Where China Meets India: The Improbably Bright Future of Myanmar

Via the New York Times, a review of an interesting book focused on Myanmar.  As the article notes:

“…As economies and societies all around them have flourished, two countries have been strikingly left out of the East Asian boom of the past generation: North Korea and Myanmar. The strategic importance, internal miseries and governing oddities of North Korea are obvious and frequently in the news. Myanmar, by contrast, is rarely mentioned. When it does appear, it is usually as the object of some new calamity — like the 2008 cyclone that killed over 100,000 people, many of them perishing after Myanmar’s benighted military rulers refused outside aid — or as the setting for dramas involving Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner whose party triumphed in the 1990 national elections but who has spent most of the years since then under house arrest.

The central premise of Thant Myint-U’s new book, “Where China Meets India,” is that Myanmar both deserves and is destined to play a much more crucial role in world economic, political and even military events. (A note on names: the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or Slorc, which replaced the military regime of General Ne Win in the late 1980s and which still maintains control under a different title, changed the English version of the country’s name to Myanmar. Some newspapers, including this one, use that name while many Western governments, including the United States and the United Kingdom, have stuck with Burma, as Thant does in his book.) What’s not yet clear, the author argues, are the likely consequences of Myanmar’s impending reintegration into the world — for its own people, for the nearby powers of India and China, and for other nations, notably the United States. “Where China Meets India” is not mainly a political book, but it ends with a sharp argument that American policy toward Myanmar is flawed in a way that is about to become more costly for all parties involved, except the Chinese.

Thant, who was born in New York of Burmese parents, is a former United Nations official and the author of a previous well-received book, “The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma.” He is also a grandson of U Thant, the secretary general of the United Nations in the 1960s. He tries hard here to emphasize the centrality of Myanmar’s geographic, cultural and historic positioning between India and China, both of which have interacted with Burmese tribes and rulers over the years.

Now and for the immediate future, that influence comes overwhelmingly from China — because of its high-speed growth, because of its trade across its rugged land border with Myanmar, because of its demand for that country’s raw materials and for commodities that can come in by sea to Myanmar’s ports. China has roughly America’s geographic scale and layout, with a dry and mountainous interior. “What China is lacking is its California,” Thant points out, “another coast that would provide its remote interior provinces with an outlet to the sea.” He quotes Chinese strategists who see Myanmar not exactly as a new California but “as the bridge to the Bay of Bengal and the waters beyond.”

Thant’s book is an engaging combination of history, contemporary travelogue and personal and family recollections, along with a certain amount of policy analysis. Western readers are likely to be especially drawn to its rich, loving, but tragic portrayal of Myanmar. As he did in his previous book, Thant explains its colonial legacies, its repressive and erratic government, its deep ethnic divisions, drug trade and civil wars, as well as the look and feel of its cities and landscape.

What may come as news to many Western readers (and would be unacceptable to many in China) is Thant’s exhaustive account of how very separate were the kingdoms, tribal areas and small independent states that are now amalgamated into the modern nations of the region. “For much of its early history,” he notes, “Burma’s neighbor to the northeast was not China, but the independent kingdom of Yunnan” — now a Chinese province — “with Dali as its capital.” Thant’s description of the historic variety of China’s component parts is convincing and fair-minded. Yet this is a loaded, even dangerous, theme within China, because of the government’s hypersensitivity about what it calls “splittism” in any form — the concept that China’s extent might ever have differed from its current borders, including those in Tibet and Xinjiang.

Thant also ably portrays the mixture of opportunism and wariness with which the people of Myanmar and their neighbors view the coming of new Chinese factories, plantations, mines and dams. “Burma is naturally very rich in the very commodities that will be most valued in the 21st century, . . . and China will likely bankroll any efforts to exploit these resources,” Thant writes. “What’s unclear is whether the majority of Burmese people will benefit at all.”

My main concern about his book involves its on-scene Chinese coverage. Thant appears to have spent less time there than in the other venues, and his descriptions often sound touristy, padded or just plain wrong. I don’t know who told him that Beijing’s name means “Northern Peace,” but it doesn’t — it’s “Northern Capital,” in contrast to the “Southern Capital” of Nanjing. He has a famous neighborhood in Beijing placed in the wrong part of town, and he says, remarking on the enormous “photograph” (actually a painted portrait) of Mao Zedong that dominates Tiananmen Square, that it was “the only place I saw a photograph of him anywhere in China.” That is hard to imagine. While living in China, I came across images of Mao many times a day, not even counting his presence on every unit of Chinese currency from the 1-renminbi bill to the largest, 100 renminbi. Some of Thant’s China-travelogue sections also have a notebook-emptying feel: “A bellhop in a red uniform showed me upstairs. . . . After the bellhop left I studied the hotel brochure and saw that in addition to the basic singles and doubles (I had taken a single, called a ‘Deluxe’) there were various classes of suites.”

But most of “Where China Meets India” is engaging and strong, particularly when it reformulates an argument Thant has made over the years — that America’s exclusions and trade sanctions have outgrown their usefulness. The American boycott of Cuba has the same obsolete quality. The difference is that Myanmar has an alternative financier immediately at hand.

In one possible outcome for the country’s future, Thant says, “Western sanctions stay in place, and they reduce the influence of Western democracies to near zero.” He quotes a Chinese businessman who puts this prospect more pithily: “I hope Western sanctions will remain forever.” Thant argues that the ripple effects of a Myanmar that had become a full but resentful Chinese satellite would alarm India and disrupt the region. The better option, he says, would be selective engagement by the West (which, if recent headlines are to be believed, may already be in progress), much like America’s with China over the past 30 years — a tactic that has not ended disagreements but has made relations easier. Even if you aren’t persuaded, it’s a case worth hearing and a trip, in Thant’s company, worth taking.

This entry was posted on Saturday, October 22nd, 2011 at 5:28 pm and is filed under Myanmar.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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