British foreign secretary William Hague’s recent visit to Burma is just the latest in a long line of events that suggest that the south-east Asian nation is preparing to come in from the cold. Ruled by a military dictatorship for almost five decades, the government had resisted pressure from the West to allow multi-party politics and halt human rights abuses. Sanctions were imposed by Rangoon’s opponents but Chinese, Indian, South Korean and Thai firms continued to invest in the country.
However, the Burmese junta granted controlled elections at the back end of 2010, releasing Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest just one week later. The pro-democracy leader subsequently held talks with Burmese President Thein Sein, triggering the release of political prisoners and visits to Rangoon by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and, most recently, Mr Hague. Are the generals jumping before they are pushed, fearing the worst after the Arab Spring? Well, yes and no. No, because they began granting limited political freedom several months before the first uprising in Tunisia.
On the other hand, the fall of several seemingly permanent fixtures from the world’s political elite must have encouraged Thein Sein and the other members of the junta to seek a way out. President Ben Ali of Tunisia may have secured the dictator’s traditional exit route, by moving to an amenable foreign state with vast sums of money to keep him company. Yet his counterparts Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak have not met with such comfortable fates. Each revolt or revolution makes another more likely and Burma’s recent history suggests that it is far from immune to popular uprisings.
Mr Hague and Mrs Clinton have both suggested that sanctions could be lifted if the reform process were to make sufficient progress. With substantial mineral and hydrocarbon wealth, western investors will certainly be keen to return to the country, breaking Chinese domination of the Burmese economy. Yet it would be wrong to assume that any new, more liberal government would be able to adopt a more pluralistic economic as well as political approach.
Whether led by Aung San or not, a democratically elected Burmese government will reconnect with the rest of the world diplomatically and politically, but it will still be geographically located in a region dominated by Chinese business and strategic interests. It will seek to maximise its revenues in order to finance national redevelopment and reconstruction. It would therefore make economic sense to complete the new oil and gas pipelines that are currently being constructed from the Burmese port of Kyaukpyu into China’s Yunnan Province. Securing alternative export routes would prove more costly at a time when that money could be better spent elsewhere.
The overthrow of dictatorial regimes is much to be applauded, particularly when more open, democratic governments can be put in their place. Yet successor governments may still have to deal with the benefactors of their authoritarian predecessors.