Finessing the dramatic opening to Myanmar

by Tom Plate

Perhaps a democratic system of government will not prove the final answer for Myanmar. Just take a look at the Philippines if you’re crazy about another possible “for sale” democracy in Asia. But considering what the good people of what used to be called Burma have had to endure — an intellectually decrepit military and economic dictatorship — you have to admit: It’s time to try something else.

Certainly there is no reason for this expansive and verdant land to remain bogged down in the miasma of a Third World economy. Yes, it has had abysmal governance. But that can be changed. It has so much else going for it.

Now it has something else of value: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s belief that the regime’s recent loosening is a good first step in the inevitable direction of reform — and not a cruel feint to fake people into believing no further reform is required.

So for starters, the U.S. is restoring full diplomatic ties to the new civilian government, which has announced the release of some long-held political prisoners. This will encourage others to help, including international aid agencies. And lead to the day — one hopes — when all sanctions put up against the prior regime will be lifted.

It is difficult to believe that the Obama administration, led by Clinton, would have softened its policy course without the pressure of two major forces — one external and the other inside the country. That latter would be “The Lady,” as she is called (and as the thoughtful movie with the excellent actress Michelle Yeo is titled).

Aung San Suu Kyi, first placed under house arrest in 1989, has quietly but firmly kept the flame alive for the hope that Myanmar would see a better day. At any time the stalwart democracy advocate could have gotten out of the imprisonment. British special forces helicopters were always gassed and at the ready to ride in. But this was a special lady — not one for turning away from her people merely for her own safety and comfort.

Her nod to the West that the next election would be reasonably open and a new day might be not too far off was enough to start the train in motion.

Suu Kyi has that kind of credibility. But the other credible factor was China’s commercial and economic inroad into Burma, which has been tremendous. This not only scares environmentalists fearing for the fate of the Earth but also the United States, fearing for the diminished size of its future role in the Asia-Pacific.

Like all nation-states, Beijing’s policies are grounded in its national political and economic interests. But China is somehow less apologetic, or less guarded about that — and more aggressive — than many nations. It takes the view, in effect, that what is good for China is good, period.

Washington does not look at things that way. It imagines that an Asia-Pacific without the hefty economic, political and military presence of the U.S. is a region in unbalanced danger. But it was difficult to counter the political impact of China’s huge investment in — and extraction of — Myanmar’s natural resource sector by standing off to the side and relying on a policy of sanctions, diplomatic finger-pointing and indeed isolation.

A quick note on U.S. policy in Asia and its relationship to China: It is not sophisticated to take the view that every Beijing move is a threat or a loss to the West. We need to be careful to calibrate our policy responses and restructured priorities so as not to create the self-fulfilling prophecy of Chinese perfidy at every turn. We have the power to make the Chinese hate us if such is what we want. Let us hope instead we have the wisdom and national self-confidence to make clear that China’s rise can help create a more stable world, not less.

The Cold War starring the old evil Soviet Union is over; we don’t need to mold China into the new tangible villain to give our foreign policy an urgent but manufactured bipolarity.

A stable prosperous Burma is a case in point. It would be in everyone’s interest to see that come about. Let us work with the Chinese every step of the way to that end. This is not utopian but pragmatic. We don’t need a cold war — and a new deficit-creating arms race — in Asia, particularly over Burma.

Besides, that would not be a fit legacy for “The Lady”. Or, for that matter, for that other very capable lady — Mrs. Clinton.

Professor Tom Plate is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University and a visiting professor at United Arab Emirates University for spring semester 2012. His “Giants of Asia” book series includes portraits of Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir Mohamad and Thaksin Shinawatra. See www.lmu.edu/asiamedia