Why Burma is the New Focus of International Relations

Why Burma is the New Focus of International Relations

The Ever-Changing Burmese State

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.

Continuing Problems in Burma

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.

By Peter Banham

31 Responses to Why Burma is the New Focus of International Relations

    • Thank you! To me Burma right now is one of the most interesting countries worldwide. It is rare that a nation as large and naturaly rich in resources opens up and becomes a more involved part of the world economic and political system. Who knows what will happen next?

    • so let get this staight, a small country largly ignored by the us? then all of a sudden it is getting attention after some ruler has been pushed out, maybe you can elaborate more on the violence before the change. did the first ruler keep the peace between these people? and is the present violence related to who will get the contracts that the us will give them setting up shop there with corporatins following perhaps? is it relgious in nature? not knowing too much about burma I just wonder. I just wonder if religion is being used as a tool to get them to fight or is it the possiblity of economics where there will be losers and winners so they are fighting over that? divide and conquer type thing? I have just come to appreciate that empires always confer one sided contracts without equal consideration before they will consider friendship with smaller nations. the empire rejoices the people sigh.

      • I understand your skepticism about Western involvement in Burma. It is justifiable to believe that the violence of recent times is in response to economic desires.

        However the violence and treatment of the Rohingya is not a new phenomenon. Under the military junta, who had full control of the country prior to the new reforms, these people suffered great repression and violence. However because of the closed nature of the country we may never know the full extent to which the minorities were persecuted.

        The UN has had the Rohingya people on a list of persecuted minorities for many years and I believe the recent violence is a result of a greater freedom of expression, on the part of Burmese nationalists.

        One can only hope that Western involvement does benefit the people and not replace political repression with some form of economic repression

  1. It’s been so long since I’ve read anything on Burma. I learned about it 3 years ago in high school, as one of my final year classes, but haven’t had a proper read about it since. I knew about Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, but nothing else. Thanks for enlightening me to it’s recent happenings! It’s nice to have a little wrap up of the events rather than sifting through news stories.
    I hope they sort out their religious divides somehow; before an all out civil war. I have hope it will be peaceful one day.

    • Thank you very much for the feedback! To be honest until the reforms began to happen I did not know much about the country either, since then not only have they become more open, but my personal interest has grown. It’ll be really interesting to see where they go next, and yes hopefully it will be a peaceful direction.

  2. Is it back to Burma again, or is it still Myanmar? Man, it’s hard to keep track of that…it’s like when Brett Favre just kept coming back. You make an interesting point though.

  3. Well written. The Obama administration announced a pivot to the Asia Pacific theater in 2010. The State Department and the DOD have truly embraced this new strategic guidance. I truly hope that our partnership with the government and people of Myanmar continues to grow as it is in their interest as well as ours.

    • Hopefully the relationship does develop in a way that is mutually beneficial as development in Burma is so important. As leading world powers, nations like Britain and the USA have a duty to ensure that these countries develop effectively and are fully supported in their efforts by the global community.

  4. Thank you for writing this. It has been many years (winter 2003) since I was in Burma, and believe me, the military regime was terrifying. No matter what the intent or impetus behind this change, it bodes well for the people. I remember having a machine gun pointed at my face for raising my camera by Aung San Suu Kyi’s home. Whatever the situation is now, I feel quite certain that it is an improvement.

    • I hadn’t heard of the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy until you mentioned it, but after some research I’ve found out it is indeed part of this global strategy, albeit on a smaller scale compared to some nations. This policy is a clear example of the Chinese influence over the area that the West are looking to balance. Interestingly it is India who seem to lose out to this Chinese policy and so they may seek much closer ties to Burma (It was reported last week that Aung San Suu Kyi was making a visit to India to meet with senior officials so maybe this is an indicator of close regional connections?). Thank you for bringing this to my attention, made for some interesting research.

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