NEW DELHI – Isolated and impoverished by decades of international sanctions, Myanmar (Burma) has emerged in recent months as both a beacon of hope and a potential new Asian flashpoint. With Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi freed from two decades of house arrest to campaign vigorously for a seat in parliament in the special election to be held on April 1, Burma’s commitment to rejoining the international community appears to be genuine. But this opening has other consequences, most importantly setting the stage for a new “great game” of strategic competition.
No one should be surprised that Burma is a locus of interest for great powers. After all, it is larger than France and with a similar population size. In his recent book Monsoon, Robert Kaplan notes that in the Middle Ages three kingdoms lay between Thailand (then called Siam) and India. One was Myanmar, which means “that which is central.” Centuries later, Burma remains central, not only in matters of Asian security, but also for the country’s vast and still mostly untapped natural wealth.
Burma’s strategic importance reflects, first and foremost, its geographic location between India, China, Thailand, and Southeast Asia. Ringed in the north by the southern ridges of the Himalayas, to the east by foothills of dense teak forests, and to the west and south by the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, Burma’s geography has always shaped the country’s history and politics.
In 1885, during an earlier era of great power competition in Asia, Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s father, impulsively annexed Burma to the British Raj in India following the Third Anglo-Burmese War. Thant Myint-U, a leading historian of contemporary Burma (and the son of former United Nations Secretary-General U Thant), likened Churchill’s move to “throwing Burma off a cliff.”