Friday, March 1, 2024

Kaplan’s Burma

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It took me 4 months to finish the 375- page ‘Monsoon’by Dr Robert D.Kaplan published 5 years ago.

The book is not about Burma but about the struggle by the world’s superpowers each against its own strategic disadvantage in the Indian Ocean region where Burma is holding the center stage.

Kaplan Burma book
The ocean is divided into ‘ two halves, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal: at the top of the Arabian Sea is Pakistan; at the top of the Bay of Bengal is Burma,both highly volatile and populous states’. He sees that’Whereas Pakistan is akin to the Balkans,with its tendency for dissolution,Burma is the early-twentieth-century Belgium,with its tendency to be overrun by great contiguous powers’.

We all know what Burma is to China,with its more than 1,060km long oil-gas pipelines across the country’s northern sector. But what is it to India that has adopted the Look East policy and lately,under Modi’s administration,the Act East policy?

During the British days, Burma,especially the Shan States, was india’s buffers against France and its empire in Southeast Asia to the east. Only now China has replaced France. And the best solution,according to him,is not conquest but cooperation. Because Indian and Chinese economies are ‘highly complementary’.

The same goes for between China and the United States. The’US depends on China for affordable goods and to prop up its currency within trillions of dollars of Chinese deposits,and China depends on the U.S. For its principal consumer market’.

As for Burma, he quotes an Indian writer Pankaj Mistra: Imposing a European model of the linguistically and ethnically homogeneous nation-state upon such a diverse country as Burma would have been difficult in any circumstances’.


He says’ Burma must find a way to return the spirit of Panglong Agreement of 1947, which provide for a decentralized Union of Burma. Unfortunately, the agreement was never implemented, and this was the cause of all the problems since’.

He quotes US Army Colonel Timothy Heinemann ( retired)saying,” Aung San Suu Kyi is little more than a symbol of the wrong issue —‘Democracy first!’ Ethnic rights and the balance of ethnic power are preconditions for democracy in Burma. These issues must be faced first, or little has been learned from Afghanistan and Iraq.”

He ends his chapter on Burma with the following words: The struggle over the Indian Ocean, or at least the eastern part of it near the top of the Bay of Bengal, may come down to who deals more adroitly with the Burmese hill tribes.

Elsewhere he also dwells on Arakan and Rohingya issue. He notes that ethnic Arakanese on Burma’s western coastline where Arab merchants, following the coming of Islam in the 7th century,were penetrating would take an Arab name in the interests of commerce.

Bangladesh may be a sort of haven for the people who have come to be known as Rohingyas. But according to a prominent Kolkata journalist, more than ten million Bangladeshis are also living in India as economic refugees.

Chittagong and southeastern Bangladesh were as organically connected with the story of Burma throughout the ages as with that of India, according to Emdadul Islam, a local lawyer in Bangladesh’s southeastern port city. For most of the 15th through 17th century,”the city and its hinterland were dominated by the Kings of Arakan.”

Now there are some quarter million Rohingyas driven out from Burma in the country, with thousands in refugee camps. They are wanted by neither country but hated by both.

“Only a world of more flexible borders will free them,” Kaplan concludes.

I hope he’s right. But how long will they have to wait? And how long the rest of the region will have to go on living with their sense of guilt? I hope our leaders have a good answer for these questions.

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