Culture: Political Science:


Misunderstood Myanmar: Chapter 7:

Myanmar’s International Relations Calculus


By Koh Kim Seng, Ph.D.

International Business Executive, Political Scientist



Editor’s Note: This paper is the second of series of chapters excerpted from Dr. Koh’s book, ‘Misunderstood Myanmar: An Introspective Study of a Southeast Asian State in Transition’. With years of experience operating a business in Myanmar (Burma), Dr. Koh has first-hand knowledge and a deeply practical understanding of the economic and administrative opportunities and challenges currently existing in the country. This second segment explains Myanmar’s stance on international relations. -JP


Myanmar’s resources are crucial.  Its location in the context of the critical Indian Ocean sea-lane is key.


Myanmar and China

Myanmar appears to be continually drawn nearer to the East than any other place.  China edging India in the natural gas concessions1 in August 2007 is evidence of this.  Myanmar’s close relationship and rapprochement with China are likewise manifested in the so-called “China veto,”2 in its unusual Foreign Ministry press release with regard to Lee Teng Hui’s cross-straits statement in July 1999, as well as  Myanmar’s reaction to the bombing of the Chancery of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by “NATO forces” in May 1995.3


On the cross-straits “dispute”, the New Light of Myanmar daily (17 July 1999), the country’s official newspaper, stated categorically Myanmar’s “full support to China’s efforts to safeguard its sovereignty, dignity and territorial integrity,” and reiterated that “Myanmar consistently abides by the ‘One-China Policy,” i.e., of Taiwan being an “inalienable” part of the People’s Republic of China.”  On the bombing of the Chinese Embassy Chancery in Belgrade by NATO forces, the Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on 11 May 1999, deeply deploring the “grave incident which is tantamount to violation of the UN charter and the basic norms of international law.”4


The Sino-Myanmar entente cordiale has been viewed by scholars like Poon Kim Shee as a “marriage of convenience,” and that Myanmar is being utilized as “part and parcel” of China’s “grand strategic design to achieve its goal of becoming a great power in the 21st century.”5  The popular view among foreign scholars is that Myanmar is being “utilized” by the Chinese even though from my own observations based on my discussions with the Junta members Myanmar’s deeply ingrained nationalistic feelings and its successful record in dealing with foreign powers to maintain its independence and its culture, Myanmar would steer itself in such a way as not to become a “strategic satellite base” of China, or of any other state for that matter.  On my raising this point, U’s succinct response was that “any good political historian must know that our policy has always been one of non-alignment.  However reciprocity is only human.  Good begets good.  We do not get involved in other peoples’ business.”


Nevertheless, from what I can see, the Sino-Myanmar relationship is bound by long historical ties and the common desire to create progress and prosperity for both states by existing symbiotically.  This is notwithstanding that the two states have had their share of “ups” and “spiteful downs.”  In 1967, their relationship was at its very nadir.  At the time, oddly, the relationship between the two states existed on a 2-track basis, namely, Party-Party (Chinese Communist Party and Burmese Communist Party) and Government-Government.  U added as a point of fact “that the result was that the 1967 Cultural Revolution in China was ‘exported’ to Myanmar with the BCP grasping this as a golden opportunity in its quest for power.”


Also, the fact that Myanmar lies geographically in such a position between China and India and as a littoral state of the Indian Ocean, a position which the US obviously views as “geostrategic” and which would allow China to expediently take advantage of, is a co-incidence of nature, for which, Myanmar cannot be blamed.  But whether or not this is indeed so or if it is turning out to be a “blessing” or a “curse,” is a matter of opinion.  Only the Myanmar government knows. Furthermore, moves by the government, not only to supply natural gas to China but also to go into agreement with it in the development of an oil industrial base or port in the deep sea channel Ramree Island, off Kyaukpyu, capable of handling VLCCs/ULCCs (very large crude carriers / ultralarge crude carriers), aggravates any international plans, especially those of the US, to “contain” China’s prolific economic development and poses a challenge to its pole position in the world.


In fact Myanmar has fallen into the Chinese axis of influence in modern history. It cannot merely be an accident of nature, but must at least be in part because of external pressure in the form of trade sanctions, political isolation and similar dents.  These have put Myanmar in a position untenable for making progress and to develop in the same way as many of what used to be the backward states of Southeast Asia, which have become practically First World/developed states.


U stressed the major and basic principle of Myanmar’s “state independence,” which according to him was enunciated in the joint-formulation of the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” with China and India6.  He emphasized that “Myanmar has no intentions of being a satellite or client state of any bigger state.  Historians are aware that in the Region, Myanmar has always been the leader of the pack in a galactic state environment, and has always been adamant that there would not be any interference in its internal affairs.”  From this perspective, I gathered from U that Myanmar sees the US and EU as attempting to molest its “sacred cow” – non interference in its internal affairs.  Upon hearing this comment I found it appropriate to throw out in the open what some scholars have postulated concerning Myanmar being either a “strategic pawn” or an “economic pivot” to or for China. To this, my respondents all vehemently disagreed: “This will not happen and all our friends are aware!”  Additionally, U commented, “At best, Myanmar may serve a ‘staff function’ outside its territory” because, to start with, “[we] do not meddle in other people’s affairs and we do not have the wherewithal to engage as a line-function player outside of Myanmar.”  “Nor as history has shown,” he continued, “are we interested in any form of territorial expansion by annexation or otherwise, peacefully or Bismarckianwise.”  Will this remain a passive engagement? I asked.  He replied in a deep voice, “If and only if, we are upset by our neighbours, will we march bravely against them, as our old generals had done before, risking life and limb, if called for, merely to teach those who try to take advantage of us, a lesson, and to keep our honour.  However, having done so, we have always returned peaceably to our base.”


