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Idealist or Realist on Burma

By       Message Uzi Silber     Permalink
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With the news and frantic updates from Burma (renamed Myanmar by its leaders in 1988, though I use its original style) ebbing, the time is ripe for a sober assessment of the country's prospects for political change and what such changes would augur for Burma, its neighbors and even the world.
 

Just to recap for those chronically distracted by the tribulations of pop stars, Burmese monks staged a peaceful rebellion against the country's military government in reaction to a sharp rise in commodity prices. Western observers had high hopes for the so-called 'Saffron Revolution', named for the mustard-colored robes worn by the monks who paraded in their thousands down the boulevards of Rangoon and Mandalay. Breathless reporters seemed to assume that the drama unfolding would inevitably follow the script of other color-schemed revolutions that peacefully replaced autocratic rulers in Georgia (Rose) and Ukraine (Orange). General Than Shwe and his decades-old military junta seemed to be on their way out. Optimism was in the air.

 

Largely oblivious to the opinion of outsiders, the generals proceeded to kill, maim and arrest untold hundreds if not thousands of the monks and others. If it wasn't quite as brutal as the last military crackdown, which occurred in 1988, it was certainly bad enough.

In their stolid, silent style Burmese generals have proved over the past 45 years that they could care less about the welfare, never mind the yearnings or rights of their people. What really concerns them is their own wealth, generated by the country's vast natural resources. And if the flow of cash into their pockets is to remain uninterrupted, it is imperative they maintain an iron grip on the resources of a country that they must also keep whole, which in Burma's case is far from a simple proposition. A closer look at what Burma is and what it has can turn any wide-eyed idealist into a grim realist.

 

The country is a vast, complexly fractious multi-ethnic, multi-lingual mosaic. Aside from the dominant Burmans, the country includes ethnic groups such as Karens, Mon, Rachines, Tavoyans, Wa, Chins, Shans, most persecuted by the military junta. Many happen to inhabit sections of the country especially rich in resources.

 

Burma is blessed (or cursed) with a dazzling selection of natural treasures: oil, natural gas, coal, copper, gold, silver, gemstones and much more. According to the US Geological Survey, Burma has proven reserves of 3.2 billion barrels of crude and 2.46 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. At $80/barrel of oil and $200/thousand cubic meters of natural gas, Burma owns $256 billion worth of oil, and about $460 billion in natural gas, or over $700 billion dollars in energy resources untapped. And the generals are expected to just walk away from all this?

 

Countries such as Burma may be classified as 'Cobbled Multi-Ethnic Mosaics', or CMEMs. It so happens that a large proportion of CMEMs are autocracies of various flavors, and that the probability of a CMEM being an autocracy rises sharply if it is rich in natural resources.

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Uzi Silber writes the 'Jew's Muse' column in Ha'aretz. His work also appears in The Forward, Jerusalem Post, and The New York Times.

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