March 30th, 2012
01:44 PM ET

Myanmar: The lynchpin of Asia

Editor's Note: Jaswant Singh is the only person to have served as India’s finance minister (1996, 2002-2004), foreign minister (1998-2004), and defense minister (2000-2001). This article was originally published by Project Syndicate. For more from them, visit their new website and follow it on Facebook and Twitter.

By Jaswant Singh, Project Syndicate

Isolated and impoverished by decades of international sanctions, Myanmar (Burma) has emerged in recent months as both a beacon of hope and a potential new Asian flashpoint. With Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi freed from two decades of house arrest to campaign vigorously for a seat in parliament in the special election to be held on April 1, Burma’s commitment to rejoining the international community appears to be genuine. But this opening has other consequences, most importantly setting the stage for a new “great game” of strategic competition.

No one should be surprised that Burma is a locus of interest for great powers. After all, it is larger than France and with a similar population size. In his recent book Monsoon, Robert Kaplan notes that in the Middle Ages three kingdoms lay between Thailand (then called Siam) and India. One was Myanmar, which means “that which is central.” Centuries later, Burma remains central, not only in matters of Asian security, but also for the country’s vast and still mostly untapped natural wealth.

Burma’s strategic importance reflects, first and foremost, its geographic location between India, China, Thailand, and Southeast Asia. Ringed in the north by the southern ridges of the Himalayas, to the east by foothills of dense teak forests, and to the west and south by the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, Burma’s geography has always shaped the country’s history and politics.

In 1885, during an earlier era of great power competition in Asia, Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s father, impulsively annexed Burma to the British Raj in India following the Third Anglo-Burmese War. Thant Myint-U, a leading historian of contemporary Burma (and the son of former United Nations Secretary-General U Thant), likened Churchill’s move to “throwing Burma off a cliff.”

Only in 1937, by a decree of the British viceroy, was Burma finally separated from British India. But the Japanese invasion five years later subjugated Burma and its people to colonial rule once again, with the conquering sweep of the Imperial Japanese Army checked only at Imphal, in India’s Manipur state.

The end of the British Empire in 1947 gave Burma its freedom, but did not end its travails. The assassination of Aung San (Suu Kyi’s father and the leader of Burma’s independence movement) destabilized the country, paving the way for the army to take over. Under its long-serving military junta, Burma shut itself off from the world, internalized its problems, and stagnated as the rest of Asia boomed. The world reciprocated, isolating Burma economically and diplomatically.

It was to this Burma that I journeyed from Imphal some 10 years ago, the first Indian foreign minister to travel overland to its neighbor since independence. India’s Border Roads Organization had recently completed the first all-weather road connecting the two countries since WWII. Journeying on this “road to fabled Mandalay,” I recorded in my diary, was a highlight of “one of the most memorable, satisfying, and happy foreign visits in my experience as Foreign Minister.”

China, too, has endeavored for centuries to bind Burma to itself, mostly in search of a southern route to India and the Indian Ocean. In recent decades, China took advantage of the international community’s shunning of Burma to secure its own strategic interests, building highways, railways, ports, and pipelines that connect southern and western China to the Indian Ocean.

But trade has not been China’s only motivation for investing so heavily in Burma. China also views Burma as vital to its quest for security, as well as to the regional expansion of Chinese power.

Reflecting its fears about the potential for Chinese encirclement, democratic India, after early hiccups of doubt, set aside its scruples about Burma’s military regime. India’s cultural, economical, social, and sometimes military ties with Burma – indeed, with the entire region – are older than China’s. So, for reasons of Realpolitik, India expanded its activities and investments in Burma throughout the last two decades of the junta’s rule.

Sometimes the competition with China is direct. At the Shwe gas fields along the Burmese cost, estimated to be among the largest reserves in the world, two pipelines are to be constructed: one to China from the nearby port of Kyauk Phru, and the other to India from the port of Sittwe.

For Thant, this strategic competition is worrying. The “crossroads through Burma,” he argues, cannot “be a simple joining up of countries,” because the regions of “China and India that are being drawn together over Burma are among the most far-flung parts of the two giant states, regions of unparalleled ethnic and linguistic diversity….isolated upland societies that were, until recently, beyond the control of Delhi or Beijing.”

While China seeks strategic depth in Burma, India’s interests there are now reanimated by the international community’s opening to a country that appears to yearn for the same democratic freedoms that Indians possess. And, in Aung San Suu Kyi, who studied in New Delhi (as did her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, who was Ambassador to India and Nepal in 1960), Burma possesses a charismatic moral leader who reminds Indians of their country’s own founders.

As a result, Realpolitik and economic interest alone will no longer shape the great game playing out in Burma. Ideals and the quest for freedom will also play a critical role.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jaswant Singh.

