A BURMESE PERSPECTIVE: An Analysis of President Obama's Speech in the New Cold War

By Kanbawza Win | 26 November 2011

The rise of China in every respect in today’s geopolitical situation has created a new bipolar world compounded by the fact that in 2000 years China, for the first time has access to the Indian via Burma due to the Burmese Junta’s survival tactics, seems that Burma will be one of the hot spots in the new impending Cold War. Admittedly neither China nor US has any real desire for a ‘New Cold War’ to start, but deep suspicion and an unwillingness to break the mould of relations are leading to the emergence of these increasingly robust hedges and weakening of moderate forces on both sides. Until now, neither the US nor China has been fully prepared to face up to the underlying divisions because they imply some difficult choices. The corporate and economics still sees China as a major new commercial opportunity, while still far short of the power to represent any sort of a challenge to the world order.

There seems to be some major conflict drivers such as (1) Taiwan, (2) Energy, disagreement over the future of the Asia Pacific, in which Burma is placed in the cross road because of the main middle east oil pipeline will be dumped in Arakan (West coast of Burma) and be piped to central China. (3)Trade relations on whom a substantial degree of accord would drastically mitigate and possibly eliminate the risk of conflict and the currency exchange rate that seriously affect trade. But there is another important aspect of deep-rooted factors, sited more unequivocally at the level of ‘ideas and identity’ which make it improbable that any grand bargain over these conflict drivers – or preparedness to let economic forces gradually transform the context – is really feasible, as they touch on underlying attitudes towards the global role that each side should assume; regime threats and ideological conflict; fundamental trust in the other side’s intentions; and basic understanding of what major shifts in the global and regional balance of power imply for policy.

China, meanwhile, is inclined to see, US democratization efforts in the rest of the world as part of a hegemonic strategy and calls on China to press ahead with political reforms as manipulative attempts to destabilize the country. On the other hand China is showing increasing willingness to lend support to authoritarian regimes throughout the world, particularly Burma. Hence there is the danger for the US, is that, it may engender a situation where China, not only throws up the defenses internally but is making serious efforts to stem the global democratic tide. For China, the danger is that, if it cannot tell a story that it is moving forward politically, and pursues a path of providing ostentatious support to corrupt and dictatorial regimes like Burma, it risks tainting its own political system by association, weakening the hand of international supporters who are keen to point to signs of progress, and harden an across-the-board resistance to China’s role in the world. This is an ideological dividing line that could become ever more sharply defined and is likely to be the defining feature of a new Cold War if a stable consensus cannot be reached.

President Obama in his speech at the Bali summit on Nov.18th said. “I’ve underscored America's commitment to the future of human rights in the region. Today I'm announcing an important step forward in our efforts to move forward on both these fronts.” this clearly depicts not only the American values but also of the civilized community, when the word Burma was used instead of Myanmar indicating that dictators cannot change the name of the country according to their whims and fancies without the consensus of the people.

But will the quasi civilian Burmese administration (အေရၿခံဳအရပ္သားအစုိးရ) admit its denial of human rights, the persecution of democratic reformers and the brutalities against the ethnic nationalities? Even now the puppet President Thein Sein is uttering that there is no political prisoners in Burma, when indeed the international community and the people of Burma already know that there are over 1,700 prisoners of conscience. This explicitly proves that the Thein Sein administration just like the previous Junta is bent on its age old trick of “Lying the very concept of truth.” What more proof is wanted than to hoodwink the US and the world to categories these political prisoners including political activist and the Buddhist monks as criminals? And yet a de facto Diaspora leader and leading opposition figures who had visited him dared to describe Thein Sein as sincere, tan amounting to mockery, if not a laughing stock of the world.

Although the current Burmese administration has recently made some tentative political and economic reforms, there has been no change in their collective attitude of the country's leaders toward the decades-old ethnic issues and is no different from that of the several military backed regimes. Separate peace talks with the different ethnic armed groups are a divide-and-rule strategy to sow discord among the respective ethnic leaders. What little democratic space has been opened is confined only to DawAung San Suu Kyi and her party in order to get recognition from the international community and of lifting of sanctions. Hence even though democracy prevails, but there will be no peace and development in the country because there is no sincerity from the government.

President Obama said that “We remain concerned about Burma’s closed political system, its treatment of minorities and holding of political prisoners” What sort of political system is still to be spelled out with a fake, dubious constitution and a sham election? The regime treatment of the ethnic nationalities makes it crystal clear that this quasi military administration has refused to recognise the Union of the country (authentic proof is not respecting the Panglong Concordat 1947) but rather is bent on Myarmarnization of the ethnic nationalities and is waging an all out war against the Kachin nationalities in the north?

The US strategists and policymakers will have to understand that all major ethnic nationalities fight against the central government in one way or another up to this day. The ethnic Karens have been fighting against the Burmese government since 1949, why? What is the rationale of taking up arms against the central government is a fundamental question that needs to be addressed for Burma to achieve peace and stability, as even now there is no ceasefire agreement between the KNU and Thein Sein Administration in spite of the informal talks. It must be remembered that Gen Aung San the architect of the Union of Burma was fully aware that a unified Burma could not be established if equality was not guaranteed for all ethnic nationalities, which were ruled under different administrative units by the British colonial administration. He solved this problem when he said “If Burma receives one kyat, Shan will also get one kyat.” and the end result was the Panglong Concordat the basis on which the Union of Burma was formed in February 1947. The quasi government has not recognized this and this is an unmistakeable proof that the current administration is insincere.