With respect to the speculation as to whether or not Myanmar would be an “economic pivot” to China, as some scholars see it, the comment from all my respondents--Brother, Sir, U and all other former top officials of SLORC/SPDC--was, taking up Brother’s response, “This is ethnocentricity, which Myanmar would not indulge in; although it is aware of its vast natural resource reserves, it would not utilize it to make any party bend to its desire.”  Brother even added that, “On the contrary, if our natural resources can be utilized in solving a neighbour’s problem, Myanmar would do so for friendship’s sake.”  Moreover, this is to them what they believe is “the Buddhistic approach to problem solving,” and Myanmar’s approach for which at least some members of ASEAN have tasted its “assistance” even if it may turn out “difficult” for them to comment because of its very confidential nature, under the Official Secrets Act (OSA).


Furthermore, Myanmar’s strict doctrine of active non-alignment and neutrality is well known and is actually practised.  In Brother’s words, “in international relations, we open our ears and heads but never our mouths.” Thus, there is no danger of Myanmar being utilized as a “pawn” to interfere in the affairs of other states.  Mohan Malik’s article, “Burma’s Role in Regional Security - Pawn or Pivot?7”, rather concentrates on the position of Myanmar in the 1990s and thereafter so that a number of historical factors are not taken into account by his analyses of Myanmar’s behaviour in regional security.  Thus for example, his lament on Myanmar’s move from political equidistance between China and India with Myanmar “becoming a puppet of China” demonstrates an apparent “lack of comprehension of the subject,” according to U, who had been keeping up with the literature.


“This, however, is not to say that Myanmar should be blind to what occurs regionally and not adapt to goings on that are applicable and suitable for Myanmar,” Brother contended.  Amidst all these, I again interjected: “Of what import or value is China to Myanmar?”  This seemed to me an open question.  Reminding myself that I was still speaking with a group of former politicians, I thought the question would be only a rhetorical one.  Surprisingly and pleasantly, I got straightforward answers. U and Sir, almost in sync, said: “In this respect, China seems a good model,” and, U continued: “…where its transition involved reforms in agriculture in a staged manner.”  


On the reason for following China, U, Sir and the other respondents expounded their views.  Brother volunteered that the Government has been keenly observing the “Chinese strategy” of moving from collective or commune production to that of production based on individual farmer’s performance, which effectively is the first step towards privatization.  “This is the practised step,” he explained. “The Chinese did not plough straight into total privatization in the sense that land transactions per se were not allowed, initially.  However, this move of production giving rise to discernable reward to the individual farmer based on his production was considered incentive enough to increase production and productivity in a tremendous way.”  Displaying his training in economics, he continued: “This, when applied on a macro-scale on a province by province basis as the scheme proved successful, and on a reap-what-you-sow principle, led to deepening privatization, as the benefits were seen more clearly by both government as well as the people.”


To Brother, only when the transition to privatization and a market economy became more compelling were foreign consultants invited, not just to increase production but more importantly to institutionalize systems of production.  The experts were forced to develop a “two-tiered price system, namely, that what was required to be produced under the old quota system was sold at the old prices, whereas, any production above the quota could be sold at open market prices.”  Brother approvingly referred to this as the “Chinese gradualist approach to privatization and market economy.”


Obviously, with respect to economic development, the “Chinese model” is appealing to Myanmar.  In the view of my respondents, it demonstrated the value of a market economy, complete with the development of the relevant institutions, “without jarring the system in terms of inflation, price distortions and the like.”  As soon as the system was set in motion smoothly, the two-tier price system was abandoned leading to what has been termed in more recent times by western scholars as “creative destruction,” that is, the removal of the old economy and the creation of a new one,” as Brother explained.


What came through was that Myanmar closely observed the path the Chinese took to further their growth and development.  At the right moment, FDIs were invited to create joint-venture operations and/or to go it alone. “The requisite governing institutions, for example, banking, security exchange commission and other regulatory bodies were set in place and loss-making state owned enterprises were liquidated; the bloated bureaucracy was trimmed and even government owned housing stock was downsized,” Brother noted.  The economic transition gained pace and the road to political transition was then opened.  “These are methods and developmental pathways that are worth emulating,” according to U, an economist himself, who added, “our aim is keep the economic machine humming, empty stomachs if any, filled, and hence the government’s emphasis on infrastructural development to support agriculture production and marketing before we talk of political change, as seen in China and some successful ASEAN states.”


The political transition, after the economic changes, was more difficult to manage, Brother admitted. U pointed out that “the authoritarianism within the CPC with which the power holders were so familiar and accustomed to, could not be so easily discarded.”  He conceded that, “a parallel situation exists in Myanmar excepting that ‘authoritarianism’ as some first world nations see it lies in the military/Tatmadaw with a mix of civilians and not in the BCP or any other ‘tangential forces’.”  Further, U remarked, “you cannot sweep the nexus between economics and politics under the rug.”  The Chinese government, from his observation, prudently undertook: “… the gradual empowerment of the individual to be in charge of his own destiny and future at the micro-level; at the Centre the Government developed the macro-structure to allow for the growth of the individual players, e.g., attracting foreign direct investors, developing infrastructure and the requisite control institutions so that, for example, employment is created, wealth is generated and social amenities are made available, all in a gradualist manner.”  The “levers of power” meanwhile were still held in the Centre, “without the beneficial periphery creating undue problems.” It was enough that the periphery could see the benefits of the transition. “This is a good model,” U concluded.  


Put simply, Brother attributed the success of the Chinese model to the proletariat being able to see that authority and power at the Centre carried with it responsibility for the peoples’ well being.  The Government was seen to be engaging in “pro-people” development and therefore, the transition was not “repugnant” and did not create “problems” for the Centre.  Brother added that, basically, the sense the Government projected was that control was still in the hands of the Communist Party and that those sitting in control, having been elected from below, were merely representatives of the people and not “dictators.”  Brother affirmed that “the foregoing is our Government’s analyses of successful development and it is a good model,” adding, “we are planning along this model and success is dependent upon a number of other ‘extraneous factors’ over which we have little control.”


