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Triumph of the Witless

If the Burmese junta is so "unsophisticated" in the ways of diplomacy, why has it been able to hold onto power for so long?

But while they may not be intellectual dynamos, the generals have clearly mastered a survival strategy with regard to the outside world. It’s no coincidence that despite Western and Asian pressure on them to change, the Burmese regime has remained in power since 1962--and it has only strengthened its hold on power in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. Indeed, as much as the junta has lasted partly by crushing and co-opting its own people, its longevity must also be attributed to its playing the international community for fools, over and over again.

The lesson the junta clings to most tightly today was learned in 1990. That year, they allowed a free election, thinking they would win. They didn’t. And when they refused to cede power, they lost nearly all international support--but only for a time. Turns out that Burma’s resources, including some of the largest untapped gas fields in Southeast Asia, were too important to ignore. The international community stopped protesting the junta, and the generals learned that it never had to make a major concession again; their resources would provide them with immunity.

They’ve since used this insight to great effect. In the mid-1990s, countries like Thailand and India started putting pressure on the junta to reform. India’s then-defense minister George Fernandes even hosted Burmese opposition activists in his private compound. So, in response, the Burmese generals began aggressively courting China--an historical enemy due to China’s past support for communist rebel groups inside Burma. Yet Beijing, oil-hungry as ever, slowly built closer economic and trade links to Burma, and completely stopped its support for the communist insurgents. The junta then used its Chinese support as leverage against India, Thailand, and other neighbors. And it worked. India has since reversed its hard-nosed stance on Burma entirely.

Another favored tactic of the regime is to promise potentially bothersome outsiders--whether they be human-rights organizations or concerned governments--just enough reform to placate them. Problem is, the reform rarely takes place. In the mid-1990s, for example, the Burmese leaders seemed willing to engage in a political dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won that 1990 election. By demonstrating its apparent willingness to deal, the junta gained enough international respectability to win admission into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the region’s most important security and economic organization. When the Burmese generals tossed Suu Kyi back under house arrest several years later, it was already too late for ASEAN to throw the junta out of the organization, since doing so would prove that the group had made an enormous mistake.

At the same time as it misled ASEAN, by allowing the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights, as well as several special envoys (even providing them with visits to Suu Kyi), the generals sparked optimism among Burmese democracy advocates that the U.N. would be able to broker reform. This, too, of course, came to nothing.

Though India, China, the United States, and the U.N. may have different views on the pace or scope of political reform in Asia--the U.N. cares more about Burmese human rights than either China or India, and the U.S. takes the hardest line of all--they all must realize that, as long as they keep haggling over details, no one entity will get what it really wants. For India’s leadership, supporting the generals will never succeed, since, unlike the Chinese, the Indian government actually has to be responsive to voters and the media. For the United Nations, simply grasping at every straw from the Burmese regime, without assessing the reality of the offer, will only prove self-defeating. For the U.S. and other Western countries, trying to pressure the Burmese regime without taking into consideration Burma’s relationship with China, which provides it much immunity from pressure, will also prove counterproductive. Even for China it’s not a good play to back the regime: On many issues, from drug control to economic reform, the junta has refused to take China’s advice, and, ultimately, the kind of instability the junta fosters, with its opaque, almost incomprehensive leadership, will not comfort Chinese firms seeking to make investments in Burma either.

The “unsophisticated” generals’ diplomatic success has gone on for far too long--and the Burmese people are in pain. The economy is in shambles, a political opposition movement hardly exists, and the HIV/AIDS rate is among the worst in Southeast Asia. Until China, the United States, the U.N., India--everyone--realizes that collective action on Burma is necessary, the suffering will only continue.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a special correspondent for The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's China Program.

By Joshua Kurlantzick