One junta, indivisible

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Kerry Howley is a senior editor at Reason magazine who spent 18 months working at the Myanmar Times.

These are supposed to be humbling times for foreign policy analysts -- chaos in Iraq having made it harder to cast the United States as omnipotent, omniscient and self-actualizing. But judging by the reactions to the recent protests in Myanmar, also known as Burma, the commentariat hasn’t stopped ascribing otherworldly powers to ambitious governments. It’s just that they’re choosing different governments.

The “shame and misery of the Burmese junta,” claimed Christopher Hitchens in Slate, will endure just “as long as the embrace of China persists.” Hitchens isn’t the only pundit casting China as puppeteer to the junta. “China must use its ‘special relationship’ with the junta,” explained Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams in the Wall Street Journal, “to arrange the release of Ms. [Aung San] Suu Kyi and hundreds -- if not thousands -- of other political prisoners.” Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has expressed similar sentiments, and various human rights groups are calling for the United States and Europe to boycott the Summer Olympics in Beijing.

But how much sway do Chinese leaders actually hold over Myanmar’s famously intransigent, xenophobic military?


“They actually have very limited leverage, as all foreigners do,” said William Overholt, who advised the pro-democracy coalition of 21 tribal groups that created the Provisional Revolutionary Government in Burma in 1989 and is now director of Rand’s Center for Asia Pacific Policy. “The whole theory of this government is to cut itself off from the world so no one can influence it.”

That certainly comes through in the propaganda, which I saw much of during the year and a half I spent living and working in Yangon. Under Burmese law, all printed material must contain a government statement of Burmese nationalist principles under the heading “people’s desire.” Principle No. 1? “Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views.” That message applies to China too: Stooges come in many stripes.

John H. Badgley, a retired Cornell University professor who has studied Myanmar for 50 years, says its rulers are best understood as a nationalist party not easily influenced or bought off. “The notion that some external group can come bludgeon them into behavior modification is just false,” he said.

The truth is that no one really understands what makes Myanmar tick. It is an information vacuum, characterized by a surreptitious, paranoid political culture suspicious of all things foreign. The world is watching footage of Myanmar’s protests in a way that would have been impossible in 1988, but it’s not as if C-SPAN can set up shop in the Ministry of Home Affairs. The generals’ decision-making process remains a mystery, and pundits fill the void with their a priori commitments. Exiles push sanctions; isolationists advocate restraint; China hawks blame China.

But China is not the cause of Myanmar’s backwardness. It may not even be much of an accomplice. In the late 1960s, China began openly supporting the Communist Party of Burma, contributing to a long and bloody civil war. “Burmese generals remember the bitter civil war, with China on the other side, and China doesn’t really trust those erratic guys,” said Bertil Lintner, a former correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and a Myanmar expert who has been blacklisted by the government. “They are new allies.”

Despite, or maybe because of, this fragile alliance, China has stood by Myanmar recently, vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution in January (as did Russia). But although it makes sense to pressure Beijing in areas in which it clearly has control, such as its own veto power, most of the anti-China arguments are not political but economic. Here China hawks have lost a clear sense of how much influence Beijing really has.


China is not Myanmar’s biggest trading partner; Thailand is. “You keep seeing these references to Chinese oil and gas assets in Burma,” Overholt said. “The reality is that they’re trivial. China’s attitude toward Burmese gas is that the Thais have already signed up for most of it and the Indians want the rest.” China is building an oil and gas pipeline -- but the gas it will carry will flow to the Middle East. This is weak stuff to hang a boycott on; Overholt calls the idea “nutty.”

So why all the focus on Beijing? The West has been repeatedly frustrated in its attempts to influence a small group of secretive generals; a decade of sanctions has not brought Myanmar closer to democracy. It may be that leaning on China -- a country we expect to respond rationally to incentives -- channels the need to “do something” in the same way embassy protests, candlelight vigils and online petitions do. It may also be that China is a locus of negativity already, ripe for scapegoating. Western companies with valuable oil holdings in Myanmar have attracted less attention than has China.

The point isn’t that wealthy nations have no role to play in coaxing Myanmar forward, or that applying pressure is futile. But casting the world in terms of all-powerful actors and weak client states is no more likely to lead to smart policymaking than casting it in terms of good and evil. A smart assessment of Myanmar starts with acknowledging how little we know, and how powerless we -- and even China -- may well be.