Burma might not triumph in an audition for the Axis of Evil, but it could at least serve as an understudy. The fractious and desperately poor Southeast Asian country is run by a militarist government every bit as tyrannical and insane as the regimes that rule Iraq and North Korea. Throughout the tropical nation, world-class drug lords operate a wink’s length from the regime and heavily-armed ethnic militias roam wild, spreading narcotics, arms, and instability to neighboring countries, including important U.S. allies like Thailand and India. The World Health Organization contends Burma, which now calls itself Myanmar, has the second-worst health system in the world, which is saying a lot, given the fine quality of medical care in Sierra Leone and Liberia. What’s more, while many Burmese starve, the junta builds massive Buddhism-inspired monuments and golf courses.
Most frightening, Burma’s ruling generals have decided to build a nuclear reactor. What for? “Medical purposes,” says Burma’s foreign minister, yet the country doesn’t have the technology to make radioactive isotopes used in medicine. It does, however, have a shady history regarding weapons of mass destruction. In the mid-1990s, the respected arms control group International Peace Research Institute, as well as American intelligence, accused Burma of possessing a chemical-weapons program. Burma’s neighbors—and the U.S.—certainly can’t be reassured by the fact that two Pakistani nuclear scientists whom the CIA reportedly wanted to question about potential ties to Al Qaeda were sent to Burma shortly after Sept. 11 on an unknown research project, and allegedly haven’t returned.
So, why, in the wake of Sept. 11, has the Bush administration been largely silent about Burma, even as it beats the drums for regime change elsewhere? One reason is energy. Burma is awash in natural gas reserves, and foreign oil companies, which have extensive investments in the country, are not eager to see the status quo disrupted. Also, intelligence reports have yet to show that the nuclear facility will be used to make fissile material. In any event, Burma lacks the missile capability that could theoretically allow it to deliver weapons of mass destruction. In short, Burma is a threat to our allies in the region, but not to us. In this way, Burma illustrates the weakest link in the emerging Bush doctrine. We demand that our allies support our actions against terrorists and regimes that threaten U.S. security. But if our allies need help countering threats that only endanger their security, we turn a blind eye.
This is not a sustainable policy. If America hopes to maintain leadership of international security affairs without provoking more of an anti-U.S. backlash around the world, Washington must utilize its diplomatic, economic, and even military tools against slightly-less-evil states that threaten our close friends. We want our friends to pick up the peacekeeping ball after our military punts it? We want our buddies to use their top intelligence officers to find terrorists, when they have many other problems to deal with? Then we have to offer allies carrots, which include more forcefully taking on the conflicts and rogue states they care about.
I spent some time last year in Rangoon, the Burmese capital, and came away convinced that the country is imploding. Compared to neighboring Thailand, which even during the Asian financial crisis maintained a relatively high standard of living and a solid middle class, Burma appeared destitute. Near Shewedagon pagoda, the great Buddhist structure at the heart of Rangoon, children begged for food. Taxi drivers, proud and immaculately groomed in long, Burmese sarongs, politely requested U.S. dollars, since the value of the kyat, Burma’s currency, has fallen through the floor. Near the waterfront, ragged-looking families slept in a field, until police shooed them away.
Meanwhile, Burma’s increasingly isolated government remains in the hands of generals who would do virtually anything, including, in my opinion, producing fissile material, to remain in power. Near Rangoon’s central market, huge signs vow, in Burmese and English, to crush all enemies of the state. International labor organizations believe the government is using forced labor to build infrastructure around the country. Even when I met Burmese journalists outside the country, I found them unwilling to speak openly with me for fear of the consequences they might face when they returned. State-run television (known affectionately among Bangkok journos as “monks’ and soldiers’ TV,” since it doesn’t feature any other Burmese), lavishly praises the omniscient generals, who alternatively promise democracy and strengthen the secret police’s hold on Burmese society. Over 1,500 political prisoners remain locked in Burmese jails, and when I wandered up Rangoon’s University Avenue, I saw groups of soldiers encamped around the home of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest on and off for over a decade.
