Americans have fought at home and on many a distant shore with resolve in truths that they hold to be self-evident, “that all men are created equal”. Under the Barack Obama administration, America appears to have abandoned this principle through its recent engagement policy with until recently military-run Myanmar.
To be sure, Myanmar matters. The country has emerged as China’s main gateway to the Indian Ocean, with massive natural resource wealth at home and important international markets beyond. Myanmar has thus emerged as a key state in the US’s “pivot” policy towards Asia.
The flaws in the US approach are threefold, including: (1) failing to understand the unambiguous, enduring power of ethnic populations; (2) failing to engage them fully as equal stakeholders in the country’s future; and (3) forgetting that many have been faithful American allies going all the way back to World War II.
It seems like an obscure place, but Burma/Myanmar has an important role in American history, as students of World War II will attest. Now it’s trying to emerge from years of centralised dictatorship and it looks like we’re about to repeat some of our earlier mistakes such as those in other multi-ethnic situations like Afghanistan.
The ethnic composition of the country has always been the key. As the article notes, although the name of the country would indicate otherwise, only about half of the population is ethnic Burmese; the rest are a variety of minorities, some of which are predominantly Christian (which hasn’t endeared them to our elites) and fought with us in World War II. The British, in their (and our) trademark style, elevated the ethnic minorities against the Burmese majority in the colonial bureaucracy to insure their own dominance. When Burma became independent, the Burmese got even and the ethnic minorities went to war, starting a brutal cycle which has continued to the present.
Now, after years of military rule, Myanmar is trying to establish “democracy” with Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi becoming the well-known “face” of the “new” Myanmar. Her father attempted to establish a more even-handed balance after independence, and he paid for that with his life. There’s evidence now that such even-handedness is lacking on the ground, setting the stage for more conflict. This time, however, Washington is complicit.
Here and elsewhere American foreign policy suffers from two serious flaws that keep dogging our steps in the world:
- A tendency to be enamoured by elitist romanticism of leaders who talk a good game but either lack the authority to make it a reality or are just fronts for other less noble power holders. That’s not just a foreign policy problem either; that’s why our elites went overboard for Barack Obama in the first place.
- An obsession with “democracy” and democratic process when the realities on the ground indicate that the process goes one way and the reality goes another. The classic example of this right at the moment is the Arab Spring; we’re getting plenty of “democracy” in the Middle East but in reality it is a hegemony of the religious/ethnic majorities at the expense of everyone else. You’d think a country like ours with an elite obsessed with identity politics would apply that to other situations, but that’s how delusional the people who run this country really are.
If our elites really want to show they are as cosmopolitan and worthy of dominance as they say they are, they can start by avoiding mistakes such as we are making in Myanmar and elsewhere.