Robert D. Kaplan is a journalist who loves to take on the over-the-horizon issues that are just starting to be absorbed by popular appetites. He has the connections, and the time, and the energy to chase down important stories. And he has decided that future American involvement in Burma is now one of those stories. Today a New Mandala reader brought his latest piece for The Atlantic Monthly to my attention.
It is based on interviews with four Americans who know mainland Southeast Asia well. They are assembled in this article to provide perspectives on getting around the “strategic myopia” Kaplan identifies in American Burma policy. These Americans–“The Son of the Blue-eyed Shan”, Tha-U-Wa-A-Pa (“The Father of the White Monkey”), Ta Doe Tee (“The Bull that Swims”) and Colonel Timothy Heinemann (the only player for whom Kaplan offers a real name)–have all clearly earned their stripes. Those who know the field and the relevant personalities may see through some of these pseudonyms. There are only so many (or so few) individuals who fit anything like these particular profiles.
For that reason this is an unusual and interesting article.
In his bunker in the jungle capital of Naypyidaw, Than Shwe sits atop an unsteady and restless cadre of mid-level officers and lower ranks. He may represent the last truly centralized regime in Burma’s postcolonial history. Whether through a peaceful, well-managed transition or through a tumultuous or even anarchic one, the Karens and Shans in the east and the Chins and Arakanese in the west will likely see their power increased in a post-junta Burma. The various natural-gas pipeline agreements will have to be negotiated or renegotiated with the ethnic peoples living in the territories through which the pipelines would pass. The struggle over the Indian Ocean, or at least the eastern part of it, may, alas, come down to who deals more adroitly with the Burmese hill tribes. It is the kind of situation that the American Christian missionaries of yore knew how to handle.