Burma, also known as Myanmar, is a Southeast Asian nation that has garnered attention in the media due to its current political situation. Nevertheless, the country’s advantageous geographical position and abundant natural resources contribute significantly to its influential role in the region’s geopolitical and geoeconomic dynamics. In this article, we will examine the importance of Burma within the regional and global context, the various conflicts and challenges it encounters, and its strategic positioning in relation to neighbouring countries and other major powers.
Historical background of Burma’s geopolitical and geoeconomic significance
The country enjoys a strategic location between China and India, two prominent nations in terms of population and influence, and benefits from its access to the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. Burma is fortunate to possess a wide range of natural resources, including oil, gas, timber, jade, and gemstones, which have garnered significant attention and investment from foreign entities. Nevertheless, Burma has encountered a range of complex circumstances and disputes throughout its historical journey, including periods of colonial rule by the British, struggles for independence, instances of military coups, ethnic insurgencies, civil conflicts, concerns regarding human rights, and movements advocating for democratic principles. The ethnic insurgencies have been ongoing since 1948 and have primarily revolved around the aspirations of different ethnic groups for self-determination, autonomy, or federalism. A few notable ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) consist of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Karen National Union (KNU), the Shan State Army (SSA), and the Arakan Army (AA). These groups have engaged in conflicts with the central government and its armed forces, the Tatmadaw, as well as occasionally experiencing internal disagreements. The recent change in leadership in 2021 led to a series of protests and received international attention, resulting in unfortunate instances of violence and humanitarian challenges. Burma’s complex history has played a significant role in shaping its current political, social, and economic situation, as well as its relations with neighbouring countries and the international community.
Key natural resources of Burma and their impact on its economy and relations with other countries
Natural resources play a crucial role in shaping a country’s economy and its relationships with other nations. Based on the data from the World Factbook, it can be observed that natural gas played a significant role in Burma’s exports in 2017, representing approximately 40% of the total. Additionally, Burma ranked as the 39th largest global producer of natural gas. Burma also had significant coal exports to neighbouring countries, while relying on imports for approximately 90% of its total oil needs. The extraction of natural resources has, at times, been associated with certain environmental and social challenges, including deforestation, land degradation, water pollution, human rights concerns, and instances of armed conflicts. Burma’s abundant natural resources have garnered significant interest from various foreign investors and governments, including those from China, India, Thailand, and Japan, who are keen on ensuring access to energy and raw materials. Nevertheless, there have been some concerns raised regarding the fair distribution of benefits and the protection of human rights and the environment in the mining sector, which may be attributed to certain aspects such as the lack of transparency, accountability, and regulation. Based on ERIA’s findings, it is noted that Burma’s total primary energy supply amounted to 20.12 million tonnes of oil equivalent in 2017. Additionally, the country’s GDP per capita was recorded at $1,300 in 2015. The country has carefully devised a sustainable development plan with the aim of achieving an average annual growth rate of 7.0% in GDP from 2018 to 2030.
Major conflicts and challenges facing Burma, both internally and externally
Burma is currently navigating through a range of significant conflicts and challenges, both within its borders and beyond. These may include:
The ongoing conflict between the military (Tatmadaw) and ethnic armed groups has been persisting for a significant period of time, leading to the unfortunate displacement of a large number of individuals. The coup in 2021 has further complicated the conflict, as the Tatmadaw has taken measures to address dissent and armed opposition groups.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group who have faced challenges in their relationship with the Burmese government over the years. The recent political events have unfortunately had a negative impact on the Rohingya community, leading to increased marginalization. Disturbing reports have also emerged regarding incidents of violence, including mass killings and displacement.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on Burma, affecting both the health and the economy of the country. There have been some concerns raised regarding the government’s management of the pandemic, and there have been reports indicating potential challenges in ensuring sufficient availability of food, medicine, and other essential supplies.
The challenges of poverty and inequality. Burma faces economic challenges and experiences varying levels of inequality within its society. The coup has had a significant impact on these issues, as it has led to a contraction in the economy and unfortunately resulted in job losses for many individuals.
Burma is currently grappling with several environmental challenges, which encompass issues such as deforestation, soil erosion, and climate change. These challenges are adding to the existing issues faced by the country, which presents additional obstacles in the pursuit of development.
