A New Front: Myanmar’s Role in the Geopolitics of Empire

Eric Draitser 

Stop Imperialism

June 21, 2012 


Myanmar has been gripped by abhorrent ethnic
violence in recent weeks – violence which has begun to cast doubt on the
democratic future of the country.  The sectarian and religious bloodletting between the Buddhist Rakhine people and the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya,
has led to an international outcry and a swift military response from
the government. This sort of violence, something which is not entirely
new in the region, threatens to tarnish the reforms made by the nation
in the last twelve months.


However, with the eyes of the world focused on the
Southeast Asian country, a much more significant and covert war is
taking shape: a proxy war in which the United States and its allies use a
variety of violent and non-violent means in their quest to block
Chinese economic investment and development in Myanmar.  It is against
this backdrop that the recent changes, ranging from the ascension of
Aung San Suu Kyi to the current ethnic strife in Sittwe, must be

Violent Conflict and Chinese Interests 

The armed conflicts in Myanmar correspond directly
to large-scale Chinese development projects throughout the country. 
Essentially, long-standing ethnic and sectarian conflicts are being
fomented by international forces which seek to destabilize the country,
thereby loosening the grip of Chinese economic investment on the
country.  This is not to say that the conflicts are entirely fabricated
but, as in Syria, Libya, and countless other examples around the world,
the issue is spun by corporate-controlled media to obscure the reality
that the issue is being manipulated from behind the scenes by the forces
of Western imperialism.


The violence that has erupted among the Rakhine and
Rohingya groups has shocked the world.  However, seen from a more
objective, less emotional perspective, the recent violence serves a
vital geopolitical function for the United States.  The center of the
recent violence has been the city of Sittwe, capital of the Rakhine
State on the northwestern coast of the country.  This city is at the
center of one of China’s most crucial international investments, the
Sittwe port and pipeline project.  This project, a twin oil and gas pipeline
which would traverse Myanmar to link China’s southwestern Yunnan
province with the Indian Ocean would, consequently, provide the Chinese
land-based access to energy imports from Africa and the Middle East. 
Because of US naval dominance, not being completely reliant on
commercial shipping is an integral aspect of the overall Chinese

The pipeline itself is not the only issue for the
Chinese.  Sittwe is the site of the major Chinese-funded port which,
aside from being the starting point of the pipeline, is a vital access
point to Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent.  Imports such as
minerals and other raw materials from Africa as well as oil from the
Middle East would be shipped through this port (along with the Pakistani
port of Gwadar) for sale on the Chinese market.  It is for this reason
that Sittwe is of crucial significance to Chinese economic development. 
Naturally, as Sittwe and the rest of the Rakhine state descends into
chaos and the international community clamors for some form of
intervention, the port, pipeline and other projects cannot continue as


Sittwe and the Rakhine region are not the only
flashpoint in this proxy war against Chinese economic development.  The
Kachin province in northern Myanmar has seen its own share of violent
conflict.  The Kachin rebels, fighting the central government, have only
recently stepped up their guerilla war against the government.  This
increased violence is understood to be a serious threat to the stability
of the region and, consequently, the viability and security of the
Chinese pipeline which must travel through Kachin before terminating in
Southwest China. In fact, the Chinese are reportedly paying Burmese soldiers
in the North to provide additional security for the project in light of
the recent violence.  This fact indicates not only the strategic
necessity of the project for the Chinese but also their understanding
that the violence in the region is aimed as much at them as it is at the
government of Myanmar.


The Myitsone Dam, on its way to being the 15th largest in the world
until construction was halted in September by a campaign led byWall Street-proxy Aung San Suu Kyi, a stable of US-funded NGOs,and a terrorist campaignexecuted by armed groups operating in Kachin State, Myanmar.


