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BOOK-BURMA: On the New Road to Mandalay

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Dec 5 2011 (IPS) - Condemned for decades as an international pariah, Burma is enjoying a diplomatic spring with droves of former critics heading towards the Southeast Asian nation.

United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton was the latest to see the quasi-civilian government steadily turning its back on nearly 50 years of military dictatorship.

Yet, Clinton’s three-day visit, which began on Nov. 30, must have given her a glimpse of something more than the early hints of democracy. Burma has acquired a new strategic value since the last time a U.S. secretary of state visited the country – John Foster Dulles, in 1955.

This shift is rooted in China’s current relationship with Myanmar, as Burma is also known. In the 1950s, China was the outsider and the civilian government in Rangoon saw the communist giant as a strategic threat.

Washington, conversely, had better ties, being welcome as an ally to contain the spread of communism. And, even the 1962 coup, which paved the way for successive military dictatorships, did not end the relationship.

But today, China is Burma’s most important political and economic partner. Beijing’s domination emerged in the late 1980s, following the collapse of the Communist Party of Burma. It was a period that coincided with Washington cutting off ties with Burma following a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests by the then military regime.

Evidence of the inroads China has made is everywhere, from the bustling towns along the border it shares with Burma to Beijing’s strategic prize – a port in western Burma that gives the Asian giant access to the Indian Ocean.

It is a story of transformation that cannot be ignored as Burma becomes a linchpin for China’s rise as a superpower, argues Thant Myint-U in a new book, ‘Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia’.

In Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city, China’s influence over its neighbour is evident. Streets and neighbourhoods, that once reflected its status as the country’s last royal capital, now display a garish mish-mash of Chinese capitalism.

“It had once been the neighbourhood of artisans and craftsmen, silversmiths and bronze workers,” recalls Thant of Mandalay’s 78th Street. “The area had become a Chinese preserve. There was no sign of any craftsmen now.”

China’s economic footprint had been brought into greater relief by the lack of balance, such as competing Western companies, due to the economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European governments.

“There were no Starbucks or McDonald’s, or stores selling Apple computers, no Sheraton Hotels, no Shell petrol stations. There were also few Burmese competitors,” laments Thant of a setting that was creating an unequal society.

His ability as a Burmese to access parts of the country closed to scrutiny sheds light on other inequalities. In the areas home to Burma’s ethnic minorities near the Chinese border, girls and women have been trapped into meeting the demands of men in poor Chinese villages.

Burmese women have been sold for 3,000 dollars to be wives; others have been tricked by offers of non-existent jobs.

Yet for the Burmese historian and grandson of U. Thant, secretary-general of the United Nations in the 1960s, there is little mystery about geo-political implications of China’s designs on Burma.

China needs Burma for its abundant natural resources, including jade and timber, energy reserves such as natural gas.

Buma also represents an answer to its “Malacca dilemma” – Beijing’s eternal worry of depending on oil tankers from the Middle East coming through the narrow waters of the Malacca Straits. A new oil pipeline cutting across Burma will take care of such worries.

So in exchange for shielding Burma’s military from criticism on the international stage, the Chinese were given access to invest and trade in a country impoverished by successive juntas.

By the end of 2010, China had pumped in over 12 billion dollars out of Burma’s total foreign investment of 20 million dollars since 1988. And bilateral trade hit 4.4 billion dollars by 2010, making China Burma’s second largest trading partner.

The timing of the book could not have been better as the world comes to terms with the rise of China and the other Asian giant, India.

Long isolated Burma, sandwiched between the two, finds itself becoming a vital bridge as China pursues its “Go West” strategy and India pushes the other way, with its “Look East” policy.

Yet it is China that is driving the pace of change, finally realising an age-old dream of the Middle Kingdom’s emperors to view Burma as a gateway to South Asia. Thant captures this through a combination of analysis, history, memoir and travelogue, a style he also used in a previous book on the modern history of Burma, ‘The River of Lost Footsteps’.

India, by contrast, has a mixed interest in eastern neighbour. Although the two countries share historic ties, it has a distance to catch up with China. Current Indian investment in Burma stands at 189 million dollars and bilateral trade was 1.2 billion dollars.

Indian towns in its northeastern region, the inevitable gateway to Burma, come across as poor cousins when compared with the boom towns along the Chinese border.

Yet it is a reality that should not be dismissed, warns Thant. India’s growing interest in his country is poised to raise Burma’s stock as the missing link to unite South Asia with East Asia. This new Burma “would be a game changer for all Asia.”

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