15 February 2006

Burma: The Next Iran?

Oh, great. Slate has just published an article by Ian Bremmer entitled "Is Burma the Next Iran?" And it's not talking about an explosion of blogging by Burmese young people.
The United States and its European allies worry that if they simply accept a nuclear Iran, other states will be encouraged to pursue nuclear ambitions of their own. But that ship may already have sailed. As the world watches the twists and turns of Iran's path toward the Security Council, the military regime in Burma may be quietly selling its energy resources to finance the acquisition of nuclear technology....

Burma's generals, known in state-controlled media as the State Peace and Development Council, routinely harass and imprison opposition activists. Citizens have been used as slave labor. The junta's security police have been known to strafe demonstrators with gunfire. In December, an Asian human rights group issued a 124-page report on the Burmese government's "brutal and systematic" torture of political prisoners.

To deepen the country's isolation, last November the generals began to move Burma's capital from the southern coastal city of Rangoon to the mountain stronghold of Pyinmana, deep in the country's interior. Perhaps the regime's oft-stated fear of a U.S. invasion prompted the retreat from the coast. That would explain press reports that the junta has surrounded its new capital with land mines. Perhaps the regime is even more afraid of the ethnically diverse and impoverished students of Rangoon. We can't look for answers to the United Nations' envoy to Burma. He resigned in January after failing for nearly two years to gain entry into the country....

Just as Iran's energy wealth frustrates U.S. and European efforts to sanction Tehran, foreign competition for gas contracts will obstruct international attempts to pressure Burma toward democratic reform. China has profited time and again by forging commercial deals with states that are the objects of international scorn, and other energy-dependent Asian countries (India and South Korea, in particular) don't want China to monopolize Burma's energy reserves. These states and others will continue to chase energy deals there, including agreements to build the infrastructure needed to pipe gas or petroleum directly to their consumers and industries. Even the United States and European Union have resisted pressure to ban all investment in the country—so energy firms Unocal and Total can join in the scramble.

The Burmese junta knows when it approves these deals that it's giving its Asian neighbors an important stake in the regime's survival. China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, is an especially useful provider of diplomatic cover. Energy revenues also help finance the domestic repression that keeps the opposition in check and the generals in charge....

Another reason Burma matters for regional stability is that it adds to the growing list of irritants in U.S. relations with China. Burma provides China with the use of a military base on the Indian Ocean. Sino-Burmese trade grew by more than 10 percent between 2004 and 2005 to more than $1.1 billion. Late last year, China outmaneuvered India for an agreement to buy 6.5 trillion cubic feet of gas. As China's dependence on Burma's energy grows, we can expect Beijing to help the junta resist international pressure—just as they have done for authoritarian regimes in Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. (China has invested around $300 million in Zimbabwe in return for mining concessions and direct supply of gold, diamonds, chrome, bauxite, and possibly uranium.) That will only add to Washington's diplomatic frustrations.

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