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The Great Game in Burma

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Colonial Jousting in Myanmar
by Peter Kwong
The unfolding events in Myanmar have been distracting Chinese Communist Party leaders from a most urgent business: planning for the 17th Party Congress, which is to convene in two weeks.
 
This would normally be a critical period of tense last minute factional jockeying for appointments of next generation top-tier leaders. But as the world helplessly watches the military crackdown in Yangon, China’s elders instead find themselves under pressure by western nations to do something about stopping suppression in Myanmar, China’s close ally.
 
China is having to deal with calls to influence a close ally, the Myanmar strongmen, to stop their repression -- which reminds of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, and distracts the Chinese Party leaders from preparations for the 17th Party Congress.



Colonial Jousting in Myanmar
by Peter Kwong
[republished at PFP with Agence Global permission]


Already stung by human rights activists’ calls for the boycott of next year’s Olympic Games in Beijing on account of their failure to pressure Sudanese government -- another close ally -- to end the massacre in Darfur, Chinese leaders are eager to oblige. A bloody finale in Myanmar could turn into a complete public relations disaster.


But here is their quandary: How can they tell Burmese generals not to fend off a popular revolt, when they themselves were the perpetrators of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre when facing a similar people’s movement? And, if the monks of Yangon were to overthrow Burmese hard-fisted government through peaceful protests, how to prevent the contagion from effecting Chinese people? After all, the cry for democracy that led to the last wave of people’s movements in Asia during the 1980s and brought down authoritarian regimes in South Korea and the Philippines was what had inspired the Chinese students to organize the fateful Tiananmen Square protests.  


It is no surprise then that Chinese media have hardly covered the events in Myanmar. Chinese Yahoo and Google have both joined in the suppression of the news. A few bloggers have managed to confuse the censors by manipulating key words. “Since the Burmese are demonstrating just like our 19(8)(9), we should support them,” wrote one, in a message that pretty much sums up the mood in China’s blogosphere, while the mainstream media outlets focus on the ceremonies held nationwide to commemorate the birth of Confucius.


In a move to appease international pressure, Chinese government has abandoned its standard “non-interference in internal affairs” defense to urge that “all parties in Myanmar exercise restraint through negotiation and peaceful means in order to restore stability.” One wonders what restraint they want the peacefully demonstrating monks to exercise? And what do they mean by stability? It was the catchphrase of the Chinese Communist Party during and after its bloody crackdown on protesters in 1989. Currently, as China prepares for the Party Congress, “stability” in Beijing means a lockdown: News media have been warned to stay away from sensitive issues; individual petitioners from the provinces are being stopped from coming to Beijing with their grievances; university scholars and think-tank experts have been told not to speak to the media. Internet police have not only closed tens of thousands of interactive websites that allow visitors to post opinions, but also the internet data centers (IDCs) that host them, and even Internet Service Providers. This is the “stability” that Chinese government and Communist Party need to successfully stage the 17th Congress whose theme is the “construction of a harmonious society.”


When it comes to Myanmar, however, the Chinese government is primarily mindful that undue pressure on the military junta could jeopardize its access to Myanmar’s rich natural gas deposits (the world’s tenth largest) and timber. Its present access is the result of a long cultivated relationship with Myanmar’s military rulers. China’s interests in Myanmar are geopolitical as well.
 
China is building a $2 billion oil pipeline from Myanmar’s coast on the Bay of Bengal to Yunnan Province in southwest China. The pipeline will allow oil from the Middle East to reach China without having to pass through the Malacca Strait. Chinese projects in Myanmar are part of a larger national economic plan to make Yunan Province the regional center of trade and commerce for entire Southeast Asia, embracing the ex-socialist states of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.


The downfall of Myanmar’s military junta could only be acceptable to the Chinese if its successor regime were friendly. Under Aung San Suu Kyi, the Oxford graduated rightful winner of Burma’s democratic election annulled in 1990, the Chinese believe that the country would be leaning toward the United States, Japan, Australia and Britain -- the nations that were cut from access to Burma’s rich resources by the military coup in 1988.
 
Myanmar is in fact a target of intense international competition for its natural resources. India, too, has been courting the regime’s favor and has likewise shied away from condemning the Yangon regime.


What we are witnessing is the old 19th century game of colonial competition veiled in the 21st century pro-democracy rhetoric. In this game, however, China is at a disadvantage -- wanting to maintain influence in Myanmar, while not offending the supporters of its people’s aspirations for democracy. There’s a Chinese proverb that sums up this predicament: “Chewing on a bitter lotus root, not daring to complain.”




Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian American studies at Hunter College, is co-author of Chinese America: The Untold Story of America's Oldest New Community.


Copyright © 2007 Peter Kwong


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Released: 03 October 2007
Word Count: 817
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Released: 03 October 2007
Word Count: 817
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for The Nation, Le Monde diplomatique, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Mark Hertsgaard, Rami G. Khouri, Peter Kwong,Tom Porteous, Patrick Seale and Immanuel Wallerstein.

 

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