According to Sir: “this gradualist approach which proved so successful in China and

some other European and ASEAN states is the way the Government would like to go and this can be achieved so long as there is no external interference.”  The attitude, from what I could gather, is that there is no necessity to rush so long as the transition, having been implemented since 1988, is ongoing, but always assuming that there are no “external parties trying to derail their plans,” as someone put it.  This would apply to both the economic and political fronts. “There is no harm,” claimed Cousin, “in emulating successful states especially if these are of similar culture as well as if they have similar historical experience with foreign powers.”


The applicability to Myanmar of the successful Chinese road to economic and political development draws strength from the perceived commonality of both cultures as well as their historico-political development starting with the British and the subsequent Japanese colonial interventions and invasions.  When it comes to historical bonds, however, the key event, as I learned from the many chat sessions I had with bureaucrats and generals, is the Treaty of 1769. This “Treaty,” which essentially was entered into between the Myanmar and Chinese officers in the field, after a battle below Bhamo, was meant to be one between “equal states” at one time.  Yet a British Officer named Symes produced some document to show that Myanmar was a vassal or tributary state of China, implying that there was an inequality of state status.  This was later debunked by Sir Owen Burne, Secretary of Political and Secret Department (India Office) who claimed that this was a misrepresentation of the Peking Gazette of 15 May 1875, that is, that Burma is “among the tributaries of China8”.  Brother on this occasion commented, “So you see why we have to be skeptical all the time; there is always the tendency for foreigners to twist things.”


From the sentiments expressed by members of the Government, the tempting conclusion must be that the future development trajectory would be modelled along the lines of China.  Power, as far as possible, will lie in the Centre, within the Military Junta and if not at least within members of the Military who will have a say in governance.  My take, after 20 years of exposure to the public and private sector individuals (including that of the man in the street) is that no matter how democratic outside parties feel the Government ought to be reconstituted, marching orders to the barracks for the Military would bring about an even more catastrophic “conflagration” than that which occurred in 1988.  Myanmar unlike other ASEAN states is “unique” in its historical and political experience and it can and will resolve its problems by itself. The feeling among my group of respondents is that no party, internal or external, should have any illusion about this.


It is quite obvious that the view from the Junta’s side is that Myanmar has become the “gambit pawn” in the whole US attempt to ensure the pre-eminent position it holds as the super-power in a unipolar world is maintained.  Simply put, Brother’s view is that “the U.S. unipolar position must not in any way be undermined.”  If at all there is a threat to its unique pole position, that challenge, in the view of the group, comes from China.  The threat becomes more real if certain critical natural resources such as energy, which is axiomatic for China to have in its industrial and infrastructural development and generally for the daily lives of the Chinese, is made readily available.  In the recent past, it is clear that it is Myanmar which will be assisting in making the constant energy supply position, from both external sources as well as internally, feasible.  The former is by way of assisting the Chinese to have access on the Western side for the control of the key sea lanes of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, not to mention in more recent times the development of ports in the Western Myanmar Islands in the upper Andaman Sea/Bay of Bengal area (the Ramree Island) which would be used as ports for fuel/oil discharge to be piped to China and the latter by piping gas from the Myanmar fields to China.


It is clear that the foregoing analysis, drawn by past members of the Government as well as some current ones, is the result of Bush’s National Security Strategy propounded in 2006, forcing such Government members to conclude that the international sanctions and all other moves made against the Junta have not one iota of merit or justification.  They view these as counter-measures adopted by the developed states under the pretext of Myanmar’s autocratic style of Government as opposed to having a democratic one and of Myanmar not pandering to their desire of not having their lead position disturbed.  It is more the result of American geopolitical and geostrategic considerations vis à vis the Chinese international political and economic ascendancy that has caused Myanmar to become the grass being stamped on because of the fight between the two figurative elephants!


US-China-Myanmar Equation

The latest Bush administration’s National Security Strategy in March 2006, says Noam Chomsky, “has described China as the greatest long-term threat to US global dominance.”6  In this respect, the sentiment among Brother, Sir, U and my other key respondents seems quite strong, namely that “Myanmar has been made into a sacrificial lamb.”  The slightest hint that the pole position of the US is being undermined (and here China in my respondents’ view is a good prospect offering challenge to the US hegemony), Cousin added, “…makes it incumbent on the US to see to it that it is stopped, and for this, the weaker the state, the easier.”  Myanmar by a “miscalculation” is seen as one such candidate.  Cousin opined that the US is perhaps finding Myanmar, “a somewhat more difficult morsel to swallow than they had bargained for!”


Unfortunately, in spite of the many great strategists in the US, it appears that they have miscalculated a very critical point about China – that it has “imperialistic designs,” political and/or economic.  The Myanmar governing elite certainly does not see it this way.  Brother’s point of view was that “Chinese influence and territorial control over the years have shrunk from the 18th century.”  “Read Hsu,” he suggested.  Indeed the attached maps7 confirm this.  Nevertheless, Brother seems to be cognizant, if at all this is a fact, that in the modern world of international relations, China may want to “raise its influence for its very survival and in keeping with developments throughout the modern world.”  “After all, there is no reason for a country of such age-old civilization and culture to stay backward and unnoticed,” the retired minister said from his experience, “despite the fact that the Chinese are more homo sapiens economicus than anything else.”


“Moreover,” Brother remarked, “from our experience the Chinese are rather unlike Bismarck whose philosophy is that there is ‘no altruism among nations,’” even though he said he knows of scholars like Bello “who claim that for the Chinese their diplomatic skills are based on the premise that among nations there are no permanent friends but only permanent interests.”8  Brother remarked that, a posteriori, the Chinese have realized that, “communism kept it inward looking,” keeping the so-called “nationalist forces” under control even as it endeavoured to “export some of its communism rather unsuccessfully, finally.”  On this subject, U queried rhetorically, “this probably in part accounts for the shrinking territorial interests of China, historically?”  He concluded that this meant, it seems, that since for a long time China had no great interests outside, “it kept much to itself.  It did not engage in any particular warfare except as retaliation against neighbours, which indulged in ‘adventurism,’ as in the case of battles with Vietnam and India.”  Brother reminisced that in point of fact even in ancient times, because of the attacks by the Huns, China’s reaction was not one of building up a big war chest or army but instead, of constructing a solid defensive piece of work - the Great Wall of China.