Since my visit, the junta has stepped up talks with Burma’s pro-democracy opposition, which won a free election in 1990 but was prevented from taking power by the military. But thus far, this dialogue has not moved much. “The military intends to keep a very strong hold over the country,” Burma specialist David Steinberg says. The government continues to tolerate forced labor and commit other monstrous human rights abuses. In the new book Living in Silence, veteran Burma-watcher Christina Fink, who interviewed many refugees from Burma, describes brutal torture sessions of political prisoners; other experts believe the army rapes and often summarily executes civilians in the country’s ethnic minority areas. Meanwhile, officials of the International Labor Organization, who visited Rangoon last month, were barred from meeting Suu Kyi.
As Burma spirals downward, it scares the wits out of its already-frightened neighbors. Thailand has grown frustrated with Burma’s unwillingness to crack down on opium and amphetamine producers, many of whom make a killing by supplying Thai drug dealers with heroin and speed tablets. In recent months, the cash-strapped junta reportedly has allowed the United Wa State Army, a 20,000-strong ruthless ethnic militia that now operates virtually unfettered in northeast Burma, to drastically expand drug production. Satellite photos taken this winter revealed the Wa, who have been called the world’s largest armed narcotics-trafficking organization, furiously growing poppies out of season. The U.S. believes that Burma will become the world’s biggest producer of opium in 2002, taking the place of Afghanistan. Thailand already has more than two million drug addicts, out of a population of only 60 million, a number only too likely to rise as more drugs flow in.
Burmese drugs are having an insidious effect on Chinese society as well. The Wa have begun to focus on China’s southwestern province of Yunnan, which borders Wa-controlled territory. Drug-control experts estimate that China already has four million addicts, and the spread of drugs has boosted the People’s Republic skyrocketing HIV infection rate. In some parts of Yunnan, more than 75 percent of intravenous drug users now are infected with HIV.
Not only drugs but also potent weapons and armed conflict spill over Burma’s borders. Burmese militias like the Wa, as well as the Burmese armed forces, frequently venture into Thailand, where they reportedly have abducted and killed scores of innocent Thai citizens. In February, militia gangs crossed into Thailand and massacred more than 20 villagers, slitting their throats and then dumping them in a river.
Meanwhile, the Indo-Burmese border has developed into one of Asia’s biggest weapons bazaars, feeding insurgencies across the region. Indian officials are rightly worried. India has numerous armed insurgent groups, and suffers from frequently tense Muslim-Hindu relations that recently exploded into violence. Yet most of the chaos created by the insurgents and the rampaging Hindu and Muslim mobs has been accomplished with very rudimentary weapons—knives, torches, simple bombs. To imagine what might happen if small arms from Burma flood parts of India, one only has to remember the slaughter that ensued in Kosovo when Albanian ethnic rebels got their hands on Kalishnikovs that had been broken out of storehouses in Albania.
And then there are the nukes. The junta plans to build the reactor even though its power grid has collapsed. When I was in Burma last year, my hotel’s electricity failed roughly every fifteen minutes. Much of Burma’s gas is sold abroad, and provides little benefit to ordinary Burmese. Security at Rangoon’s atomic energy department is so bad that foreign journalists have walked right in past sleeping guards. More than 300 Burmese technicians have received training at a Moscow nuclear laboratory over the past year, and Russia plans to provide more technical and financial help to the reactor project. And who knows what other countries are contributing to Burma’s nuclear know-how? According to William Ashton, a Southeast Asian security expert, since the early 1990s, the Burmese military service has developed a close relationship with Pakistan, which has sold large amounts of weaponry to Rangoon. Were the Pakistani nuclear scientists in town to assist Rangoon in making fissile material? If not, Burma might turn to the North Koreans. In the past year, Pyongyang has drastically boosted its ties to the junta, selling Burma weapons and sending its second highest-ranking leader on visits to Rangoon.
Realizing that the Burmese government’s nefarious activities are increasingly affecting its neighbors, Thailand, India, and even China, Burma’s closest ally, have stepped up the pressure on Rangoon and called for U.S. help in dealing with the country’s drugs, weapons, and militia issues. Last May, President Bush declared that the junta poses a threat to America’s national security and last summer sent a small contingent of special forces to help the military combat narcotics. Unfortunately, Washington’s response hardly begins to match the threat posed by Burma’s massive new drug production, nuclear ambitions, and cross-border incursions.
