Why the West Opposes the Myanmar Junta
by Ramtanu Maitra on 13 Sep 2010 0 Comment

On Aug.18, the Obama administration issued a statement supporting the creation of a United Nations Commission to investigate Myanmar government’s alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes. The statement said such a commission would advance the cause of human rights in Myanmar by “addressing issues of accountability for responsible senior members of the Burmese regime.” (Note that the Western countries - the United States and Britain, in particular - always identify Myanmar as “Burma,” its colonial name, which was changed in 1989.)


Last March, Britain’s ambassador to the UN, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, told the UN Security Council that his country supported a recommendation by the UN special rapporteur for human rights in “Burma” that the Hague-based international court open a war crimes investigation on the topic. It has also been reported that Britain, the former colonial ruler of then-Burma, is backing moves to refer Myanmar’s military leaders to the international criminal court for investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity. According to The Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall, on March 25, “the move is part of a heightened campaign to force the junta to embrace genuine democratic reforms.” Following the decision by the Obama administration, some Washington officials told the media that they believed a policy of sanctions had, by itself, failed to bring about improvements in democracy and human rights.


The White House missive was issued five days after Myanmar’s military government announced plans to hold the first election in two decades on Nov 7. “Multiparty general elections for the country’s parliament will be held on Sunday Nov 7,” according to the brief announcement from the Myanmar Election Commission carried on state TV and radio, which also called on political parties to submit their candidate lists between Aug. 16 and Aug. 30.



Ahead of the polls, the ruling junta has passed numerous laws and rules. The new laws effectively bar detained opposition leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi and other political prisoners -estimated at more than 2,000 - from taking part in the elections. Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has indicated that it will boycott the polls. A total of about 40 parties have registered to participate in the November elections, but it is almost a certainty that the NLD’s absence in the polls will prompt the West to label the elections a travesty.


The White House statement, which followed the demarche issued by London, was not really a surprise. Andrew Buncombe, writing for The Independent on Aug.19, cites US officials who claimed it “represents a marked rollback of one of President Obama’s most controversial foreign policy initiatives” - a reference to the openings to Myanmar spearheaded by Sen. James Webb, D-Va., last year. 


Sen. Webb, who chairs the Senate foreign relations sub-committee on East Asia and Pacific affairs, given his public support for a policy of engagement with Burma's generals,  was advocating a break by Obama from the more punitive approach favoured by Britain and the European Union. Webb has made clear that he has come to the conclusion that years of sanctions and condemnation of Myanmar had failed. 

Why Myanmar? Those who are even nominally conversant with Washington’s and London’s foreign policies over the decades should have little difficulty in figuring out why Myanmar’s human rights violations have been subjected to such close scrutiny, even constituting grounds for imposing sanctions. Briefly put, it suits Western geopoliticians to go after Myanmar. It is arbitrary self interest that has nothing to do with the principle of human rights or concern for the people of Myanmar.


If that sounds harsh, consider the following. In 1977, Pakistan’s military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq arrested the duly-elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and proclaimed martial law. He promised an election within 90 days, which he did not carry out. He cancelled elections by decree on March 1, 1978, and banned all political activity in the country. He then set up a kangaroo court, “convicted” Bhutto of a murder and, despite international appeal, hanged him in 1979. Gen. Zia’s suppression of the Pakistan People’s Party, which under the leadership of Bhutto claimed to have won the 1977 elections by a huge margin, continued; Bhutto’s widow, Nusrat, and his daughter, Benazir, were placed under house arrest or jailed, and most of the party leaders also spent time in jail.


Did the West, the undisputed flag carrier of democracy, impose any sanctions on Gen. Zia ul-Haq and his military regime? No. What? A true soldier, unburdened by the trappings of democracy, how is it that Gen. Zia ul-Haq did not draw the wrath of the West but the Myanmarese military junta does? The fact is that Pakistan happened to be an important ally in the West’s monumental battle against the godless Soviet Union at the time. When the Soviet Army moved into Afghanistan, the non-democratic Gen. Zia ul-Haq was ready to do whatever the West wanted him to do, and more. Myanmar’s military leadership is not so inclined.


