The road to Burma may run through China

One of the most intractable issues on Washington's foreign policy agenda is figuring out how to induce Burma's harsh military junta to respect the results of its own national election.

Last month, the junta again hobbled Aung San Suu Kyi, the overwhelming victor in those elections, which led world leaders to protest against the junta. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright condemned the authorities of Burma (Myanmar) for their treatment of Suu Kyi. So did the European Union. Even Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore, long friendly with the junta, muttered quietly. Not a word was uttered, however, by China - Burma's largest and most powerful neighbor, and the only outside party capable of influencing the behavior of the so-called State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) - the junta.

China holds most of the keys to a resolution of the Burmese crisis. It supplies the Burmese military with most of its modern weapons, though smaller quantities of arms arrive from Singapore. It is Burma's major trading partner, taking and transshipping large quantities of Burma's illicit opium and heroin exports, and supplying consumer goods in return. In 1998, Burma also exported to India, Singapore, and Thailand, and imported from Singapore, Japan, Thailand, and Malaysia, but the products listed did not include narcotics and weapons, which dwarf all other commodities.

The junta funds itself through the drug trade, and by controlling or licensing smuggling or black-market commerce. In many of those ventures Chinese businessmen, or Chinese provincial officials from the bordering province of Yunnan, are closely involved as partners or facilitators.

Without access to China through Yunnan, Burma would be compelled to rely on less satisfactory trading outlets in Thailand and South and Southeast Asia, and would have many problems with its illicit exports, probably 60 or 70 percent of the real totals.

Periodically, the SPDC cracks down on Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD). The junta's ultimate aim is destruction of the party, the opposition, and Suu Kyi as a beacon of international legitimacy. That is why it prevented her in late August from visiting NLD branches outside of Rangoon, the capital. Ultimately, as last year, they forced her to retreat into her Rangoon compound, where she has since been kept except for a few days in mid-September - under a tight form of virtual house arrest. The British ambassador and the US charge d'affaires were forcibly prevented from visiting Suu Kyi.

The SPDC is one of the most oppressive regimes in the modern world. In an earlier guise, it kept Burma isolated from the world from 1962 to 1988. Then students and Buddhist monks led demonstrations against the junta, which Suu Kyi was asked to lead. Their actions were repressed, and Suu Kyi placed under house arrest. Yet the junta also permitted a national election in 1990, while Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders were detained.

The NLD won 87 percent of the parliamentary seats in that election. But the junta of the day simply refused to honor the results of the vote. It kept Suu Kyi under house arrest until 1995, and under close surveillance ever since. She won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991.

The junta wants the world to believe that Suu Kyi and the NLD have been marginalized. Its recent efforts, including the jailing of a number of senior and many junior officials of the party, have been directed at smashing the NLD. As a result, it is probably true that many Burmese have lost hope for the democracy, and many may have little faith in Suu Kyi's ability to outlast and outwit the junta.

But the military leaders who control the junta cannot gain legitimacy by intimidating would-be members and supporters of the NLD, or by harassing Suu Kyi and her colleagues. They cannot restore ruptured relations with the West or the UN. Nor can they strengthen tenuous existing relations with Thailand or their other local trading partners.

As Burma's economy continues to collapse (it is one of the world's 10 poorest countries), and as the daily experiences of ordinary Burmese farmers and merchants become more and more miserable, China's hand is much more decisive than that of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), or its individual members, like Malaysia. Whereas the West has virtually no way of compelling the junta to think again about internal matters, the Southeast Asians have too little leverage and little inclination to exert any, and Australia has contact without influence. China is Burma's sturdiest and largest friend.

If Washington wants a democratic future for the Burmese, it must find some way of persuading China to police its southern neighborhood. The US cannot do so directly. Ultimately, deals can be struck. But it is profoundly in China's self-interest to secure a more prosperous and well-ordered state along a section of its vulnerable southern flank. Curbing Burma's illicit exports would also help curb China's own massive internal addiction problem.

The best route to democracy in Burma is, paradoxically, through China - no friend of true democracy, but a nation with many needs and much power.

Robert I. Rotberg is director of Harvard University's Kennedy School program on intrastate conflict and president of the World Peace Foundation.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.