Burma's military government is good at two things: cracking down on peaceful demonstrators, and coolly ignoring any international criticism that might follow. Both skills have been on full display in recent weeks, as anger over high fuel prices drove a few courageous people onto the streets, only to be met with the expected heavy hand. If the junta has one bedrock policy, it's to prevent any repetition of the 1988 uprising that came so close to overthrowing decades of army rule. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer once remarked sagely that progress in Burma is like glue flowing up a hill. Yet it's important to understand that beneath the long-running political stalemate in Rangoon, Burma is actually changing fast; not necessarily in the right direction, but changing all the same. The problem is not that the situation will stand still: the problem is that things might get worse much worse.
First, there's the civil war. For nearly half a century, the Burmese army battled an array of communist and ethnic-minority rebellions, growing bigger and tougher in the process and seizing power along the way. About 15 years ago, the government and most of the rebel groups agreed to a historic set of cease-fires. But these are just cease-fires, and the international community has done little or nothing to encourage efforts toward a just and sustainable peace. The civil war is at the center of Burma's problems; it's what has brutalized and impoverished the country, and its proper conclusion is crucial to any progress.
Then there's the economy, one of the poorest in the world. After 30 years of self-imposed isolation and ruinous quasi-socialist policies, the junta reversed course in the early 1990s, privatizing businesses, welcoming foreign trade and investment, and seeking international aid. But the West began to impose debilitating sanctions, and the threat of boycotts kept most international companies away. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were prevented from helping. Around the same time the Burmese discovered a treasure trove of natural gas, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, sitting offshore. The net result? A Burmese regime that can easily withstand Western sanctions, an economy still closely tied to official power and patronage, and a growing underclass facing greater hardship than ever before. Millions of poor people from rural areas are on the move, in search of work and food, including across the border into Thailand. Many are now in desperate need of basic life-saving assistance, and yet per capita international aid to Burma (less than $3 a year per person) remains about a twentieth of what's provided to Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam.
Third, there's the changing nature of the state itself. Over the past couple of decades, the Burmese army has more than doubled in size, to over 400,000 men, and is today one of the largest armies anywhere. In many ways, the army is the state in Burma. Other institutions of government the civil service, the health and education systems, local administration are either extremely frail or virtually nonexistent. Insurgent armies still hold sway over parts of the borderlands. And in some other areas there simply isn't much government at all; perhaps an army battalion to keep down any potential dissent, but almost nothing to provide basic social and legal services. Any major political upheaval is as likely to lead to anarchy as anything else.
Finally there is the looming presence of China, the rising superpower on Burma's doorstep. While Western countries have been wondering how to promote democracy, China has been quietly changing the facts on the ground. More and more of Burma's economy is being linked north and east, with new roads, bridges and railways, and now plans for a multibillion-dollar oil pipeline extending from the Bay of Bengal across the Irrawaddy Valley to China's Yunnan Province and beyond. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese have already settled in Burma in recent years and more will likely follow.
Taken together, all these changes suggest possibly treacherous times ahead. The cease-fires could come unstuck. The humanitarian crisis in parts of the country could get worse. State structures could further weaken, rendering even more difficult any transition to a future democratic government. And it's not impossible that China's growing presence, combined with rising economic frustrations, will lead to anti-Chinese violence. Sanctions and long-distance condemnation do little to address the multifaceted challenges facing the country today. They were a response to the very different Burma of nearly 20 years ago, when it looked like democracy was just around the corner and a good push from friends overseas might make all the difference. Without a fresh international approach, it may soon be too late to avoid a catastrophe in Burma.