In the last week, in which Obama was re-elected to the Presidency, the American leader announced his intention to travel to Burma on an official visit, the first of its kind made by a serving US President. This landmark visit has been hailed as a sign of Burma’s new found importance in international relations Add to this historic visits made by Hilary Clinton, US State Secretary, in November 2011 and David Cameron, British Prime Minister, in April 2012, and it is clear that the international status of Burma is ever-growing.
But why has Burma gone from being a byword for repression and poverty in Asia, to the country every global power wants a piece of?
This resurgent interest in Burma has largely been the result of mass reforms that where instigated during March 2011 when the military junta, which had been in control of the country for many decades, were replaced by a quasi-civilian government; that instituted changes within all levels of Burmese politics and life.
President Thein Sein was chosen as the leader of the new and reformed Burma and instituted many changes, that included the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition, who had been under house arrest for many years. This dramatic political change, that later allowed Suu Kyi to take a place in Parliament, has been the impetus for this renewed interest in Burma and it has largely been Suu Kyi, herself, who stimulated this interest, through traveling the world promoting Burmese issues. For Western politicians these reforms symbolised a new era in Burmese politics and economics, where Western nations can take advantage of a previously closed and hidden nation.
The country has a great wealth of natural resources and low-cost labour which is untapped following its long-term political isolation. Burma, due to its drive towards economic development, could also potentially be a new market for consumer goods from Western businesses looking to expand into this nation.
Politicians have also seen Burma as a route into China due to its strategic position and its political connections to the country, which it became close to during its isolation. As China was the only world power that would negotiate with Burma, whilst the West imposed sanctions, Western politicians see closer ties with Burma as a way to both improve regional relations with China and to balance Chinese influence in Burma, so that it doesn’t become an economic puppet of its Northern neighbour.
However for many critics, including human rights activists, the attention that Burma is receiving ignores the very real problems that still exist in the country. Although figures, such as David Cameron, have called for a furthering of the steps towards to democracy that Burma has already made, many have failed to address the fundamental social issues that exist in the country.
The issues that plague contemporary Burmese society are largely those regarding ethnicity and religion. Since democratic reforms have been implemented Burma has experienced a wave of ethnic violence targeted at the Katchin and Rohingya people. This violence is focused on the fact that the Rohingya people are Muslim, whereas the general population of Burma is Buddhist, and this religious divide has caused a worsening human rights and sectarian crisis.
For critics, whilst these issues still plague Burmese society foreign politicians should not be courting Burma as the new economic market of Asia. Instead they should be using the platform of increasing relations and a more open politics to call for the end to such conflict and encourage a move forward to real reform in Burma. This real reform would secure a complete break from the military junta (who have an important presence behind the scenes) and attempts made to resolve Burma’s historic problems.
However with China prepared to support Burma, no matter what the political circumstances, it is even more important that Western nations do work with the new Burmese government so that progress can occur in a way that Western nations support. By leaving Burma to chart its own path through democracy, without Western support, it is possible that Burma cannot achieve the mass reforms that it is looking to implement or reach the full political and economic integration with the world system that it seeks.