Aung San Suu Kyi is finally free after nearly two decades of intermittent house arrest.
The release of the pro-democracy, Oxford-educated, daughter of Burmese independence hero General Aung is of course to be cheered. Her long periods of house arrest by the Burmese military junta on a variety of trivial charges have been a travesty of natural justice. But will anything substantial change in Burma now that she is free?
Much depends on the terms of her release (she has historically always resisted any conditional release) and on whether any other political dissidents are also released. More fundamentally, the recent heavily-jerrymandered elections in Burma have resulted in a clear controlling interest by the junta’s representatives in the new government. But the situation will inevitably be more fluid now that Daw Suu is at relative liberty to speak out and rally popular opposition.
So why did the junta release her at all? Why not lock her up indefinitely? It’s hard to be certain, but some would cite a combination of increased confidence on their part now that the elections are out of the way, and perhaps wanting to maintain at least some degree of appearance of fairness in the eyes of their population, to make up for massacring thousands of Buddhist monks three years ago. Well maybe, but I rather suspect wider geo-political considerations.
After a lull of many decades Burma has once more found itself in a strategically vital location. It occupies a prime Indian Ocean location with the potential to act as a vital junction between Chinese and Indian trade routes. This is especially so when it comes to fossil fuels, as a recent Sino-Burmese pipeline deal shows, but has longer-term implications for other cargo movements too.
This all means Burma has the potential to become seriously rich by profiting from the vast and growing capital flows now emanating from its larger neighbours. The richer a country becomes the more likely it is that the money filters downwards, even if inequitably. Money has a strangely soothing effect on a population. Generally, it stops them arguing too much.
Countries are internally calmer if they’re richer, provided the population feels like they’ll get richer still in the future. This carminative effect of money is how China hopes to manage its own political transition; slowing down the pace of political change, managing it centrally, using money to mollify any middle-class dissent. The Burmese junta is probably hoping to pull off the same trick. By combining incoming capital flows with a set of sham elections designed to quell imminent dissent, the Burmese junta may be gambling that any opposition roused by Aung San Suu Kyi will be unable to steamroller over their regime too quickly and they can do well for themselves financially during any transitional process. I’m not convinced they’re right – popular movements often have an avalanche quality to them once a critical mass is reached – but it’s a gamble I can understand.
The idea that geographical location is crucial to a country’s economic and political prospects is not new, but gained popularity with the publication of books like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel over the last decade or so. For adherents of this theory, geographical location and technological level of development interact together in a feedback loop to determine which countries are likely to rise up in prominence and wealth and which are likely to fade.
A simplistic reading of the theory explains why the Roman Empire rose: the technology of the day was perfect for controlling an inland ocean like the Mediterranean, and a strong aggressive culture in a central location like Italywas ideally placed to exploit that technology. It also suggests a reason for countries like Spain, the Netherlands and England (and later the USA) with easy access to the Atlantic to later take over when seafaring technology permitted easy transatlantic crossings. Finally, it prophesies the rise of Pacific Rim and Indian Ocean nations, now that air travel has negated the logistical difficulties of traversing between those countries and the rest of the world.
This geographical explanation of history is ultimately an economic one: countries with the best competitive advantage at any given time to exploit free trade will do best. I would suggest that the beneficial side-effect is that eventually, an enriched middle-class will no longer just be satisfied with financial sops from a central governing authority, and will demand an increasing role in the running of a country.