I read “Lifting the Bamboo Curtain” with some interest since Robert Kaplan has written several books and articles that I thought were quite good, although I have to admit most of the things he has written post 9-11 were difficult to digest given his almost sole focus on the role of the American military as an instrument of US foreign policy. Unfortunately, his recent Atlantic article shows this same focus, but it appears Kaplan is trying to return to some of the themes he wrote about extensively in the 1990s, such as the role of NGOs. However, his foray into Burma, while raising interesting points, suffers from a lack of historical background. It seems as if Kaplan thinks modern Burmese history and US involvement with Burma began with Aung San Suu Kyi. I know most New Mandala readers are quite familiar with Burmese history but, nonetheless, I’d like to point out a few of the article’s flaws.

To begin with, Kaplan relies on the standard cliché that Burma is locked in time. As Martin Smith points out in his Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity nothing could be further from the truth. Burma has in fact declined precipitously in the last fifty years. It was once one of the leading rice exporters in the world; but even before Cyclone Nargis, it was having difficulties feeding its own people. The couple I stayed with years ago in Rangoon remembered when they used to travel to Singapore in the 1950s and reflected that back then it was primitive compared to Rangoon.

Speaking of the 1950s, Kaplan’s assertion that Chinese intelligence and elements of the Thai political and military establishment have begun to support and operate with anti-regime ethnic groups in recent years only makes sense if “recent” means since 1950, if not a couple of years earlier. In fact, Chinese and Thai (and US) intelligence agencies have been involved with various ethnic insurgent groups right from the start and an understanding of their roles is crucial to any analysis of the current situation in Burma. For example, the Karen insurgents simply could not and cannot survive without some level of backing from Thailand. The intensity of Thai support has ebbed and flowed but it has always been there, particularly within elements of the Thai military and business community which in many cases are one and the same!

Chinese intelligence has also been operating in the Shan States since the 1950s. After their defeat by the Communists, elements of the Kuomingtang Army essentially invaded swathes of the Shan States with covert US support, cooperated with local anti-regime ethnic insurgents, and supplied intelligence to the CIA. In the 1960s the Communist Chinese backed an invasion of the Shan States by exiled elements of the Burmese Communist Party (BCP) — along with volunteer Revolutionary Guards — which drove out the KMT and in turn allied themselves, and recruited among anti-regime ethnic minorities.

When the BCP broke up due to a mutiny by the rank-and-file ethnic minority soldiers against the Burman party leadership, the Chinese continued to support the mutineers even while switching support from the defunct BCP to the military regime in Rangoon. In fact, it is impossible to understand the rise of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), arguably the most powerful armed ethnic minority group, without Chinese support. The UWSA also has a ceasefire agreement with the military junta, has clashed with various Shan insurgent groups, has displaced Shan, Lahu and other tribal groups along the Thai border by re-settling over 100,000 Wa civilians in that region, and has become one of the world’s largest drug trafficking organizations all while enjoying a level of Chinese support. Strangely, Kaplan fails to mention the Wa. This is odd since their recent displacement of other ethnic minorities and armed clashes with other insurgents argues against his contention that the tribes show little propensity to fight each other, as least as far as the Shan States are concerned.

Another significant ethnic group that is missing from Kaplan’s discussion is the largest group in the country, the Burmans. While I am personally biased towards the ethnic minorities, the Kachins in particular, putting these biases to one side the fact is those ports and pipelines he mentions are going to go through the Burman heartland before they get to the Shan, Chin, Karen, Kachin, Wa, Lahu, Lisu, Palaung, Pa-O etc. Any realistic US policy must take in to consideration the Burmans, and their suffering under the military regime, in addition to the ethnic minorities.

A policy based on managing the hill tribes and aligning with the ethnic minorities may be difficult given the fact that the Burmese military isn’t the only group to oppose some sort of federalism for Burma. I suspect that opposition to federalism runs pretty deep among the Burman majority, and a US policy that is “all about the tribes” isn’t going to help things. Maybe a policy based on helping repair the damages inflicted on the Burman majority by military rule would be better.

As for change being brought about by some sort of coup or re-alignment within the military, this is hardly new thinking. People have been waiting for that and potential mutinies of the rank-and-file soldiers since Ne Win took over in the 1960s. More recently, some observers thought that Khin Nyunt, the head of Military Intelligence was going to the man of change once Ne Win died. Well, Ne Win is dead, Khin Nyunt was removed from his office by an even more intransigent faction within the regime, and his Military Intelligence power base was dismantled. I too hope that the regime might moderate in the future, but there is over 40 years of history warning against reliance on that particular deus ex machine. What happens if Than Shwe is replaced by a younger version of himself?

The biggest flaw in this article is Kaplan’s thesis that successful US policy depends on dealing adroitly with the Burmese hill tribes. This formulation would be amusing if it weren’t so patronizing towards the tribes to be managed. The US dealing adroitly with tribes? I could characterize the maternal side of my families over 200 years of dealing with the US in North America in many ways, but adroitly isn’t one of them. Southeast Asia isn’t much better. The Kachin fought one of the most successful guerilla actions of WWII against the Japanese with US help in northern Burma, but after the war the US abandoned them. As far as I am aware, the US showed no interest in protecting the interests of their former tribal allies in the run-up to the Panglong Agreement or afterwards. The chaos the Shan States suffered beginning in the 1950s is due in part to exactly the sort of policy Kaplan suggests the US now undertake. Furthermore, the Hmong, Lahu and Yao in the US are here because of a policy in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia that included many of the features Kaplan suggests for Burma.

If the US is to become adroit in managing the tribes of Burma, it is going to need some practice, and unfortunately, China, India, and Thailand are way ahead of the US in this regard. It is strange that Kaplan, a writer who is so attuned to ethnic geography in many of his other books and articles fails to note that Burma’s ethnic groups extend well beyond its borders. There are large Karen and Shan populations in Thailand. The Shan are part of a larger Tai ethnic group which extends from Vietnam to India, and from Thailand to Yunnan province in China. (“Shan”, “Siam” and “Assam” all share the same linguistic root.) Chins are found in Burma and India. The Kachin inhabit not only the Kachin and Shan States of Burma, but also Northeast India and Yunnan, China. This ethnic geography provides India and China all manner of political, economic, and, just as important, cultural connections with Burma’s hill tribes that the US simply does not have. For an example of the complex transnational cultural connections, I would suggest looking at Nicholas Farrelly’s series of posts on Kachin Manau (a ritual dance) in Burma, China and India.

I think the fundamental error Kaplan makes is to assume that the missionaries’ success was due to their adroitness in managing tribes, or the ability to go native. That isn’t the case. The missionaries, like everybody else, were and are blinded by their own cultural, religious, political, and socio-economic biases. What made, and makes, a successful missionary is a genuine, deep concern for others and a willingness to work for their best interests, as far as the missionary can discern them. If that were the basis for the US policy for Burma, both for the hill tribes and the Burmans, then maybe Kaplan is right after all about taking a leaf from the missionaries’ book.