Last year, the Chinese came. The villagers living in western Burma's remote Arakan state couldn't quite fathom what the Chinese told them, that below their rice fields might lie a vast reserve of oil. For three months the Chinese drilled the earth near the muddy Kaladan River in search of black gold. Then, just as suddenly, they left. In December, the Indians arrived. Through Burmese intermediaries, they took the village's paddies as their own, depriving locals of their main source of income. Compensation was promised, villagers tell me, but none has been paid so far. So the impoverished residents of Mee Laung Yaw village, who lack electricity and eat eggplant curry as a poor substitute for meat, spend their days gazing at their expropriated fields, now fenced in and dominated by an oil-exploration tower that dwarfs their bamboo shacks. Several villagers took lowly construction jobs on the site but they were never paid so they've stopped showing up for work. "I hope they don't find any oil," says village chief Aye Thein Tun. "Because even if they do, none of it will come to us. It will just go to other countries."
The Western dialogue over what to do about Burma's repressive military regime is often framed as a single dilemma: whether or not to impose international sanctions. The debate is polarizing. The pro-sanctions crowd claims the moral high ground, deploring the enrichment of a clutch of ethnocentric Burmese generals whose impulses are most brutal against the roughly 40% of the population that, like the villages of Arakan state, is composed of ethnic minorities. The engagement side preaches practicality, arguing that some investment will trickle down to the populace and that cultural exchange is better than imposed isolationism. When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Asia on her inaugural foreign trip last month, she weighed in on the Burma question, acknowledging: "Clearly the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the Burmese junta ... [which is] impervious to influence from anyone." (See pictures of Burma's discontent.)
The truth about Burma, renamed as Myanmar by its generals, is that the sanctions debate is immaterial. While American and European foreign policy thinkers ponder how to financially strangle an army government that has ruled since 1962, Burma's regional neighbors are embarking on a new Great Game, scrambling to outdo each other for access to this resource-rich land. "Sanctions don't work if most countries ignore them," says Naw La, an exiled environmentalist with the Kachin Development Networking Group in Thailand. "The military is selling our natural heritage without any concern for our people."
The Mosquito Coast
In return for oil, natural gas, timber, hydropower, gemstones, cash crops and a periodic table's worth of minerals, countries like China, India, Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea are propping up and massively enriching Burma's top brass. In the first nine months of 2008, foreign investment in Burma almost doubled year on year to nearly $1 billion, according to government figures that don't even take into account significant underground economic activity. Burma today is estimated to produce 90% of the world's rubies by value, 80% of its teak, and is home to one of Asia's biggest oil and natural-gas reserves. The country's jade is the world's finest, and its largely untouched rivers promise plentiful hydropower for its neighbors. "Multinationals are getting rich off Burma, and so is the military regime," says Ka Hsaw Wa, co-founder of EarthRights International, an NGO that sued U.S. energy giant Unocal, which eventually provided out-of-court compensation to villagers who are believed to have toiled as slave labor for the Yadana gas pipeline from southern Burma to Thailand. "It is the local people who are suffering and dying," says Ka Hsaw Wa.
But as resource-hungry countries cozy up to the junta, they are discovering that Burma's natural wealth is most bountiful in areas where ethnic minorities simmer under the rule of the ethnic Burmese generals. Officially, the Burmese junta recognizes that the country is a union of at least 135 distinct groups. Yet the top ranks of the military are practically devoid of any non-Burmese presence. Army persecution of Burma's diverse tribes has festered for decades, and the proliferation of junta-controlled mines and concessions in the minority regions only exacerbates the tensions. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic villagers have been forced to relocate or have been conscripted into chain gangs, according to human-rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Even when operations begin, paid jobs land disproportionately in the hands of ethnic Burmese migrants, not those of local minorities. A new report by the Geneva-based International Displacement Monitoring Center estimates that in eastern Burma alone nearly half a million minority people have been displaced.
The British, trying to hold together an ethnic patchwork of a colony, knew too well the perils of Burma's tribal politics. They resorted to divide-and-conquer schemes, much as the current military regime has done. Intense negotiations by the junta led to many ethnic insurgencies laying down their guns in the 1980s and '90s and opened up a vast territory for resource exploitation. But as the inequities between the Burmese majority and the tribal groups the Arakanese, the Shan, the Kachin, the Karen, the Mon, the Wa and the Chin, to name a few yawns ever wider, the chance of renewed armed conflict grows stronger. "To the military, we [ethnic minorities] are like mosquitoes," says a young Arakanese Buddhist monk, who participated in the crushed antigovernment uprising of September 2007 and chafes at Burmese discrimination against his people. "We buzz in their ear, and they slap at us and don't care if they kill us." But, he adds, "there are many mosquitoes." In the end, it may be the foreign participants in this new Great Game, unschooled in how to navigate ethnic complexities, who will get bitten.