Burma, also known as Myanmar, was ruled for decades by a military junta until reversion to nominal civilian control in 2011. President Thein Sein’s openness and reform agenda has led Europe, the United States and others to ease or suspend sanctions. Recent months have seen the election of Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) in April 2012 parliamentary by-elections as well as the nomination of Derek Mitchell in May to become the first U.S. ambassador to Burma since 1990. Our very own Dr. Patrick M. Cronin, Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS, had the opportunity to travel to the country recently. He offered his thoughts on a broad range of issues, including natural resources and the environment.
Daniel Katz (DK): Burma has been touted by some as the potential energy crossroads of Southeast Asia, with plans for pipelines and offshore oil and natural gas development that could contribute to strong economic growth over the next decade. What do you see as the most important political, social and environmental challenges to robust energy development in the near term?
Patrick Cronin (PC): Well, Burma or Myanmar, is rich with resources, not just hydrocarbons but obviously jade, gold, timber and other resources and it is certainly being eyed not just by China but by the entire world potentially to tap its oil and gas reserves. First, from China’s perspective, completing the oil pipeline by next year in 2013 is seen as critical for redrawing the map of Asia and providing China some relief from its so-called Malacca Dilemma, under which all of its trade and resources must go through a narrow choke point in the Strait of Malacca. This will allow major oil and gas to flow from the Persian Gulf and Africa as well as out of Myanmar itself to China. This is very important. Now, as for extractive industries being open to the international market as sanctions are lifted or suspended, there’s a great deal of interest in this, but unfortunately some of the early bids have been coming from countries that have companies that may not be the most high-standard, not exactly the gold standard of transparency. I know there was one deal just made with Thailand. Thailand may be better than most. I’m talking about some other countries where these companies will only contribute to the so-called “resource curse” that so many developing countries with resources have faced in the past, especially when they have a couple commodities that are extracted. It’s so easy for those resources to leave the country for good and for all of the profits to go into the hands of a very small group of people. Hitherto, this has been the military top leadership and they’re still sitting on treasure troves of money from their rich resources. So one of the big political challenges on development is to ensure that they build institutions in Myanmar going forward that have much more transparency over extractive industries overall, including oil and gas, and that outside companies that come in to develop it must try to build a much more transparent system for the good of Myanmar. I think they can. I think this will be a big boon to Myanmar’s development and to regional development. But we’ve seen so many horror stories in the developing world and they’re trying to do so much so quickly in Myanmar that this is a big challenge.
DK: As countries like the United States and others begin to reengage with the Burmese government, some have discussed opportunities to conduct military-to-military cooperation with their Army as a confidence building measure that could both help professionalize the military and contribute to national reconciliation between the armed forces and ethnic groups. One area of military-to-military cooperation could be around humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, given that the country is vulnerable to natural disasters. Do you see an appetite for this kind of engagement in the near future? If so, what countries might be involved in this kind of effort?
PC: There’s plenty of scope and there’s need to engage Myanmar’s military. Obviously, under Cyclone Nargis and the disaster that struck Myanmar just five years ago, there was tremendous disappointment in how the government responded and therefore how the military responded to that crisis. There was a missed opportunity as well for the then-military government of Myanmar to engage the United States, which sent [U.S. Pacific Command Commander] Admiral Keating famously over there to help deliver some assistance. They let some of the assistance in, but they really limited the engagement. I think humanitarian assistance and disaster relief is one of the easiest areas because it’s a common, universal need. The region does face these environmental calamities and even more so when you’re poor and you don’t have the infrastructure to withstand the forces of nature when they act up. So it’s important that the military be a participant in regional development. Now, there’s a contest of some sort as to who will control the regional [Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief] HADR cooperation. ASEAN is trying to play a role, but there are a lot of other initiatives as well. I think the fact that neighboring Thailand is looking at putting a hub for humanitarian assistance cooperation in U-Tapao, which is a Royal Thai Navy airfield outside of Bangkok, is a real possibility for that kind of cooperation. But other ASEAN members have been engaging the military and they want to engage them in other processes that relate to ASEAN, including the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meetings which are occurring on a more frequent basis. I think individual countries beyond ASEAN can engage Myanmar’s military. Countries like Australia, Japan and India, for instance have strong and growing ties to Myanmar, have very capable democratic military forces, professional military forces, and can be a very positive influence. I think the United States though also needs to be engaging to the extent possible while still being very careful over human rights issues and potential charges of criminality. It’s very important for the U.S. to engage the military on two levels. One, we need to engage the new mid-level officer corps, who will one day become the next senior officer corps over the next 10 years. We want to prevent that military institution from going back to what it has always been, namely the corrupt governing body of Myanmar under military juntas. So we want to instead bring it up in a way that it will become a much more professional military and get to know it. Secondly, we also need to engage by some means the top level of the military of Myanmar. Right now the military is being left outside of all of the reform process and it needs to be engaged so that it doesn’t become the spoiler or so that we understand when it might become the spoiler. Not this year, maybe not next year, but in two, three, four, or five years from now, the military may find that it steps in, has to step in, or justifies stepping in and we’re going to be better off knowing who these people are and developing some relationships. Not all of this has to be done directly between the United States and Myanmar. It can be done with some of our democratic allies and partners.
