Pros and Cons of the NLD’s New ‘Look East’ Policy

By The Irrawaddy 13 October 2018

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! It is fair to say that Myanmar’s relations with Western countries have soured since the Rakhine crisis broke out. We’ll discuss where the National League for Democracy [NLD] government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is finding new friends at such a time, and what the advantages and disadvantages of finding new policies and new friends will be. I’m joined by NLD’s Lower House lawmaker Ma Zin Mar Aung, and The Irrawaddy’s Burmese edition senior editor Ko Ye Ni to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

The NLD has been severely condemned by Western governments over the Rakhine issue. I assess that the NLD’s policy, both in politics and the economy, today is a “look-east” policy; to rely more on eastern countries. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is visiting Japan and is set to meet the Japanese prime minister [on Tuesday]. [The NLD government] are approaching more Asian countries like Japan, and of course China, India, Singapore, and South Korea. What is your assessment, Ma Zin Mar Aung?

Zin Mar Aung: The foreign policy of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi since she took the office is different from what analysts had expected and she did not move fast to forge close ties with Western countries. It is because [she has taken] the concerns of neighboring China into consideration. It is not good for Myanmar if China as a neighbor is very concerned [about its ties with the West].

KZM: Because China is a superpower.

ZMA: Yes, China is a superpower of the world. I remember [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] said that you can’t change your neighbors. This shows how great a caution she exercises in her foreign policy [towards China]. Taking a look at the democracy struggle of Myanmar, you can see that among Asian countries, Japan has given the biggest support for democracy in Myanmar. And the political values of China and Japan are different. Japan is more democratic. Economically, Japan is the best for Myanmar to make alliances with, and so is the case for political systems.  Considering past and present political and economic situations, Japan is one of the best options for Myanmar. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recently said that Japan has good ties with Europe and the United States of America so it can serve as a mediator in the diplomatic crisis. [The NLD-government] is approaching Japan more than other Asian countries because of its democratic values and political and economic strength.

KZM: So, Myanmar has chosen Japan as it offers greater potential for Myanmar to forge alliances. In her trip, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi invited Japanese investment and Japanese investors to come and see [the country]. But the political crisis which resulted from the Rakhine issue is a bigger issue for Myanmar. An economic crisis erupted because of the political crisis. Now the EU is considering imposing economic sanctions on Myanmar, and if the US will do something, we still don’t know. It seems that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wants Japan to take a mediating role to repair Myanmar’s relations with Western countries. How do you assess this, Ko Ye Ni? And what do you think about keeping balance as Myanmar shifts its focus to Asian countries as Western countries have distanced themselves from Myanmar?

Ye Ni: Western countries, including the US, imposed targeted sanctions on the Tatmadaw after the Rakhine issue broke out. Even if they haven’t imposed sanctions, the EU has threatened to withdraw GSP [Generalized Scheme of Preferences] which it granted to Myanmar [as a reward] for its democratic change. Western countries supported Myanmar along its democratic struggle but this has changed all of a sudden, and the relations have soured. At such a time, China is very close to Myanmar in a geopolitical sense. Unlike the past, China has not just focused on the military in approaching Myanmar, but it is engaging with all the stakeholders. China is a superpower, and now re-approaches Myanmar with its political commitment and the economic benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative. While Myanmar is in a tight corner both politically and economically, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Japan is very interesting. It is interesting to see to what extent Myanmar-Japan relations will become important for Myanmar in handling the current crisis.

KZM: Ma Zin Mar Aung, Japan is a democratic country, and China is a one-party state. It can be said that both have considerable interests in Myanmar. Some say that Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy being implemented by Japan is intended to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said, we have to maintain ties with China as it is our neighbor. But considering their policies and behaviors, to which one of them do you think Myanmar should give priority?

ZMA: Corporations are different in their nature. [Regarding Chinese corporations], there is the suspended Myitsone Dam project, and the Letpadaung copper mine and there are many other projects. Previously, Chinese investments had little support from locals. While there are weaknesses in existing laws and in their implementation, investors have also manipulated those weaknesses and administrative shortcomings and acted without responsibility or accountability. But this happens not just in Myanmar; many Chinese companies are much the same, like those in Africa. They don’t pay attention to their environmental and social impacts. So what about Japanese companies? In the global economy and corporate field, big Japanese companies have good reputations. So considering an investment’s probability of acceptance from locals, and corporate practices, Japanese companies are more acceptable.

