SCOTT SIMON, host: Myanmar mostly makes news in the West these days with blood and iron - when the brutal military regime cracks down on monks and others protesting for democracy. A timeless backwater, brutal and bankrupt, the realm of juntas and drug lords, a place worthy of humanitarian attention, but unconnected to the much bigger story of Asia's global rise. Those are the words of Thant Myint-U, a former U.N. diplomat and fellow at Cambridge University, who says that the nation formerly known as Burma may actually have a bright and bold future as a bridge between China and India and their two burgeoning economies. He has a new book: "Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia." Dr. Thant's name is familiar in Burma. His grandfather, U Thant, was secretary-general of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971. Dr. Thant joins us from the BBC studios in London. Thanks so much for being with us.
Dr. THANT MYINT-U: Thank you.
SIMON: You don't diminish the importance of human rights, but you note what you call the mammoth projects going on that you think are changing the nature of Burma too.
MYINT-U: The human rights situation in Burma is incredibly important but it's separate from what is happening between Burma and China. China sees Burma in an incredibly strategic way now and has invested or is planning to invest somewhere between 25 and 35 billion dollars over the next few years.
SIMON: What kind of projects are we talking about that cut through the jungle?
MYINT-U: They're mostly infrastructure transport projects. There's a $23 billion high speed rail line that's going to be built over the next two or three years. There's an oil and gas pipeline that's going to be finished in about 18 months' time. There are many roads that have already been built and there will be highways that'll be built between China and Rangoon and then between China and the coasts. And then there are also huge hydroelectric power projects. The Chinese are damming up the Irrawaddy River as well as other rivers in the north of the country.
SIMON: And how do you foresee this may change the nature of a company that has been in so many ways locked off by geography?
MYINT-U: Yes, exactly. I mean, if you look at a map, Burma sits right between India and China but it's never been connected to India and China in a very, very close way because between India, Burma and China are many mountain ranges, there are jungles, places where it was very difficult to travel until very recently. And it's that basic geography that's now being overcome by these infrastructure projects but also by other things; by environmental change, by the forest being cut down, by populations increasing. So, what had been a basic fact of Asian geography, which was that India and China were separated by the Himalayas and by Burma, is now being transformed over these few years, and I think that will have a major impact on all three countries.
SIMON: China wants what from Burma?
MYINT-U: Well, to some extent, over the last 20 years, one thing was it wanted a market for its southwestern province, Hunan, which was very poor, and it wanted access to Burma's energy, it wanted markets for Hunan's manufactured goods. But in the last several years, it's acquired a strategic dimension for Beijing and a leadership in China. They see Burma as the answer for them of two problems. One, is that the west of China, the western provinces of China, are far poorer than the eastern provinces - Beijing, Shanghai and the eastern provinces. And the second problem is that 80 percent of China's imported oil goes through the Straits of Malacca. And they fear that the United States or India in the future could use that as a chokepoint and cut of China's import of oil. So, they wanted a second route to the interior of China; one that wouldn't have to go around the Straits of Malacca and a route that would connect this poor interior of China to the Indian Ocean. And Burma was the answer to both of these questions. So, a bridge across Burma or access across Burma was going to be part of two different grand strategies on the Chinese side.
SIMON: I have to ask, Dr. Thant, wouldn't - at least China's current regime - rather do business with brutal and corrupt generals than take a chance on Democratic leaders?
MYINT-U: Well, I don't know. Perhaps. I mean, I think in general I don't think the Chinese care one way or another because they do business with democracies around the world and they do business with dictatorships around the world as well. I think what's important for the Chinese in most cases and what's important for the Chinese in Burma is stability. They want to know who they're dealing with when they sign a $23 billion contract. They want to make sure that that contract is going to be upheld for decades to come.
SIMON: And human rights advocate that you are, you've seen some reasons to be quietly and carefully encouraged by recent events in Myanmar.
MYINT-U: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think that, you know, there were the elections last year, which were widely condemned as being far from free and unfair. But what did happen was that the old autocrat, General Than Shwe, who had been in power for 20 years effectively retired. And he surprised many people by retiring, and he seems retired now. He dissolved the junta that had been in control for 20 years, retired many of the other top generals and he set up this new constitutional system, where many ex-generals are now civilians in different positions of power, but in a very competitive system where you have a government, a parliament, local governments, you have real parliamentary debates - up to a point at least. Media freedom has been relaxed very significantly.
And what surprised many people as well is that the new president, Thein Sein, has proven himself to be a real reformer. Aung Sung Suu Kyi herself, who's been a long-time critic and leader, opposition leader, in the country has said herself that she believes the president is genuine in wanting to change things. And he has, since he came to office six months ago, introduced a slew of economic reforms, talked for the first time about poverty, the economic mess the country is in, talked about the need to crack down on corruption and how terrible corruption in the country has become. And he's reached out to the opposition, including to Aung Sung Suu Kyi, whom he met for the first time two weeks ago.
So, you know, it doesn't mean that Burma has become a democracy overnight - far from it. There's still huge problems. There are hundreds of political prisoners. Many of the repressive, sort of state institutions remain intact. The country's, of course, still as poor as ever. But I think we have the first real opening, the first real chance for change in Burma. First time since, I think, 1962. And I think the next few months will be incredibly important in determining where things go.
SIMON: Dr. Thant, thank you so much.
THANT MYINT-U, FORMER UN DIPLOMAT, FELLOW, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY, AUTHOR, WHERE CHINA MEETS INDIA: Thank you very much.
SIMON: Thant Myint-U, his new book is "Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.