Thailand (see map). The circle is home to some 600m people.
Mr Thant is an academic historian and the grandson of U Thant, secretary-general of the United Nations in the 1960s. He is controversial among Burmese exiles for advocating engagement with the regime. In 2007 he published the best general introduction to contemporary Myanmar, “The River of Lost Footsteps”, and his latest book adopts the same blend of personal reminiscence, history—enlivened with an eye for the telling anecdote—travelogue and polemic.
This time Mr Thant’s travels take him to Myanmar’s hill country, near the Chinese border, to the other side of the frontier, in Yunnan province, and to Assam and Manipur in north-east India, on Myanmar’s other flank. Some of the travelogue is rather dull, especially in China, where the traveller is linguistically hobbled and confined to well-trodden tourist paths. His contemporary insights add little to his accomplished retelling of history. He is a better analyst and historian than he is a travel writer.
But the book’s main analytical and polemical point is tellingly made: in the absence of a Western counterbalance, Myanmar is falling almost inexorably into the Chinese sphere of influence. There is an age-old dream of linking India and China through Burma. The Victorians even fantasised about a raised railway from Calcutta (now Kolkata), soaring above the jungle.
The dream is at last coming true, as the solution to China’s “Malacca dilemma”—its strategic worry about dependence on imported energy coming through the chokepoint of the Malacca Straits. A new port, oil and gas pipelines, and roads are already under construction, giving China for the first time direct access to the Bay of Bengal, and a new route for as much as 20% of its oil imports. Dams are springing up on Myanmar’s rivers, to generate hydropower to keep the lights burning in Yunnan.
So China’s and Myanmar’s rulers are becoming ever more dependent on each other. Efforts by India and South-East Asian countries to reduce that dependence seem forlorn, despite India’s historic, cultural and religious ties, and despite Myanmar’s membership of the Association of South-East Asian Nations.
The generals in mufti now running Myanmar are fiercely independent. They do not want to be China’s puppets. Indeed, the older ones spent their formative years fighting Chinese-backed communists. Yet the West, with its fastidious refusal to have any truck with them, seems to leave them little option but to cleave to China. As in his earlier book, Mr Thant justly argues against the self-defeating futility of Western sanctions on Myanmar. But it is hard for Western governments to lift them without Ms Suu Kyi’s backing. And it is hard for her to call for their lifting when so many of her supporters are behind bars, and when her sway over international opinion is the last lever she has over a repellent regime.