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Burma to Myanmar and Back?

NEW DELHI – In ways big and small, Asia is still living with the tainted legacy of imperialism. Consider the debate now underway in Myanmar – or Burma to some. Because the imperial tongue found it difficult to pronounce “Myanmar,” the country’s no-nonsense British masters renamed it Burma (redrawing its borders as well for good measure).

The new name stuck until the military regime that ruled the country for decades restored the original one in 1989. Ironically, however, the newly empowered democratic opposition would like to bring back the name Burma, viewing “Myanmar” as emblematic of the dictatorship that they wish to leave behind.

But the past can never be truly erased. Not even Mao Zedong, with the fury unleashed during China’s Cultural Revolution, could make the “Four Olds” (old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas) vanish. And whether one uses “Yangon” or “Rangoon” to identify Myanmar/Burma’s capital, the place still remains what the British travel writer Norman Lewis described as “imperial and rectilinear…built by a people who refused compromise with the East.”

The British-built Rangoon was, of course, the Victorian colonizer’s response to what Lewis called the “unsubstantial glories of Mandalay.” As he put it, “These massive columns now rise with shabby dignity from the tangle of scavenging dogs and sprawling, ragged bodies at their base.”

With Myanmar/Burma now the “in” destination for the world’s hot-money investors, the imperial decrepitude that Lewis described will doubtless soon be transformed, the archaic charm of a fading past demolished for the sake of modern commerce. This tranquil land of timeless faith, over which Buddha’s benign statues preside – a land of rivers, deep forests, and blood-red rubies – is now in play for international investors.

For the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who suffered two decades of incarceration and house arrest, the country must aspire to something beyond getting rich if it is truly to overcome the decades of military misrule: a transforming, revolutionary idea. That idea, of course, is democracy, which is something very new to Myanmar/Burma, for the British practiced little of it when they ruled, as George Orwell’s Burmese Days makes clear.

Since regaining her freedom, Suu Kyi has liberated her fellow citizens from fear through the power of this idea and her own example. “It is not power that corrupts” she memorably noted, “but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” On the strength of that ennobling idea, Myanmar/Burma has embraced democratic reform and rid itself of diplomatic and economic isolation.

President Thein Sein’s government has, by its release of Suu Kyi and embrace of a democratic transition, transformed the country’s image. Rapprochement with the iconic Suu Kyi, like that of South Africa’s apartheid-era rulers with Nelson Mandela, was the core decision. But what has surprised many observers is the pace of change. For example, the recent ceasefire between the government and Karen rebels exemplifies progress that was simply unthinkable only one year ago.

If anything, the latest developments vindicate India’s long-held policy of engaging with Myanmar, a country of major strategic and economic importance to it in terms of trade, transport, energy, and security. Engagement is the way to establish vital links between Myanmar and South and East Asia. Indeed, the resumption of diplomatic relations with the United States, and the suspension of a US investment ban, indicate that transformation has already taken place.

It is now Japan, however, that is doing the heavy lifting of modernizing Myanmar’s economy. Japan is deploying vast government aid and private-sector engagement reminiscent of its investments in China at the height of Japanese global economic power in the 1980’s. Japan appears to be acting not only for commercial reasons, but also according to its strategic interests. The Japanese, like Sein, want to see Myanmar shift its diplomatic orientation away from China.

Many Japanese, whose forebears ravaged the country in World War II, now profess a romantic sentimentality toward Myanmar. Yohei Sasakawa of the Nippon Foundation remembers eating rice shipped from the country in the lean years after the war in Japan. “We are really late,” he says, “in repaying our obligation” for “the kindness of Myanmar.”

Here India has been slow to join the struggle for influence. Its prime minister has visited the country, but without a clear plan of engagement, even though developing western Myanmar would boost the economy of India’s border region.

These opportunities exist because Thein’s government has been deliberately distancing itself from China, long the military regime’s patron and protector. The sense among ordinary Burmese that the Chinese were looting the country’s resources has led to an anti-China backlash, including problems with a copper mine in Monywa and the cancellation last year of the Myitsone hydroelectric dam. John Pang, the Chief Executive of CARI, a research organization based in Malaysia, says that today’s transitional Myanmar/Burma is “a game the Chinese gave away.”

Their loss is Myanmar/Burma’s – and South Asia’s – gain, regardless of what Thein or his democratically chosen successors choose to call their country.