KZM: I think the NLD government is keeping a balance. It is inevitable that Myanmar has to engage with China. There have been huge Chinese investments in Myanmar, for example, the Kyaukphyu [deep-sea] port and so on. Western countries have become more distant from Myanmar because of the Rakhine issue. As they don’t hug Myanmar, Myanmar has to go to those who would hug her. In the words of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar needs countries that would help with greater understanding. Japan is one of those countries. How do you think Western countries will counter? I mean if they don’t change their policies, Myanmar will get closer with China. Do Western countries need to review their policies?

YN: Myanmar needs to persuade Western countries again. Their diplomatic policies are based primarily on human rights values as well as democratic norms, not focusing on the economy alone. But in the case of China, its values are obvious—it has economic interests. Japan, however, is different—their value is not based only on human rights and democracy like Western countries. It might be a value Asian countries share. Historically, we were very close countries. Relations between the two countries started from the time of General Aung San and the thirty comrades [who underwent military training in Japan] during World War II and continued through U Ne Win’s government. Japan maintained normal ties with the Tatmadaw even throughout the democratic struggle during which Western countries imposed sanctions. It can be said that today’s Tatmadaw was trained by Japan, so there is a long history of bilateral relations. Japan will not view Myanmar as a developing market only. Previously, Myanmar relied solely on China and the Tatmadaw eventually became fed up with [that situation] and opened up the country to find new partners like Western countries and Japan. It is not a good thing that Western countries have withdrawn [their support for Myanmar] after they supported Myanmar throughout its democracy struggle.

KZM: In fact, both the Myanmar government and people prefer countries that support and attach importance to democratic values. They didn’t like China because of its policy and its support for the military regime, and they preferred Western countries. Our country, despite being small in size, can’t align with them because we practice a non-aligned [foreign] policy. Western countries withdrew due to the Rakhine issue and alleged human rights violations. It is a lose-lose situation as opposed to a win-win situation. Western countries have lost Myanmar while China has become economically stronger on the international stage. Under such circumstances, how should Western countries re-approach Myanmar even if there are human rights violations?

ZMA: It is said that Western countries have distanced themselves and withdrawn support because of human rights violations. The government in office is not an unelected government. The current democratic government, however, is not a 100 percent elected government. It has to strike a balance with the Tatmadaw leaders, ethnic armed organization leaders, and socio-economic dynamic under the topic of national reconciliation. The current government has to strike a balance not just between two sides, but between various sides. So it is difficult to see things in black and white regarding human rights.

KZM: You mean not to approach Myanmar from the perspective of human rights only?

ZMA: Yes, I do. By saying this, I don’t mean we don’t care about human rights. [Ensuring human rights] is our goal. We are not lost in pursuing this goal. They can criticize us, but if they criticize us excessively, this puts all the blame on the government while other factors are neglected. This is not good for us or Western countries either. The EU and the US have supported the democratic struggle in Myanmar and our democracy icon [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] along the way. They have put high stakes on Myanmar along the way. They won’t want to see those wasted so they are not happy either. So who is happy under the current circumstances? Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not happy and neither are we. It is not a pleasant situation. If there is an influx of investment from Western countries into Myanmar, to whom will this pose a challenge? It is obvious. It is our neighboring country China which has taken one jump ahead of others in Myanmar’s market and investment environment. China could do so because it is our neighboring country. China will be happy. But as Western investment does not come, the market can’t attain a balance. We have to continue engaging with China as it is the only option. Myanmar is heavily indebted and it needs to make money to run the country. Only when investments with full corporate social responsibility and respect for human rights come into the country, the human rights situation in all the fields of the country will improve. If Western countries withdraw their support now, it would be a waste of [all their efforts along the way].

KZM: Situations have forced the NLD government to practice a “look-east” policy. We will wait and see how successful it will be, how much support friends will give and if Western countries will come back. Thank you for your contributions!