Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Resilient Outpost of Tyranny

Myanmar’s generals have proven themselves more resilient to international pressure than any of the globe’s other “pariah” states, even North Korea.

Of course, Myanmar has assets that North Korea lacks, including large, untapped oil and gas reserves and powerful patrons. These two countries, China and Russia, joined in January in defeating a UN Security Council resolution condemning the regime.

The defeat came even after the US tried desperately but unsuccessfully to soften the language that called for freeing political prisoners, including democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, to persuade the two veto-wielding permanent members to abstain.

“We’re back to square one,” said Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Syed Hamud Albarm after the vote. To its credit Malaysia has been one of the few Asian nations to take at least a moderately hardline on Myanmar.

President George W. Bush made a passing reference to Myanmar and other “outposts of tyranny,” to use Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s phrase, during his State-of-the-Union speech, but it was clear that the this outpost, anyway, doesn’t concern his administration that much anymore.

The US and Europe imposed strict economic sanctions on Myanmar back in 1997. American and European firms that were active in the country have closed down their operations and withdrawn their investments.

But Chinese, Indian and other Asian countries have more than filled the gap. Foreign direct investment in Myanmar hit $6 billion in the 2005-2006 fiscal year ending in March, considerably more than the $158 million the previous fiscal year.

A case in point is India, which previously had advocated pressuring the junta to release political prisoners and permit the democracy, in keeping with its own democratic heritage. It has reversed itself to embrace the generals.

Realpolitik concerns trump democracy. India needs Myanmar’s cooperation in fighting the several insurgencies raging in its northeastern states. And it worries about China’s influence along the Indian Ocean.

In commercial terms, India’s national oil and gas companies covet the resources of the Rahkine fields off Myanmar’s northwest coast. It also desires more trade with Southeast Asia, and Myanmar lies directly on that path.

The Security Council vote had scarcely been recorded before India’s Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee paid a visit to Naypyitaw, becoming the first high profile foreigner to visit the mysterious new capital in Myanmar’s interior.

“We have to deal with governments as they exist,” he said. China’s Li Tieying couldn’t have said it better. The vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress also paid homage to the generals last month.

It has been speculated that the junta moved the capital from coastal Yangon to the interior because the generals worried that Yangon was too exposed to an American attack. They could have saved their resources. “Regime change” is nowhere on the horizon.

Remote from any serious American interest Myanmar presents no threat. It is just a mini outpost of tyranny on the far corner of the American radar screen.

The quagmire in Iraq, increasing involvement in the Middle East, talk of war with Iran, troubles with North Korea – all these suck up Washington’s energies. The tyrants in Myanmar can expect smooth sailing for years to come.



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