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Tug-of-war over Myanmar

In general, governments react to changes in foreign lands based on their own selfish interests, not on whether those changes are inherently good or bad.

That was clearly demonstrated by the differing responses of the world’s superpowers, China and the United States, to the sweeping and sudden reforms in Myanmar.

When President Thein Sein replaced the former dictator Than Shwe last year, there was profound scepticism in the West, especially in Washington, about whether his reformist moves were sincere.

The US and other formerly rabid Myanmar bashers expressed begrudging encouragement in the “okay, but still could do better” schoolmarmish style.

They insisted that much more needed to be done, and that until it was, no bones would be thrown Myanmar’s way.

Taking a different tack, the Chinese expressed unreserved goodwill towards Thein Sein and his new government.

They did that despite grave misgivings about his reforms, and their horror at the decision to suspend work on the giant Myitsone dam on Myanmar’s border with China.

But Beijing issued no sanctimonious rebukes; instead, it continued doing what it has always done – trading and investing heavily in its strategically key southern neighbour.

Thein Sein’s team also went on introducing reforms in their own way and at their own pace, so that it was soon apparent that, despite Western worries, they were indeed sincere.

Last month, the president vowed to introduce a “second wave of reforms”, including a minimum wage law and the privatisation of some education, energy, finance and health sectors.

On the political front, he launched the “second wave” earlier this month by freeing 46 prisoners, including several well-known political dissidents.

Indeed, any lack of sincerity came more from the US and other Western nations, which, having promised to reciprocate each reformist step taken by Naypyidaw, instead dallied and hedged.

Last week, Washington finally eased some of its remaining sanctions to permit American firms to invest in Myanmar.

Unlike US companies in Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and other repressive spots, however, those going into newly democratic Myanmar face daunting hurdles.

They must, for instance, explain their company policies regarding human rights, corruption, social responsibility and the environment.

Meanwhile, Washington’s ban on imports from Myanmar, which Naypyidaw says is shackling industrial growth and job creation, remains in place.

As if that were not bad enough, President Barack Obama even signed an executive order to broaden the remaining sanctions.

Now they encompass actions that weaken reform, violate human rights, instigate ethnic strife, involve arms deals with North Korea, criticise the Chicago White Sox and insufficiently extol basketball.

Well, no, not the last two, of course, but really the crabby, half-heartedness of it is deeply vexing to say the least.

Luckily for Washington, it now appears that the Chinese might shoot themselves in the foot and lose their frontrunner status.

They risk doing that, not by American-style bitching about the depth or sincerity of reform, but because they fear Thein Sein is moving too fast and too broadly.

Already, China’s state media has warned that democracy may not work for Myanmar.

Last month, the Communist Party-run Global Times asserted that Thein Sein’s “excessive and hasty” moves towards “Western-style democracy” may be dangerous and might “provide chances for all kinds of extremists”.

The article highlighted recent communal clashes in Rakhine state that left many dead and thousands homeless, and it said that such conflicts “may get worse and run out of control” if the reforms continue.

Actually, China’s major concern is that full democracy will flower in Myanmar and will become entrenched and successful.

Then, like equally authoritarian Laos and Vietnam, it will face increased pressure to start to reform and democratise itself.

Thus, for equal and opposite reasons, China and the US are pulling Myanmar in opposite directions.

If Thein Sein can keep his cool, he will cannily play them off against each other and reap the benefits from both.

Contact our regional insider Roger at rogermitton@gmail.com

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