RANGOON—President Obama’s visit to Burma will only add impetus to the hope on the Burmese street that it heralds the beginning of a new American era here and the demise of Chinese dominance.
On state television, commentators are almost giddy about the arrival of Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola and are predicting McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Dunkin Donuts are close behind. Visa and and Mastercard are already negotiating partnerships with Burmese banks.
American businessmen are here seeking opportunity now that U.S. sanctions have been lifted and the Obama administration is embracing the advent of democracy in a country awakening from the nightmare of nearly 50 years of military dictatorship and economic stagnation.
So great is the hunger for anything and everything American that a Japanese snack producer is printing an American flag and bald eagle on its packets of nuts.
As much as U.S. officials deny that President Obama’s trip poses a threat to China, Beijing is watching carefully how the American overture will affect its increasingly tenuous relationship with Burma.
The Chinese government, as well as investors and businessmen, have earned the unenviable reputation of putting their interests first, ahead of Burma’s environment, people and cultural sensitivities.
When Burma’s new reformist president, Thein Sein, suspended construction of a $3.6 billion Chinese dam on Burma’s Irrawaddy River in September of 2011, people here took it as a declaration of independence from years of what David Steinberg, a Burma scholar at Georgetown University, calls China’s “overweening presence” here.
Burma’s relationship with China hasn’t been quite the same since, even though China remains Burma’s leading trading partner.
“The Chinese are lying low,” said a friend who consulted on the dam project. “They really don’t know what to do. They were thinking about a public relations campaign, but that would be too little, too late. No one would believe it.”
Chinese loggers have clearcut hundreds of square miles of teak forest in northeast Burma along the border with China. A Chinese copper mine in central Burma has displaced farmers and aroused villagers angry about the desecration of Buddhist shrines. The Chinese oil and gas pipelines now being laid 1,700 miles across Burma have prompted outcries from environmentalists and relocated villagers. (China now says it will build schools for villagers along the pipeline.)
“The Chinese don’t care about the environment or us,” my friend Htet, a journalist, told me. “All they care about is money, money, money.”
Bertil Lintner, a long-time Burma watcher, says China is beginning to realize the error of its ways in Burma, especially now that the United States and other Western countries are moving in.
“It is hardly surprising that…China is now earnestly searching for ways to salvage the relationship,” Lintner wrote recently in the Asia Times. “Academic-style journals in China have run several articles analyzing what went wrong…”
What went wrong is the Chinese kow-towed to the Burmese military elite and paid little heed to the street; brought in armies of Chinese workers when they could have used Burmese labor; took Burma’s timber and natural gas for their own, and shipped cheap products to Burmese markets instead of the higher quality goods they export to the West.
“The Chinese take our natural resources and give us junk in return,” my friend Bo Bo, a guide, said. “You buy these Chinese products and they are broken in no time.”
The Burmese expect more of the U.S. government and American businesses.
“We expect transparency and responsibility,” Thaung Htike, the editor of the journal True News, told me. “We never got that from the Chinese.”
With the Burmese press now free of censorship, stories about government corruption and environmental abuse appear weekly, with names. No one is spared. Readership of the most muckraking papers has surged.
In addition, the government of Thein Sein is drafting new environmental laws to prevent the rampant abuse of the past, is cracking down on government bureaucracy and corruption, and has legalized labor unions. Burma appears determined to protect itself from anyone who wants to take advantage the way China has.
American companies would be wise to avoid making the same mistakes as the Chinese, an environmentalist friend told me, because “we will be watching closely.”
Tyler Chapman is a regular contributor to Radio Free Asia.