A country that sits between two aspiring superpowers has some very complicated choices to make. Yet Myanmar, whose entire upper half is wedged between northeastern India and southwestern China, seems to have consistently made the wrong choices through much of the 20th century and all of the 21st. It emerged as a modern nation in 1948, its decolonization from Britain a messy and traumatic affair that included the mysterious assassination, a year before independence, of some of its most important leaders. Its contentious democratic system, marked by hostilities between nationalists and communists, and between the Buddhist, Burmese-speaking majority known as Burmans and the largely Christian hill tribes, soon broke down into full-fledged civil war.
Still, none of this marked it out as an unusual nation at the time. Its vast neighbors India and China had, and were indeed still undergoing, their own crises, which included civil war and large-scale massacres. Yet when the nationalist military took over in Myanmar in 1962, the result was something like an army in possession of a state. And although the names of governing councils have been changed, the generals in charge moved around and even the national economic path switched from “the Burmese way to socialism” to capitalism, there has been a military junta in power for over half a century, its intentions mostly inscrutable to the West. The favorite adjective for this junta in the Western media, based only partially on the fact that George Orwell served as an imperial policeman in Myanmar in the 1920s, is “Orwellian.”
Where China meets India is an attempt to offer a nuanced portrait of Myanmar, especially of the paradox where a seemingly static country, subject to economic sanctions from Europe and the US, is also poised between two of the most dynamic, and rapacious, powers in the world. “Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia,” the book’s subtitle reads, and its author, Thant Myint-U, makes clear that this seeming backwater is a place where some kind of fundamental reorientation is taking place, with a colorful combination of ethnic militias, drug lords, sex workers, businessmen and migrant populations floating back and forth across a gray frontier zone.
Traveling to Lashio, in the northeastern corner of Myanmar, Thant writes about the quasi-independent territory carved out by the United Wa State Army, former headhunters, former anti-junta guerrillas, and now drug lords and allies of the junta: “The dirt roads become Chinese highways. And much of the Wa zone is on the Chinese electricity grid, and even its Internet and mobile phone grid. BlackBerrys don’t work in Rangoon but they do in the Wa area ... It’s a stunning reversal in Burma’s geography. What had been remote is now closer to the new center. What were muddy mountain hamlets are now more modern than Rangoon.”
When Thant crosses the border into China, he finds shopping malls, amusement parks and heritage tourism, all evidence of the growing consumerism that is one of the factors driving China’s alliance with the Myanmar junta. In the absence of competition from the West, China can not only push the global market into what was once the frontier, it can also lay a claim to Myanmar’s considerable natural resources. It could be the beginning, Thant writes, of a new Great Game in which India and China take on the roles once occupied by British India and tsarist Russia, with each aspiring superpower wary about the other, both eager for access to the vast reserves of natural gas off the Myanmar coast, and with China especially anxious to secure access to the Bay of Bengal and create an alternative shipping route for the vast quantities of fuel required by its growth engine.