The Bush administration might be unsympathetic to a more robust policy towards Burma. Burma has always been a lefty cause; GOP lawmakers, sympathetic to the oil lobby, fought a losing battle against the Clinton administration’s policy of imposing sanctions. Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney, himself an opponent of economic sanctions, probably isn’t hot to draw attention to Burma. Halliburton, the petroleum and energy services company Cheney once ran, made extensive joint venture investments in Burma during the 1990s. According to court documents, the Burmese military used forced labor on a pipeline project in which Halliburton was involved.
Many Bush administration officials may not have seen Southeast Asia as an area of concern, though the recent discovery of terrorist cells in Singapore and other countries in the region has dented that perception. Though Thailand is a placid and stable nation with few armed groups, Bangkok, which is one of Southeast Asia’s premier financial centers and most diverse societies, has emerged as a hub for financing and recruiting terror. Ramzi Yousef, who bombed the World Trade Center the first time, was based for a time in the Thai capital, where he attempted to blow up the Israeli Embassy.
Ultimately, American indifference to our allies in Southeast Asia and the world will only undermine our cause. If the U.S. wants high-quality cooperation from Thai intelligence, one of the better groups of spooks in Southeast Asia, it needs to help Thailand handle its problems as well. India, a nation that shares democratic values with America, has become more important as the security climate in the region has become more perilous. Even China, Burma’s other key neighbor, has been somewhat helpful in identifying and rooting out terrorists.
The Burmese junta, as well as a few Burma scholars, contend that toppling the Rangoon government might lead to fighting among Burma’s numerous ethnic groups. Yet similar ethnic divisions run through Iraq and Afghanistan, and in Burma, at least many of the ethnic minority groups have developed alliances with the pro-democracy opposition. (Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition, is a member of the majority Burman ethnic group.)
In many respects, helping Burma’s neighbors handle its rogue regime could be easier than toppling Saddam Hussein, communicating with North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il, or trying to ascertain which group of Iranian reformers to support. Burma already has an established democratic opposition that enjoys the support of a majority of the populace, has established party offices and political platforms, and has won the favor of the international community. Stepping up American moral, diplomatic, and even financial support for Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy opposition, as well as ratcheting up pressure on the junta to engage Suu Kyi and release more political prisoners from jail, can’t be as hard as training troops to take on Iraq.
In addition to publicly increasingly the level of support for Suu Kyi’s party, Washington could take several other steps. Despite some sanctions on Burma, Burmese exports to America have risen by roughly 800 percent in the past eight years, providing the junta with ready sources of cash. The U.S. could use moral and political suasion to encourage American companies to cut links to Rangoon. It could stop handing out government freebies to corporations that engage Burma (Halliburton has received over $2 billion in Export-Import Bank aid). And it could quietly pressure Japan, the largest source of investment and aid to Southeast Asian nations, to stop investing in the country. America also should be willing to provide some humanitarian aid to the Burmese people, but only when the regime opens the door to the opposition and the aid comes with proper oversight that ensures dollars aren’t diverted into generals’ golf bags.
More important, Washington must be willing to use significant diplomatic, financial, and military resources to help Burma’s neighbors address the drugs, weapons, conflict, and even nuclear material that might flow out of Burma. President Bush should use his supposedly close relationship with Vladimir Putin to push Russia to stop recklessly selling nuclear training and MiG fighters to Rangoon. Washington should increase the number of Special Forces operating near the Thai-Burmese border, to help Bangkok prevent the Wa from boosting narcotics shipments into Thailand and killing Thai civilians. The Pentagon also should consider expanding its program of training Thai army task forces in narcotics interdiction and extending the program to the Indian armed forces, if Delhi so desires.
Of course, it’s wise for the Bush administration to husband limited American military might on the most direct threats to U.S. security. But that doesn’t mean that it can ignore threats to our allies’ security. The Clinton Administration learned that lesson the hard way, dithering for years in eastern Europe before concluding that it had to take military action in the Balkans for the sake of peace on the continent and the NATO alliance. Even the Bush administration seems to be broadening its notion of national interest to include lesser threats, sending troops to Georgia and signaling a willingness to broaden military support of the Colombian government, which is fighting a terrorist group that does not threaten America. Helping our Asian allies deal with Burma will add yet another mission to an already-complicated American security presence around the globe. But it will also strengthen our hand against terrorists by sending a signal to allies around the world that we really are all in this together.
Joshua Kurlantzick covers trade and international economics for U.S. News & World Report. He previously covered southeast Asia as a correspondent based in Bangkok.