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Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) is the cultural and economic heart Myanmar — a country situated at the nexus of northeastern India, China and its peninsular southeast Asian neighbors—including nearly the entire western border of Thailand. This geographic centrality has caught the attention of the British, who made Rangoon their regional capital to bulwark against France’s colonial presence in Laos and Vietnam. Later, in WWII the British colonials found themselves the key link in the WWII supply lines to Chinese forces, putting them squarely in the crosshairs of Imperial Japan as it sought to cut the Burma Road.

Following the exit of imperial powers, Myanmar (then known as Burma) descended into ethnic conflict between the Burman majority of the Irrawaddy River valley and the various jungle and mountain minorities everywhere else. After decades of military rule, Myanmar returned to civilian government in 2015…but that new government is just as Burman-dominated as the military; the country’s old ethnic divides threaten to flash anew.

Yangon once again finds itself in the crossfire. One legacy of its period of military rule was a partnership of convenience with China, who built a cluster of oil and natural gas pipes from Myanmar’s coast to the Chinese interior. But with political normalization the Americans are engaging politically and the Japanese economically. The player to win will likely be the one who is most willing to let Myanmar run its own affairs.

For more on Myanmar’s future, see Chapter 9 in The Accidental Superpower, and Chapter 8 in The Absent Superpower.

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