Bringing the key respondents back to the point, I raised some posers.  I started with, “What is it that makes Myanmar react to all the ‘external western interference’ in the way it does – not necessarily proactively but nonchalantly reactively?”  I volunteered that Paul Baran  had attributed such an attitude to Buddhist states (which are typically oriental) because of their loss of the “protestant ethic.”  Cousin interjected with, “I am not sure about the validity of Baran’s thesis because Japan is also Buddhist though Tokugawa with perhaps only the slightest hint of protestant ethic, unlike Theravada Buddhism.  And it reconstructed itself into the second most powerful economy within a space of twenty years (1946 – 1965).  However, for us, we just want to live in peace and we do not like to interfere in other people’s matters nor do we like others to interfere in ours.”  Having heard this, I propositioned the concept that perhaps Myanmar is taking a leaf from the Chinese international relations book of maintaining its autonomy, independence and neutrality by being friendly with all parties it deals with and in this way not siding with any party and perhaps sometimes, in the tradition of the Chinese classical “Three Kingdoms” story, subtly “playing one side against the other” – a point and method sorely missed by the so called more objective and oddly more analytical observers from the West?


Cousin’s response was, “If you know the history of Myanmar, you will know that in the old days we lorded over the Region.  Even in those days, we never bullied nor annexed territories.  We never flexed muscles nor indulged in ‘adventurism.’ . . .  You might even say we look at things both with our heads as well as our hearts but we have no time for fun and games.  Strict neutrality is our policy even from the early U Nu days.  The rest we leave observers to interpret.”


As Bello sees it, strategically, both politically and economically, China has always tried to be on the side of everybody so that in essence it is on the side of nobody and in this way, it maintains its neutrality.  Since it seems that Myanmar is being “mentored” by China, would Myanmar follow this path?  An understanding of this is important for the US to comprehend Myanmar’s role in the geo-strategic equation of Myanmar vis à vis China,9 if it hopes to “influence” Myanmar.


China must compete economically and see to it that strategically its development is not undermined by either internal or external forces.  For this reason, it is possible in the Chinese calculus that Myanmar is a “strategic alliance,” inter-alia, to ensure that its energy and other developmental needs, which are critical for development, are met.  Myanmar, on the other hand, apart from being very close to China owing to their commonality of historio-political experience, is a littoral state in the important Indian Ocean/South China Sea lane, which controls the flow of oil, not to mention Myanmar’s abundant energy and other important natural reserves.  The linkage between the two protagonists is one of what is commonly accepted as, in the words of Brother, swe myo pauk hpaw, that is, brothers born of the same mother. Cousin finalized the point by saying that Myanmar is not persuaded that “state intervention and control retards growth and development – China, Japan and Singapore among others have proven this.”


Former Governor Dalhousie had noted that Myanmas, being proud and ethnocentric, feel that they can go it alone. Cousin felt that, “while we would like to have linkage with outside parties, we need nobody.”  And if at all any party wants to “befriend” Myanmar, it has to be on its own terms “otherwise it would continue to labour on with the anomie stoically, if necessary.” 


US Policy on “Burma

As Noam Chomsky reminds us, “. . .the military dictatorship in Burma. . .came after US operations in 1958 which established military presence of Chinese nationalists in northern Burma to attack China.”10  The more recent ascendancy of China inevitably presents a challenge to the US’s nodal position of being the sole superpower in today’s unipolar world.  However, “The threat is not military, but economic,” says Chomsky.”11  This would lead us to think that so long as these economic threats are at the US’s front door, Myanmar could expect from the US and its allies a continual imposition of economically debilitating sanctions, which as years pass by will only serve to increase the social costs in Myanmar exponentially and yet not get for the US what it desires.  When I raised this point to my respondents, Cousin’s answer was that, “this is a paradox only the US can resolve.  Will sanctions work?  I doubt.”


Notwithstanding the Myanmar government’s standpoint on this issue, it is important for the US that a strategic partner or alliance in the form of the NLD, which the US and its allies overtly and covertly bankroll, be cultivated within Myanmar.  Indeed, retired government members Brother, Sir, Cousin and especially U see the US moves in terms of sanctions and insistence on liberalization and democracy as a play towards creating havoc within Myanmar and of gaining control of it possibly as a precursor to the eventual derailment of China’s development agenda subsequently.  Likewise, the US’s consistent moves to highlight the economic and political differences of the various competing groups in Myanmar, for example, SPDC versus the NLD, the majority Bamars against the minority National groups, have the same objective.  In Cousin’s view, “the US is out to implement ‘imperial democracy’ in Myanmar after creating chaos.  This is why we say we have become the pawn in the big chess tournament.”


My key respondents expressed surprise that countries in the Region which are “more closely allied” to the US have not been seen to put “constructive containment” on Myanmar in place thus far, but have merely sought changes using methodologies of  “constructive engagement” in its various clones.  As far as Australia is concerned, according to Andrew Selth,12 even before 1988 Australia had been Myanmar’s largest aid donor and Australia’s policy on Myanmar now, though sanctions are still in place, is one of a “carrot and stick approach” such as the offer to the SPDC regime of resumption of aid, “if there [be] key progress in key areas like human rights.”  Here again it occurs to me from experience that the Australians appear to have resorted to, for want of a better term, the “occidental ethnocentric” approach, which does not go well with the “proud” Myanmas.  Myanmar cannot be bought,” according to Brother, “otherwise it would have accepted the World Bank and other similar institutions’ offers of aid.”  Meanwhile, the suggestion was that some elements from within Myanmar have in fact been “bought,” and this is in reference to the NLD and its external benefactors.  The problem is that, as stated by Sir, “the backers of the NLD are taking a negative approach of disintegration and not a positive approach of integration and of engendering the nation’s progress.”  Under the circumstances this senior bureaucrat wonders, speaking tongue in cheek, how can any potential “Opposition” hope to unseat the incumbent Government?


