Too few analyses of the civil war in Burma have spotlighted the evolution of a conflict away from its original, largely ideological, roots and towards a modern-day quest by the country’s aspiring capitalist rulers for energy and resources. Myriad armed ethnic groups inhabit regions that have an abundance of hydropower, oil and gas potential. And rather than the various claims for independence and autonomy from the central government that originally characterised their struggle, these groups are now fighting (perhaps a losing battle) against an army tasked by Burma’s rulers with securing these areas for resource exploitation.
What also slips under the radar is the expanding role of foreign business in this debased and brutal conflict. Chinese companies are often targeted by the exiled and western human rights movement as pernicious and apathetic – a sign of both historic animosity among Burmese towards their northern neighbours, but also China’s sizeable presence in the country, especially in the hydropower sector whose impact is largely seen in the volatile border regions where the topography makes waterways ideal for damming. But Western companies are also complicit – Chevron, Total, Malcolm Dunstan & Associates, the list continues – and must share some of the blame.
The intensity of these conflicts has fluctuated since they first erupted 60 years ago, but changed course in the 1990s when Burma and its neighbours began to realise the veritable goldmine that the country’s frontier regions held. Deals were cut with groups like the Kachin, who relinquished control over jade mines in the north in exchange for cross-border trade concessions and a ceasefire, and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, who also agreed to lay down arms in exchange for a portion of the logging industry and border trade.
LSE academic Maung Zarni wrote in the Democratic Voice of Burma yesterday that with the help of its neighbours, successive Burmese rulers since independence have “been on a mission to revive the local imperial vision of Burma”, and are now aided by “an international consortium of business-hungry vultures, from Wall Street to the Asian Development Bank who, knowingly or not, are fuelling the pacification of minority communities”.
From struggles for independence, these conflicts have developed into a business-driven crusade: “The aspiring capitalist state in Burma, under a new generation of generals, now wants and needs nothing less than complete and effective control over commercial and strategic lands,” he continues.
With the US making little secret of its ambitions for the Asia-Pacific region over the coming decade, Washington has shown signs that it will renege on years of criticism of the Burmese government as it seeks to build an alliance of regional nations that it can draw away from China. Georgetown University held a conference last month that brought together some interesting characters that may help to shape the future of Burma under its new business-oriented government: these included Professor Li Chenyang, one of a team of Chinese academics who made the first public proposal for the trans-Burma Shwe pipeline that will pump oil and gas to China. Perhaps tellingly, the conference was part-sponsored by Chevron and Caterpillar – executives from the US-based construction giant were in Naypyidaw in August to meet with government officials, likely with a view to gaining a foothold in a country that is becoming increasingly crucial to foreign markets, including the US.
Burma’s business and military elite are thus attracting something of a fan base among international governments, analysts and lobbyists. In their musings on Burma, foreign dignitaries and commentators appear to be hampered by something of a blind spot that sees them home in on the nominal, albeit promising, political reforms underway between Rangoon and Naypyidaw, whilst failing to highlight the wars raging in the border regions, and the international complicity increasingly at play there. This myopia was exemplified by South Asianist Marie Lall in a lengthy BBC op-ed that dedicated only one line to the ongoing civil war, and reserved the rest for the “political” face of progress. Other guilty players include the International Crisis Group.
Perhaps these people see the fighting as separate to the political process; that the border regions have little bearing on the future of Burma. The links however are absolutely intrinsic – Naypyidaw needs these areas under its control before it can brand itself as a market-oriented government and one that is “acceptable” to the proclaimed values of western business. To do that, resistant populations must be pacified, and since multiple ceasefires have fallen to pieces, the Burmese military must therefore take up the challenge of reining them in. Companies and world leaders that disregard this dynamic are ignoring the very bloody means to a cynical end.