Change through Division


NAYPYIDAW/BERLIN (own report) - Following elections in Myanmar, western government advisors are proposing a new policy to gain influence in this strategically important country. For years, Berlin, in accordance with other Western capitals, has been pursuing the policy of harsh confrontation against Myanmar, to strengthen its pro-western opposition. The "Union Solidarity and Development Association" (USDA) won a landslide victory in last November's election. The USDA is considered the political wing of the ruling military regime. Western think tanks, including the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and the International Crisis Group, are calling for using contradictions within Myanmar's ruling circle and strengthening Western influence by dividing the elite. A policy of rapprochement should set the stage. EU delegates are currently negotiating the lifting of sanctions against Myanmar.

A "Window to Influence"

In its recently published Myanmar-Analysis, the influential western think tank, the International Crisis Group, writes that "it would be a mistake to conclude that nothing has changed" through the outcome of Myanmar's elections. It did not remove the basis of the "isolated and authoritarian military regimes" that have been ruling for fifty years. It has to be noted however that "the underlying power dynamics are changing profoundly": With "General Than Shwe handing over power to a new generation of leaders, there is a window to influence the future direction of the country".[1] A new constitution has come into effect, "which fundamentally reshapes the political landscape, albeit in a way that ensures the continued influence of the military". And "a number of technocrats" have been brought into the cabinet, "and at the local level ethnic groups now have at least some say in the governance of their affairs".[2] This analysis can be interpreted as a renunciation of the tough policy of confrontation the West has been pursuing against Myanmar.


The German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) had similarly rejected the policy of confrontation already before the elections. "The country’s enormous economic potential continues to be largely wasted rather than systematically exploited", estimated SWP. To enhance the economic ties between Myanmar and the German sphere of influence, the previous policy of sanctions must be changed.[3] In addition, SWP proposes to divide the Myanmar elite ( reported [4]). The German government-financed think tank wrote that one should "stop seeing Burma solely as a monolithic bloc of ruling power holders, who stand against the repressed masses". Efforts need to be multiplied to "identify the economic actors who have vital interest in initiating innovative developments that would enable them to attain a higher degree of independence from the existing power structures". These fractions of the military government "should be strengthened as European development partners and not be subjected to additional political conditioning", SWP proposed.

Development Aid Lever

In relation to dealing with the new Myanmar government, the International Crisis Group takes a similar approach in its recent analysis: "Western powers need to engage robustly the new Myanmar government on a wide range of issues, and demonstrate that they are ready to adjust their policies." The International Crisis Group proposes, in particular, to make extensive use of development aid. "Significant increases in assistance should be accompanied by lifting the restrictions on development aid." [5] Robert Templer, the organization’s Asia Program Director warns, "if the new government comes to the conclusion that megaphone diplomacy and sanctions from the West will continue regardless, there will be no incentive for it to try to improve relations". [6] SWP also points to the possibility of using development aid to enhance political and economic influence. "The EU and other international actors can provide important contributions", SWP writes, "if they stop making their support of Burma contingent on political preconditions. Instead, they should act according to the principle that economic consolidation can be understood as a fundamental prerequisite for political transformation."[7]

Western Contradictions

Even though US-American and German analysts express similar cautious optimism about a "change through rapprochement", it is not yet clear if the West will have a common approach for dealing with this isolated Southeast Asian nation. The influence of the People’s Republic of China on that country has reached such importance that Western policy in relation to Myanmar can no longer ignore this relationship of forces. In addition to initiating cooperation with sectors of the Myanmar elite, SWP is proposing a political coordination with Beijing. A "deterioration of Chinese-Burmese relations" is not necessarily "desirable". This in fact means that the growing Chinese influence has been recognized. Not only is the SWP identifying the People’s Republic of China as one of Germany's direct competitors in the struggle for influence in Myanmar, but the United States is also named: "China and the USA are potential competitors" in the struggle "for regional influence, but also for resources".[8] This would mean that the previous close German-US cooperation in Myanmar would be noticeably decreasing.

Two Options

This is accentuating the German geo-strategists' debate on which basic direction the Myanmar policy should take. The tendency is between two options. The traditional course: the USA and Germany jointly support the pro-western opposition in their confrontation with Myanmar’s government, which is closely cooperating with the People’s Republic of China. On the other hand, as the SWP proposes, accept the current government, for the time being, and, through rapprochement, work for a political change. This strategy of limited influence on the country’s ruling circles cannot work if Beijing’s influence would not be recognized and accepted. This could lead to an escalation of German-US contradictions in Southeast Asian interests.

"Friendly Telephone Conversation"

While considering change through rapprochement and dividing Myanmar’s elite using economic incentives, Berlin is also serving the pro-western confrontational opposition. In her "friendly telephone conversation" with Peace Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been released last November from house arrest and who rejects the lifting of western sanctions against Myanmar, Chancellor Angela Merkel renewed her demands to the new government. "I particularly demand the release of all political prisoners", said Chancellor Merkel, "the initiation of a national reconciliation process and the complete recognition of political parties, including 'National League for Democracy'", the party led by Madam Aung San Suu Kyi.[9] While keeping the Myanmar government under pressure, Chancellor Angela Merkel does not rule out a rapprochement in principle. She explained that in the future, Berlin wants to support "the Myanmar democratization process".

[1] International Crisis Group - new briefing: Myanmar's Post-Election Landscape, 07.03.2011
[2] Myanmar's Post-Election Landscape; International Crisis Group 07.03.2011
[3] Christine Schuster, Gerhard Will: Birma jenseits der Wahlen; SWP-Aktuell Oktober 2010
[4] see also Erfolglose Sanktionen
[5], [6] International Crisis Group - new briefing: Myanmar's Post-Election Landscape, 07.03.2011
[7], [8] Christine Schuster, Gerhard Will: Birma jenseits der Wahlen; SWP-Aktuell Oktober 2010
[9] Bundeskanzlerin Merkel telefonierte mit der Friedensnobelpreisträgerin Aung San Suu Kyi; Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung 31.03.2011