DK: The Burmese government decided to suspend the Chinese-supported Myitsone hydroelectric dam project last year after vocal concerns emerged about possible environmental damage. Do you think the government will honor its environmental commitments on this and other projects?
PC: Obviously, hydroelectric dams are another major investment that the Chinese have been making in Myanmar to secure energy resources because a lot of that electricity that is generated by those dams is diverted to China, most of it is. The very controversial Myitsone Dam, which President Thein Sein suspended until the end of his term in 2015, is still seen by most people I met with in Burma as likely to be completed because the economics, the energy needs dictate that it will be and it’s therefore a matter of timing and what kind of resource-sharing deal has to be made, especially up in the North and in Kachin state, where it is located. Environmentally, the bigger environmental issues that I’ve seen so far were much more the clear cutting of the teak forests that had existed in greater abundance before. Under sanctions, the military in Myanmar had given lots of logging rights, including to neighboring China and Thailand. Rather than being environmentally conscious of replanting, they’ve just clear cut forests, leaving desolate wasteland essentially in its wake. It takes forty to eighty years to grow a full teak tree. So, there’s a lot of work to be done environmentally and there’s no strong institution to stop damage to the environment unless the actors who come in to invest in these industries are responsible.
DK: Generally speaking, the NLD is expected to make significant gains during the 2015 general election, expanding the NLD’s footprint in parliamentary politics. But with the military’s 25 percent stake in the legislature, how important are the 2015 elections in the broad scope of political reforms and national reconciliation?
PC: Myanmar has so many hurdles. On the one hand, a visit to Myanmar immediately reveals just how much passion there is, how much more openness there is, how much hope there is on the part of everybody in the country that really better times are ahead and they want to put the worst behind them. But they’re trying to do everything all at once. They’re trying to build an economy that is broken and essentially has not been heavily invested in since they gained independence in effect in ’48. They’re trying to do nation building in terms of building a rule of law and a parliament that checks budgets and political parties that have some weight. And yet they’ve got this constitution that guarantees 25 percent of the power immediately to the military before any election occurs. And they’re trying to do peacebuilding. They’re trying to end essentially a 60-year war, or wars, with a variety of ethnic groups and they’ve negotiated 10 of 11 major ceasefires. But even when they bring them all to a major conference in the next few weeks, that’s just the beginning, not the end of the process. That’s not reconciliation and peace, that’s just a ceasefire conference. So there’s so much going on right now that when you think about the election of 2015, yes it’s a huge milestone for the reforms because right now they have enough wind behind their sail to carry them probably all the way to 2015. But then what happens? Do they go back to a 1990 moment where the military says, you know what, we don’t mean it, this election can’t happen, we don’t like the outcome, we didn’t want Aung San Suu Kyi to be elected, we didn’t want the NLD to be in power? Or, is everything turned on its head? Is that really the moment when we find out whether this reform is genuine, whether this reform has led to a real difference in leadership? Even then, it’s not over because what you have then is is a resistance movement that’s still trying to in its infancy become a governing party capable of governing and creating policy and actual policy implementation. One of the criticisms right now being made in Myanmar is lodged very much toward Aung San Suu Kyi. She’s an icon, she can do no wrong in the United States and in most of the world and she’s a remarkable lady. Yet, at the same time, she’s clearly unwilling at this point to get her hands dirty by getting mixed up in specific policy. Now, how much she can play both the role of governing partner and the role of opposition leader? They’re criticizing her in Myanmar and especially in the government for not being more constructive, given that she’s supposed to be a partner with President Thein Sein. If she’s a partner, then she’s got to get mixed up in developing answers and real solutions now, not just waiting for a 2015 election to run as the opposition leader to be swept in and then start to govern. So there are many challenges facing Myanmar. The 2015 election could well be a major watershed, but there are other milestones that have to be met well before then.
DK: Based on your discussions and observations on the ground, what is the one thing that worries you most about Burma that could reverse the political progress made over the last year?
PC: The fact that the military elite are on the sidelines of the reform could lead them down the road to seize an opportunity like a much stronger protest than the one I saw in Yangon over electricity, where an agent provocateur perhaps creates an incident and violence ensues and the violence becomes the rationalization for the military to come out of the bunkers and to basically go back into business. Now, this could be a situation where the military still has the power to change government and to use force. It has a monopoly of force, but it may not be able to govern the way it had been under both Ne Win from 1962 really almost until then-senior general Than Shwe took over and he ruled until 2010, when he went into retirement ostensibly to turn over the government to Thein Sein. So, we don’t have much of a track record in the last 50 years for the military not playing a strong role. The biggest challenge right now is that we should be doing everything we can to support the reform process and keeping the reforms going forward, recognizing that President Thein Sein is in a delicate coalition with Aung San Suu Kyi, his opponent, in trying to promote the reforms versus the old system. Given the challenges of state building, nation building, and peace building that they’re trying to do simultaneously, and given how difficult this is in a country that has so little infrastructure and capacity, it’s not going to go smoothly or well. We have to try to prevent spoilers from eventually stepping in and cracking down and reversing this prospect of a much brighter future for Myanmar.
DK: Thank you very much.
PC: It’s been a pleasure.
Daniel Katz is a Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Research Intern at the Center for a New American Security where he works with the Asia-Pacific Security Program.
Photo: Courtesy of flickr user eGuide Travel.