A Strategic Location


Myanmar is situated between China to the north, Southeast Asia to its south and the Indian subcontinent and the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal to its west. The Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal, which abutt India’s east coast, is one of the access routes to the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. The entire maritime trade of China, India, Southeast Asia and Far East Asia depends heavily on these waterways. A formidable presence in these waterways is considered by Western geo-strategists as key to the control of large and growing nations such as China and India.


Myanmar shares common maritime boundaries with India and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal, and with India and Thailand in the Andaman Sea. The country’s 3060-km. coastline has a large number of estuaries and islands. The coastal zones of Myanmar can be divided into three main geographical sub-areas: the Rakhine Coast, Irrawaddy Delta and Taninthayi Coast. Many rivers flow into the coastal zones: the Mayu and Kaladan rivers in the Rakhine coastal area; two large rivers, the Irrawaddy and Thanlwin, in the Delta area; and Ye and Dawei Rivers in the Taninthayi area. The northern coastline is shallow and has extensive deltas; the southern part is more or less rocky.


During the colonial period, Britain - with India and Myanmar (then Burma) as its colonies -used these waterways to bring wealth back to England in various forms, including food, from these countries and areas it ruled along the eastern coast of Africa. The British Navy’s control over these waterways was a key factor in the growth of the British Empire. Although that colonial empire is gone, the mindset is not. That is why the anti-Myanmar campaign is orchestrated from London. From colonial days, Britain’s leading political parties have always been in agreement on a tough course of action against Myanmar.


The Burma Campaign UK (BCUK), established soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, is a London-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) that promotes the “restoration of human rights and democracy in Burma.” Consisting of British politicians of all major political parties, the BCUK plays a critical role in the campaign to bring down the Myanmar military and usher in democracy. Recently, responding to questions posed by the Burma Campaign UK, the Labor Party, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats all declared their support for targeted sanctions and an arms embargo on the “Burmese” military junta, and called for an inquiry into crimes against humanity committed by the “Burmese” regime.


“The policies of all the main political parties in the UK demonstrate cross-party support for targeted economic sanctions, a global arms embargo, action on crimes against humanity by the generals, and maintaining increased aid,” said the London-based NGO in a press release on May 4, 2010. “This is a testament to the effective work of Burma Campaign UK in building consensus on what needs to be done to help the people of Burma,” said Nang Seng, the group’s parliamentary officer. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labor Party said, “Labor will not support any easing of sanctions in the absence of tangible progress on the ground.” The Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, emphasized its concern for the human rights situation, especially in eastern Burma, calling the violations “appalling.” The Liberal Democrats also said that the five election laws passed by Myanmar’s Election Commission this year “will make a mockery of Burma’s first election since 1990.” 


The real mockery, however, is the empire-servers’ and colonialists’ “commitment” to democracy! In 2001, Andrew Selth, a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defense Studies Center of Australian National University, pointed out the importance of a Western presence in Myanmar in light of the growing military and economic power of China. In a paper, “Burma: A Strategic Perspective,” Selth said Washington’s covert support for the opposition in Myanmar is based on a rapidly expanding US involvement back into South Asia. Growing US corporate concern with China’s growth and the Pentagon’s drive to implant a new generation of US bases to control the Straits of Malacca is leading to a renewed US involvement in the region. Some 80 percent of the oil bound for China passes through these straits.


While the sources of covert support remain unidentified, it is known that the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), George Soros’ Open Society Institute, Freedom House, the Albert Einstein Institute and the US State Department have helped in funding, training and providing material support and communication for a new generation of opposition to the military rule in Myanmar. NED has reportedly funded the opposition to the tune of $2.5 million annually since 2003 with regime change as its focus. The NED admits to funding the key opposition media such as New Era Journal, Irrawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma radio. The US Consulate General in neighbouring Thailand, now under a royalist dictatorship that is nonetheless friendly to US interests, has provided key logistical support and training.


China, India, Indian Ocean …The significant economic growth in China, which began to show through in the early 1990s, and in India, which became visible at the turn of the millennium, has raised concerns among Western geopoliticians. They have noticed the presence of China’s naval power, which has begun to dominate the South China Sea. Meanwhile, India, now concentrating on its navy more than ever before, has already consolidated its control over the Andaman Sea-Bay of Bengal waterway that separates India’s east coast from Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia, and allows the Indian Navy a presence in the Indian Ocean and near the Straits of Malacca - the narrow strait through which China brings in the bulk of its energy supplies from the Gulf states.


