By Roland Watson
October 8, 2009

Note: This article was prepared for a seminar of the Asia Democracy Alliance in Washington, D.C., which Dictator Watch co-sponsored, in the Rayburn House of Representatives office building. It analyzes the relations of Burma with both China and the United States, including the impact of the Obama Administration’s policy of engagement.

Pertinent history

There was a military coup in Burma in 1962, by General Ne Win. There is suspicion that the CIA was involved in the coup, and also the British, Israeli and French secret services.

United Sates regional policy for East Asia at that time was dominated by the goal of containing the Chinese communists. Ne Win was viewed as a good ally in this effort.

Shortly after the coup, in 1963-64, the U.S. provided radar stations to Ne Win. Following widespread anti-Chinese riots in Burma in 1967, the U.S. sent surface to air missiles and artilleries, including 105 mm howitzers, 75 mm recoilless rifles, 106 mm recoilless rifles, etc. All of this was meant for defense, in case of an attack on Burma by China.

Burma Army officers received training in the U.K. and the U.S. The U.K and Israel also reportedly trained BA intelligence personnel.

Declassified State Dept. cables from the period show that the U.S. quickly developed a positive relationship with Ne Win. As early as 1965, he offered to host negotiations between the U.S. and Vietnam in Rangoon. He also provided regular advice to the U.S. about the region including in 1966 that it should not withdraw from Vietnam, and on the nature of China's communist leaders. For the Chinese, he commented on their “extreme narrow-mindedness and parochialism.”

Ne Win was invited to the U.S. by President Johnson, and visited the White House in 1966. He later bought houses in the U.K., Germany and Switzerland.

One U.S. appraisal of China at the time comes from a 1965 cable about the China Reporting Program, which was a secret effort to counter Chinese propaganda:

The growth of Chinese Communist influence and capacity for subversion confronts us throughout the less developed areas of the world. With over three decades of pragmatic experience in psychological warfare and without the restraints imposed by generally accepted norms of international conduct, the Chinese communists have made impressive psychological gains in those areas. Their output is great in volume and professional in form.”

In the 1960s, the United States actively opposed Chinese propaganda. It no longer does so. And, the Communist Party of China (CCP) has now had an additional forty-five years to increase and strengthen its program, which is nothing less than the largest and most sophisticated propaganda and censorship machine in human history.

Another significant factor is that after their defeat by the communists in 1949, some 15,000 Chinese Nationalist troops (Kuomintang – KMT) took refuge in the Laos - Burma border areas. The U.S. supported evacuations of these troops to Taipei, but some 5,000 irregulars remained, and which Taipei continued to assist. This residual Nationalist force on China's southwest flank was an irritant to the CCP. The KMT also had a plan, although it was not implemented, to attack China in Yunnan and ally with the ethnic minorities there after the Korean War broke out.

Many groups inside Burma were opposed to Ne Win, such as the students (the ABFSU – All Burma Federation of Student Unions). Another significant opponent was the Communist Party of Burma (BCP), which was initially formed in the late 1930s to fight the British (when Burma was still a colony of the U.K.). Following the 1962 coup, and superficial negotiations the following year between Ne Win and the BCP, significant conflict broke out between them. This civil war continued for decades, and with China providing substantial support to the BCP starting after the 1967 riots. The BCP became the most important regional ally of the CCP.

The U.S. continued to support Ne Win through the Reagan years, under the cover of its anti-narcotics program. For example, two Bell helicopters for drug interdiction were shot down in 1984 by the Karen National Union (KNU), which was not involved in drugs. The Karen protested to the U.S., but got no reply.

U.S. allies also supplied arms to the regime. Germany built a factory to make G-2 and G-3 assault rifles, G-4 light machine guns, MG-42 general-purpose machine guns, MA-10 rocket launchers, and BA-103 rocket launchers. Switzerland sold PC-6 and PC-7 aircraft, and which were later used in a 1988 attack on the Karen headquarters at Manerplaw.

