Myanmar Turns To China as It Faces International Criticism

By The Irrawaddy 2 December 2017

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Myanmar has faced growing criticism from the international community – especially western countries – after conflicts intensified in Rakhine State. This has pushed the Myanmar government and Tatmadaw back to China. Recently, the US Secretary of State visited Myanmar, and after he returned, he slammed the Tatmadaw for what happened in Rakhine State and labeled it “ethnic cleansing.” Then, it seems as though both the Myanmar government and Tatmadaw turned toward China. I’ve invited political analyst Dr. Yan Myo Thein to discuss this. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Dateline Irrawaddy : အေနာက္ႏုုိင္ငံေတြရဲ႕ရခိုင္အေရး ေ၀ဖန္မႈေတြ…

Dateline Irrawaddy : အေနာက္ႏုုိင္ငံေတြရဲ႕ရခိုင္အေရး ေ၀ဖန္မႈေတြဟာ ျမန္မာ ကုုိ တရုုတ္နဲ႔ ယခင္ထက္ပုုိမုုိနီးကပ္သြားေစသလားရခုုိင္အေရးနဲ႔ ပတ္သက္တဲ႔အေနာက္ႏုုိင္ငံေတြရဲ႕ေ၀ဖန္မႈေတြဟာ ျမန္မာအစုုိးရနဲ႔ တပ္မေတာ္ကုုိ တရုုတ္နဲ႔ ယခင္ထက္ပုုိမုုိနီးကပ္သြားေစသလား ဆိုုတာနဲ႔ ပတ္သက္ၿပီး ဧရာ၀တီ အဂၤလိပ္ပုုိင္းအယ္ဒီတာ ေက်ာ္စြာမုုိးနဲ႔ ႏုုိင္ငံေရးေလ့လာသုုံးသပ္သူ ေဒါက္တာရန္မ်ဳိးသိမ္းတုုိ႔က ဒီတပတ္ ဒိတ္လုုိင္းအစီအစဥ္မွာ ေဆြးေႏြးထားၾကပါတယ္။

Posted by The Irrawaddy – Burmese Edition on Friday, December 1, 2017

About 600,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh after militant attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in August prompted military counter-insurgency operations. The international community strongly condemned Myanmar. Countries like China and Russia stood by Myanmar when it came under pressure. Apparently, those pressures have pushed Myanmar closer to China. Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing recently visited China. And State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is going to pay her second visit to China this year. People are speculating over whether the two countries are deliberately strengthening ties or if international pressure has caused this. What do you think?

Yan Myo Thein: Elections were held in 2010 and President U Thein Sein’s government emerged in 2011. Since then, Myanmar has started to improve its ties with European and western countries including the US. On the other hand, it maintained its existing ‘Pauk-Phaw’ relationship with the People’s Republic of China.

But after the 2015 election saw the government led by President U Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi taking office, most people expected that Myanmar would win greater support and assistance from European and western countries including the US, and that it would be able to step out of the shadows of China more.

But because of what happened in Rakhine State, Myanmar has come under the pressure and restrictions of western countries including the US. Consequently, this has made Myanmar lean towards China. As you have said, former President U Thein Sein visited China once a year during his term. He visited China five times.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited China in 2015 before she could form the government that succeeded U Thein Sein’s. Then she visited China in 2016, and paid another visit in late April this year. Therefore, her planned visit on Nov. 30 is her second visit to China in a single year. According to my study, I have found no records of Myanmar’s previous State leaders visiting China twice in a year. Considering this, we can guess that Myanmar and China have grown close because of international pressures.

Recently, Myanmar Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing visited China. Chinese President Xi Jinping received him and apparently agreed to increase cooperation between the two armed forces. Xi Jinping said that Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s visit was successful. Considering all of this, I think western countries including the US do not have very good approaches toward Myanmar’s crises, challenges and problems.

KZM: Those factors might have contributed to a certain extent. But in my opinion, the main point is that the government has changed. U Thein Sein’s government and the preceding military government had good relationships with China. At that time, people didn’t like China because it supported a government that was not elected by them.

YMT: Yes, they didn’t.

