Not much changes in the world of capitalism, always looking for new markets to rejuvenate itself like some kind of flesh-eating parasite. Burma seems to be no different, a new untapped market which in recent years has not only become a geopolitical proxy for the US “pivot,” but also an “untapped” market for Western investment.
Since the military junta was officially dissolved in 2011, when Chinese influence began to wane, Burma has made remarkable changes towards democracy. Even more so these reforms have taken a new shape over the past few months, working on transforming Burma into a new democratic capitalist Southeast Asian state, barely recognisable to its disastrous socialist history. However, despite the high profile diplomacy and western optimism, these changes seem only surface deep aimed at presenting a new image for the Wests new ally.
Thein Sein’s recent high profile visit to the White House, the first by a Burmese leader, marked a significant change in Burmese international relations. Upon his return, Thein Sein reiterated his commitment to democratic reforms, by releasing more political prisoners and signing a peace settlement with the Kachin Rebels, In an effort to put an end to the long running civil war. All these moves followed a month after the lifting of the US and EU’s twenty-five-year-long economic and political sanctions. On the other hand in the shadow of Burma’s colonial past, Britain’s Chief of Defence General David Richard’s discussed possible training cooperation with Burma’s armed forces, despite the EU’s arms embargo and on-going ethnic conflicts.
On the economic front, Burma publicly announced they were open for business, attempting to entice new investment by holding the 2013 World Economic Forum on East Asia. Previously Coca-Cola and Ford had announced their entry into the Burmese market, with Coke returning to Burma after 60 years. An even more interesting development, during the World Economic Forum, was long running political activist and leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s announcement that she wants to run for president, as long as the Burmese government agrees to constitutional changes to allow her to run.
Although Burma has conducted some major economic and political changes over the past few months has anything really changed? Despite the Kachin peace settlement, renewed fighting has broken out in Shan state, while violence against Rohingya minorities, partially due to the 969 movement, Burma’s right wing nationalists, continues despite international outcry. While, through years of economic sanctions, more Burmese have found themselves below the poverty line. Despite the US claiming that this is down to “government control” poverty has increased by 7.7 percent between 2000 and 2007, the peak of Western sanctions, according to their own CIA factbook. The Burmese government has gone to great lengths in promoting civil and political rights, most noticeably with the release of political prisoners, although this is meaningless in the long term unless they also focus on social and economic rights, often ignored under Western imperialism.
On the other hand, the high hopes of Aung San Suu Kyi leading a newly democratic capitalist Burma into a new era, is reminiscent of Nelson Mandela when he took office in post-apartheid South Africa. Although Nelson Mandela maybe well respected in the West and in his native South Africa, for fighting the apartheid regime and establishing democracy, he has also been heavily criticised by many South Africans. The figurehead of the democratic movement, Nelson Mandela followed through with neoliberal reforms, bowing down to the “Washington Consensus” rather than fully implementing his Reconstruction and Development Programme. Well educated and part of the Thembu royal family, Mandela was the perfect poster boy for post-apartheid South Africa and despite his socialist past, had very little opportunity to tackle the inequality caused through years of race division. The similarities between of Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela are uncanny, just like the probable end result.
Despite the high profile political and economic changes, these events seem to signal nothing more than a shift away from Chinese influence to US influence, and from socialism to capitalism, rather than any real time changes that will help transform both Burma and its people. Western imperialism under the pretext of democracy, liberty and development, never improves economic or cultural inequality. Nonetheless, this does not necessarily mean that China would be a better diplomatic partner, with their traditional soft power, China failed miserably both at bringing about political reforms and achieving popular support for their major infrastructure projects such as the Myitsone Dam and the Sino-Burma pipelines. On the other hand, apart from the usual change in political discourse, the West is liable to fair the same, because like normal they care about the strategic and economic importance over the wellbeing of the average Burmese citizen.
The opening of Burma has become of vital importance in what now has become a neocolonial land grab. Rich in untapped resources and cheap labour, Burma is a gold mine for capitalist greed. While, geopolitically Burma is of strategic value to the US containment of China. Not only will the US start to develop a military relationship with the Burmese army, which is already tenuously in the works, but they will also hold monopoly over Chinese oil and gas import routes. A US navy base in Burma would be vital for controlling the straits of Malacca, the most strategically important sea lanes in the Pacific, while they would also have the ability to cut of oil and gas imports via the Sino-Burma pipelines.
The West is currently winning the New Great Game, opening Burma up to Western investment and strategic alignment, while Chinese influence wanes. However, despite the superficial political changes, like always under Western imperialism, nothing really changes. Once ravaged by the scourge of colonial greed, Burma under neocolonialism will fair no better. In the words of Burma’s most famous colonial resident “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Or, even more so in the words of Burmese punk band Rebel Riot, in the song “Lower Class,” they sum up the woes of the working class Burmese “No human rights & no justice in our lives! We have no work and are suppressed. There is no justice here. We are hungry but have nothing to eat. We are the victims!”