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Burma and the future of Indian Ocean politics

Rain lashed down at dusk on small fishing boats bobbing on a turbulent Andaman Sea as candles flickered through windows open to the elements. As I perched on a boulder jutting into the waters along Burma’s southern shore ...

monsoonMonsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power

By Robert D. Kaplan

Random House, New York (2010)

Rain lashed down at dusk on small fishing boats bobbing on a turbulent Andaman Sea as candles flickered through windows open to the elements. As I perched on a boulder jutting into the waters along Burma’s southern shore, I surveyed the cool grey reflections of the rolling clouds on the sea and it seemed a world removed from any modern version of the imperial Great Game.

Yet, Monsoon by Robert D. Kaplan identifies Burma and the waters of the Indian Ocean and the surrounding states as a key arena for the decisive geopolitical game of the early 21st century.
Monsoon, is a tour de force encompassing the states and regions abutting the greater Indian Ocean, from Zanzibar to Indonesia. Kaplan sees in the Indian Ocean countries not a Kantian post-nationalism imbued with a common striving toward perpetual peace, but rather a geographic delineation driven more by a Metternichian balance of power politics.

Located as it is, Burma serves as Kaplan’s Bay of Bengal counterpart to Pakistan’s relationship with the Arabian Sea. Each country is offered as a fractured and troubled guardian of a critical sub-region, with both Pakistan and Burma never having recovered from the shattered dreams of founding fathers Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Aung San. However, unlike his future doomsday scenario for the modern Pakistani state, which Kaplan likens to a potential Balkanization of the country, Monsoon instead postulates Burma as a Southeast Asian Belgium, squeezed and poised to be overrun by dominant and lusting neighbours.

Unfortunately, while the broader argument of Burma’s place in regional politics and power is well articulated and intriguing, whether the reader agrees with the hypothesis or not, Burma is the only geographic area that Kaplan was unable to significantly explore on the ground. The author’s firsthand exposure is instead limited to the now standard cross border forays into Burma from Thailand, an approach which dovetails well with Kaplan’s predilection to seek the voices of predominantly American, Christian ex-military personnel based in the vicinity of the Burma border and often espousing violent prescriptions for a resolution to Burma’s political crisis.

The outcome in relying on the anonymous voices of those Americans pursuing unofficial regional policy manifests itself in many fashions, some more worthy of reflection than others. There are, of course, the familiar anti-Tatmadaw barbs, such as  dubious insinuations that Burma’s generals seek guidance by means of rolling chicken bones. However, there are also more thought provoking opinions such as that expressed by a Vietnam era veteran––evoking ghosts of George Kennan’s ‘X’ paper and containment––of the necessity of supporting an unconventional warfare component to Burma’s opposition in order to confront China at the outset.

However, Monsoon drastically improves when Kaplan adopts the lead analytical voice. Criticized in some quarters for his realpolitik approach, Kaplan does not hesitate in bringing a pragmatic voice to what is often, in the hands of others, a political rhetoric inundated with morality. Of the 1962 coup that brought the military to power, while acknowledging the woeful shortcomings of ensuing military-dominated governments, the author writes: ‘The coup was a mercy killing for a well-meaning though increasingly ineffectual civilian administration’. Meanwhile, Burma’s principle opposition party, the National League for Democracy, is clearly defined in the idea that groups with no formal representation are spared the need to struggle toward political compromise and can thus afford to exist in a realm of ‘moral abstractions and absolutes’.

Though maintaining conservative political tendencies, Kaplan finds little effectiveness in the approach of the George W. Bush administration in confronting Burma, instead arguing for an Obama-led engagement policy with Naypyidaw buoyed by drastically increased support for the country’s various ethnic opposition groups, the latter a policy generally synonymous with the urging of many of those American regional voices. Support for engagement with Naypyidaw bolsters Kaplan’s contention that Burma’s political actors have been forced to make certain choices because of the lack of other offers on the table. Both the generals’ closeness to China and the working relationship of the Wa with the Tatmadaw are assessed as mere marriages of last resort.

