Hilary Clinton visited Burma for the first time this week. When her motorcade entered Naypyidaw, the purpose-built new capital of Burma, one thing struck me: there was no waving of Burmese or American flags on either side of the roads.
Despite living in isolation for nearly three decades between 1962 and 1988, the Burmese are familiar with American cultural icons; the only TV channel run by the state showed the Little House on the Prairie and the Dynasty series’ in the 80s and 90s. Walt Disney characters and American politicians are familiar household names in many parts of the country.
No ordinary citizen came out to the streets to greet one of the most senior US diplomats in her landmark trip. No matter that her visit could be called ‘official’, the streets should not have been empty after many years of cultural familiarity with America, not least through Hollywood films. The scene of empty streets is all the more striking compared to the visit of China’s Premier, Wen Jiabao, in 2010. What does this absence of flag-wavers mean? Was there a government ban on greeting Hilary? Or did people simply become uninterested in America?
Clinton’s trip highlighted the geopolitical importance of Burma, as it is now at the intersection of China’s ‘Look-South’, and America’s ‘Look-East’ policies. Yunnan, a Southwest Province of China, is the key in Beijing’s ‘Look-South’ traffic policy, which could connect China to South Asia and Southeast Asia economically and politically.
At the beginning of the 21st century, China launched its grand scheme of building international passages from Yunnan to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Burma and India. For the Yunnan-Burma transport corridor alone, China has spent 54.6 billion Yuan, equivalent to $8.6 billion.
The completion of this transport corridor made possible another grand scheme; the building of crude oil and gas pipelines from Burma’s West coast to Yunnan. Upon completion, this oil pipeline will become a shortcut to carry oil from Africa and the Middle East instead of through the sea, via the Malacca Strait. China has also invested heavily in other infrastructure projects in Burma including hydropower projects.
Premier Wen Jiabao formally launched the pipelines project during his visit in 2010. With easy access to the Indian Ocean via Burma, China’s ‘Two-Ocean’ strategy to influence the geopolitics in South and Southeast Asia will become significantly strengthened.
Obama recently said, ‘the United States is a Pacific Power.’ This reflects the US’s growing anxiety with China’s ‘Two-Ocean’ strategy, though he quickly added that, ‘the notion that we are looking to exclude China is mistaken.’ The US is no longer able to ignore the geopolitical significance of Burma. While continuing to be vocal about on-going human rights issues, the US must quickly find avenues to re-engage with Burma. The US’s long-term ally, Aung San Suu Kyi, holds the key to this re-engagement.
On the very same day when her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), decided to register for the upcoming by-elections, which they boycotted in the 2010 elections, Obama announced that he would send his Secretary of State to Burma. Like Obama, the Burmese government also knows the significance of Aung San Suu Kyi, and recent reforms in the country indicate an attempt to utilise her status as a means of international acceptance and global re-integration. Both need her to turn a new leaf in their East-West friendship.
These self-interests overshadow the crucial question of whether Burma has now really changed, most of all for her own people. A year after the elections, and 8 months after the establishment of the civilian government, ordinary citizens are yet to experience the effects of the reforms, which seem to be targeting the elites.
Some of the reforms include: allowing car owners to import cars; opening of currency exchange counters; the release of some political prisoners; and a relaxation of media censorship. Though these reforms are significant, they mostly represent the interests of local elites and are designed to attract the attention of international governments. Indeed, far too many political prisoners still remain behind bars.
Away from the media limelight, farmers, students and people living in the frontier areas are still facing the same hardships: farmers till their lands, fully aware that they could lose them anytime; education is so severely underfunded that local NGOs are now stepping in to pay the salaries of some village teachers; and thousands of Kachins are fleeing their homes everyday to escape the intense and ongoing war in the North of the country. There are almost no signs for these citizens to believe that the effects of the reforms have trickled down to the grassroots level.
Perhaps it is too early to tell. But the government, and NLD, according to some frustrated supporters, seem to have chosen to represent a few selected groups, ignoring the majority of ordinary people. Even after the establishment of the civilian government, shopkeepers and farmers alike turned up on the doorsteps of the NLD, hoping that they could help solve problems which their MP’s could not solve within the Parliament.
But the opposition itself has decided to join the Parliament. With this decision, can Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD continue to hold moral authority? Did they relinquish their voice-of-the-people status too soon, without waiting for further concessions from the government? Pragmatism might have overcome ideology but is it a wise pragmatism, one ought to ask, especially when few people are benefitting from the fruits of the reforms, and no clear reassurances have been made from either side that more concrete changes are in order? Have the NLD created a hostage to fortune by deciding to join the government too soon?
To the US, these questions probably have little relevance. Hilary Clinton has come and gone. Many international journalists visited Burma on their first ‘official’ journalist visas – a select few met with Clinton and most asked her to press the Burmese government more. But what does her visit really mean to the rest of Burma? The significance of her visit could be defined more by absence than presence.
Photo Credits: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
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