Extending the Fist of Friendship

By Jacob Tremblay, Center for Strategic Research

Over the past 50 years leaders of Burma’s military junta have shown little inclination to reach out to the international community, and have taken very few concrete steps to make contact with the outside world.  On the few occasions they have done so, it appears that they reached the decision that a specific act of engagement would rebound to their advantage immediately.   On July 25th Burma’s nominal head of state, Senior General Than Shwe, headed to India with his wife and several high ranking officers for a multi-day goodwill visit.  The timing of this trip merits close inspection as it is sandwiched between a  recent visit to Burma by Chinese delegation and the first election in 20 years which will occur shortly after Than Shwe returns home.

 For its part, India views Burma as an integral part of the “Look East Policy” of engagement with the nations of South East Asia.  Burma is, to India, a fitting recipient of FDI largess especially for infrastructure projects that work to bind regional economies together.  Expectations are that India will put up the capital for all joint endeavors.  A secondary Indian motive of welcoming Than Shwe is to ensure that Burma doesn’t drift too far into China’s arms, especially after the loss of the Shwe Gas Fields’ contract to Chinese bidders, despite a sizable equity stake in the field.

Thus far the two sides have announced further co-operation in areas of mutual interest such as preventing terrorists from establishing safehavens on either side of their shared border and joint development of a road to promote interstate commerce.  All these agreements will further consolidate Than Shwe’s power,  allowing him more bargaining chips in the post election period.  In advance of the election, by promoting development and stifling both real terrorist threats as well as the legitimate grievances of ethnics, Than Shwe ensures that more civilians and soldiers will owe him their livelihoods.  At the same time this will compromise the maneuverability of those opposed to Shwe’s favored platforms.

Thailand is the last major player bordering Burma that has yet to receive high level attention, so will there be one last photo op before the Burmese elections?  This would be a international PR coup for Than Shwe with one caveat.  Any issues that Shwe would raise with Thailand simply aren’t pressing enough for Abhisit to divert attention from the home-front.  In fact the unrest in Bangkok compliments Burma’s tune as the traditional voice of ASEAN has fallen silent to deal with echoes of its own militaristic past.

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