A first lady’s diplomatic mission

Laura Bush's crusade against Burma's ruling junta only helps to push it closer to China

by Brahma Chellaney

A natural calamity is usually an occasion to set aside political differences and show compassion. But Burma, ruled by ultranationalistic but rapacious military elites distrustful of the sanctions-enforcing West, came under mounting international pressure to open up its cyclone-wracked areas to foreign aid workers and supplies or face an armed humanitarian intervention.

Such threats helped lay the framework for an ASEAN-led aid operation, a middle option that ended an impasse over the Burmese regime’s refusal to allow the entry of foreign relief teams other than from the neighboring states it considers friendly, including India, China, Southeast Asian nations and Japan.

The politics of international assistance, however, has obscured the role of a key actor whose growing activism in recent years has helped turn up the heat on the Burmese generals.

No sooner had Cyclone Nargis, packing winds up to 190 km per hour, devastated Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta than U.S. President George W. Bush’s wife, Laura Bush, stepped out in public to toss insults at that isolated country’s military rulers. In an unprecedented spectacle, the first lady showed up at the White House briefing room — normally the preserve of the president and secretary of state — and held forth on foreign policy, blaming the Burmese junta for the high death toll.

In a prepared statement that she read out on May 5 before taking questions from reporters, she thanked “the European Union, Canada and Australia for joining the United States in imposing” sanctions, and went on to “appeal to China, India and Burma’s fellow ASEAN members to use their influence to encourage a democratic transition.”

Last December, Laura Bush caught New Delhi by surprise by announcing that “India, one of Burma’s closest trading partners, has stopped selling arms to the junta.” To date, New Delhi has made no such announcement.

With China serving as a reliable weapon supplier for the past two decades and access to arms also available via Singapore and Russia, the junta has little need for India’s low-grade, mostly secondhand, arms. But New Delhi has dared not say a word in contradiction. Who can refute a first lady whose fury on Burma flows from a moral and religious calling?

It is easy to play the morality game against Burma, ranked as one of the world’s critically weak states.

Slapping Burma with new sanctions every so often has become such a favorite Bush pastime that just one day before the cyclone struck, the president announced yet another round of punitive actions. But no one in the world has suggested any penal measure, however mild, against China for its continuing brutal repression in Tibet because sanctions would bring job losses and other economic pain to the West.

In fact, egged on by his wife, Bush has signed more executive orders in the past five years to penalize Burma than any other country.

Laura Bush’s crusade against the Burmese military, which sees itself as the upholder of a predominantly Buddhist Burma’s unity and cultural identity, has been inspired by information from some of the Christian churches that have sizable ethnic-minority adherents in that country and by a meeting she reputedly had with a Christian Karen rape victim. By contrast, she and her husband have had little problem with the military’s intervention in politics in Burma’s neighbors Bangladesh and Thailand.

Although the Burmese military seized power in 1962, the first substantive U.S. sanctions did not come until 1997, when a ban on further American investments to “develop Burma’s resources” was reluctantly clamped by President Bill Clinton. But it was only under Bush that Burma emerged as a major target of U.S. sanctions.

Escalating sanctions have compelled a country whose nationalism has traditionally bordered on xenophobia to increasingly rely on China, even as its rulers still suspect Chinese intentions. Today, Burma finds itself trapped between U.S.-led sanctions and growing Chinese leverage over its affairs.

But with the devil close on its heels, Burma has moved toward the deep blue sea of Chinese “benevolence.”

For a resource-hungry China, Burma has proven such a treasure trove that some northern Burmese provinces today stand stripped of their high-quality tropical hardwoods and precious gemstones. Beijing also has used Burma as a dumping ground for cheap Chinese products, besides running large trade surpluses with that impoverished country.

Aided by Western disengagement from Burma, Chinese entrepreneurs, traders, money lenders, craftsmen and others have flocked to that country, now home to between 1 to 2 million Chinese economic migrants. With their higher living standards setting them apart from the natives, these migrants constitute Burma’s new economic class.

While unintentionally aiding Chinese interests, the U.S.-led penal campaign has cost New Delhi dear, reflected in China’s setting up of listening posts and other moves in Burma that open a security flank against India. In the Bush years, India has been losing out even on commercial contracts.

By treating Burma as a pawn in a larger geopolitical game and seeking to drag it before the U.N. Security Council, the White House only increases the junta’s need for political protection from a veto-armed China, with the consequent Burmese imperative to reward Beijing for such defense.

One reward to China for stepping in twice last year to shield Burma in the Security Council has been a 30-year contract to take gas by pipeline from two offshore fields owned by an Indo-Korean consortium. The junta first withdrew the status of India’s GAIL company as the “preferential buyer” of gas from the A-1 and A-3 blocks in the Bay of Bengal and then signed a production-sharing contract with China’s state-run CNPC firm.

The U.S. penal measures and moves have not only forced Burma to shift from its traditional policy of nonalignment to alignment, but also driven U.S. policy to become dependent on Beijing for any movement on Burma.

This is apparent both from the way the U.S. has pleaded with China this month to use all its influence to press the junta to open up the cyclone-battered areas to outside relief efforts, and from the secret mid-2007 U.S. meeting with Burmese ministers that was held at America’s initiative in Beijing.

The Beijing meeting, held without prior U.S. consultations with Japan, India and ASEAN states, came six months after China had torpedoed a Security Council draft resolution tabled by the U.S. and Britain that called on the Burmese regime to halt military attacks on ethnic minorities, release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and begin a democratic transition. By taking China’s help to set up a meeting between its deputy assistant secretary of state and senior Burmese government representatives, the U.S. only helped validate Beijing’s rationale for maintaining close contact with the junta.

As with North Korea, Bush is blithely outsourcing to China parts of the U.S. policy on Burma. But on Burma, U.S. policy is also weighed down by Laura Bush’s missionary zeal.

Far from improving human rights in Burma, the blinkered activism has helped strengthen the military’s political grip. Threats of a humanitarian invasion of Burma indeed reek of desperation, suggesting a callous willingness to employ food aid in a disaster situation to try and effect political change.

Today, an unelected, unaccountable woman holds U.S. policy hostage to paradoxically promote free elections and public accountability in Burma. And the twice-elected, twice born-again Christian Bush attests to being under his wife’s sway through the “Laura and I” reference in his latest Burma-sanctions announcement. As the Bible says, “There is none so blind as he who will not see.”

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of the best-selling “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”