Clinton trip to Burma: a contest to define power in Asia

Burma's regime seeks distance from China by welcoming a Clinton visit. And the US can help bring freedom to Burma (Myanmar), but it must better understand legitimacy in this Buddhist society.

The wielding of power in Asia isn’t always the visible kind – guns, ships, money, trade, natural resources, or even ballots. President Obama, who grew up in Indonesia, seems to understand that. Just watch how he handles Burma.

This week, that long-isolated country in Southeast Asia (whose military strongmen have renamed Myanmar) will welcome a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her trip will be the first by a high-level US official in more than half a century – and one more attempt by America to counter China’s rising influence in the region.

Burma is only the latest nation to learn that it must be wary of Beijing’s commercial and military might. Its rulers recently canceled a huge dam project funded by China while also launching reforms that hint of democracy. In 2014, Burma will take over leadership of a group of Southeast Asian nations that have long stood up to China.

Mr. Obama hopes to add Burma to a list of countries – Vietnam, India, Australia, and the Philippines – that recently sought stronger ties with the United States. Lying next to India and under the giant belly of China, Burma would be a key plank in the US strategy to reassert influence in Asia.

But Burma will test American concepts of power. Two decades of US-led economic sanctions against Burma have done little to loosen the military’s grip or to help the beleaguered minority ethnic tribes. In 2008, after a cyclone hit Burma, its generals rebuffed offers of emergency aid from the US Navy.

The US has looked to Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi as the champion of democracy and rights in Burma. After being released from detention last year, she formed an unusual bond of trust with the ex-general, Thein Sein, who now leads Burma’s nominally civilian regime. And her party, the National League for Democracy, made a bold decision Nov. 18 to participate in coming elections – despite the military’s strong influence over government.

Obama called Ms. Suu Kyi by phone to gain her approval for Mrs. Clinton’s visit. The US would not want to lift sanctions too swiftly if the “flickers of progress” in Burma, as Obama calls recent reforms, are easily reversible.

But the US also needs to see where Suu Kyi looks for her legitimacy. It isn’t just that she is the daughter of Burma’s founder or that she helped rally protesters in the 1988 demonstrations. She spends as much time as she can with the behind-the-scenes power in Burma – Buddhist monks.

The much-revered monks were on the front lines of the 1988 protests and again in 2007. Dozens if not hundreds have been killed or jailed. On Nov. 8, after an official ban on protests was lifted, five monks demonstrated in the second largest city, Mandalay – a hotbed of past monk protests. It was no surprise that they were surrounded by dozens of plain-clothes police.

Burma’s robed clergy play a powerful role as stewards of a common faith for the Burmese majority. In history, they have often bestowed or withdrawn legitimacy to a ruler. Their power flows from their followers’ reverence for the way monks display spiritual qualities, such as compassion, humility, and pacifism.

The monks’ daily walks among the people to collect alms helps make them moral leaders. That compels the military to fear their influence – and to co-opt or suppress them.

Even famed Burmese comic and protest leader Zarganar, who was recently released from jail, reveals their power in this joke: “Since I was arrested for giving alms to Buddhist monks, I might have to excommunicate myself from Buddhism.”

And China, now on the defensive in its ties with Burma, sent a Buddhist relic – an alleged tooth of the Buddha – to Burma in November. The tooth was carried by an elephant in high-profile processions in various cities.

Clinton’s visit may include time with activist Buddhist monks. The secular power of Suu Kyi and other political actors relies on them. Understanding that fact may be central to helping Burma finally gain the freedom that its people seek as well as the strategic balance between big powers that its leaders now desire.

The quietest powers can often be the most piercing.

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