A long-time American voice of reporting and analysis on international affairs and relations concludes that the best hope for a future Burma and the securing of American interests lies in a renewed emphasis on the part of the White House in support for Burma's ethnic communities.
Writing in the September issue of The Atlantic, Robert D. Kaplan chronicles his recent experiences on the Thai-Burma border and his encounters with four Americans long involved in Burma's continuing saga, judging that future international influence in the Southeast Asian country "may, alas, come down to who deals more adroitly with the Burmese hill tribes."
The theme of Kaplan's analysis is that present and past American policy as directed toward Burma excuses the United States from the playing field, thereby leaving the game to the sole purview of rival powers in the region such as China, Thailand and India.
"The Bush administration, like its predecessors, has loudly embraced the cause of Burmese democracy but has done too little to advance it, either by driving diplomatic initiatives in the region or by supporting any of the ethnic insurgencies," prospers the author.
Describing U.S. policy vis-à-vis Burma since the fall of the Berlin Wall as "more moralistic than moral," Kaplan argues that any U.S. President "should either open talks with the junta, rather than risk having the U.S. ejected from the whole Bay of Bengal region; or he should support the ethnics in an effective but quiet manner."
Given the above options, the author clearly falls on the side of increasing support for ethnic groups.
Kaplan laments the refusal of the Bush administration to more actively engage in the region in pursuit of both Burmese and American interests, noting that: "While the Chinese operate at every level in Burma and Thailand, top Bush-administration officials have skipped summits of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations."
With regard to the United States unwavering support for embattled National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the author determines that national level politics in Burma will likely only be able to be effectively addressed once ethnic questions are resolved.
"The opposition to the military dictatorship has no strategic and operational planning like Hezbollah does," quotes Kaplan of retired U.S. Army colonel Timothy Heinemann. "Aung San Suu Kyi is little more than a symbol of the wrong issue—'Democracy first!' Ethnic rights and the balance of ethnic power are preconditions for democracy in Burma."
The author then elaborates himself: "Even with elections, this [the release of Aung San Suu Kyi] would not solve Burma's fundamental problems. Aung San Suu Kyi, as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and global media star, could provide a moral rallying point that even the hill tribes would accept. But the country would still be left with no public infrastructure, no institutions, no civil society, and with various ethnic armies that fundamentally distrust the dominant Burmans."
And in speaking with Karen leaders along the Thai-Burma border, Kaplan paraphrases: "They were fighting not for a better regime composed of more enlightened military officers, nor for a democratic government that would likely be led by ethnic Burmans like Aung San Suu Kyi, but for Karen independence."
The four American 'voices' referenced in the article comprise two missionaries, the aforementioned retired colonel and a former member of the army special forces.
Each of those interviewed at length is said to be of similar mind regarding "the need to build and manage networks among the ethnic hill tribes."
Within Burma's various ethnic communities, existing divisions are seen as opportunities for the United States to effectively insert itself into the equation.
In language reminiscent of a renewed mini-Cold War battlefront, Kaplan paints a picture of Burma as a vital link in China's expanding global energy policy, with India appreciating and responding to the need to challenge China's growing supremacy in Burma.
To this effect, the article deems the United States can be truest to its own values and interests, as well as to the desires of the Burmese citizenry, if ethnic communities and populations are supported as a bulwark against the encroaching interests and values of other players such as China, India and Russia.
Prescribing to the theory of an evolving web of international relations highly reliant upon access to energy resources, Kaplan encourages a pragmatic American foreign policy appreciative of the geographic location of Burma's ethnic communities in relation to energy resources and transportation routes.
Kaplan, whose last two books chronicle the state of the U.S. armed forces and military personnel in the 21st century, is a fellow at the Center for a New American Century, a neo-conservative think-tank headquartered in Washington, D.C.