To summarize this history, one can say that prior to the popular uprising in Burma in 1988, the U.S. supported Ne Win’s junta and China opposed it. This changed with the West ending its support following the 8888 massacre.

China also dropped its support of the BCP at this time, leading to the Party’s collapse. This change actually developed out of the secret deal reached during Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing: that China would not support regional communist parties if the U.S. would refrain from again becoming involved in conflict in S.E. Asia. Thai and Malay communist parties also lost CCP support. (One wonders if this agreement is still active.)

Some of the ethnic armies in the northeast of Burma, notably the Wa (United Wa State Army - UWSA) and Kokang (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army - MNDAA), were built on the remnants of the BCP, and have had good relations with China since that time. They were among the many ethnic armies, particularly in Shan State, that signed ceasefire agreements with Burma’s junta in the late 1980s and early 1990s, reportedly following prodding from China. These ceasefires split the Burma ethnic armed resistance, and was a successful use by the regime, with CCP assistance, of the tactic of divide and conquer. The CCP has been pursuing a buffer policy with Burma through these ceasefire groups ever since.

China’s interests with Burma

China has strategic and economic interests with Burma.

The first strategic interest is that the CCP does not want Burma to become democratic. Such an event would inflame the democratic aspirations of the Chinese, and also give hope to the Tibetans, East Turkestanis and Southern Mongolians. The CCP will basically give the military regime of Burma whatever it wants, to ensure that this does not happen.

China also uses Burma in its strategic positioning with India, with which it has both military and economic competition. There are additionally three specific disputes: over the Aksai Chin area of Kashmir, which China took in the Sino-Indian war in 1962; Arunachal Pradesh (which China refers to as Southern Tibet); and the fact that the Dalai Lama uses India as his base.

China has built an Indian Ocean deep-water port at Kyaukpyu on Burma’s southwest coast, and it has an electronic intelligence operation directed at the Indian military on Great Coco Island.

China’s economic interests for Burma are focused predominantly on the supply of energy and other natural resources. In November 2008, China signed a deal to build two pipelines across Burma. The first, from Yunnan (Kumming) to Kyaukpyu, is for oil and will open a new, shorter route for Middle East and African supplies. (It avoids the Malacca Strait.) The second, from Yunnan to Burma's gas fields, is for natural gas. Construction on the pipelines was supposed to have started in September, and is to be completed by 2013.

China is also the principal partner in two new dams on the Salween River in Eastern Burma, one in Karen State and the other in Shan State. It is providing 50% of the funding for the Karen State dam (Hat Gyi), for which technical surveying has been completed.

China further is pursuing large mining ventures in Burma, including operating a nickel mine, being the sole customer for the output of a tungsten mine, etc. China is also the driving force behind the deforestation in Burma’s northern forests, and the exploitation of Burmese jade and other gems.

In summary, to satisfy its strategic and economic interests, China has changed its Burma policy since 1988 and become the regime's principal ally.

What the SPDC gets

The current military junta in Burma, the State Peace and Development Council, receives general diplomatic support from the CCP, in the form of regular statements that Burma's problems are internal and that the world shouldn't interfere. This is then backed up by a veto against - or other types of maneuvering to avoid - all prospective United Nations Security Council action on the country.

The SPDC is already receiving large sums from the sale of its resources to China. When the new pipelines are brought on stream, this will jump to billions of dollars each year.

China has also provided large-scale funding for infrastructure in Burma, notably roads and bridges and now dams and pipelines, together with a related supply of Chinese engineers.

China provides extensive military equipment and assistance, including trucks, jets, and ships; heavy weapons such as 130 mm artillery and 120 mm mortars; light arms, although these are often of substandard quality; and training.

It is now public knowledge that Burma is pursuing a nuclear program, with North Korean and Russian assistance. (Dictator Watch prepared a comprehensive investigation of this program, with the first of many articles published in November 2006.) While China is not believed to be directly involved in the proliferation, it has encouraged the SPDC to acquire nuclear weapons, and the relationship of the regime with North Korea could not proceed without CCP approval. There have also been reports that North Korean nuclear technology is now being transported overland to Burma through China (following shipment blockades – by the U.S. – by air and at sea).