These are a few of the significant issues and obstacles currently being encountered in Burma. The country is currently facing a pivotal moment, and the decisions made in the upcoming years will significantly shape its future trajectory.
In addition to the internal challenges, Burma is also currently navigating a range of external challenges, including:
China is one of Burma’s significant trading partners, and there have been concerns raised by some members of the international community regarding the potential influence of its economic ties on the political dynamics in the country. The west holds the view that the recent coup has potentially enhanced China’s influence in Burma, given the increased economic reliance of the country on China.
However, America and other western countries have implemented measures on Burma in response to the recent political developments and concerns regarding human rights. The current sanctions are presenting challenges for the economy and posing obstacles to the country’s recovery efforts.
Interests of Burma’s neighbours
Burma has faced various challenges over the years, including ethnic tensions, political transitions, and concerns related to human rights. The strategic significance of this place is derived from its favourable location, abundant natural resources, and sizable population. Burma has the privilege of sharing borders with China, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Laos, which positions it as an important contributor to regional security and connectivity. Additionally, it possesses a significant amount of oil, gas, minerals, and hydropower potential, which has proven to be appealing to foreign investors and has facilitated increased trade opportunities. Additionally, it is worth noting that the country boasts a significant population of more than 50 million individuals, including a substantial number of young citizens who possess a strong desire for societal transformation.
Burma’s neighbours and other major powers hold diverse perspectives and have varying interests in the country, influenced by their historical connections, geopolitical objectives, and economic prospects. China plays a significant role in Burma’s economy and international relations, being the country’s largest trading partner and investor, while also providing valuable diplomatic support. China views Burma as an important strategic partner, recognizing its potential as a key access point to the Indian Ocean and as a country that helps maintain regional stability in light of India’s influence. China also has a vested interest in promoting stability and security along its border with Burma, as it faces certain challenges related to armed groups and refugees. China has played a constructive role in facilitating dialogue and offering assistance in addressing certain ethnic conflicts in Burma.
India is one of Burma’s neighbouring countries and has a distinct relationship with China in the region. India recognizes the strategic importance of Burma as a valuable link to Southeast Asia and as a cooperative ally in efforts related to counter-terrorism and maritime security. India also expresses its desire to support the principles of democracy and human rights in Burma, while also prioritizing the well-being and safeguarding the rights of its own ethnic minorities residing along the border. India has been actively engaged in supporting Burma’s democratic transition and development through a range of initiatives, including the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, the India-Burma-Thailand Trilateral Highway, and the Act East Policy.
Bangladesh, being Burma’s neighbouring country, has experienced certain challenges due to the instability in the region. Bangladesh is currently providing shelter to a significant number of Rohingya refugees who sought safety after experiencing a challenging situation in Burma in 2017. Bangladesh is actively pursuing a peaceful and lasting resolution to the Rohingya crisis, while also emphasizing the importance of collaboration on border management, trade, and connectivity. Bangladesh has been actively involved in fostering dialogue and cooperation with Burma through various channels, including bilateral discussions, regional forums, and international efforts to address the situation.
Thailand has established a strong relationship with Burma, being one of its closest allies in Southeast Asia and maintaining a significant trading partnership as its third-largest trading partner. Thailand and Burma have a border that spans a significant distance, allowing for cultural and familial connections between various ethnic groups. Thailand is fortunate to have a significant number of migrant workers from Burma who make valuable contributions to its economy. Thailand aims to uphold positive relations with both the military and civilian leaders of Burma, while also prioritizing regional integration and development. Thailand has been actively involved in supporting Burma’s peace process and offering valuable humanitarian assistance to those affected by displacement.
Laos maintains relatively modest political and economic connections with Burma compared to its other neighbouring countries. Laos is a landlocked country that has established significant trade and investment partnerships with China. The political system of this country shares certain characteristics with Burma’s military regime, as it is a one-party state governed by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The country has shown interest in the situation in Burma and has yet to actively engage in efforts to address it.
