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Burma Rebooted: Part 2 — Reformists dare to push back against Beijing

The new reformist government seeks to shift alliances.

Arm them all

As in many Southeast Asian nations, including those run by communists, Burma’s fear of Chinese power runs deep.

Many of Burma’s contemporary generals rose through the ranks fighting the China-supplied Communist Party of Burma, which controlled a vast stretch of hills through much of 20th-century’s latter half.

Even today, Burma’s most powerful armed ethnic group, the Wa, is led by ethnic Chinese who control an estimated 30,000 fighters. Rich from manufacturing most of Southeast Asia’s meth pills, the Wa maintain anti-aircraft weaponry and close ties to Chinese officials across the border.

Ironically, China has long financed Burma’s ethnic militias as well as the army battalions deployed to kill them. Between 2000 and 2008, Burma’s military soaked up more than 60 percent of China’s arms sales to Southeast Asia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. That’s roughly $164 million in assault rifles, armored vehicles and warships.

China’s interests in Burma are starkly pragmatic. It seeks stability with militants on the border, which is longer than the continental US Pacific coastline. And it wants freedom to extract timber and gems from rebel-held territories. It also seeks goodwill with generals in charge of approving billion-dollar investments that will feed its energy needs.

With few revenue sources to turn to, Burma’s rulers have been forced to tolerate China’s interference in the hills. But the idea that Burma’s reform drive is solely designed to back off China and end Western sanctions is “completely off base,” Thant Myint-U said.

Burma’s ruling class appears to enjoy Chinese money just fine. But they would prefer to make China compete more with investors from India, Russia, rising Asian economies and the off-limits West.

“That the old system was unsustainable was plain to see,” Thant Myint-U said. “It’s hardly surprising that some at the top understood the need for real reform.”

An uncertain future

Burma’s rulers have a long way to go in satisfying the West.

The White House takes its cues from Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate whose 1990 election to the prime minister’s seat was voided by the military. Considered Burma’s rightful leader, she has helped dictate the West’s demands: release all political prisoners, end authoritarian laws and offer the people a greater say in Burma’s future.

Would these reforms kickstart a Burma renaissance? The end of US sanctions could bring Starbucks and KFC franchises to Burma’s decaying cities. It could give British Petroleum and Exxon Mobil a shot at its gas reserves. But there is still no guarantee that a freer Burma would bring great prosperity to the masses.

“There could be more media freedom, much more greater economic growth, perhaps even another round of elections that are freer and fairer,” Thant Myint-U said.

“But at the same time, there could be more corruption, cronyism, criminality,” he added. “We could see the end of dictatorship but also a return to the sort of gangster politics we had back in the 1950s, with the army hovering in the background.”

In other words, Thant Myint-U said, “Burma could become a lot like many other countries in the region.”