June 10, 2015


Some say it is more of a “Winter Thaw” than a “Burma Spring”, but what used to be a pariah nation—the darkened house in the neighborhood—is changing. Just down the road from where Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was held prisoner in her home for more than 15 years, a luxury development with penthouses, a swimming pool, restaurants, and indoor golf is now opening. Rangoon street kids who used to tap on car windows to sell strands of flower necklaces can now be seen hawking real estate listings. Though most people in the country are still scraping by on barely $2 a day, Burma now boasts gastro bars with wi-fi and satellite television. You can rent a cellphone at the airport and drink an iced latte at a copycat Starbucks. . . .

The Southeast Asia Games in Burma in 2013 were a coming-out party of sorts to celebrate the partially relaxed military rule. The opening ceremony was a lavish extravaganza with Olympic-level fireworks, largely paid for and stage-managed by China. The Chinese not only subsidized the opening and closing ceremonies; they also trained 200 Burmese athletes in China and provided 700 coaches to help make the local team look good. The $33 million in support was a tangible example of Beijing’s new efforts to enhance its soft power in Burma, where Chinese megaprojects have stirred increased resentment.

China is still a major player in this rapidly emerging country, despite steps the new, nominally civilian government has taken to show independence from the colossus to the north. Billions of dollars are at stake, but an even weightier question is which model will have the most influence in Burma’s evolution: China’s authoritarian state capitalism or a Western-style marriage of democracy and open markets?

Well, I’m sure the United States has Smart DiplomacyTM on the job here, so no worries.

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