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Foreign policy and the Burmese balancing act

By Roberto Herrera-Lim

Western governments recently cheered Aung San Suu Kyi's release, but don't expect any major changes to their Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) policies in the near term. By contrast, Asian countries will probably increase their level of engagement, no matter what the country's politics, because they want access to its natural resources. So what does this all mean for Myanmar's relations with the East and West?

Divining the intentions of Myanmar's generals is never easy, especially their calculations around the release of the country's most famous dissident. It could be an act of economic desperation, the result of a power play between the old guard and relatively more moderate factions within the military, or simply the regime's efforts to achieve some form of normalization. Regardless of the motives, however, the effects are clear: While the West remains distrustful of recent moves, other Asian countries will increase their dealings and investments with Pyinmana, giving these governments greater leverage with the generals who effectively run the country (albeit in civilian clothes). In other words, there will a widening gap between how the West and Asia deals with the Burmese regime, for the next year at least.

The current U.S. administration, whose priorities in Asia lie elsewhere, will not expend much political capital on the country. Influential pro-democracy constituencies in Washington can easily find arguments for continued sanctions and against engaging with the country's nominally "civilian" leadership. While the country held its first general election in 20 years on Nov. 7, it was not free, fair, nor credible. Furthermore, most Myanmar watchers are mindful of May 2003 when, barely a year after Suu Kyi's first release from detention, an armed group apparently recruited by the regime's front, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), attacked her convoy, killing about 100 people. Senior generals seen as responsible for the attack are now in the new parliament as part of the government-sponsored majority belonging to the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the successor of the USDA. ??

Meanwhile, many countries in Asia (including China, India, and Thailand) will continue to pursue policies toward Myanmar based on their economic interests and a sense that the country is an arena for strategic competition with rivals. China is already Myanmar's de-facto regional patron. Other countries are now pursuing postures more similar to Beijing's than to Washington's, which, in turn, eases the environment in Asia for further Chinese pursuit of Burmese resources such as natural gas. This year, for instance, CNPC started construction for its oil and gas pipeline projects from Arakan (Rakhine) state off the Andaman Sea to the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. The gas pipeline will draw its supply from the Shwe fields off the Arakan coast in the Bay of Bengal and transport it to Kunming and Nanning in China. The oil pipeline, meanwhile, will transport oil offloaded by tankers from the Middle East at Ramree (Maday) Island in Kyaukphyu to Ruili in China's Yunnan province; it will be able to carry roughly 10 percent of China's imports from the Gulf. For Thailand, meanwhile, Myanmar supplies about a fourth of Thai gas needs, and the amount is expected to increase by 2013, based on new agreements by Thai state energy company PTT.

The next few months will be critical for Myanmar's political and economic trajectory. In the days after her release, Suu Kyi was understandably vague about her plans. She did, however, emphasize "national reconciliation" and flirted with the line that Western sanctions might need to be rethought. Increasingly, Suu Kyi will likely test the limits of the government's tolerance and willingness to pursue political reform. But she'll have to be careful, as the generals will probably be assessing whether their experiment of releasing Suu Kyi succeeds -- and they'll recalibrate as necessary. If they sense that increased instability is the likely outcome of her freedom, the leadership will likely revert to old practices, including increasing the military's role in maintaining order and possibly finding an excuse to again arrest Suu Kyi. On the other hand, if Myanmar's leaders believe their gamble has paid off -- and that the economic and diplomatic gains from her release outweigh the risks to their control over the country -- the pro-democracy movement could be given some breathing room. In this case, if the regime can claim it has fulfilled former prime minister Khin Nyunt's seven-step roadmap (announced in 2003), then a more significant, though slow, thawing of ties with the West becomes more likely. This process will, of course, take time. But if the momentum generated by Suu Kyi's release is sustained, some change might become a more realistic expectation within a couple of years.

Roberto Herrera-Lim is a director in Eurasia Group's Asia practice. 

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