KZM: Frankly speaking, there were anti-China sentiments at that time. Then, the National League for Democracy (NLD) government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi took office, and the main difference from its predecessors was that the people supported it. It is fair to say that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has even gained greater popularity lately. Under such circumstances, I think people may have a good opinion of any government that supports Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.

Myanmar people used to like the US because it supported democracy in Myanmar. But now Myanmar people are not happy with the responses of western countries including the US, probably because they feel that western countries don’t understand them. Speaking of China, it has politically and economically backed Myanmar governments—the military regime—over the past three decades. And it has benefitted. It seems that China will get further benefits from Myanmar, which is being forced into a corner. Especially, the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone in Rakhine, and a trunk road…

YMT: Yes, the Yunnan-Mandalay-Yangon-Kyaukphyu economic corridor.

KZM: So, I think this has further opened the way for China….

YMT: Yes, I think so.

KZM: in terms of economic opportunities in Myanmar.

YMT: As you’ve discussed, when Myanmar was under military control, people didn’t support the Tatmadaw government. So, they supported sanctions targeted at the Tatmadaw government. But now, the international community must take this fact into consideration that the government was elected by the majority of people.

The international community should make multilateral engagement with both the Myanmar government and Tatmadaw. They should engage and negotiate with them in various aspects so as to find answers. On the other hand, Myanmar government shouldn’t have unnecessary concerns. For example, it should open the way for international cooperation. It would be a positive step for Myanmar’s government to open the way for the regional Asean bloc to take a part in solving the problems, difficulties, and crises facing the country. Another thing is about media. As far as I’m concerned, it is still difficult for media to get into Rakhine for reporting. They are still being restricted. So, we have to think about how we can change the situation.

KZM: That’s the problem of the Myanmar government. It has not permitted the UN to do an investigation. It has also restricted the media. It’d be better for it to open up. It’d be better not to impose restrictions if it had not made any mistake or wrongdoing. But now, all the reports have come from Bangladesh as a result.

As you’ve said, cooperation is the most important thing. The government is almost two years in office now. Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing visited European countries [in 2016 and in April this year]. But lately, it appears that the Myanmar Army has to rely more on China.

As we’ve mentioned earlier, [Chinese President Xi Jinping] said that his visit was successful. And it is likely that there will be greater cooperation between the two armed forces. In the wake of the Rakhine issue, the UK cancelled its training for the Myanmar Army. And the US is considering imposing sanctions on Myanmar military leadership. This will have political consequences on Myanmar.

YMT: What is sure is that if western countries continue engaging with us this way, China’s influence on our country will increase politically, economically and militarily. Regarding the Yunnan-Yangon-Mandalay-Kyaukphyu economic corridor, people have just learned about that project recently. Previously, they only knew about the Kyaukphyu-Kunming railroad and motor road project.

The economic corridor is a much bigger project than we previously thought, and it is likely to become a part of the India-Bangladesh-Myanmar-China economic corridor. We need to think about how we can benefits from these Chinese projects for our people and the development of our country. At the same time, we also need to think about how we can win back the trust and support of western countries including the US in our political transition.

KZM: That is extremely important.

YMT: Yes, it is.

KZM: From Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s speeches and her talks with foreign diplomats, we can say that she has not completely leaned towards China. It seems that she will pursue a rebalancing strategy because we need assistance from the international community. We are one of the poorest countries in the world and have no political stability at all. We have a long way to go to make peace with armed ethnic groups. So, I think the leaders of our country need to act very shrewdly. They shouldn’t tactlessly distance themselves from the world.

YMT: The foreign policy and international relations tactics and procedures of our country’s leaders are extremely important. European and western countries including the US have constantly supported our country—they greatly supported our struggle for democracy. But we are still in a transition to democracy. And we can’t even lay down a sound foundation yet. Our country’s democracy is still in its nascent stage.

Besides, there are a lot of crises and conflicts including the Rakhine issue facing us. So, the political storm is really strong. Under such circumstances, the government, Tatmadaw, political parties, and civil society organizations should think about how to work in collaboration to win back the support of western countries including the US. They should identify weak points and try to fix them. Another thing is the role that Myanmar diplomats in foreign countries can play. Ambassadors appointed by the government are the strikers in implementing our foreign policy. They need to explain the situation and engage [with foreign governments] on the front line.

KZM: Thank you for your contribution!