Myanmar, religious minorities and geopolitics: US, China, India and Japan vying for influence
Myanmar, religious minorities and geopolitics: US, China, India and Japan vying for influence
Ri Kuk-Chol and Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
The nation of Myanmar (Burma) appears to be at a major crossroads because past intransigence is now being followed by a possible thaw, whereby this nation comes in from the “international cold.” Of course, for nations like China then issues related to human rights was never on the agenda. Similarly, major democratic states have a schizophrenic approach to human rights. This is especially confirmed by major democratic nations having close ties with Saudi Arabia which denies religious freedom, prevents gender equality and allows little children to marry old men under Islamic Sharia law. Therefore, within this chaotic world you have the nation of Myanmar which is trying to break out from isolation in order to exploit its geographic importance and natural resources.
Irrespective if people have a negative or positive impression of this nation; it is essential to understand the fears of elites within this nation which have tried to crush dissent and various ethnic groups for many decades. Nations like Nigeria had a brutal war named Biafra whereby central forces were challenged by ethnic demands for independence. Similarly, the former Yugoslavia was multi-ethnic and multi-religious just like Nigeria and Myanmar are. However, political convulsions and outside meddling led to the demise of the former Yugoslavia.
Indonesia tried to crush the ethnic and religious independent passions of East Timor which led to mass repression and untold numbers of people being killed. Eventually, East Timor became independent after regional powers like Australia intervened on behalf of the international community. Despite this, you still have many tensions throughout Indonesia based on religious and ethnic issues. For example, West Papua (Irian Jaya) faces Javanization and Islamization policies which are aimed at altering the ethnic and religious balance against the mainly Christian Papuans. This issue is replicated in other areas and also against other minority Muslim ethnic groups which desire greater autonomy (or independence) within Indonesia and this notably applies to Aceh.
The geopolitical angle is another major area which pits China, India, Japan and the United States within the Myanmar question. If political leaders in Tokyo and Washington continue with lofty ideals based on human rights, then clearly China and India will gain from this reality. Japan clearly hopes to expand economic, political and military angles to its relationship with India. In Japan the nation of India is viewed favorably based on this nation being the most populace democratic nation in the world and because of power projections aimed at containing China. Past relations between America and India were soured by Washington’s intrigues in Afghanistan and Pakistan. After all, this policy enabled Islamist forces to develop because of the deeds of major security intelligence agencies; this especially applies to the CIA, ISI and MI6. India felt these convulsions within Kashmir and by terrorist attacks throughout India based on the connivance of Pakistan. Therefore, the “right policy” towards Myanmar is not easy and this applies to the internal political mechanisms of this country and how major nations respond to the changes taking place.
In Myanmar you also have a powerful Christian element based on several mainly Christian ethnic groups which have been fighting for decades. Recent attention is focused on Buddhist and Muslim clashes. However, the Christian ethnic angle is the one area of fear for central forces in Myanmar which fear possible disintegration. It is believed that you have approximately 3.4 million Christians in Myanmar therefore Christian influence within several political movements is very powerful. This is based on being predominant in areas which remain hostile to central forces based on past policies and ongoing military, political, and economic operations, which are aimed at crushing several mainly Christian ethnic groups (or Christian led groups).
On the World Watch Monitor (http://www.worldwatchmonitor.org) website it is stated by Vishal Arora that“Amid global euphoria over reforms in Burman-majority parts of Burma, life has changed little for more than 3 million Christians and other minorities left to suffer from one of the world’s longest running civil wars.”
“Headlines around the world hailed the induction on Wednesday (May 2) of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament as the beginning of a new era in Burma, officially known as Myanmar. But for the 150,000 Internally Displaced People (IDP) living in eastern Karen state’s 4,000 IDP camps, life is still about landmine blasts, gun and mortar attacks, and the possibility of a final war between armed insurgents and the Burma army.”
Further down in the same article it states that “In predominantly Christian Kachin state, government troops have attacked KIA soldiers and civilians since a 17-year ceasefire broke down in June last year. The fighting has displaced over 75,000 people since then, according to the Kachin Development Networking Group.”
Therefore, it might be champagne and trade for some political and business leaders in America, China, India and Japan. However, on the ground it is very difficult in several parts of Myanmar for various minority Christian ethnic groups.
