Today the Burmese junta convicted pro-democracy campaigner Aung Sang Suu Kyi to a further 18 months under house arrest after a U.S. man swam uninvited to her lakeside home in May and stayed there for two days, breaching the terms of her house arrest. Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy have led the world’s outrage, urging the UN Security Council and European Union to impose tougher sanctions on the regime.
Unfortunately, not much is likely to happen to the Burmese generals. They remain protected not only by their neighbors, but by China and India who have both economic and strategic interests in keeping the regime intact. Like China, power-hungry India is keen on exploiting Burma’s huge oil and gas resources. Two tears ago, India signed a production deal for three deep-water exploration blocks off the Rakhine coast. It is also searching for gas in two other blocks. New Delhi is Burma’s 4th largest trading partner after Thailand, China and Singapore, and second largest export market after Thailand.
The links between China and Burma are better known, and include expanding trade links, the sale of military hardware and diplomatic support. Burma, which has very little industry itself, imports manufactured goods from China. That trade is reflected in official Chinese figures, which show that exports from China to Burma increase every year. More than thirty Chinese firms are said to have been involved in major Burmese projects over the last decade, including the construction of oil and gas pipelines from Burma’s Arakan coast to China’s Yunnan Province. China’s development of a deep-water port on Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal and a jetty on the Great Coco Island may also be part of Beijing’s defensive strategy should it clash with the US over the Taiwan straits.
Britain and France may huff and puff –- and are right to do so for the Burmese junta’s treatment of Aung Sang Suu Kyi is one of the most disgraceful suppressions of democratic freedom in the world today. But they run up against the economic and strategic imperatives of the world’ fastest rising powers. Beijing and New Delhi are unlikely to sacrifice their prosperity and security to free Mrs Suu Kyi. The West’s power is therefore limited. In this, we may be glimpsing the contours of the post-American world. I shudder.