The unexpectedly enormous demonstrations in Burma that have been ongoing for over a week now have surprised the world. It has been nearly two decades since such an uprising has occurred, and as Richard Fernandez at Pajamas Media points out, the entire episode is reminiscient of the "people power" uprisings in both the Philippines and Indonesia. He also makes the astute observation, repeated in this Opinion Journal article, that the state of China has to some degree supported the military dictatorship in Burma.
Surely, the scene is familiar. Tens or hundreds of thousands of people in the streets demonstrating against a ruthless dictatorship is one that has been repeated the world over. Yet when these revolutions occur, the people have another target: those on the periphery supporting the regime. In this case, though, I am not simply talking about the state of China itself, but the ethnic Chinese population in Burma itself.
A huge reason this scene is familiar to me, aside from the people protesting in the streets, is the fact that Burma has, like at the time of the Philippines' and Indonesia's revolutions, an incredibly strong "market-dominant" ethnic Chinese population.
It is well-known in the Philippines, back then as well as now, that the ethnic Chinese minority, despite its incredibly small numbers, controlled the vast majority of the economy, from big business to retail. Their economic strength was granted through the cronyism of the Marcos dictatorship, which produced a comfortable symbiotic relationship in which they were able to thrive while Marcos could stay in power while pocketing a truckload of cash as well. The pro-democracy People Power Revolution had an interesting anti-Chinese tint to it.
Same story in Indonesia. General Suharto pocketed more than a billion dollars through corrupt deals with ethnic Chinese. It is no wonder that when Suharto was forced to resign in the chaos of mass protests in 1998, that thousands of ethnic Chinese were slaughtered, with their homes and storefronts ransacked. Afterward, mass nationalizations occurred in the name of the "native people," predominantly Chinese-owned, causing over $40 billion in capital flight from which Indonesia has yet to recover.
The situation is not all that different in Burma. General Ne Win encouraged anti-Chinese policies; but following the crushing of pro-democracy protests and the subsequent military coup, the junta found a very cozy relationship with the Chinese minority. Since then, they have become the supreme economic minority. They have the most education, hold the most professional jobs, and control all of the middle and big businesses in the country in conjunction with the government. They deal in mining, illicit drug trades, and even human trafficking. In return for this, they support the military junta, from which this native autocracy profits highly.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Burmese wonder why they're so damn poor and can't do anything about it. Gas and food prices are skyrocketing, putting them on the edge of survival, while they see that their own government and a bunch of "outsiders" are doing very well for themselves despite the widespread poverty all around. When these people are taking to the streets, not only are they protesting for democracy, but they are protesting in large part due to their current economic conditions, which many are largely blaming on the collusion between the government and ethnic Chinese businessmen.
Every government feels the need to protect the interests of its citizens abroad, especially the incredibly wealthy and well-connected ones. The government of China does use its influence to protect the Burmese military junta to some degree, but it is doing so because of the huge investments and interests of its powerful citizens there. The Chinese, both the businessmen and the government, know that their minority population is in a very precarious situation. The junta knows this as well. Because of this symbiotic relationship, in which one cannot possibly survive without the other, the Chinese continue to support the junta with money and development from the contracts given them, while the junta must apply force at all possible times so that these people and their assets are protected so that, in the end, they remain in power!
China's position is extremely precarious right now. Unless these protestors and their leaders are particularly high-minded, it would not be at all surprising to see a slew of renationalizations of Chinese-owned industries should the junta be completely swept out of power. More than likely, with the arms that the military possesses, along with the entrenched interests of the Chinese businessmen and military autocracy with each other, the only way the pro-democracy opposition will be allowed to have power to formulate policy is if they take a tone of reconciliation and extreme moderation. If anything comes out of their camp talking about confiscation of all that wealth, no matter how corruptly it was obtained, then they are going to have a hard time ever beating the junta.
While we see a lot of similarities between this demonstration in Burma and the people power revolutions elsewhere in Asia, one of the big ones is the cronyism present between the dictatorship and the Chinese businessmen. Given the strength of the military junta, though, we may not see this dictatorship simply swept away, and if we do, it could be with even more disastrous economic consequences than they already suffer. The country cannot afford to see what capital it has leave completely.
Yet this does not mean that change is impossible. Most democratic transitions occur slowly; in fact, most people power movements fail relatively soon afterward. If the pro-democracy opposition can prove to the military that it won't try to persecute them and confiscate Chinese wealth, the possibility of a slow transition with greater economic liberalization, the growth of civil society, and the removal of international sanctions should become possible.