To add to its vicissitudes, Myanmar unfortunately does not allow for any sustained expansion of American business interests, creating a “problem” for itself.  Myanmar is clearly not of strategic economic “interest” to the US in this respect.  Thus for example in more recent times even the gas pipeline from the wellhead in Yadana to Myanmar’s shoreline, around Kyonpyaw against which Halliburton13 submitted a bid through Unocal was not awarded to it.  The project consists of the laying of 146-kilometre submarine pipeline.  Myanmar had earlier paid $20 million for the survey and alignment for laying the pipes.


For Myanmar, it is a matter of costs; the Halliburton bid was some three times higher than the equivalent Chinese offer according to Brother, but characteristically Myanmar does not bother to explain fully the position to the US bidders despite their enquiry.  Likewise, many other juicy business, trade, and investment possibilities and contracts were awarded to Chinese and other interests but not necessarily to the US, not because of any subjective reason but because the US offers were not competitive and the terms and conditions of the offers were not suitable.


Perhaps also it is, as U admits, that “the Junta does not concur with George W. Bush’s policy of protectionism for US interests and free trade for the rest of the world,” despite the usual US rhetoric of “free market” and “corporate-driven globalization.”14  Another element is Bush’s policy of “strategic power” and the way this is achieved through political manoeuvering by peddling free market rhetoric while indulging in protectionism towards American interests.  This does not seem to go down well with Myanmar, especially in the “forceful way” that the US tries to implement it in Myanmar.  Put simply, the protectionism towards US interests and the insistence of free trade on the part of the rest of the world or the utilization of economic power to achieve strategic power, is a strategy which Myanmar government members are fully aware of, and is not something U feels is “equitable,” especially in their context.


In this connection, Bush’s primary concern is with what Bello15 terms “hard economy,” which simply is economy due to companies tied up to government leaders by direct business connections especially in the oil and gas industry, like, Halliburton.  It includes industries that can subsist only by massive government subsidies as in the steel and agricultural sectors and businesses that operate outside the free market and which depend on securing government contracts - that is, businesses that operate on a risk-free and cost-plus basis as in military-industrial complexes.  In this context, it is perhaps worthwhile for Myanmar to take the foregoing into account in its international relations consideration and to play ball a little. However what can be done if the Government’s philosophy is, according to Cousin, “We will grow at our own pace”?


As far as the contention on Myanmar’s indulgence in the narco-economy goes, while all international agencies in narcotic drug control point to the fact that narcotic drug production in Myanmar has substantially dipped, dropping from 90% of world production to 25%, the US accuses it of indulgence in the narcotics trade.  Myanmar on the other hand has been trying to pitch for drug control on the demand side, which is within the control of consumer states but this has not been very successfully undertaken because apparently, U feels, “there are influential US interests involved in the trade.”  The rationale, according to a senior bureaucrat in charge of narcotic drug control, is that once the demand dries up, the supply would die a natural death.


Having said so, it is understandably a rather tall order in the sense that the narcotic business profit structure as a “commercial operation” is such that it is simply too lucrative to abandon for those trading in it.  Thus, for example, while 1 kg of heroin in Myanmar is worth 100,000 Kyat (equivalent to USD 1,470), in Chiangmai it is USD 100,000 and in Bangkok, it is worth USD 0.5 million; at the wholesale level in the US, it is US$1.0 million16.  Even the British in the old colonial days found this out and so did the Americans to the extent that at the British House of Commons Select Committee meeting in 1830/1832, it was concluded to be inadvisable for the East India Company to abandon its monopoly of opium which represented such an important source of revenue because “opium had become the economic panacea for the British trade doldrums.”  The question is, will the US change its policy of strangulating Myanmar and if not, will the relationship between the two remain cold as ever?


Relations with Japan

In spite of the war reparations/payment by Japan as a “token amount” to Myanmar, considering the loss of lives and property caused by Japan, Japan–Myanmar relations have always been regarded as “warm and close,” according to my key respondents, especially since the 30 Thakins who fought for independence were trained by Japan.  Brother explained that on the basis of negotiations between the former Brig. Gen. Aung Gyi and the Japanese Government, the amount settled as war reparation compensation was USD300 million as opposed to over USD 3.0 billion sought.  This, too, was not in cash but by set off against buses, railways, steel mills, already existing in Myanmar.  However, subsequently for reasons best known to itself, under the Overseas Development Aid (ODA) Support Programme, Japan provided aid to Myanmar amounting to USD6.0 billion, up to 1988.


Under the Toronto Agreement, OECD members called for the total cancellation of all debts owed by LDCs.  Japan however did not follow this but devised its own system and wrote off debts as grant aid, subject to repaid amounts,” Brother added.  Japan, it is felt by Brother, had always been supportive of Myanmar but it was only after 1988 that due to pressure from the US, Japan cooled its relations with Myanmar.  Despite this, one of the very important considerations for the “closeness,” according to Cousin is the fact that, “Myanmar never forgets that it was the British Major General Rance, who noted rather pointedly that it was the Japanese who built up the Burmese Nationalist Forces with Aung San as the head with the rank of Major-General, whereas the British in the pre-war days rejected Burmans (Bamars) for the Armed Forces, taking only hill peoples.”  This, Rance speculated “might have irritated the Burmese youth by this contempt for their martial valor.”  Rance concluded that the Burmese must have regarded the British as their conquerors and that it “… needed but a match to start a conflagration.”  From this point of view the Japanese were at the right time, in the right place and their participating in Myanmar’s fight for independence could not have been more fortuitous for them.


The foregoing notwithstanding, it appears that one of the considerations for “forgiveness” for Japan’s colonization is that old leaders like Gen. Ne Win himself subscribed to Lin Yutang’s analysis of the Japanese psyche in war and in peace.  At least this was suggested by Daw Ni Ni Myint who, quoting, Lin Yutang said that Myanmar feels that the Japanese “whether as conquerors or neighbours, . . . lack the political genius for winning people.  The Japanese are and will always remain poor colonialists.”  Gen. Ne Win was of the same mind as Lin Yutang and so in a sense empathized with them.  For this reason among others, Gen. Ne Win kept up his friendship with the Japanese even till practically his last days and the Japanese government reciprocated the sentiments in concrete terms of aid, practically to his last days - and beyond always watching out for the US stance!