There are several other major powers, such as America, Japan, the European Union (EU), Russia, and ASEAN, that have significant interests in Burma. America has expressed concerns regarding Burma’s recent political developments and human rights situation, implementing measures such as sanctions and advocating for a restoration of democratic processes. America also aims to address China’s influence in the region while promoting civil society and media freedom in Burma. Japan has been a significant contributor to Burma’s development as its largest donor and an important economic partner. It has made substantial investments in various sectors such as infrastructure, energy, and industrial projects. Japan also aims to ensure a harmonious regional dynamic and foster stability and democratic values in Burma, while considering the various roles played by different countries, including China. The EU plays a significant role as a donor and trade partner for Burma, while also actively supporting human rights and democratic reforms. The EU has made the decision to temporarily suspend its trade preferences for Burma and has also implemented sanctions on its military leaders. Russia has been a significant arms supplier to Burma and has consistently supported its sovereignty at the United Nations Security Council. Russia is also interested in enhancing its presence and influence in Southeast Asia by fostering cooperation with Burma. ASEAN is a regional bloc that has the privilege of including Burma as one of its esteemed members. ASEAN adheres to a policy of respecting the internal affairs of its member states, while also upholding the principles of consensus and consultation. ASEAN has been actively engaged in efforts to foster constructive dialogue among all relevant stakeholders in Burma, while also prioritizing the provision of essential humanitarian assistance.
Salient features of the Burma Act
The Burma Act is a legislation that was enacted by American Congress in 2022 as a component of the National Defense Authorization Act. It seeks to apply additional pressure on the Burmese military junta, which assumed control through a coup in February 2021, and to provide assistance to the people of Burma in their pursuit of democracy, human rights, and justice. The law applies sanctions to individuals and entities who may have been involved in the coup, including senior military leaders, government officials, family members, and associates. The measures involve restricting access to their property and assets, considering visa denials, and implementing limitations on trade and financial interactions with them. The law also imposes certain limitations on trade and financial transactions with Burma’s defense sector and gemstone industry, which are significant contributors to the junta’s revenue. The law provides support for civil society groups, ethnic armed organizations, and initiatives aimed at ensuring accountability for human rights violations. The law also emphasizes the importance of increased US engagement with regional and international partners to support the restoration of civilian rule and the protection of minority rights in Burma. The law also emphasizes the importance of holding China and Russia accountable for their alleged involvement in supporting the Burmese military, including the provision of arms, jet fuel, and diplomatic assistance.
Potential future developments in Burma’s geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape
The recent political events involving the military have caused significant challenges for the nation, leading to protests, instances of violence, sanctions, and international concerns. The future of Burma is closely tied to the responses and actions of different stakeholders, both within the country and from external sources. It will be crucial to work towards a political resolution that can address the current situation.
One potential scenario could involve the military effectively consolidating its power and addressing opposition through various means, such as employing force or engaging with ethnic armed groups and political parties. This could potentially lead to a situation where there may be a decrease in the space available for civil society, media, and human rights, potentially resembling an authoritarian regime. The military would also aim to safeguard its economic interests and privileges, while actively pursuing stronger partnerships with China, its primary ally and investor. China would potentially find advantages in having a neighboring country that offers stability and amicability, facilitating access to valuable natural resources and markets. Additionally, such a neighbor could serve as a strategic buffer in relation to India and America. However, it is important to consider that this scenario may bring about certain challenges for Burma, including potential isolation from Western nations, potential reduction in foreign aid and investment, potential increase in poverty and inequality, and potential continuation of ethnic conflicts and humanitarian crises.
Another potential scenario involves the military encountering ongoing opposition from the public, who are advocating for the reinstatement of democratic processes and the acknowledgment of the election outcomes from 2020. The civil disobedience movement, spearheaded by the National League for Democracy (NLD) and backed by diverse social groups, intends to persist in organizing peaceful demonstrations, strikes, and boycotts. Additionally, they aim to establish alternative systems of governance and legitimacy. The international community, including America, the EU, and ASEAN, may consider employing diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian measures to exert pressure on the military. Additionally, they could explore opportunities for dialogue and mediation. It is possible that the military may come to negotiations to facilitate a transition to civilian rule if there is a consensus between the Burmese military, China, opposition groups and the west.
Written by Rajeev Ahmed
Geopolitcal Analyst, Strategic Thinker and the Editor at geopolits.com
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