International Herald Tribune
Myanmar: What next?
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

HONG KONG: The Burmese regime appears for now to have crushed, with accustomed brutality, the mass demonstrations against it, and the junta appears to have given the UN envoy a polite brush-off. So what can be done to bring about change in that benighted country?

Outrage from distant capitals has done no more than years of half-hearted Western sanctions, and support for the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to bring about change. Nor is it useful to blame the junta's survival on China, merely first among many countries that have been in no hurry to promote regime change.

The nearest equivalent is North Korea, a ruthless regime driven by a mix of nationalist isolationism and fear of change. But as Myanmar lacks a nuclear program, its neighbors have been more inclined to exploit the country's misfortunes than try to change it. Western nations have contented themselves with pious resolutions, knowing that China and Russia have good geopolitical reasons for not supporting international sanctions.

As with North Korea, sticks have little impact on a regime which is impervious to international opinion and cares little about the impoverishment of its own people. Carrots may not work either, but they stand a better chance if only because they will be supported by neighbors whose relations with Myanmar are naturally driven by self-interest.

China never has a problem engaging with authoritarian regimes, but its main reason for providing military and other aid is strategic. Beijing would hope to have patron-client relations with any government that would give it access to the Indian Ocean. Economic gains are a secondary consideration. India, meanwhile, feels a strategic need to counter Chinese influence, regardless of the regime in Yangon, as well as a need for Myanmar's natural gas. Any concerted moves towards regime change in Myanmar thus will need both China and India to be reassured that they will not be disadvantaged.

China now finds the Burmese regime, like North Korea, a liability, but has good reason to be concerned about change brought about by popular uprising, and about its neighbor becoming chaotic. It will only promote gradual change, perhaps prevailing on the military to make the promised new constitution a genuine step forward rather than new fig leaf for the junta.

Thailand, not China, is Myanmar's largest export market, main buyer of its gas and conduit for much illicit trade. As with India, national economic interests, including those of the Thai military, are in practice more influential than verbal support for democracy. While many in Thailand believe that an open, thriving Myanmar would be in their economic interest, there are also plenty of Thais who are content to see their historical enemy in such a pitiful condition. There is also the potential Pandora's box of Myanmar's many minorities to bring new troubles to the region.

Western sanctions will be hypocritical if they do not take into account the Western companies that do business in Myanmar, as well as the role of Singapore, a source of investment in Myanmar which also serves as bank, hospital, playground and shopping mall for the Burmese military and their families.

The events now unfolding in Myanmar are also a huge embarrassment to the Association of South East Asian Nations. Although the organizations members may now feel that it was unwise to have admitted Myanmar in 1997, there is scant chance that Asean can do more than issue verbal criticisms of the junta's actions. Its previous attempts at mediation have failed and it lacks the institutional equipment to coordinate an approach which combines its members' interests with those of China, India and the West. Members like Vietnam, for example, are strongly opposed to interference in the domestic affairs of other members. However, Asean is now attempting to devise a charter that would include some common rules. It cannot develop as a regional body enjoying international stranding unless Myanmar can be persuaded to behave like a law-abiding state.

Perhaps the Burmese military - the colonels if not the generals - can be convinced that their long term interest lies in agreeing to political change while being assured of wealth in an economy that could be transformed, like China and Vietnam, by reform and opening up. Such an approach was tried in the 1990s and failed. Myanmar has a tradition of isolationism that was exacerbated by the expulsion of most of its Indian and Chinese commercial class in the 1960s.

However, given recent events, a truckload of carrots may be the only answer to the military's guns and sticks.