Burma lies between two emerging Asian powerhouses - China and India

20 February 2008

[source - Daily Times]

“YOU can take my picture but please don’t put it in any magazines,” the old man said with alarm. Then he paused and shook his head apologetically. “We live in fear in this country,” he said.

I’ll call him Tin Ngwe. Printing his real name would probably land him in jail; printing mine would get me on a journalist’s blacklist.

I followed him as he shuffled around the Shwedagon temple complex in the shadow of the huge golden stupa which forms the spiritual centre of Rangoon. Last September, when hundreds of Burmese monks took part in a three-week protest against the government, Shwedagon became their focal point.

I asked Tin Ngwe where all the monks were now, as I had only seen a handful in what is one of Burma’s most important religious sites. He led me away from the crowds to the eastern gate, and pointed to the road below, where the first demonstration by monks had begun. “Thirty-one of them,” he said, “all shot”. Many other monks and protesters are, according to human rights groups, still being held in jail.

Last week the Burmese state-controlled media announced that a national referendum on a new constitution would be held in May, and general elections in 2010. No-one I met had any faith in the promise. A young man in his 30s told me: “We read that paper and we laugh. It’s already taken so long. I know my country and I know my government. It won’t happen.” It has been 18 years since the last polls. The government lost them to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, so they ignored the result.

In August 1988 the military government crushed a national uprising, killing an estimated 3,000 people. Ms Suu Kyi has spent most of her time since then either in jail or under house arrest, where she is today.

Chinese influence: Many observers believe the junta has decided to make this new promise of elections because of pressure from China. Beijing’s influence in Burma is considerable, if not yet decisive.

I recently asked a Rangoon-based diplomat what role she thought China was playing in the country. Speaking off the record, she answered “whatever best protects their commercial interests”. The Chinese were not bothered by the fate of Aung San Suu Kyi or the progress of reform, she said - they just want things stable so they can keep doing business. And old Tin Ngwe agreed. He told me that in the long run it did not really matter what the government promised to do, because “the Chinese will be running the country soon”.

“They are buying up everything we have,” he said. “We should be a rich country, we have gems, jade, gold, everything but diamonds, but the people are still poor. “This government steals everything from us and sells it to the Chinese. Go downtown,” he said. “You’ll see them.”

Indian competition: But the commercial hub of Rangoon is not only dominated by Burma’s huge northern neighbour, China. Burma is sandwiched between two emerging Asian giants.

Both are seeking the regional upper hand. Both are still wary of each other, with a legacy of mistrust stretching back to a border war in 1962. Off a corner of Maha Bandoola Garden street in downtown Rangoon, I found some of the men benefiting from India’s decision not to take a stand against the junta and to actively oppose sanctions.

Sitting in a huddle around an Indian Paan-wallah, who was making something like chewing tobacco but from betel nut, were four Muslim businessmen from Mumbai. “There are a lot of Indians here,” I said to one in Hindi. “The Indians are here, the Chinese are over there,” he said with a smile. “Where are the Burmese?” I asked him. “Up there,” he said with a dismissive wave.

“This place is going down man,” he added, then lent back on his chair and, smiling again, he said: “But there are good gems here.” Meanwhile, uptown, his foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, was doing business with the military junta. A few years ago Delhi did try to take a principled stand against one of its rogue neighbours, by threatening action against the King of Nepal in the dying days of his autocratic rule. But the Chinese simply offered the king their support instead, so India had to back down. Delhi has learnt from that lesson. It is clearly not about to risk losing Burma and the prospect of new gas, oil and infrastructure projects.

The Indian press are already being briefed about Delhi’s growing influence, with claims that Mr Menon’s chat with the Burmese generals secured another visit to Burma by the UN secretary general’s special adviser Ibrahim Gambari.

Mr Menon is a busy man. A few weeks ago he was in Beijing lauding the signing of a document between the Indians and Chinese that promised a “shared vision” for the future. The consequences of that seem to suggest a shift in perspective more from the Indian side than from China’s, which has never claimed to be a champion of human rights.

Unfortunately for many Burmese, this “shared vision” suggests that the world’s largest democracy has decided to turn a blind eye to the violent suppression of democracy in the country next door - at least, that is, while the Burmese junta still have something to bargain with. courtesy bbc news


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