Aside from the pipeline, the Chinese are heavily
invested in a number of hydroelectric dam projects, none bigger or more
economically significant than the Myitsone Dam Project,
a large scale investment estimated at upwards of $4 billion.  The dam,
which would provide power primarily for Southwest China but also for
Myanmar to a lesser extent, is part of a development plan by the Chinese
to address the vital issue of energy generation, particularly for
interior China.  However, due to the violence in the region as well as
environmental concerns raised by local residents (as well as the possibility of Western arm-twisting),
the project was recently put on hold.  Naturally, this is a source of
tremendous irritation for Beijing, which sees this as yet another
example of Western meddling in the affairs of Chinese economic


The armed conflicts throughout the country have
made the investment climate in Myanmar very difficult for the Chinese. 
In spite of this however, the Chinese are still determined to reassert
their influence.  They remain close allies of the government which,
despite recent overtures to the United States and the West more
generally, still remains somewhat skeptical of the motivations of

Western “Soft Power” to Block the Chinese


One might ask how the United States actually fits
into these various conflicts in Myanmar.  It is true that there are no
“boots on the ground” as far as anyone knows, nor is Washington directly
intervening in the country. Instead, as with so many other
strategically crucial regions of the world, the US employs soft power to
achieve its strategic aims.  One prime example of this sort of
power-projection comes in the form of NGOs operating inside Myanmar with
funding from the US government.  Additionally, we see India, and other
nations traditionally at odds with China, being used as a wedge to pry
Myanmar out of the Chinese sphere of influence.  However, there is no
better example of the use of soft power in Myanmar than the rise of Aung
San Suu Kyi to international superstardom.


Image: Suu Kyi (right) has spent a lifetime championing Western-style “governance” and has been the most vocal voice within Myanmar praising, not condemning crippling sanctions that have left Myanmar and its people in abject poverty for decades. 


It would not be fair to argue that Aung San Suu Kyi
and the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar is entirely a tool of the
West.  It certainly has merits and has evolved out of a genuine desire
of much of the population to see democratic reforms and the
liberalization of their country.  However, it would be intellectually
dishonest not to point out the obvious connections between the policies
of the US State Department, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and
the pro-democracy movement embodied by the Nobel Prize winner and
darling of the West, Suu Kyi.

For more than a decade, the National Endowment for Democracy
has been active inside the country, ostensibly supporting the
pro-democracy movement.  However, considering the fact that that the NED
and its various subsidiary organizations are directly funded by the US
State Department, it is logical, and indeed correct, to conclude that
the groups receiving their funding and support are aligned with US
interests.  In fact, we’ve seen this as recently as this week, when Suu
Kyi made her public remarks
warning against investment with Chinese firms while supporting dealing
with Western oil companies such as Chevron and Total.  This is a prime
example of the way in which Suu Kyi and her supporters represent the
interests of the United States as much as they represent those of the
people of Myanmar.

Beyond just Suu Kyi and her political influence in
the country, the National Endowment for Democracy has a strong
grassroots presence in the country, helping to shape discourse by funding dozens of “educational institutions”;
naturally these institutions are amenable to US interests in the
country.  Additionally, the NED uses innocuous phrases such as “freedom
of Information”, “transparency”, and “NGO strengthening” to describe the
multitude of activities in which it is engaged.  Here, it should be
noted that I am not arguing that all of these initiatives are bad.  On
the contrary, some of them empower local people in various fields or
help raise important issues.  However, the overall scope of the
engagement illustrates not just an interest in the future of Myanmar,
but an active participation in shaping the next generation of leaders
who will look away from China and towards Washington.

It is important to note that the NED has been
active in the Rakhine region for years, working precisely with the
Rohingya population now embroiled in this violent conflict.  In fact, in
a 2006 report funded by the NED,
we see clearly the way in which the United States uses the cover of
human rights and the rights of children to undermine and otherwise
subvert the government.  This should not be taken as suggesting that
this ethnic minority is irrelevant or that their struggle is without
some merit.  Rather, it is simply to point out the way in which the US,
under the auspices of human rights and children, is able to entrench
itself inside the country and its institutions.

As Myanmar undergoes the transition to a more open,
democratic society, so too does it open itself to the dangers and
fruits of international engagement.  While the country has the
opportunity to enrich itself and bring economic and social benefits to
the people, it also runs the risk of allowing itself to be part of the
global strategy of the United States to contain China and prevent its
economic expansion.  As its geographical location indicates, Myanmar
finds itself at the center of a geopolitical and economic proxy war.  As
the imperialist ruling class of the West desperately clings to power in
hopes of extending their hegemony for another century, so too does
China seek to gain the status of superpower on the world stage.  For
Myanmar, this could be an economic boon: the chance for wealth and
prosperity for a people who have suffered under the yoke of imperialist
domination for the last three centuries.  However, equally important,
will be the decisions made in the next few years which will have serious
implications for Myanmar’s present and its future.