No matter what the exact nature of Beijing’s naval presence in and around India’s coastal waters is, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea will remain the essential supply route for many nations around the world - the lifeline, in fact - and that includes both China and India. Therefore, the issue really is how to keep this waterway free of rivalry, bullying or hostile postures and ensure that world trade is not interrupted because of power plays between these large nations. What is equally important is to keep foreign naval powers at a distance and not allow them any naval base or access to any hot button in this highly populous and volatile region.


It is relevant to point out what New Delhi and Beijing must keep in mind at all times: for their own interests, or because of hostility toward India and/or China, external powers will continue to fish in the troubled waters should China and India fail to come to a clearer understanding of the importance of keeping the waterway power-neutral.


Financial conditions in the West will almost surely become more difficult in the coming years and the planned growth of almost all nations, China and India in particular, could be gravely jeopardized. There is no dearth of students of geopolitics in each country, trained in the British imperialists’ school or believers in the Kissingerian balance-of-power myth. These troublemakers will spare no effort in revving up one or the other nation, urging the authorities to adopt negative policies that will lead to a worsening of the overall bilateral relationship. 


The West’s Myanmar gambit is to usher in a democratic leader, such as Aung Sun Suu Kyi, who has strong links in Britain and is expected to remain indebted to the Western powers for gaining access to power. uch a leader, with links to London and Washington, will then be put under pressure to bring in the foreign powers to “protect” Myanmar from China and India. 


In the coming years, of the littoral states of the Indian Ocean, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore will be the Western geopolitical forces’ cynosure. Donald Berlin, in his September 2004 Contemporary South Asia article, “The ‘great base race’ in the Indian Ocean littoral: conflict prevention or stimulation?,” said that some military infrastructure development activity by the United States relevant to the Indian Ocean is underway in Thailand, notably at Thakhek, as well as in the north and west of Australia - where it will intensify significantly if a final decision is made to move some of the 20,000 US Marines currently stationed on Okinawa and reposition them ‘down under.’ In addition, of course, China is moving deliberately to set up berthing facilities on both the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, which the western observers have characterized collectively as a “string of pearls” strategy or a “preparation of the battlefield.”


Singapore, which sits astride the critically important Straits of Malacca and ostensibly worries about China’s growing power, badly wants to upgrade its already close ties with the United States. Toward that end, it built the Changi Naval Base in the late 1990s so that the US Navy could operate an aircraft carrier out of Singapore if the need arose.


Berlin says the great base race in the Indian Ocean littoral is engendered by a variety of factors. A key one simply is that some regional actors (read: China and India) now are gaining the wealth, power and confidence to concern themselves with their external security. To this extent, the new bases reflect these states’ perceived need either to erect defenses against one another or, in some cases, against potential intervention or meddling in the region by external powers.


Berlin, in his article, India in the Indian Ocean (Naval War College Review, Spring 2006), points out that India cannot help but be wary of the growing capability of China’s navy and of Beijing’s growing maritime presence. In the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea, especially, New Delhi is sensitive to a variety of Chinese naval or maritime activities. For Beijing, this process has entailed achieving the capability, and thereby the option, to deploy or station naval power in this region in the future. A key focus in this connection is Myanmar, where Chinese engineers and military personnel have long been engaged in airfield, road, railroad, pipeline, and port construction aimed at better connecting China with the Indian Ocean, both by sea and directly overland, Berlin concluded.


The Western powers are also interested in laying new emphasis on military infrastructure in the Indian Ocean littoral states by citing the region as home to the world’s greatest concentration of Muslims, argues Berlin. Today, many Islamic nations in this region are at odds with Israel, and its Western backers, over the Palestine issue. How did the Americans get into Somalia? Or, Afghanistan, for that matter? The US got into Somalia after the American embassies were targeted by terrorists in Kenya and Tanzania. 

As of now, the Western nations, Britain and the United States in particular, are keen to contain China’s advances in the Indian Ocean. In the not-so-distant future, a similar containment of India could also be in their cards. An open conflict, not on the agenda of any forces in this region, can be prevented, Western geopoliticans believe, only if the West develops a strong presence on the landmass that leads to the Indian Ocean. Which country would they then be looking at? Myanmar, of course.


The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.
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