Rather off the point but for the purpose of comparison with Japan, I asked, “what about other outstanding debts?”  Brother intimated: “To the best of my knowledge, though unrelated, in the case of Germany it had written off all the debts subject to parliamentary approval which, however, apparently has not been given, but to date it has not sought any repayment; the conclusion is that they had written off the debts.”  He added that “for France, all debts were duly written off officially.”  On balance, the Japanese method of resolving this problem must have been rather successful.


Rising from the ashes of World War II, Japan had steadily progressed to the point when it became the second most powerful economic powerhouse by the mid 1960s when Myanmar had launched itself into the socialist orbit.  Though ideologically at different poles, personal relations between the leaders of the ruling party in Japan empathized with the Revolutionary Council Government, the latter being made up mainly of military personnel who were Japanese-trained during the first phase of the struggle for Independence.  Thus the socialist era in Myanmar was distinguished by a deluge of grants, aid and loans from Japan.  Due to the oil crisis of 1973, Japan began to nurture its ties with ASEAN and sought to build closer ties with Southeast Asian countries through economic cooperation.


In the 1980s, with Japan’s economic clout growing and the yen appreciating against the US dollar on the one hand, and its military power deterred by its post war Constitution from developing in proportion with its economic and technological muscle on the other, Japan perforce had to rely heavily on the US for national defense and security.  Indeed, Japan became the largest donor country in the world in 1989, providing aid to altogether 181 countries globally and with its ambitions to secure a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, eventually it began to use aid as a diplomatic tool to support US interest as well as its own.  According to U and Sir, “. . .this is well-known and understandable and it naturally is a little difficult for Japan to overtly support Myanmar fully.”


Thus when SLORC assumed power on 18 September 1988, according to Brother, Japan, obviously influenced by the US, announced the suspension of aid flows on the 19th of September through February 1989.  Nevertheless, it promised to continue its assistance in ongoing projects on a case-by-case basis - a point obviously not missed by Myanmar from comments made on the point by many retired government members.  The bottom line from the overall consensus of my key respondents is that “the relationship with Japan is positive and the prognosis is good.”


ASEAN “Non-Interference” – an Exception

I put this question to the group of respondents: “What is Myanmar’s feeling about ASEAN and some member states’ push for a further and quicker integration into the mode of liberalization?”  The response from Brother was that there appeared to have been “a precedent in the setting aside of the ASEAN principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.”  Brother mentioned the case of Cambodia.  It is claimed that ASEAN supported the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) in 1983 as well as that of the Paris Accords.  That when, in 1997, intra-factional conflict arose within Cambodia, ASEAN with the consent of Cambodia dispatched a troika of ASEAN Foreign Ministers to mediate between the contending parties to ensure domestic stability.  This included the holding of free and fair elections and the establishment of the Senate.  What is missed according to Cousin is that, “these arrangements were set as a precondition for the admission of Cambodia into ASEAN and it was in compliance with this condition that saw its admission into ASEAN some two years later, in 1999.”  Thus this was roundly rebutted.


As for Myanmar, while there is a claim that the policy of “constructive engagement” was a condition attached in the run up to Myanmar’s admission to ASEAN in 1997, my discussions with Myanmar’s governing elites revealed that there was no such precondition at all.  Indeed, Myanmar according to Sir and U, joined ASEAN because as far as they were aware, Myanmar saw the “ASEAN Way” useful or pragmatic, because the modus is rather like an association of fishermen where rules, regulations are taken consciously and voluntarily in a familial way by all participants adjusting interests if need be or as Toennies or Weber calls it, “gesellschaft / verein” and not as a “community” as in a sports club or university where participants have to submit to rules and regulations and the motivation is traditional or affective gemeinschaft / anstalt.17  To Sir and most of my key respondents, when I asked, they begged the question with, “You have seen our action and conduct, which is the model you think we adopt?  Let us give you a hint.  Look at our concept and proposal along with Zhou and Nehru in 1954: the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.”


Thus, it seems that the general sentiment of Myanmar’s governing elites who were privy to the goings on in this matter is that “constructive engagement” is a construct imposed after Myanmar’s admission to the ASEAN community of nations.  It emanates, not from some ASEAN member states per se, but from pressure arising on them from the US and the EU to force upon Myanmar, compliance with some foreign state government leaders’ very pro-western ideology of “democracy and human rights.”  The sense I gathered is that if Myanmar’s attitude is considered a “deviation,” such “transgressions” occur practically in all ASEAN member states with one important difference, that is, as Brother explained, that in most of the older “developed’ Asean–Six States, there has not been within it a western pro-democracy iconic nominee, pivotal to the continued march and progress of democracy a là the West.


Admittedly, as Brother observed, the other States do not seem to be so easily bulldozed into “submission/ compliance” by virtue of their relatively high level of economic development (some brought about during the period the US was more tied up with the Cold War and other similar pressing issues) and strict political control complete with an Internal Security Act (ISA) to ensure no misdemeanor occurs against the State.  Myanmar, in contrast, is economically weak and the political structure is in some “disarray” having to contend with,  in the words of Brother, “secessionists bankrolled by the some foreign powers wishing the change of the Myanmar Government and many other problems such as the drug scourge, which was started, propagated and perpetuated till recent years by foreign forces, the ethnic Minorities problem, and basic infrastructural development and all the rest of the problems of a developing state in transition.”  Cousin interjected, “Time is needed to get out of the trauma and tragedy of our past colonialism but with the shift in the centre of gravity economically and otherwise from the Atlantic to the Pacific, assuming there is no external interference, we will transit along the lines of our more successful regional Brothers.”


