Greed is Good…for Burma

In snatching up the country's wealth for themselves, the ruling junta's rapacious generals may actually be opening the door for democracy. And, ironically, China may be the reformers' greatest ally.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

To accuse Burma’s junta of rigging the election this coming Sunday, November 7, will be a futile endeavor. When the votes are counted, it’s almost inevitable that the tally will be skewed mightily in favor of the generals.

Fortunately, however, this does not mean that the country is doomed to continue on the same dreary path it has trudged for decades. Burma’s transformation does not depend on the democratic conversion of its generals. It may depend on something far simpler — something that is already beginning to take hold: greed.

Burma’s junta is fast becoming balkanized by individual generals’ quest for wealth. Earlier this year, Burma’s generals embarked upon a massive privatization of valuable state assets, selling them off to regime members. Jade, tungsten, and gold mines, as well as timber and hydroelectric resources have all been privatized and parcelled out to regime insiders. Britain’s financial sanctions list now includes 1,225 companies with ties to Burmese senior military officials or their cronies.

As in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Burma’s ruling elite has scrambled for these newly privatized pots of gold. Than Shwe, the regime’s strongman, has been particularly active in seeking out treasure. Burma’s richest businessman, Tay Za, is now fronting a hydroelectric and mineral empire tied to Than and his family. (The junta leader, it seems, is eager to avoid the impecunious retirement of his predecessor, the long ruling General Ne Win, who resigned in 1988 and later died quietly under house arrest.) 

This scramble for riches has shattered the regime’s internal alliances; the junta’s unity has been torn apart. The election itself may even have been organized with this internal competition in mind — each faction hoping to secure its members’ hold over the most lucrative pieces of the economy. Although the candidates of both the regime-backed parties were hand-picked because of their loyalty, the Burmese regime is now irrevocably split because the two parties appear to reflect rival commercial interests.

The division among the generals offers Burma’s democrats a chance — if opposition leader and political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) are clear-sighted enough to grab it — for a different Burma to emerge. Their post-election strategy will require two components: Mastering the art of political compromise and, perhaps even more importantly, getting China to accept — if only grudgingly — their reform project. Beijing cares most about its security and economic interests in Burma, not about maintaining rule by the generals. If the opposition can promise governance as lucrative for China and stable for Burma as the junta, Beijing could get behind it.

Recent history demonstrates — and research has shown — that even sham elections and electoral false starts can be turned into progress if reformers are nimble enough. When Mikhail Gorbachev first allowed Russians to hold a quasi-democratic election, it was the maverick Boris Yeltsin who romped home to the Russian presidency, not the nominee favored by Gorbachev. It happened again in Poland in 1990. Despite the fact that the ruling communists reserved themselves a majority of parliamentary seats, the true strength of the opposition still shined through. And, deprived of any pretence of governing in the name of the people, the communists were exposed for what they really were: representatives of Soviet power.

The new divisions among the Burmese leadership have provided the NLD with a similar sort of chance to help change the country. The party is boycotting the election, but other democratic parties are participating — including the National Democratic Front (NDF), which is contesting 163 parliament seats in Rangoon. If all the democrats voted, their voice might actually swing the race: They could broker a coalition deal with one of the regime’s two parties, in effect picking the winner of the election. The rival regime-supported parties would be eager to do so, garnering the votes needed to consolidate their power and economic authority. The advantage for the democrats would be a voice in power, however slight, for the first time in decades.

But if they are able to orchestrate a political shift at home, the democrats will need to be equally savvy in talking to Beijing. China has been investing billions in developing Burma’s mineral and hydropower resources, and in recent years has constructed several ports on Burma’s Bay of Bengal coastline. The ports are a key part of China’s "string of pearls" strategy — a network of military bases for China’s growing naval fleet intended to help protect its trade interests from the South China Sea to the Middle East.

Until a few years ago, China trusted the junta to keep its economic and strategic interests secure. But the generals’ failure to pacify the numerous and mounting ethnic insurgencies along China’s long border with Burma has dented Beijing’s confidence in them. Violent clashes a year ago pushed tens of thousands of refugees into China’s Yunnan province, which also saw a big spike in narcotics coming in from Burma. China is in no mood to have this happen again.

Keeping Burma on friendly terms has also become even more important to China of late, in light of rising antagonisms with Japan, Vietnam, and other regional powers, mostly over rival claims to islands in the South China Sea. Suddenly, strategic partnerships between India and South Korea and between Japan and India are in the works. As with Bismarck’s Germany, this is a nightmare scenario for China: the specter of a hostile, encircling coalition across Asia.

In other words, Beijing needs Burma, and it cares far more about future stability than it does about the status quo. This could be used to the democrats’ advantage if the generals’ divisions grow more pronounced. Whichever Burmese faction can guarantee China’s security interests, while delivering a more stable internal Burmese society, will secure Beijing’s support.

The cleverest of the regime’s generals probably understand that their hold on their conscript army may be fraying: Resentment is said to be rising among recruits who are disturbed by the vast personal wealth being accumulated by their commanders. For years, these troops have slogged through malaria-infested jungles to fight ethnic insurgents, often without food, medicine, or even ammunition. Now, their commanders live in mansions.

All these weaknesses are stacking up against the junta. Aung San Suu Kyi’s austere, heroic life demonstrates that she has the drive and determination to push for democracy. The question now is whether or not her courage extends to compromise with elements of the regime that have kept her in near isolation for 20 years. Indeed, it will likely take the assertion of Suu Kyi’s personal authority to get the NLD on board with so calculating a move. But if her party can use the cravenness of Burma’s filthy rich generals to its advantage, she may be forced to conclude that, while greed might not be good, it can be put to good use.

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