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The Strategic Value of Burma

Myanmar’s state newspapers ran commentary warning Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition democracy movement, that her continued political activity is unlawful and that her plan to tour the country could provoke chaos. The last time she toured the countryside her motorcade was attacked by a mob, apparently aligned with the government. Miss Suu Kyi was blamed for that incident.

This quote comes from the “World this Week” section of the Economist from July 2nd, 2011, a little more than five months ago.  In the interim, the government of Myanmar has undergone a series of reforms, including de-criminalizing Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party and releasing 200 out of an estimated 2,000 political prisoners.  The progress is welcome, but why the sudden change of heart?

There are a lot of possible answers to that question and no shortage of speculation.  Secretary of state Hillary Clinton recently visited Suu Kyi and the head of the new civilian government, Thein Sein, in the first diplomatic visit by the country’s chief diplomat in more than a half-century.  Clearly, the United States has an interest in extending its hand to the country.  Given its strategic location right between two of the four BRIC countries (India and China) and its abundance of natural resources, including natural gas and oil, Burma is going to only become more important, strategically, over the next few decades.  I wrote extensively about this in a previous post titled “How Burma Will Modernize.”

Another possible explanation is that Burma is just one of several hard-line regimes around the world that are opening up to Obama’s conciliatory overtures to allow dictators to escape with their lives and treasure.  In an article titled “Pragmatism Drives Burma Reform,” the Bangkok Post writes:

If credit is due for reshaping the mindset of Burma’s leaders, then no small part of it should go to President Barack Obama who a short time after he was elected president in 2009 said to despotic regimes around the globe the US was willing to extend a hand if ”you are willing to unclench your first”. According to US diplomatic cables this struck a chord with the junta’s generals who were already laying down a ”roadmap to democracy” which resulted in last year’s election, the first in two decades which was criticised by some as a show to legitimise the generals’ shift to civilian rule. The US diplomatic cable from April 2009 said conversations with the generals indicated they wanted; an ”escape strategy”, the lifting of sanctions and to be accorded the respect shown to other world leaders. They were also seeking assurances that the older generals, after voluntarily ceding power, would not be stripped of their assets and face prosecution.

This, to me, seems reasonable.  Obama may be having some trouble on the domestic front, but his foreign policy is undeniably one of the best in recent memory.  This is a corollary of his strategy of “leading from behind” – instead of forcing enemies into submission, use a combination of hard and soft power and reconciliation to entice leaders into reform.  Harsh economic sanctions took a toll on Burma at the same time the Burmese government and people were feeling the imposing hand of China securing resources in their country.  By voluntarily issuing a series of political reforms, which will hopefully be followed by more, the Burmese government starts to become an ally of the United States – something that we wanted all along, given its strategic location next to China and the fact that the winds of change are increasingly blowing to the east.

This is a good example of how a smart foreign policy achieves its goals without trying to force change.  Creating a scenario in which we coax and welcome change, and set the conditions for its genesis, has given us Libya, Egypt, and now Burma.  Conversely, trying to create those conditions by force – eliminating the government and rebuilding the nation – has given us Iraq and Afghanistan.  This is why Obama’s foreign policy has been so successful. Clearly, his biggest challenge in the next four years (insha’Allah) will be Pakistan, followed by Yemen and Somalia – all borderline failed states with weak or non-existent governments, Islamic extremism, and a shared hatred of the United States.  If Obama can bring reconciliation and development to those countries, he might just have the best foreign policy of any modern president.

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