Event ReportsPublished on Feb 19, 2013
Though Myanmar's reforms are mostly'cosmetic' now, the changes can have unintended consequences, as witnessed in the case of Mikhail Gorbachev's Glasnost & Perestroika in the erstwhile Soviet Union, says Bertil Lintner, author of many books on Myanmar.
Cosmetic changes in Myanmar might lead to unintended consequences as in Soviet Union

Myanmar’s reforms are mostly ’cosmetic’ as the army still retains significant control over the country’s politics. However, the cosmetic changes can have unintended consequences, as witnessed in the case of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost & Perestroika in the erstwhile Soviet Union, said Bertil Lintner, author of many books on Myanmar.

Giving a talk on "Recent Changes in Myanmar & Neo Geopolitical Trends in the Asia-Pacific Region" at Observer Research Foundation on Tuesday (February 19, 2013), Lintner said people in Myanmar are enjoying new freedoms and recent years have seen the emergence of a civil society, all of which bodes well for the future of the country.

Chairing the event, Mr. K. Raghunath, former Foreign Secretary, noted that it was important to consider the changes in context with both the internal dynamics and external pressures which may have prompted them.

The recent changes in Myanmar have been made by the establishment to improve its relations with the United States and have emerged as a response to Chinese dominance over the last two decades, according to Lintner. Myanmar’s image in the West has perennially been that of a tyrannical regime. This culminated with the imposition of sanctions and a long period of isolation. It is precisely this image which the government in Myanmar is on course to rectify. But with no real power ceded by the military government, it is questionable as to what extent its promised reforms have managed to actually change the country’s turbulent political climate, Lintner said.

He said in the years that China itself was undergoing a period of political and economic reform, Beijing Review had published an article in 1985 suggesting Beijing must engage countries such as Myanmar in order to have more outlets for its expanding trade network. And, during a period of major political upheaval and the violent repression that followed in 1988, the Burmese government signed an agreement with China which legalised cross-border trade and opened the flow of military aid into the country.

Over the years, Myanmar has deepened its relationship with China and North Korea. Since 2004, reports have emerged of North Korean tunnelling experts operating in Myanmar to build an extensive network of underground facilities. In 2008, a visit by a Burmese delegation to China and North Korea revealed that China has been training Burmese forces at a facility in Yunnan province, Lintner said.

Despite what was ostensibly a deep and mutually beneficent relationship, Lintner brought to light a ’secret’ dossier which was issued to select military personnel in 2004. The dossier suggests that Myanmar reduces its dealings with China and improves its relationship with the West. It identified key individuals who have proposed deeper US engagement with Myanmar and key issues to help mend the relationship with the United States such as assistance to locate US military soldiers who have been ’Missing in Action’ since the Second World War. Interestingly, Lintner also linked the ousting of former Burmese Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in 2004 to the publishing of the dossier.

On the possibility of Western imposed sanctions prompting the shift in Burmese policy, Lintner said Myanmar continued to trade with its neighbours despite the sanctions. However, citing the aforementioned dossier, he believed that it was entirely possible that isolation from the West made China’s penetration into Myanmar easier. Looking at America’s ’Pivot to Asia’, seen by many as a measure to contain China’s rise, the only state which had a pervasive Chinese presence and a previously antagonistic position to the US, which has been approached by the United States has been Myanmar, noted Lintner.

On the question of the establishment’s capacity to deal with ethnic minorities, Lintner alluded to a comment made by Aung San during Myanmar’s independence struggle from Britain, insisting that any attempts at forming a unitary state would serve only to marginalise minority groups. Lintner argued that in order to accommodate the various ethnic minorities, they require a degree of political autonomy under a loose federation.

China’s reaction to the changes institutionalised by the Burmese government was one of surprise. Many reports have emerged of Chinese troops crossing the border into Myanmar as well as rumours that China is supplying the Kachin Independence Army with arms to bolster their ongoing insurrection against the Burmese establishment. While Mr. Lintner dismissed these claims, he suggested that China has been trading arms and offering logistical support to the United Wa State Army, the successor to the former Communist Party of Burma. He also stressed that several projects such as the China-Myanmar pipeline and hydro-electric power projects have been constructed in Myanmar and that China will seek to protect these investments.

Talking about China’s response to Myanmar diversifying its foreign policy, Lintner said that academic literature has surfaced in China to attempt to analyse what caused the shift in Myanmar’s policy. He also noted that during President Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar in November last year, China increased security around the border to remind the Burmese of their proximity.

Lintner stressed that the Chinese will do what is necessary to protect their many investments in the country, but ruled out the possibility of a direct military engagement. Lintner is the author of many books on Burma, including Outrage: Burma’s Struggle for Democracy; Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948; Land of Jade: A Journey From India through Northern Burma to China; Bloodbrothers: Crime, Business and Politics in Asia; Merchants of Madness: the Methamphetamine Explosion in the Golden Triangle; Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy.

Lintner, now based in Thailand, is currently Asia correspondent for the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet.

Click here for Audio of Mr. Bertil Lintner. (This report is prepared by Kartikeya Khanna, Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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