Brother’s recollection of Myanmar’s joining of ASEAN was that it promised a grouping wherein all ASEAN states “could empathize with each other by virtue of their common historical and political development, common oriental culture and sensitivities and that by integration under one umbrella, there would be one strong body economically and politically, on the basis that the whole is larger than the sum of its parts, so that outside parties could not so easily cow any state.”  The apprehension among Myanmar government members is that, particularly at this late stage when some ASEAN members have grown from strength to strength, there is a tendency to “flip flop,” in the words of Brother as was done during the second half of the 1990s or the early 2000s “from ‘constructive engagement’ to ‘constructive involvement’ (Anwar Ibrahim, 1997) to ‘constructive intervention’ (Surin Pitsuwan, July 1998) to ‘flexible engagement’ (Thai Foreign Ministry amendment to Pitsuwan) to ‘enhanced interaction’ (following the rejection of the Thai proposal in July 1998 and as was elaborated by Ali Alatas of Indonesia).  This vacillation will only demonstrate the lack of resolve on ASEAN’s part and would allow the opportunity for ‘outsiders’ to drive a wedge within ASEAN.”  According to Sir, “ASEAN with its original aims intact must gel together as quickly as possible.”


The foregoing proposals are purely indulgence in academic semantics with a “nasty twist,” according to Sir, U and Brother, talking on this subject on various occasions.  Sir mentioned on one occasion that “the problem is one of real life without indulging in the ‘holier than thou’ mode.  All ASEAN state members have traversed pretty close to exactly and precisely the same pathway, which has been responsible for them doing in 50 years what the ‘holier than thou’ western states, took some 200-300 years to achieve.  It is incumbent on all ASEAN states to be cognizant of this and to allow Myanmar to develop at its own pace unless some party or other is prepared to underwrite the risks, should too rapid movement into liberalism and democracy fail.”  Sir rhetorically asked, “Who will bell the cat, that is, be the first to underwrite the risks?”














Prognosis for intending “Predators” – Quo Vadis, Myanmar?

Any pressure on Myanmar to change politically based on loss of membership of regional groupings such as ASEAN is a misguided move because history has shown that for a quarter of a century, with agricultural produce, some gem stones and some other natural resources as main economic propellants, it kept going and, in the autarkic and autocratic mode at that.


After 1988, with its new “Prague Spring” and breath of fresh air as well as the exposure to and the implementation of the more modern systems of economics, politics and regional if not international relations, the outlook has changed somewhat.  With the economy fuelled by foreign direct investments and a far wider range of export products, in particular that of energy – that is, gas - the general feeling seems to be that, “just fulfilling the regional countries’ (i.e., immediate neighbor’s) needs will keep us going in a symbiotic way for a long time more to come,” according to Brother.  And having tasted, in the better part of 20 years now, some of the fruits of development and modernity, it is highly improbable that Myanmar will lapse into self-imposed isolation and/or autarky and go into a retrograde mode again.  Myanmar today is more exposed to modernity and its systems then over the earlier period up to 1988.  Or, at least it is getting more “amenable” to employing foreign systems and methods of doing things.


While it is true that no state can stand on its own and live in isolation, it is equally difficult for any state to impose its will on another and keep it isolated for any length of time.  The US has ascertained this with Vietnam and the Russians with Afghanistan. The east Europeans, like the former East Germany will confirm the problems of full or limited “isolations” – the value or imprudence of circumscribing a state or country’s movements. There should be no illusion by any developed state trying to impose its will on a Third World state nor is it wise for any state to apply  cordon sanitaire” on its own volition in today’s global village.  However, in the case of Myanmar, it appears to me that national pride and ethnocentricity coupled with the historical baggage of past colonial experience, force government members to take the view that when political push goes to shove, the government’s reaction would be drastic; this could, inter alia, involve a pull back or retraction into “its” safe cocoon”.  Brother maintains rather pragmatically or existentially that “it has been said that Myanmar has been kept at the bottom of the barrel for so long that there is only one way left for us to go and that is, up.  Any intending oppressor ought to have the wisdom to realise this.”


Myanmar, it seems, from my experience and information gathered, is ready to face all and any eventuality and will continue to keep its independence, politically and economically, at all and any costs, in the tradition of the well-enunciated “Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence.”  The positive aspect I reckon is that this is not the case of defiance but rather one of the result consequences of its unpleasant past experience, which it will not see repeated – a very clear sentiment from nearly all government members I spoke to.


From this point of view, it appears that Myanmar draws inspiration from many states in the same straits such as Cuba, North Korea and above all China.  Brother’s perception is that China was likewise in slumber for many years but by its slow and systematic appraisal of local conditions it affected a gradualist policy of change and flourished yet again, and Deng’s “Southern Visits” to Southeast Asia in the late eighties and again to southern coastal China in the early 1990s signaled this “transformation.” “So, too, it may be expected this would occur with Myanmar with its ASEAN exposure,” U added.


In the context, those international First World states that are egging Myanmar to practise the ways of the First World of human rights, labour relations, environmental protection and the like and of  pointing accusatory fingers at Myanmar breaching such fundamental good practices, if at all such “malpractices” are indeed in place, are being unrealistic, in the view of Government officials from Ministries such as Planning, Trade, Finance, Information, Forestry, Transport, Social Welfare and Resettlement, Education, Hotel and Tourism.  These accusations on breaches are incorrect though they have persisted especially in Myanmar’s recent history according to my respondents. As Brother explained to me, “Myanmar’s priorities are to get the fundamentals which have put the Country in the rut for the past few decades in order first, before refinements of the Aristotelian eudemonia and full political liberalisation and all the ideals of the First World (even if we have indeed breached any,) can be put in place.”  Sir added to this statement by saying, “Man and the environment must be put right in the first place, before the rights of man can be put in place because if a man is wrong, there is no need for rights.”  Hence, the “ASEAN Way” appreciates that the congregation of states is an “Association” of like-minded people, that is, a more informal gathering of brotherhood rather than that of a formal club membership affair and this was the consideration it seems under which Myanmar entered ASEAN.  Naturally, it is conceivable that with the appropriate exposure and confidence building measures (CBMs) put in place by ASEAN member-states, Myanmar’s attitude to the outside world would change.


