Commentary: Burma wakes up

The Arab Spring may be foundering in the Middle East as democracy struggles to take root from Tunisia to Syria to Iraq, but in Southeast Asia, a new democratic Spring has just been born.

Burma, one of the most repressive countries on earth, has morphed into some kind of weak democracy phase with Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi released from house arrest and allowed to meet with the international media and diplomats for the first time in 20 years.

President Obama has spoken with her by phone while jetting from Australia to Indonesia this week for the annual conference of ASEAN — the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — one of the core anticommunist blocs in the world.

ASEAN can take a lot of credit, not only for the emergence of Burma as a reforming repressive state — but for the greater prosperity and peace that has unfolded in the wake of the Vietnam War catastrophe in Southeast Asia.

Remember the domino theory? Vietnam War hawks used to say that if Saigon fell the rest of Asia would follow. But when not only South Vietnam fell but also Cambodia and Laos, the red wave seemed to crash against the Thai border and fade away.

As correspondents living in Bangkok during the post Vietnam War period, we used to joke that the Vietnamese army could never make it into Bangkok to take power because it would never get through traffic — gridlocked daily by the booming, non-communist economy.

Under America’s significant military umbrella, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and other ASEAN nations exploded economically into Tigers and Tiger cubs. Meanwhile, communist rulers in Indo-China enjoyed a Pyrrhic victory, drinking bitter tea without sugar and presiding over the wholesale economic ruin of their peoples.

When we first got visas to post-war Vietnam and Cambodia, the people I met were skin and bones, the shops were empty and the whole region bore a neglected, threadbare, austere gloom that contrasted vividly with the bustling, rowdy boom in the ASEAN zone.

In fact, it was only when the first street markets were allowed in 1988 that Vietnamese could buy fluffy warm pajamas for their infants, powdered milk for formula and toothpaste — all smuggled in from Thailand and Singapore.

Burma, also called Myanmar, remained the odd man out in the region, even after it was admitted to ASEAN when it pledged to treat its people properly.

Aung San Suu Kyi was still not allowed to take the leadership her National League for Democracy won in 1990 elections. She was not allowed to visit her British husband who died of cancer in Britain. All dissent was forbidden. The well-fed Burmese military continued to dole out fertilizer, consumer goods and other perks to those it favored. It proved its loyalty by shooting protesters in 1988 and in crushing a slew of ethnic and pro-democracy movements.

What is causing the Burmese leadership to change its tune? The same fear that haunts leaders from Washington to Berlin to Jakarta — fear of China.

Burma’s junta had long played the China card, reasoning that if they could not get invited to lunch at the UN or in London and Bangkok, they would cozy up to China, which showed no scruples at all in shaking the bloody hands of Burma’s leaders.

But the Chinese connection had consequences. China pillaged the teak and other high value forests that the Thai military logging firms had not been able to reach. Chinese firms flooded markets with their goods, driving local businesses out of the market.

It was aggressive Chinese maneuvering to win permission to build a huge dam on the virgin Irrawaddy River — to produce electric power for China — that had set off alarm bells. Burma was becoming a resource colony of China. Opposition to the dam which would displace may people and possibly damage the environment, became enormous, leading Burma to cancel the dam a few weeks ago.

The new Burmese defense leader also decided not to make his first trip abroad to China but instead go to Vietnam, which remains embroiled in a vicious dispute over China’s claim to petroleum rights in the South China Sea — including areas hundreds of miles away from Chinese soil.

At the ASEAN conference, Obama’s presence and his pledge that America is a Pacific Rim nation and is here to stay in Asia was welcomed with a sigh of relief, not just by Vietnam but five other nations claiming parts of the South China Sea — especially the Philippines, which wants America to return its military umbrella — shredded more than a decade ago when Manila threw the U.S. navy and air force out of Clark and Subic bases.

There are many doubts about where the Burmese leadership will take its people. Some say that it wants to become another China, a one party state with strict ban on free speech and politics but allowing rampant crony capitalism to create a tiny oligarchy, small middle class and mass of poor peasants.

If there is one barometer of what the intention is it will be to see if the 70 percent of Burma living off the land get to buy unlimited amounts of fertilizer at world market prices and if the government will lift requirements that rice and other harvests be sold to the government at discount prices. Burma was a major rice exporter during British colonial control and would be a lifesaver to a hungry world facing food shortages.

Finally, the pull back from the Chinese embrace may reflect a deeper, older and more deadly theme running through Burmese history. Millions of people in Burma quietly supported the brutal military during its half century of dominance because they are ethnic Burmans, living in the heartland and afraid of the non-Burman ethnic groups on the periphery: the Christian Karens, the Mon, the Kachin, The Shan, the Wa, the Arakan, and others. These groups have spawned insurrections since independence in 1948 and hundreds of thousands of people remain internally displaced or in refugee camps in Thailand. These people have been raped, murdered and forced to haul army supplies through jungles and on mined trails. Their villages burned without mercy.

Burma needs to make these people whole again. And to show that ethnic Burman nationalism is not simply pivoting away from the Chinese threat.

Reconciliation must be part of the opening process that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must bring up when she makes a historic visit to Rangoon in a few weeks.

We must never forget that in 1988, when tens of thousands of students and other Burmese people seeking democracy marched in front of the U.S. embassy in Rangoon, our diplomats watched from the windows in mute horror as Burmese armored cars unleashed a stream of bullets that killed an estimated 3,000 people.

It is long past due for the United States to fulfill the promise we had made back then to support Burma’s democracy.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at benbarber2@hotmail.com.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.