(Book Review) – It was a bit of a local pastime in the northeastern Burmese town of Hsipaw; idly passing afternoons in a tea shop or restaurant along the main road and watching convoys of new SUVs, interiors tightly wrapped in plastic, head south from China into Burma for resale, and truckloads of oranges, allegedly procured below cost, and timber pass in the opposite direction. Some 15 years later, and the influence and impact of Chinese economic expansion into Burma is a principle talking point.
The premise of Burmese historian and author Thant Myint-U’s latest book, Where China Meets India, is not new, rather seeking to further develop and bring up to date an evolving trend since at least the mid-1990s. For centuries, Burma has served as an unbridgeable gap between China and India. Thant Myint-U chronicles how Burma is poised over the coming years to be engulfed into the epicenter of a changing Asian landscape, one in which Asia’s two most populous countries finally converge in a modernizing Burma.
Where China Meets India is very much a story of shifting maps and demographics. With lengthy tracts written in Kaplan-esque travel narrative, portions of the text will undoubtedly prove more rewarding to those who have not themselves visited the regions in question or those seeking to compare now dated experiences with the places and people encountered. Regardless, Thant Myint-U’s own analysis and projections for the future do offer provoking insights into the region’s changing landscape.
Divided into sections centered upon the author’s time in each of the three respective countries, the Burma component to the text not only captures China’s increasing presence and imposition with respect to the Burmese state, but also offers a brief look at some of the key factors that have led to Burma’s current state of affairs.
For the author, the onset of modern Burma’s failures can be traced to the collapse of the colonial state and the impact of World War II. “The British,” contends Thant Myint-U, “would have stayed and helped to restore the economy had it not been for an extra element: the emergence of a powerful and radical nationalist movement, determined to see the British out at any cost.”
However, though Burma was to limp along following independence, the present state of affairs, according to the text, is very much a product of lost opportunities stemming from the early and mid-1990s. While Burma at the time is assessed to have been on relatively equal footing and potential to countries such as India, Vietnam and the Asian tigers, Burma was unable to overcome divisive and debilitating political obstacles in the realization of a liberalized economy intimately linked with the rest of the world.
This analysis in turn compliments a consistent theme throughout the text: the futility and adverse effects associated with a policy of sanctions against Burma and its military, with “popular campaigns in the West, demonizing the regime and demanding tough punishments, strongly influencing any possibility of improved ties.” Frustration with sanctions saturates the pages, from impeding aid following Cyclone Nargis in 2008 to the abandonment of Mandalay to rampant, but understandable in the absence of any competition, Chinese ventures.
Further, respective of the country’s ongoing struggles to incorporate competing ethnic components, Thant Myint-U argues that sanctions along with the complimentary lack of UN engagement and World Bank presence made cease-fire deals paired with development a practical impossibility.
Returning to the overriding theme of the book, the pinching of the Burmese frontier by Beijing and New Delhi, the present capacity of China and India could hardly exist in more stark terms. While China runs throughout the Burmese narrative, India is tellingly absent beyond largely nostalgic connections with the colonial past and earlier civilizational ties. Within a text dealing with power projection there permeates an aura of an insecure India confronting a secure China. Alternatively, concerning the Burmese frontier, the portrait is one of an offensive East Asian power and a defensive South Asian giant.
In contrast to China – which witnessed in the first decade of the 21st century more infrastructure projects than the United States in the entirety of the preceding century – India is assessed as void of modern infrastructure throughout much of the country. “While [the Chinese province of] Yunnan may soon have a high-speed train to Mandalay. From Imphal [in Northeast India] to Mandalay what exists is little more than a country road,” observes Thant Myint-U.
Meanwhile, the experiences and present predicaments of China and India offer a further window into the case of Burma.
Looking at the continued visible unrest in the Chinese regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, compared to the recent stability of Yunnan, Thant Myint-U hypothesizes that the relative homogenous identity of the opposition in Tibet and Xinjiang as opposed to the fractured identity matrix of Yunnan is largely to account for the differences in security.
What does this say of Burma? Within a smaller geographical area to that of China, are Burma’s ethnic groups more homogenous or jumbled? Certainly, as with Beijing, Naypyitaw’s nightmare is of a state that splinters the way of the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, the current predicament of Burma’s ethnic fault lines again speaks to post-World War II history. Whereas Beijing in the 1950s was able to consolidate its claims over territories such as those home to the Dai population, Burma and the tatmadaw were unable to undertake similar decisive drives vis-à-vis outlying communities.
Yet, there are today vestiges of a central government tactic in Burma aping what Thant Myint-U describes as an amusement park type of approach in celebrating Beijing’s vision of China’s at once diverse and unified population. To provide one example, in the Burmese administrative capital of Naypyitaw there is a large park in replica of the Burmese state. Welcomed at the entrance by Mickey Mouse, visitors can travel by horse-drawn carriage through each state and region of the country, viewing in miniature the attractions each has to offer without ever having to deal with the complexities present in local contexts.
As for India, Thant Myint-U finds in the country’s northeast a “mini-Burma” where “none are happy with their place in India, but this shared feeling does not lead to common action.” He further uncovers within sections of the Naga population the use of federalist language for international consumption masking a continued emphasis on outright independence. While it is difficult to know if the latter appreciation of federalist discourse holds true for groups in Burma as well, there is certainly no denying the negative foundation to opposition unity among the country’s various ethnic and political forces.
Where China Meets India is a story of development, economic interests and the impact on political geography made possible by advances in technology and evolving geopolitical dynamics. To the extent that classical politics are incorporated into the discourse, the final word could be left to a Chinese businessman Thant Myint-U interviewed in Lashio, “They [the Burmese] don’t need democracy, not for a while. But they need to improve their government” – precisely encapsulating, it can be argued, the current mood in Naypyitaw.
So, what to make of a 21st century Burma being hounded on either side by China and India? For Thant Myint-U there are two general yet distinct paths on offer.
The first witnesses the continuation of sanctions. Under this scenario, Burma’s economy continues to grow but conflicts are left unresolved and the new crossroads of Asia is fraught with dangers, even as it is increasingly incorporated into a nexus of Asian trade and transport. The second scenario, unsurprisingly, envisions a quick end to sanctions, which in turn leads to more balanced development. Along with the redress of minority grievances, the new center of the Asian world is one of harmonious peace and a mixing of diverse peoples.
Whether either scenario plays out, however, is subject to an array of variables. For China, among other factors, there is an implicit assumption of continued economic growth and stability along with the absence of significant threats to its Pacific interests. As for India, there remain major hurdles in the incorporation of the northeastern states in particular and eastern India more generally with the economic growth experienced by other regions, as well as the potential for relations with Dhaka to again sour with the election of different parties and personalities to power in New Delhi.
Finally, having myself experienced much of the travel and many of the cultures outlined by Thant Myint-U, upon finishing the book I was left with one possibly selfish but strong impression. Do I want to see a high-speed train connecting Kunming with Ramree Island and the gross changes in lifestyles and culture that would likely follow across the region? Absolutely not. And in this at least, the impact of development beyond infrastructure on the fabric of Burmese society, there is also the expressed concern on the part of Burma’s security sector, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and numerous ethnic groups.
– Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia by Thant Myint-U; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.