Action speaks louder than words when it demonstrated that it is still bent of ethnic cleansing with the threat of genocide to the ethnic nationalities with chemical if not nuclear weapons. So from this hypothesis, the most basic question could be asked. Is it reconciliation between the Myanmar dictatorial regimes with the Myanmar prodemocracy forces head by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi only? Why it does not include the non Myanmar (ethnic nationalities) when the struggle of Burma is both for democratic reforms and ethnic nationalities rights? One has to remember that a coin contains both head and tail as one cannot be distinguished from the other. Every country in the world has its own ethnic communities living peacefully but why the Burmese regimes are bent of ethnic cleansing? Democratic and ethnic rights must be approach simultaneously. Although individual ethnic organizations can organize informal and preliminary meetings with representatives of the Burmese regime, the political solutions will have to be discussed and sought through collective effort and representation of the ethnic nationalities, including the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). In other words it must be what the lady (Daw Aung San Suu Kyi) proposed the second Panglong Conference.

Hillary illaryClinton will be getting a pop star treatment, in visiting Burma for the first time, will not shy about raising these issues even though the longyi (Burmese sarong) wearing ex brass will not like to hear about such as the release of remaining political prisoners, the end of hostilities toward ethnic nationalities and deepening of the country's democratization process, North Korea connections etc. But one should recollect the visit of Madeleine Albright in Nov 1995 who goes back empty handed. Obviously we have some doubts whether she can achieve anything substantial in her two days trip because this puppet quasi civilian government cannot get rid the mindset of the Junta being themselves part and parcel of the system. It should also be remembered that since 1988, many political prisoners have been released in occasional amnesties, only to be locked up again when the political climate shifted. Will this window dressing be repeated with the end of Clinton visit is just another open question?

President Obama's description of, “We've seen flickers of progress in these last several weeks,” hits the nail on the head for a flicker of progress is not enough to suggest that the country is on the road to major and sustained political reforms. But at the same time in this new Cold War the US has strategic and national interests in Burma in undeniable besides the issues of democracy and human rights. Clinton will want to talk about drugs with so many narco related companies in Rangoon, the country’s shady relations with North Korea (of making nuclear weapons not to use against the US or other powers but ostensibly to use against the strong major ethnic groups like Wa, Kachin and the likes) and the non-proliferation issue including China's growing influence and how to counter with the help of the United States.

To repeat President Obama’s words “However, we have always had a profound respect for the people of Burma, and the promise of their country—a country with a rich history, at the crossroads of East and West; a people with a quiet dignity and extraordinary potential. For many years, both the promise and the persecution of the Burmese people have been symbolized by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. As the daughter of Burma’s founding father, and a fierce advocate for her fellow citizens, she's endured prison and house arrest, just as so many Burmese have endured repression... Last night, I spoke to Aung San Suu Kyi, directly, and confirmed that she supports American engagement to move this process forward.”So a clear message that more substantial reforms must be followed for people of Burma, whose hopes are now higher than they have been at any time in recent decades. But the regime’s sincerity is still far from the standard as seen by their actions and even though they want to repair the country's relationship with the US and normalize diplomatic ties should not happen anytime soon.

The Secretary of State is going there in person to encourage towards change in a positive direction and the US is ready to forge new era in US Burma relations which acknowledge that positive changes that are underway. President Obama said, “For decades, Americans have been deeply concerned about the denial of basic human rights for the Burmese people. The persecution of democratic reformers, the brutality shown towards ethnic minorities, and the concentration of power in the hands of a few military leaders has challenged our conscience, and isolated Burma from the United States and much of the world” proves that there genuine interest in helping to improve the lives of people of the country in concrete ways. While it is too early to embark on the change of the mindset of the Generals, we believe that it is important to seize a political opening in the reclusive country as the Generals crave for legitimacy and recognition and Clinton’s visit will lend a helping hand to it. But she should also emphasis that the ex generals must at once stop the war against the ethnic nationalities and particularly humanitarianism and must not construe it as undermining the government’s task. It must open the door for international relief organizations to assess the situation of IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) especially ethnic nationalities in the conflict zones.

China handling of Spratly Island crisis hade scared the ASEAN countries out of their wits and that is one of the main reasons of why they brought in the US especially in the Bali summit where the two superpowers glared at each other. Burma seems to be the only stumbling bloc vis a vis China and now with the awarding of the chairperson of ASEAN in 2014, the ASEAN used its triumph card to prove to the world that ASEAN Chairperson is the highest stage of Constructive Engagement and will be happy to continue to exploits Burma’s natural and human resources, the whole of Southeast Asia, the most densely populated part of the globe will be on the side of America and the West against the ever growing Chinese.

Everybody agreed that the goal of the visit is going to continue the momentum toward greater respect for human rights, greater movement on political reform in Burma, and also, critically, greater respect for ethnic nationalities in the context of national reconciliation. But until and unless the Generals mindset change, there can be no progress. Contemporary history has proved that these sordid Generals understand punitive actions and so Sanctions must continue to remain. Another simple logic is if they themselves have put several domestic sanctions on the people of Burma why show the US lift its sanctions.

The hush agenda of the ex generals being on the wrongs side of the 70s or 80s, crave to have their ill gotten wealth to be put in the Western Banks (particularly Swiss banks) as they could not trust China/ Only then they would be in a position to pass it to their off springs. Here Sanctions become a stumbling block. Of course we welcome Hillary Clinton’s visit and understand that it is in the interest of the US and the world to keep the Chinese power and influence in check in the impending New Cold War but at the same time the US should continue to set benchmarks for normalizing relations with the Burmese government as they seem to understand only punitive actions like sanctions and de-recognition to drive them to the reasoning table.

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