President Barack Obama is trumpeting the stern criticism he gave the military generals who hold dominion over Burma, the resource-rich South Asian nation now known as Myanmar, at a meeting of Asian leaders on Sunday.
The Burmese junta is one of the most loathed regimes in the world -- a posse of paranoid, megalomaniacal cadres who kill, torture and repress their people with impunity. A throwback to the 20th century's failed Marxist revolutionary movements, the junta relies on Burma's vast resource wealth to maintain its grip on power.
And it is precisely that wealth -- which the generals capitalize on through bustling trade with China and India -- that allows them to ignore Obama's entreaties for reform.
Last year, China's trade with Myanmar increased 26% to $2.6 billion, according to Bloomberg. China National Petroleum, the quasi-communist nation's largest company, has started building a 480-mile pipeline from Burma to southwest China, while CNOOC, China's largest offshore oil producer, is exploring for oil in Burma.
Burma's annual oil-derived revenue of some $3 billion may seem small in the international stage, but it's enough to fund the junta's alarming military buildup, and gargantuan mansions and compounds for the military's top leaders. The regime clear-cut and leveled vast swaths of lush landscape to build its $2 billion, fascist-style jungle redoubt, Naypidaw, in the middle of the country -- out of a lunatic fear of an American naval invasion.
Meanwhile, the CIA estimates that Burma's per-capita GDP -- or average annual income -- is $1,200, or less than $4 dollars per day. The junta has ruled the country since 1962.
Obama's trip is designed to signal that the United States intends to maintain its influence in Asia, even as China's clout increases along with its nearly double-digit GDP growth. The United States conducts essentially no trade ($10.8 million) with Burma and thus is seen as having limited influence on the generals. Under George W. Bush, the U.S. had no relationship with the junta, other than vague denunciations from time to time.
The U.S. participates in harsh sanctions against the junta, but many analysts question their usefulness at a time when the generals are increasing their trade with China, India and other countries.
Another Call for Aung San Suu Kyi's Release
The junta has come under international criticism for its imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi (pictured above), the Burmese national leader whose victory in elections 20 years ago the junta promptly annulled. For most of the time since then, Suu Kyi has been under house arrest at an isolated lakeside villa in Rangoon, the former capitol.
The generals have also been criticized for their brutal crackdown on monks, students and other pro-democracy activists two years ago -- a shocking episode during which they cut off the nation's communication infrastructure from the outside world.
In a meeting with Senior General Than Shwe, Obama called for Suu Kyi to be released.
"There are clear steps that must be taken: the unconditional release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi; an end to conflicts with minority groups; and a genuine dialogue between the government, the democratic opposition and minority groups," said Obama, who also called for the regime to provide basic services for its citizenry -- something that is lacking in many parts of the country.
"We're Not Going to Let the Burmese Tail Wag the ASEAN Dog"
Jeffrey Bader, director of East Asian affairs on the National Security Council, insisted that Obama's decision to meet with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations was designed not to punish them for their continued relations with the Burmese junta.
"The statement we're trying to make here is that we're not going to let the Burmese tail wag the ASEAN dog," said Jeffrey Bader, the National Security Council's senior director for East Asian affairs. "We're going to meet with all 10, and we're not going to punish the other nine simply because Burma is in the room, but this is not a bilateral."
ASEAN ministers released a statement that made no mention of Suu Kyi, instead "a cryptic reference to a previous ASEAN foreign ministers communique that called for her release," according to Dow Jones, although the document did call for the 2010 election in Burma to be "free, fair, inclusive and transparent."
Human-rights groups blasted the ministers' failure to mention Suu Kyi, calling it "another blow" to the country's repressed democracy movement. "We keep saying again and again that the U.S. should not send a mixed signal to the regime," said Soe Aung, a spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, a Thailand-based organization.
In September, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. would directly talk to the junta in order to press for democratic reforms. One month earlier, Sen. Jim Webb, (D-Va.), a retired marine officer, became the first elected U.S. official to have face-to-face talks with Than Shwe, the junta's reclusive boss.
Burma's oil-rich generals can afford to ignore Obama on Suu Kyi