The Way Forward …

The US seems determined on bringing about change in Myanmar by a change in the leadership in governance, whereas what is needed in my view is a change in the ways of the leadership, which is infinitely easier to accommodate and achieve rather than trying to seek an alternative leadership by riding on the back of “a toothless tiger” – ASSK. and the NLD.  The Military Junta cannot imagine a quick change happening, if nothing else owing to “practical reasons, and certainly not before the new Constitution is affirmed,” according to Sir.  Indeed, even if the US considers the current Junta to be a “repressive military dictatorship,” considering that the “US has ample experience in dealing with and indeed even in promoting dictatorships, all over the world,” Brother interrupted, “it would be easier for them to follow the Junta’s pathway if any “volte face” on the part of the Junta is to be expected,” he added.


Why is it that, the US, in the last 25 years or so, in spite of having worked together with the Government on the attempted eradication of the narcotics problem in the past, has not been able to get close to the power centre?  Perhaps, a review of their modus operandi would be in order.  Any delay in re-evaluating the relationship and in utilizing a new modus vivendi will only make it more difficult to reconcile with the Junta.  In my view, this would lead the Government to “ossify” against any such push and this will cause its well practised gerrymandering methods – gentle, nice but circuitous – to be reinstated whence one simply will find it extremely difficult to nail them down.


Within the State, infrastructural development is obvious to the populace especially in terms of agriculture, transport, communications and other forms of public utilities.  On the economic front, which though currently not quite up to scratch nor as good as the populace would like, it is nevertheless infinitely better than the pre-1988 period of experimentation in autarky.  Those who have visited Myanmar over the period will no doubt attest to the fact that there have been improvements.  In plain simple and unburnished terms, as a senior sayadaw (monk) I spoke to in the Mandalay area in 1998 put it, “For more than thirty years I have no electricity or good drinking water.  Also the road (is) no good; now got light, television, water and also good road.”


Already, the Myanmar government has put in place the first steps towards a market economy after taking over in 1988 and there was decided growth in the economy right up to the end of 1996 and into 1997 when the Asian financial crisis and trade sanctions were applied by the US to the detriment of the US-Myanmar relationship, concomitant with the enhancement of the China-Myanmar association.


Moreover, the Junta has over the years allowed more space for local as well as international NGOs and given that the internal political structure is not interfered with, there appears to be hope for infinitely more “space” to be allowed provided such “NGOs keep strictly to their declared terms of reference, failing which they will be shut down,” in Sir’s words.  I am practically certain of this as this sentiment has been expressed more than once by my key respondents at various times.  Additionally, what must not be overlooked is that the military Junta, over the years has also been continuously building up its own grass roots (political) organization, the USDA, which by now has a membership of over twenty million.  What then are the chances of any foreign government subverting and supplanting the military government which, realizing its shortcoming in “elint” (electronic intelligence) has a very well developed “humint” (human intelligence) system so that any attempts at effecting change without due sanctions from the “big chiefs” are nipped in the bud very quickly?


In my estimation, considering the overwhelming grip over power which the Military holds in politics, governance and economic life, change will be determined purely by the Junta.  By virtue of the preponderant control over all state organs, change will not come about by Huntington’s “Transplacement” as the Government has no need to cooperate with the Opposition, as it calls the shots and any worry of outside interference is offset by its “Monroe doctrine / cordon sanitaire, a’la Myanmarunless the so called Opposition is “accommodating” enough.  Nor will change come through Huntington’s “Transformation” as there is simply no other adequately authoritative regime / authority to contend with – all means are within the hold of the Junta.  The only most likely way quick change can come about is by Huntington’s “Replacement”, if and only if some adventurous party is prepared to foolhardily do another “Iraqi Invasion”, for which reason the grape vine has it that the Junta has “dug in” at the old Aung San “fox hole,” Nay Pyi Daw as a “Command Centre” and it seems that its defense doctrine, from the grapevine, is that the theatre of war will be the jungles and forests of which the military is very familiar, to ensure that the maximum bloody noses are delivered  to any “adventurers”  contemplating such a move, not to say that third parties may be involved.

1China Edges Out India,” Malaysia Sun, 08 September 2007.

2 China, being one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, used its veto leading to the failure

    of US to further the sanctions and penalties against Burma/Myanmar.

3 David I Steinberg, Southeast Asia Affairs 2003, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Singapore, 2003), p.209.

4 Ibid, p. 209


5 Poon Kim Shee, Visiting Professor at College of International Relations, Ritsumeikan University, Japan, The Political Economy of China-Myanmar Relations: Strategic and Economic Dimension.






6 Noam Chomsky, “Imminent Crises: Threats and Opportunities,” Monthly Review (2007) available at

7 Immanuel C.Y. Hsǘ, The Rise of Modern China (Hongkong: Oxford University Press, 1975), p.246.  Also

   please see ANNEX (“E”) for the maps.

8 Walden Bello, Dilemmas of Domination, The Unmaking of the American Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2005), p.213.



9 Ibid, p.213.


10  Noam Chomsky, interview by Christopher Gunnes, Agenda, May 2001.

11 Noam Chomsky, “Imminent Crises: Threats and Opportunities,” Monthly Review 2007, available at



12 View by Andrew Selth of Australia, In the Alliances and the Problems of Burma/Myanmar Policy: The United States, Japan, Thailand, Australia and the European Union Conference supported by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in 2007.


13 Halliburton is a US registered firm, associated with “American big knobs”.


14 Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, The Golden Triangle, (Harper Torchbooks, 1972).

15 A term used by Dr. Walden Bello when he received his Right Livelihood Award (“The Alternative Nobel Prize) in the Parliament of  Sweden in 2003.


16 Union of Myanmar State Law and Order Restoration Council Information Committee, Press Conferences, Book Four, (1990), p.149.


17 Aron Raymond, Dqain Currents in Sociological Thought II, Anchor Books, New York, 1989, p.278/279.

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