As the United States searches for new ways to nudge Myanmar toward democratic change, it may find an unexpected ally in China, according to secret diplomatic cables.
Internal State Department correspondence made public by WikiLeaks shows a much less adversarial relationship between the United States and China over Myanmar than the language of official statements or years of posturing at the United Nations might suggest.
Chinese officials acknowledge their differences with the United States but appear to share American frustrations at the junta's handling of the country's economy and at times show impatience at the slow pace of political change.
"The Chinese clearly are fed up with the footdragging by the Than Shwe regime," Shari Villarosa, the head of the United States mission in Myanmar, said in a confidential cable in January 2008 that referred to the country's aging dictator, Senior Gen. Than Shwe.
"The Chinese share our desire to get them to the negotiating table," Ms. Villarosa said in a note to Washington after hosting the Chinese ambassador, Guan Mu, for lunch.
China and the United States both want the same thing in Myanmar, said an official from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Yang Jian, according to a separate January 2008 cable: "stability, democracy and development."
"Therefore, China and the United States should show unity, particularly in the UN, in addressing the situation in Burma," the cable is quoted as saying.
Over the past two decades, politics in Myanmar have unfolded with a good-and-evil storyline fit for Hollywood: a brutal military government has persecuted a democratic opposition movement led by a pretty and charming freedom fighter, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize who until last month was under house arrest. When a landslide victory by Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi in 1990 was ignored by the generals, Western nations lined up behind her. China and other neighboring countries, by contrast, lined up to invest in natural gas ventures and buy timber and gems.
But what comes across in nearly 400 cables relating to Myanmar and sent by American diplomats over the past three years is a more nuanced picture. The diplomats report the tyrannical tendencies of the junta but also point out many problems with the "sclerotic" leadership of a democratic opposition and its undemocratic ways. Some American diplomats are privately convinced by the argument put forward by many Asian countries that sanctions do more harm than good, a view that runs contrary to official American policy.
One cable from 2008 describes the party of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi as very poorly managed -- "not the last great hope for democracy and Burma," the cable says -- and dominated by its "Uncles," the party elders.
Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi remains "popular and beloved," the cable says, but her party is "strictly hierarchical, new ideas are not solicited or encouraged from younger members and the Uncles regularly expel members they believe are 'too active,' " said the cable's author, Leslie Hayden, who was the head of the political and economic section in 2008. The same cable, which was described as a "candid" assessment of American policy after two years in the country, described sanctions as doing little good.
"While our economic sanctions give us the moral high-ground, they are largely ineffective because they are not comprehensive." Ms. Hayden wrote. "Burma's biggest client states refuse to participate in them."
The cables show Washington's determined support for pro-democracy groups and dissidents opposing the military government. Ms. Villarosa reported that the embassy made a point of inviting dissidents and democracy activists to its diplomatic functions as a way of demonstrating its "commitment to promoting freedom and democracy."
But diplomats also reported a deep skepticism toward some elements of the Burmese pro-democracy movement. A detailed cable from the embassy in Thailand in May 2008 sharply criticized some Burmese exile groups that were described as out of touch with reality in Myanmar and that had "lost credibility." Thailand is home to a large number of Burmese pro-democracy activists.
"At present, it is unclear whether the principal leaders of the exile community in Thailand can act as credible agents for change in Burma," said Eric G. John, whose tour as the ambassador to Thailand ended this month.
The attitudes in the cables toward the Burmese government are predictably skeptical. But the tone changes according to the personality of the diplomats.
Ms. Villarosa is energetic and opinionated in her cables. "Than Shwe is mad with power," she thundered in one note to Washington. "The senior generals are terrified of losing control over Burma and determined to crush any sign of dissent."
Larry M. Dinger, the head of mission who replaced her, sends more measured missives.
"These are career military men, most with combat experience in Burma's past internal conflicts, who value the unity and stability of the state as a top priority," he said in a secret memorandum last year. "The senior generals assert, and seem genuinely to believe, that the military is the only guarantor of that unity and stability." He also called the generals "xenophobic" and "craving respect."
It emerges clearly in the cables that the United States and China do not agree on all issues related to Myanmar. They disagreed on the usefulness of visits by a United Nations envoy, and the Chinese repeatedly tell the Americans that the economic sanctions are counterproductive.
"The Chinese Embassy regularly rebuffs requests for meetings and information from the Rangoon-based diplomatic community," says the cable. The same cable described China's economic dominance in Myanmar: "China's economic presence in Burma has increased dramatically over the last 10 years."
The cables yielded a number of other items:
The United States sought in October 2008 to remove the United Nations special envoy for Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, calling him "unrealistically upbeat" and unable to obtain access to the country's top leaders.
The Myanmar government appears to have initiated the re-engagement with the United States pursued by the Obama administration. In a February 2009 cable, Mr. Dinger wrote of "repeated recent signals" by the government to restart a dialogue. But Mr. Dinger wrote that the offer for closer ties appeared "symbolic rather than substantive."
Another cable recounts the ultimately unsuccessful efforts of Mr. Gambari to meet Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi during a visit in August 2008. He sent two assistants to the gates of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi's villa. She snubbed him, as did most of the senior Burmese leadership during that visit, according to the cable.
Several cables in 2004 report possible but unconfirmed signs of the junta's developing a nuclear program with help from North Korea. But in a November 2009 cable Mr. Dinger described the possibility of a nuclear program as a "very open question."