It has been well publicized that President Barack Obama often does not attend the regular White House morning intelligence briefings. Instead, we’re told, he prefers to read written summaries, presumably later in the day or while dashing off somewhere on Air Force One. Whatever the president’s actual study and briefing schedule, it is apparent that he is not an avid student of foreign political/economic affairs.
The explanation has been given that Mr. Obama is a “people person” who prefers to have his impressions created by direct contact rather than detailed analysis prepared by faceless intelligence analysts. With the foregoing in mind, one wonders exactly what Barack Obama knew about Burma before he arrived there to lecture his hosts on what their country needs to do in order to make a success of their struggle for democracy.
Reference to the ethnic diversity of Burma was included in President Obama’s speech to his favorite audience — students. But did he really understand the complications of a nation in which more than 60% of the citizens are of one ethnicity (Burman) and the rest made up of 135 distinct ethnic groups (many living on a subsistence level) divided for governmental classification into 8 major ethnic races? One of the major ambitions for most all these groups is a desire for ethnic autonomy. To emphasize and protect their individual objectives, many of these groupings have their own militias. Knowledge of this background is essential to begin to comprehend the complexity of the region’s politics.
To begin with, one would hope that President Obama had been briefed on the relationship that the United States military and intelligence service had with the Kachin tribal fighters going back to their work with the American OSS Detachment 101 during World War II. It may seem ancient history to some, but to the Kachin these lessons of the past are still important. The Americans of the OSS employed their Kachin comrades in gathering intelligence and harassing the occupying Japanese forces. In fact, it was these and other ethnic minorities that provided the core of the anti-Japanese resistance in Burma.
Part of this same historical reality is that the majority Burman population actually cooperated with the invading Japanese. These things are not forgotten by the minorities. In fact, Aung San Suu Kyi’s late father, the famous General Aung Sang, rallied his Burmese troops to assist the Japanese invasion. It wasn’t until later in the war when the tide was turning that an indigenous OSS intelligence agent guided General Aung Sang and his troops to shift his allegiance back to Britain’s General Bill Slim in India. It’s a tale that President Obama most certainly would have heard about had he any contact with Kachin leaders several weeks ago — which in fact he did not have.
General Aung San would once again shift his allegiance when he led the battle after the war’s end to remove British colonial rule. There is no doubt that his now equally famous daughter Aung San Suu Kyi’s political and physical life was saved by the memory of the General’s own earlier opportunistic exploits. Her perception as a “princess” has been created by history as much as the adoration of her political followers. Her popular appellation, “The Lady,” derives from this. The Burmese have a princess because they created one. The shifting scene of Burmese political life today values such continuity as much as it fears it, and she is careful not to overreach.
Then there is the suspended hydroelectric power project in the state of Kachin known as the Myitsone dam. This multi-billion dollar Chinese construction project was aimed at providing an economical power source to China through the damming of the Irawaddy River. The lack of substantive benefit to the resident Kachin people made it a less than attractive development to them and everything had to be halted part of the way through. Of course there is also that old animosity toward the central Burmese government that goes back to WWII. The several thousand-man Kachin Independent Army is still the strongest of the ethnic militaries always ready to take the field against the much larger Burmese Armed Forces — and as recently as last year has done so.
The truth is that the Chinese have been able to take advantage of lower paid displaced ethnic minority Burmese labor. The question arises as to whether Obama realizes he is placing the United States in a position of interference in an area that long has been, if not a sphere of Chinese influence, certainly a convenient resource-rich neighbor easily exploitable through its long border area with China. Encouraged by Hillary Clinton’s personal friendship with Aung San Suu Kyi and George Soros’ longtime interest in gaining a foothold in the mineral rich potential of Burma, President Obama has taken the first steps to exerting American influence in both the political and economic life of this complicated Asian country.
Is this what the American president meant last fall when he announced his intention to “pivot” U.S. interests to the Far East and away from Middle Eastern conflicts? Certainly Beijing does not look kindly on Washington involvement in an area China has long cultivated. The chances are that the Obama Administration, enamored of the heroic story of The Lady’s struggle for democracy in Burma, has leaped rather naively into a portion of Asia as complicated and danger-filled as any in the region.
Barack Obama is attempting to make his mark in a part of the world he sees as less of a problem than that with which he has been struggling in the Middle East. He has been encouraged to see the future democratization of Burma as a potential major policy accomplishment. His aim to be acclaimed as a great peacemaker internationally fits this targeting perfectly. The problem is that Burma is just not the safe and innocent object that he views it as being.
Whether because of (1) the Chinese perception that the U.S. is involving itself where it has no rightful place, or (2) the ongoing conflicts of the mountainous northern states with the Burman majority’s government instruments, or (3) the pivotal role of the country’s military structure and its authoritarian social class, Burma is hardly a trouble-free part of the world. Washington should involve itself only in a peripheral manner unless it truly wishes to pivot to challenge Beijing’s broader ambitions.