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Topics: Myanmar

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. krm1007

    Jaswant needs to understand that India has been relegated to the role of babysitter to Burma/Myanmar and Bangladesh. So he he is trying to make lemonade out of a lemon. Here is the reality.....

    PAKISTAN.....The New Gateway to Central Asia and Europe.
    With a population of over 180 million most of whom are well educated, English speaking, entrepreneurial and a cultural and social fit with Central Asians...Pakistan will now become the new face and gateway to Central Asia and Europe. Pakistan will thus span this region and provide the impetus for growth, prosperity and unity among these countries. These are new and exciting times for Pakistanis who should now look forward to their new leadership role aligned with Central Asia and Europe rather than the Subcontinent. We wish them much success as they have sacrificed the most during the past 30 + years creating a new world order.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Reply
    • habibi

      Pakistan has suffered immensely as a result of a fragmented educational system coupled with issues of access, quality and governance. Pakistan’s primary and secondary enrolment ratios are 46 and 21 percent of the relevant age groups – only one-half the average for all low income countries. Only about half of those who enrolled in school stayed on until the fourth grade in comparison with an average of about two thirds for all low income countries Within the South Asia region, Pakistan lags well behind its neighbors in enrolment; net primary enrolment rates are 50% in Pakistan, 75% in Bangladesh, 77% in India and 100% in Sri Lanka. By all criteria, Pakistan’s educational system is at the bottom of the international ladder.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:11 pm | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Both Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein are writing Myanmar's history. "The attention of the whole world has focused on the by-elections" he said and urged all people and all parties to "respect the decision of the people". Not long ago, his country was seen as a pariah state and his military regime routinely suppressed and ignored the wishes of the people. The world hopes that Suu Kyi will ensure that the president is able to continue to drive reforms forward. She says she trusts him and her vote of confidence has been largely responsible for the outside world's decision to engage with the new government.

    March 30, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
    • habibi

      Silly little girl, "Both Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein are writing Myanmar's history".??????????????
      They are, inshallah, enabling a successful future.
      It is kind of amuzing that you would admit to thinking that two people can write a country's history.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Reply
  3. krm1007

    The sudden interest in Myanmar is timed to US/NATO pullout from Afghanistan and further attempts to get closer to China and contain it geopolitically. The efforts to achieve the same objectives via India have yielded minimal results as China has turned the tables and in turn contained India. The next decade should be interesting and expect China to slice up India further taking territories in the north and north east bordering Burma. The timing would be perfect as US and Europe would be recuperating from the Afghan Iraq sojourns and too tired too respond...in fact wink wink they have cut a deal amongst themselves. In turn, expect Pakistan to pull away from China and gravitate towards Russia and central Asia enroute to new Europe of which Turkey will be a key player.

    March 31, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      Sudden interest???
      Burma-specific sanctions began following the Tatmadaw’s violent suppression of popular protests in 1988, and have continued through several subsequent periods in which Congress perceived major human rights violations in Burma. The result is a web of overlapping sanctions with differing restrictions, waiver provisions, expiration conditions, and reporting requirements.

      March 31, 2012 at 10:09 pm | Reply
    • hmbsandman

      "slice up India"? What dream-land are you living in, my Pakistani friend? India today is not the same pathetic country of the 1960s and 1950s. Nobody is going to slice us up.

      IIndia and Pakistan are trying to get a free-trade pact going. If that passes, it will create millions of jobs in Pakistan and perhaps lead to peace between the two countries. Nobody in the world will be able to stand up to strong India and a strong Pakistan.

      However you can continue trying your jihadi BS and see where your ghairat takes you though. Your country is in a very dark place right now, but I promise you it will be in a MUCH darker place if you don't get with the program.

      IDarkness or light, it is entirely up to you.

      April 2, 2012 at 1:17 am | Reply
  4. Rz

    Sounds like history repeating itself. A good country opens itself to the world with good intentions. Then it gets exploited. Then it shuts down. Then it opens up. Then it gets exploited. Capitalism, globalism, and so much of the other whatever isms are missing the big picture. The world is racing around with plenty of natural and man-made problems with no clear focus or effort on mankind as a whole. From an idyllic perspective, could you imagine what progress we could make if the entire global military budget, manpower, and effort were transferred (even for just a few years) to getting us off this hurling mass we call Earth ? But nooooooooo! We're all too wrapped up, guilty, and stuck in our individual, selfish, mismanaged, wasted, and often pointless struggles. What a shame!

    April 1, 2012 at 6:50 am | Reply
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    April 23, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Reply
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  7. Erik JC Young

    At the moment the world is dealing with the necessary erradication of 55,000 acres of opium poppy plantations in Burma/Myannmar.The CIA/Military need to obtain a Supreme Court Order freezing the royalty payments on all Myanmar's oil and gas production until the poppy fields are slashed destroyed and the whole operation closed down.

    March 18, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Reply

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