Interview. The Burmese historian Thant Myint-U is one of the world’s 100 most influential thinkers, according to Foreign Policy. He tells il manifesto that “China is anxious” about Myanmar.

China ‘anxious’ as Myanmar navigates new global status

Thant Myint-U, the Burmese historian, recently held meetings and conferences in Italy. He spoke with il manifesto at the House of Literature in Rome.

Burma’s new course will be influenced from the outside, particularly from the Chinese. How will the new government manage its relationship with the No. 2 world power?

China has a massive role in the economy of Myanmar, officially a few billion dollars, but probably we are talking about a lot more money, even $10 billion. More than you would think. Today, China is no longer the major investor it once was; Japan now invests more. China had strong diplomatic relations with the previous military government which provided many security structures, especially because of the sanctions imposed by the United Nations. Today diplomatic relations with the West are improving. Obama and Abe have been invited [to the country], and now China is anxious about it. Beijing is asking how will Myanmar adjust its diplomatic ambitions, whether it will continue to move away from Beijing and open to Western countries.

Aung San Suu Kyi has said she wants to have good relations with China, but what that means is unknown. Her party is popular, and there’s a great emphasis in their program to economic reforms and environmental protection. These are very important, and therefore it would be very difficult to move in one “Chinese” direction. But there will be a dialogue with Beijing. China has made ​​clear its economic plan and its willingness to count on Myanmar, but I believe the goals of the two countries are different, although they can intersect.

Can Myanmar become, like many other Asian countries, like Vietnam, a “little China,” in terms of its model of development?

Obviously that’s a model that could be called “Asian” and that in some ways precedes China. Japan and Korea also used it, developing the economy with low labor costs. Myanmar will also move in that direction. Vietnam is the most recent example. I do not believe Myanmar will do something very different.

But there are a few different aspects, such as attention to the environment, and the religious aspect. At the same time the country is very poor, and they will have to account for that, perhaps by increasing exports especially in some sectors, such as textiles or paper derived from timber production. Then there is talk of resources, a project for the medium- to long-term, whereas in the immediate future I think manufacturing and the need to adjust the agricultural sector will be the priorities. Then there is a theme that is often taken into account: remittances from expatriates. We have at least 3 or 4 million Burmese working in Thailand as well as Malaysia and Singapore, and this is money that come back and help pay for local families.

What role will the military have now?

Myanmar should not be thought of as a country after a revolution, but in the middle of a slow change initiated 20 years ago. Mainly because of Western sanctions, it ended up developing a sort of oligarchy within the military class, which has to do with weapons, security and power, both political and economic. It’s a serious trade partner in the country’s economy. In the last five years they have dominated the economy in terms of military institutions, linked together with former generals who are in charge of the country’s most important companies.

From the political point of view there was actually a generational change. The leaders today are younger and are trying to figure out what their future will be, trying to fit into this process as guarantors of the state and the constitution against external influences or powers. I do not think they will give up this role, especially because in some areas there are still conflicts and they are considered an important presence. In some areas, such as in the northeast of the country, the army is still important, but more generally it still manages large sections of the local administrative life of the country. We must understand that Myanmar is a country that lives the reality of a post-popular revolution. The army is not marginalized; indeed it is still very politically important in the country. So now we’re trying to understand how they will integrate into this process.

Then there is the big problem of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority. Suu Kyi also has been criticized for her attitude toward them, even by the Dalai Lama.

She received criticism, and I do not think it arrived unfairly because her position on this issue was ambiguous. In theory — it must be said — there is the desire to prevent violence and ensure peace. The priority is to keep the community in peace, but in fact the Muslims were put into real detention camps. There needs to be a very serious discussion, and now that everything seems calmer it needs a solution. But nothing has been done yet, and the problem is not only to ensure these people receive citizenship but really to create an integration process.

How can The Lady’s party create its leadership for the future?

There is much hope in the party, and it senses the need to create a ruling class for the future. If it doesn’t begin a transition, the party will find it difficult to survive beyond Suu Kyi. But there are many young people with energy. They are going to play the game, because there is enormous popular support and there are huge expectations. But it takes patience because the country is changing in such a dramatic way.