Recent developments with China

The SPDC in August betrayed one of its ceasefire agreements and attacked the Chinese-ethnicity Kokang (MNDAA). The Kokang have been driven from their territory, even though they have lived in the area since Burma’s feudal days. Some 37,000 refugees fled to China. An unknown number have returned. Thousands of Kokang troops surrendered in China to the PLA.

It has been reported (by the Kachin News Group) that the Burma Army used chemical weapons on the Kokang. The victims – Kokang fighters – said that gas was released when a mortar shell exploded. Their symptoms included bleeding eyes, nose and ears, dizziness, and difficulty breathing. Military sources report that shells with distinctive yellow, red and green markings have been transported to Burma Army camps in eastern Shan State, and that the shells are from North Korea.

There has further been a pattern in recent years of massive Chinese migration into northern Burma. In last month, though, the SPDC ordered 10,000 Chinese business people in the border areas to leave. (This has been disputed by China.)

There is now great concern that the Burma Army will attack the larger and stronger ceasefire groups in north and northeast Burma, including the Kachin (Kachin Independence Army - KIA) and Wa, who have refused orders from the SPDC to transform into border militias under Burma Army command. New conflict is considered possible at any time, and these groups are on high alert. The Kachin and Wa have been recruiting and training soldiers in recent months, and are prepared to fight, but they reportedly won't act first under orders from China. The Wa actually began to move to defend the Kokang, with whom they have a mutual defense pact, but then did not. (Some reports said that about 1,500 UWSA troops went to the Kokang area and began fighting, but that the MNDAA collapsed too quickly.)

This pact is known as the MPDF, or Myanmar Peace and Democracy Front. It includes the KIA, UWSA, MNDAA, and the NDAA - National Democratic Alliance Army - Eastern Shan State, which is also known as the Mongla.

China is now building a series of refugee camps across from the Kachin and Wa areas.

In summary, it appears that the SPDC has become hostile to China's ethnic allies. The plan of the junta leader, Than Shwe, is clearly to consolidate his rule over as much of Burma as possible, before his advancing age forces him to relinquish control. He no longer wants the ceasefire groups to have de-facto independence.

Perhaps more importantly, these groups are debating participating in the SPDC’s upcoming 2010 general election, which is a pivotal part of Than Shwe’s plan. This election will be based on Burma’s 2008 Constitution, which was passed in a fraudulent referendum and which will give the military a monopoly on power and that will be impossible to change.

Than Shwe needs popular legitimacy for the vote, to support his allies around the world when they argue that the election should not be rejected out of hand. These allies include U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Japan, Singapore, the E.U., and in the U.S academic David Steinberg, Senator Jim Webb, and, most worryingly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Having the ceasefire groups participate in the election is much more important than their reorganizing as a border guard. Than Shwe’s position is that they must agree to vote, or face the ultimate penalty.

Interestingly, the CCP appears ready to accept the SPDC’s attacks against its allies (as signaled by its role disarming the Kokang, the building of the new refugee camps, etc.). The reason for this is that if the junta can extend its control over all of Burma, this will make it even stronger and hence more difficult for Burma’s pro-democracy movement to overcome. China’s first strategic interest with Burma will be enhanced, which seemingly, at least to Beijing, is worth the betrayal of the Kokang, Wa and Kachin. (Note: there may well be disputes within the CCP, between Yunnan officials who are upset at these events and the Politburo back in Beijing.)

Of course, there are no guarantees that military action against the Wa and Kachin will be successful. For this reason, even with all the bluster, conflict on a widespread scale is unlikely. If the Burma Army does attack, and suffers high casualties, this would deepen fault-lines that are already known to exist. A coup against Than Shwe would become much more likely.

Recent developments with the U.S.

