Lifting the Bamboo Curtain

As China and India vie for power and influence, Burma has become a strategic battleground. Four Americans with deep ties to this fractured, resource-rich country illuminate its current troubles, and what the U.S. should do to shape its future.
The Colonel

Timothy Heinemann, a retired Army colonel from Laguna Beach, California, does think strategically. He is also a veteran of Special Forces. I first met him in 2002 at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he was the dean of academics. He now runs Worldwide Impact, an NGO that helps ethnic groups, as well as a number of cross-border projects, particularly sending media teams into Burma to record the suffering there. Another kind of special operator, Heinemann, with his flip-flops and his engaging manner, embodies the subtle, indirect approach to managing conflict emphasized in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, one of the Pentagon’s primary planning documents. Heinemann says that he “privatizes condition-setting.” He explains: “We are networkers on both sides of the border. We try to find opportunities for NGOs to collaborate better in supporting ethnic groups’ needs. I do my small part to set conditions so that America can protect national, international, and humanitarian interests with real savvy. Our work is well known to various branches of the U.S. government. The opposition to the military dictatorship has no strategic and operational planning like Hezbollah does. Aung San Suu Kyi is little more than a symbol of the wrong issue—‘Democracy first!’ Ethnic rights and the balance of ethnic power are preconditions for democracy in Burma. These issues must be faced first, or little has been learned from the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq.” Heinemann, like the Father of the White Monkey, also lives hand to mouth, grabbing grants and donations from wherever he can, and is sometimes reduced to financing trips himself. He finds Burma “exotic, intoxicating.”

Burma is also a potential North Korea, he says, as well as a perfect psychological operations target. He and others explained that the Russians are helping the Burmese government to mine uranium in the Kachin and Chin regions in the north and west, with the North Koreans waiting in the wings to supply nuclear technology. The Burmese junta craves some sort of weapons-of-mass-destruction capability to provide it with international leverage. “But the regime is paranoid,” Heine­mann points out. “It’s superstitious. They’re rolling chicken bones on the ground to see what to do next.

“Burma’s got a 400,000-man army [the active-duty U.S. Army is 500,000] that’s prone to mutiny,” Heine­mann went on. “Only the men at the very top are loyal. You could spread rumors, conduct information warfare. It might not take much to unravel it.” (Burmese soldiers are reportedly getting only a portion of their salaries, and their weapons at major bases are locked up at night.) On the other hand, the military constitutes the country’s most secure social-welfare system, and that buys a certain amount of loyalty from the troops. And yet, “there is no trust by the higher-ups of the lower ranks,” according to a Karen resistance source. The junta leader, Than Shwe, a former postal clerk who has never been to the West, is known, along with his wife, to consult an astrologer. “He governs out of fear; he is not brave,” notes Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, a magazine run by Burmese exiles in the northwestern Thai city of Chiang Mai. “And Than Shwe rarely speaks publicly; he has even less charisma than Ne Win,” the dictator from 1962 to 1988.

Heinemann and Aung Zaw each recounted to me how the regime suddenly deserted Rangoon one day in 2005 and moved the capital north, halfway to Mandalay, to Naypyidaw, “the abode of kings,” which it built from scratch, with funds from Burma’s natural-gas revenues. The date of the move was astrologically timed. The new capital lies deep in the forest and is fortified with underground bunkers designed to protect against an American invasion. Heine­mann sees China, India, and other Asian nations jockeying for position with one of the world’s worst, weirdest, wealthiest, and most strategically placed rogue regimes, which is vulnerable to a coup or even disintegration, if only the United States adopted the kind of patient, low-key, and inexpensive approach that he and my other two acquaintances advocate.

Heinemann’s last job in the military was as a planner for the occupation of Iraq, and he was an eyewitness to the mistakes of a massive military machine that disregarded local realities. He sees Burma as the inverse of Iraq, a place where the United States can do itself a lot of good, and do much good for others, if it fights smart.

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Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in Washington. His most recent book is Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground (2007).

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