Stratfor stated in relation to the importance of Myanmar for India that “India, too, is constructing an energy terminal at Sittwe, north of Ramree, on Myanmar’s coast, that will potentially carry offshore natural gas northwest through Bangladesh to the vast demographic inkblot that is the Indian state of West Bengal. The Indian pipeline would actually split into two directions, with another proposed route going to the north around Bangladesh. Commercial goods will follow along new highways to be built to India. Kolkata, Chittagong and Yangon, rather than being cities in three separate countries, will finally be part of one Indian Ocean world.”
“The salient fact here is that by liberating Myanmar, India’s hitherto landlocked northeast, lying on the far side of Bangladesh, will also be opened up to the outside. Northeast India has suffered from bad geography and underdevelopment, and as a consequence it has experienced about a dozen insurgencies in recent decades. Hilly and jungle-covered, northeast India is cut off from India proper by backbreakingly poor Bangladesh to the west and by Myanmar, hitherto a hermetic and undeveloped state, to the east. But Myanmar’s political opening and economic development changes this geopolitical fact, because both India’s northeast and Bangladesh will benefit from Myanmar’s political and economic renewal.”
Like previously mentioned, it is very difficult for America and Japan, and other powerful democracies, because if they stand on the sidelines too much then China and other economic rivals will gain. Also, the geopolitical angle related to Myanmar for America, China, India and Japan is also extremely powerful. This reality needs to be weighed up against the many decades of economic and political discontent within the body politic of Myanmar. Therefore, is it really fine to do business deals in the knowledge that greater economic prosperity in Myanmar may be used against the various different mainly Christian ethnic groups which could be crushed?
This issue applies to a plethora of other nations. For example, in China it is clear that growing economic prosperity is also being aimed at changing the internal dynamics of mainly Buddhist Tibet and vast areas of West China where Islam predominates among the indigenous groups. It is a very fine balance and the same applies to countless other nations whereby minorities often suffer and become even more marginalized once major economic development takes place. After all, economic and growing prosperity in America and Australia during the very foundations of these nations meant that indigenous Native Americans and Aborigines would be crushed and marginalized. Given this reality, the perennial struggle between economic development, control of resources, modernization, and other forces, whereby various ethnic groups suffer greatly is now being played out in the modern world and this certainly applies to Myanmar.
Yet, in the opposite direction you also have the fear that Myanmar might unravel based on ethnic and religious grounds. Therefore, the political and military elites in Myanmar are very worried about the right steps to take in order to preserve the territorial integrity of this nation. Also, from a Buddhist point of view, then various Islamic conquests crushed Buddhism in many parts of Asia and The Taliban even want to destroy every vestige of this faith in Afghanistan. Likewise, while Buddhist and Muslim clashes have hit the headlines in relation to Myanmar; it is clear that many massacres against Buddhists have taken place over the decades in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh and in southern Thailand. Sadly, the mass media often paints a very simple picture but many militant Buddhist monks look to history and the ongoing reality of what is happening to Buddhists in several nations; therefore, this increases their fear and loathing.
Myanmar is obviously beset with a plethora of challenges and the same applies to how major powers develop their strategy with this nation. Japan appears to want to expand because the BBC reports that “Mt Abe pledged about $500m (£330m) in new loans and wrote off $1.74bn of Burma’s debt to Japan, officials said.”
“Japan, a key donor to Burma, maintained trade ties with the country during its years of military rule.”
“Correspondents say Mr Abe’s visit – the first visit by a Japanese prime minister since 1977 – marks a further improvement in already warm relations.”
This follows on from President Obama who told President Thein Sein of Myanmar that “We want you to know that the United States will make every effort to assist you on what I know is a long, and sometimes difficult but ultimately correct path to follow.”
The leaders of America and Japan also have their eyes cast on China because while economic trade is welcomed it is clear that both nations are worried by the growing power of this nation. Therefore, both political leaders in America and Japan have to weigh up the geopolitical angle strongly and this also applies to India which is worried about the intentions of Beijing. All in all, the choices are very difficult either way but sadly for ethnic and religious groups on the ground their fate appears to be in the hands of powerful international nations. After all, nobody really knows the real intentions of Thein Sein and other political leaders in Myanmar and how they will respond in the future.