There has been serious fallout from the long-debated and now finally announced U.S. policy shift to engagement with the SPDC. Most importantly, Than Shwe has been emboldened. The engagement policy is all carrot and no stick, and there has been no punishment for his many misdeeds: the renewed imprisonment of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi; attacks against the Kokang and also the Karen (and for the former with chemical weapons); a renewed pattern by the Burma Army of using rape as a weapon of war; and other such heinous acts. Engagement with the SPDC is therefore an odd policy: Than Shwe and his fellow generals are ruthless fascist/Nazi-like extremists, with whom negotiations have been and almost certainly will continue to be a complete waste of time.

The SPDC realized, when the review was announced at the beginning of the year, that American policy had actually already changed. For example, there was no longer a threat that the U.S. would assist Thai border-based resistance groups such as the KNU, Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and Shan State Army – South (SSA-South). (While the Bush Administration had not provided such help, this possibility couldn’t be ruled out.) This precipitated the unusual rainy season offensive against the Karen, and it has also freed up troops for operations in Shan State. The policy weakening was further likely a factor in the harsh treatment of Daw Suu.

Of even more concern, though, is that there are now credible reports of a new assassination plot by the SPDC. There is word that Than Shwe has ordered the execution of the leaders of any ceasefire groups that refuse to become border militias or support the 2010 election; of leaders of non-ceasefire armed resistance groups; and of other pro-democracy leaders who oppose the election. While this might be psychological warfare, it cannot be dismissed as an empty threat. The junta assassinated Padoh Mahn Sha, the General Secretary of the KNU, in February 2008. Than Shwe now appears intent on systematically eliminating all opposition.

It is conceivable that U.S. engagement motivated this, and that it will result in a wave of assassinations. Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, should have confronted the SPDC about this when he met its officials last week at the United Nations.

The U.S. must correct its flawed diplomatic signals. Further, the Administration must refrain from strong-arming Daw Suu and the National League for Democracy to relent over sanctions and to participate in the upcoming election. Indeed, the U.S. policy shift has so unsettled the Burma pro-democracy movement that the following questions can legitimately be asked. Should the monks and the students abandon their hopes of organizing a new popular uprising? Should the KNU and the other ethnic groups stop defending their people? Should everyone just wait to be saved by America?

The preferred U.S. policy for Burma is as follows: Oppose the 2010 election; organize an international arms embargo; instigate a crimes against humanity investigation; provide cross-border IDP aid; sanction Chevron; support the pro-democracy armed resistance; and, lastly, release the long-delayed JADE Act Section 10 report on Military and Intelligence Aid to Burma (which would confirm the nuclear threat).


Before 1988, the United States supported Burma’s military rulers, and China opposed them. These positions then reversed following 8888. But, it now appears that the U.S. is changing sides again, and joining China in supporting the SPDC.

This shift to engagement is also evident for U.S. policy towards China (where containment has been publicly renounced). Prior administrations would mention the terrible state of human rights in China, and send important signals of their support for democracy by meeting such individuals as the Dalai Lama. It unfortunately if not amazingly now appears to be the case that there is no room for the promotion of democracy in President Obama’s foreign policy.

What this implies is that freedom for the people of Burma has become even more remote. They truly are on their own. Moreover, freedom for Burma will likely require freedom for China first. (This is analogous to how freedom for East Timor required freedom for Indonesia first.) It is extremely difficult, though, to envision how this might happen now that the U.S. has also dropped freedom and human rights from its China agenda.

The only positive possibility is that President Obama is simply drawing a clear line between himself and former President Bush; that he expects engagement will fail (including with Iran and North Korea); and that when it does he will announce, “we tried,” and then move on to stronger measures and with multilateral support. However, while this might make sense (Obama’s no fool – he understands that there is no real hope for engagement), and while it would constitute an ingenious chess move on the world stage, he shouldn’t forget that the longer he delays strengthening American policy, the more people will die as tyrants take advantage of its present weakness.