October 30, 2016

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The Strategic Value of Myanmar

Myanmar’s geographic location on the world map place it in a very strategic position. It is bordered on the east, the north, and the west by five neighbouring countries, including the two most populous countries in the world and on the south and south-west by the Bay of Bengal that provides easy access to the world’s major shipping lanes. Blessed with such situations, Myanmar could become the axis of the hub for trades and transportations in the region. It could also serve as a gateway to the Far East, South East Asia, and South Asia.
If we look back to our distant past, the then super maritime powers, such as the British, the French, the Portuguese and the Dutch had their eyes on our country, known to them as Burma, Birmanie, Birmin or Birmania. They vied to get the favours of the Burmese Kings to be able to trade with Burma. They must have envisioned that if they could control the trade with Burma, it would be to their advantage.
Though the British were the last on the Burmese scene, behind the Persians and the other Europeans, they had a secret design in their minds to annex it as they realized the potentials of our country. Even before they could achieve their ambitions, they were interested to explore whether there was a trail they could use as an overland trading route to China. If there was one, it would save them much time, in those days of sails, and also be spared from the dangers of the pirates terrorizing the merchant ships sailing through the Malacca Straits enroute to the Far East. They sent an expedition with the permission of the Burmese King. That expedition managed to get only a short distance into the Yunnan Province, before they were all massacred. The timing was not right as there was a Panthay Rebellion taking place there. I am citing this incident as an example to point out the strategic importance of our country, which the British realized since the nineteenth century.
Later, as those periods in history were the eras of colonization, the British resorted to all means of provocation to get an excuse to annex Burma and they succeeded in the long run. Another evidence of the strategic importance of our country was the construction of the famous Burma Road, linking the railhead town of Lashio and Kunming in the Yunnan Province. That road was a strategic road built by the Nationalist Chinese government in 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese war (1937–1945), to facilitate the delivery of military aids from the United States of America to the Chinese Nationalist Army of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, which was resisting the Japanese invasion.
As the Japanese had occupied and closed all the sea ports along the coast on the China Sea, the Chinese army was deprived of the use of their sea ports. It was a great blow and disadvantage to them, as the use of shipping was the only option in those days, and still is useful today, to convey the bulk of the cargoes including the necessary weapons, equipments, vehicles, fuels, supplies and other commodities required for the war efforts. Thus, it became necessary to establish an alternative line of logistic support. Thus Rangoon (Yangon) was chosen to transport the US aids to China overland from the Rangoon Port via the Burma Road. For that reason Burma was recognized as the back door to China since the old days. That fact expedited the Japanese occupation of our country.
Today, two of our great neighbours, namely China and India are wooing our country for favours. We should not take them at face value, but try to identify what their hidden agendas might be. My opinion is they are trying to get access to the Bay of Bengal and hence to the world’s shipping lanes. This would provide them easy transportation of the exports and imports for their land locked provinces: Yunnan in China and Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and many more states in North-East India. Also, the overland trade between China and India could flourish via the Ledo Road, another strategic road built during the Second World War by the US Army.
By giving them freedom of passage to trade through our country we stand to gain a lot, but there are also some drawbacks too. One such drawback is the confrontations in the South China Sea over the dispute of ownership or sovereignty over some tiny coral reefs could thrust us into a dire strait. If they couldn’t resolve by diplomatic means, war could breakout. Though it may take the form of a limited war in the beginning, it could flare up if any super power should take sides. If that should be the case, though we are far from the place of conflict, we could be indirectly drawn into it. There could be restrictions to ships entering and leaving our sea ports. My analysis may sound a bit far fetched and my fears may be unfounded, but that possibility shouldn’t be ignored.
In conclusion, I would like to humbly request our law makers, the politicians, government officials and citizens, especially the young generations, to familarize themselves with the geo-political situations. We should not favour any one country over the other, for any reason. Thorough evaluations of the situations should be made, and walk the political tightrope with great caution. We should be mindful of the lessons from the past and tread with great caution so as not to let the history repeats itself. We should also endeavour to take advantage of our strategic value to develop our country and steer tactfully and diplomatically without provoking anyone. The peaceful co-existance with the neighbours is the best policy.

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