Covering as it does such a wide, sometimes disparate and other times similar, region, one benefit of Monsoon is the reader’s opportunity to draw further lessons for, and relationships with, Burma from the varied regions explored. For example, no clearer wording is needed for the potentially growing affinity between Sri Lanka and Burma than Kaplan’s assessment of the current Colombo government as ‘a royal and ethnically rooted dynasty, superficially like the Buddhist kingdoms of Kandy of old, dedicated to ethno-national survival, unaccountable to the cabinet and parliament. Democracy has become a family business’.

And while Kaplan is not out to deny any country democratic rights, Monsoon’s message is consistently one in which elections are seen as but one component, and not necessarily the most important, in responsible governance. ‘Functioning institutions––rather than mere elections––are critical, particularly in complex societies’, he writes, ‘and the frontier is not about the holding of elections, but about the building of strong, impersonal institutions that do not discriminate according to race, ethnic group, tribe, or personal connections’.

Kaplan is especially wary of the potential negative ramifications associated with racially or ethnically delineated parties, as he draws attention to in the case of the east African island of Zanzibar. Here, he offers a cautionary note for Burma, now on a road to political reconciliation, dominated as the country is by ethnically defined territories abounding in political parties that are directly identified by ethnic interests.

In comparison, Monsoon fawns over the achievements of Oman and Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Though Omanis, Kaplan admits, may not strictly speaking enjoy the rights of press, assembly, democratic elections or religion, their basic rights are yet largely respected. However,he warns: ‘The extreme centralization of authority that characterizes Oman works well only in the hands of a vigorous and enlightened leader’. And even that may not be enough at the end of the day, as Omanis are as of this writing engaged in countrywide protests demanding improved wages and other concessions, part of a wave of unrest rippling over the Middle East.

Pragmatism embedded in realpolitik is also on hand when it comes to Kaplan’s assessment of New Delhi’s posturing with respect to the Burmese state. Bound by regional security and economic interests, India is understood as unable to afford the luxury of policy grounded in morality. Exuding a fleeting memory of Alexander Dubcek’s vision of ‘socialism with a human face’, Kaplan appeals for ‘realpolitik with a conscience’ as the guiding hand for Indian foreign policy vis-à-vis regional states. It is a prescription made with the idea that Indian regional interests can best be met via a programme of soft hegemony in which the assertion of political dominance would be inherently counterproductive.

Returning to the primacy of Burma within his thematic narrative, Kaplan is ultimately calling for an enlightened leadership and responsible institutions. And regarding political machinations and the Tatmadaw, for half a century the dominant actor on Burma’s political stage, Kaplan references an unspecified international negotiator as relating: ‘There will be no choice but to keep the military in a leading role for a while, because without the military there is nothing in Burma’. Thus, grounded in undeniably non-utopian reasoning and with an eye to improving the near term functioning of the state, more hope is found in the possibility of another military coup and/or the inevitability of changes in ageing leadership than any spontaneous flowering of a vibrant and prosperous state anchored by electoral democratic norms.

Singaporean statesman Kishore Mahbubani has written prolifically of the coming East Asian hemisphere, chronicling the perceived unstoppable flow of power to the rising powers of the East. Kaplan also goes beyond the formal borders of the Indian Ocean in paying homage to the growing importance of Asia’s Pacific rim. However, Kaplan not only geographically expands his story to cover the Indian Ocean, but also stresses the importance of all geographic stakeholders in the security, economic and power matrix of the region in the 21st century. And it is here that Burma finds itself; an integral component in a dynamic region, threatened by implosion and ever prying neighbours, yet maintaining the possibility of becoming a responsible player within a complex theatre whose global importance and prosperity is poised to surge.

Joseph Ball is the pseudonym of an academic who is the author of ‘Confronting Democratic Modernity in Military-ruled Burma’, published by Mizzima Media.