[Marxism] Don't blame China for Myanmar

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Mon Oct 8 20:57:45 MDT 2007

(I did not know much about Myanmar or Burma before the current
round of protests began beyond that a military dictatorship is
in place there and has been for fifty years. I had no idea why
it is or how it rules. But when our Commander-in-Chief spoke 
up, my initial response was to ask what it was that motivated
George W. Bush to speak out with such enthusiastic ferocity? 
I've still not got it figured out, but this makes good sense.)

>From the Los Angeles Times
Don't blame China for Myanmar
Neither China nor any other nation has much sway over the ruling junta.
By Kerry Howley

October 6, 2007

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

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.


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

Editor-in-Chief, CubaNews
writer - photographer - activist

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