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Strategic Interests in Myanmar

John H. Badgley


U.S. Interests

Since the end of World War II, the United States has wielded enormous influence in Asia, although some see the efficacy of U.S. policies in decline across the region. The essays in this volume document that decline with regard to Myanmar. What interests does the United States have in its relations with Myanmar today? The highest priority in recent years has been concern for human rights and the U.S. determination to shift power from the military regime to the victors in the 1990 election, the National League for Democracy (NLD). However, Washington can no longer ignore Myanmar’s strategic location between India and China, the world’s two most populous countries. As a result of sanctions, U.S. influence over Myanmar has declined while China has advanced its interests. Related to these two concerns is the potential for state collapse in Myanmar, which would threaten the stability of the country’s neighbors. Finally, for years Myanmar’s inability to control illicit narcotics production and export has troubled the United States as a major consumer of those drugs.

An examination of U.S. relations with Myanmar reveals four broad periods:

1. Historical legacy—Since the start of World War II the United States has engaged Burma for strategic reasons. Thousands of American airmen died while flying the Hump; indeed, the search for their remains continues today with the cooperation of the Myanmar military. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers parachuted into northern Burma, where they gained safe harbor and joined Kachin guerrillas fighting the Japanese. That legendary action left an indelible impression on both the Americans and Burmese, and remains an important strand in our historical relationship. [1]

2. Cold War engagement—Until 1962 the U.S. government and private foundations dispatched missions to Burma in every conceivable field, and became a major source of foreign aid and economic advice. Trade and foreign investment also expanded, but became the target of socialist politicians and General Ne Win, who distrusted capitalist entrepreneurs. Ne Win’s coups in 1958 and 1962 advanced the ideology of socialism along with military control.

The Burmese refused further American aid in 1963, and rebuffed a U.S. offer of assistance to Rangoon in the late 1960s when the Chinese Cultural Revolution spilled into Burma and re–ignited a communist insurgency. Ne Win viewed the aid offer as running counter to Burma’s security interests, as it meant abandoning non–alignment, the cornerstone of Burma’s foreign policy. The First Party Congress...

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[1] In fact, American ties with the Burmese extend much further back. The first American Baptist missionaries, the Judsons, landed in Burma during James Madison’s presidency in 1813. Another American Baptist missionary, Eugenio Kincaid, was King Mindon’s emissary to President Buchanan in the 1850s, and sought American assistance against the British. A trickle of Burmese students (mostly Karens) began attending U.S. colleges before the Civil War, returning to leadership positions in their communities as educators, ministers, and professionals. It was not surprising after independence that Burma’s first prime minister, U Nu, turned to the United States for assistance.