Why Doesn’t the U.S. Invade Burma?

Thingyan in Yangon: the best party in the world

I write quite a bit in this journal about Burma (you might know it as Myanmar).  That is because when I traveled there a while back the country left a strong impression on me.  My last day in the country was the first day of Thingyan, the water festival that marks the Buddhist New Year.  362 days of the year the people are repressed, but during these three days they all seem to cut loose.  I knew a few ex-pats working in the country and spent the day with them, going from stage to stage (called “pandals”), which line the streets and pump in so much water from the lakes that, by the end, they are practically drained. Regrettably, I decided not to change my ticket and left after the first day.

The festivities cut short by a bomb blast

It turned out to be the right decision, because, two days later, the festival was rocked by a massive bombing not far from where I’d spent the my afternoon.  The government blamed it on rebel groups trying to disrupt the festival, but most people suspect the government itself was responsible, implicating the rebels in order to drum up support for the generals in the upcoming democratic election – the first in twenty years. The funny thing is that the elections have already been rigged in advance, so an action like this seems more sadistic than anything else.

Stories like this make it hard not to be a cynic.  What kind of government kills its own people during a celebration in an attempt to curry favor with the population and depict itself as the good guy?  It boggles the mind.  And it doesn’t have to be that way.  Unlike other countries with authoritarian dictatorships, Burma is a democracy, and a functioning one at that.  Afghanistan is a loose federation of warring tribes and ethnic groups that distrust one another.  It has never been a democracy, and likely never will be, despite our best efforts.  Iraq is a similar case.  Deposing Saddam Hussein in the name of promoting democracy is disingenuous, since a dictator has always ruled Iraq and, frankly, democracy is probably not the best system of government for the country anyways.  In African countries, democracy exists, but most are rife with corruption and election rigging (though the tables appear to be turning).

Not a formidable enemy

But Burma is another story.  Twenty years ago the country held an election in which Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won 80% of the vote.  In response, the generals rendered the results invalid and have kept Aung Sang Suu Kyi under house arrest for the last decade or two.  The generals are determined not to make the same mistake in the upcoming election.  They have set up the election so that their party can get no less than 25% of the seats, and some generals have formed their own political parties as well.  They have decreed that no party can post a candidate with a criminal record, effectively eliminating Aung Sang Suu Kyi from the equation.  Any political party that does not post a candidate for the election must, by law, disband.  As a result, the NLD has taken a principled stand by disbanding and calling for a boycott of the election.   If the boycott fails, which it most certainly will given the pool of voters the military can tap into, the generals will have a “valid” mandate to rule indefinitely.  Just yesterday the military junta announced it would be holding the elections in November.  Here is what some are saying about it:

“This is all orchestrated. It’s a carefully arranged plan by the (junta) to get the right results and further marginalize the opposition,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asian division.

“This is all about transitioning from a military government to a military-controlled civilian government,” he said.

The elections are part of the junta’s “roadmap to democracy,” a seven-step program which it says will shift the nation from 50 years of military rule.

The junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party is expected to receive the most votes because of its massive party funds, nationwide presence and a claimed membership of 24 million people in a country of about 60 million.

A 2008 constitution adopted under the junta’s roadmap reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military and says more than 75 percent of the lawmakers must approve any amendments to the charter.

It is a roadmap with one road, which doesn’t leave too many options.  It would be ridiculous if it weren’t very much the situation.  The question is, why not remove the military junta by force?  The United States has never been averse to nation-building and spreading democracy.  And, in Burma, it would be far easier to do that than in Iraq, given that a popularly elected leader is ready to take the reigns and run the country.   It could be the smoothest transition from dictatorship to functioning democracy since they started keeping score.  The answer has to do with geopolitics, and, most importantly, China.

China's backyard

China has a vested interest in seeing the generals remain in power.  For one thing, China is surrounded by democracies.  With the exception of North Korea and Burma, all of Southeast Asia is represented by democracies, albeit dysfunctional ones.  So having a non-democratic neighbor is a good thing.  Secondly, it is much easier to negotiate for raw materials with an authoritarian government that controls a very small domestic economy and has few sources of income.  In other words, the junta is desperate for money and protection.  China can offer both, in exchange for access to Burma’s rich oil and natural gas reserves and other resources.  When the country at the other end of the negotiating table is desperate, their hand becomes much weaker.  It is the Louisiana Purchase effect.  Lastly, the United States could easily depose the junta, but it has very little to gain and a lot to lose from doing so.  It would be seen as meddling around in China’s backyard, and imposing a form of government and Western set of values in a region dominated by a country without a democracy.  It would just be bad politics.

In a different vein, to combat the military junta, the United States and other countries have issued a travel boycott on Burma, meaning very few people actually travel to the country, placing its problems even further in the back of people’s minds.  The tourist dollars that could empower the people go to Thailand and Vietnam instead.  And the boycott creates the undesired side effect of allowing a reclusive government to remain even more isolated. The driving force behind the boycott is England, the country that colonized and exploited Burma during the 40’s and 50’s and is partly culpable for its current situation.  We end up boycotting tourism, the one industry that can actually serve to benefit the people by putting money directly into their hands, while oil and natural gas contracts with European and Asian companies make the generals rich.  From an economic effectiveness standpoint, it is like pissing in a river, to coin a phrase from one of my personal heroes, G. Gordon Liddy.  But this is the reality of the country.  As easy as it would be to change, it is unfortunately out of their hands.

2 thoughts on “Why Doesn’t the U.S. Invade Burma?

  1. Ed Center

    Josh, are there any interesting microfinance initiatives or NGOs going on Burma? It seems like a ripe environment, since giving the country aid would be irresponsible, but putting cash into the hands and homes of poor people could stimulate grass roots economies.

  2. Josh Post author

    Hi Ed – first thanks for reading. It is true – aid to Myanmar from the West is among the lowest per capita of any developing country in the world. There are some programs in Myanmar. There are a few MFIs providing credit, but nowhere near to the level of other southeast asian countries. The UNDP has a microfinance program that serves 440,000 clients there and has a portfolio of $28 million USD, which isn’t that much. There is a report by the Banking with the Poor Network on microfinance in the country (http://www.bwtp.org/mekong-reports.html), which shows 6 MFIs with 400,000 active borrowers. Save the Children, UNDP, and World Vision are all there, but not in any serious way. Also, an organization called IDE (international development enterprises), which deals with water (irrigation mostly) has an office there. So there are some, but the government is obviously not a very reliable partner, so I think it makes it tough

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