Why Beijing Backs Myanmar Junta While Holding out Olive Branch to NLD

By The Irrawaddy 3 September 2021

A July 21 letter sent by the Communist Party of China (CPC) to the central executive committee of the National League for Democracy (NLD) circulated online recently. The letter thanked the NLD for its congratulations on the CPC’s centenary.

In early August, during a virtual meeting between the junta-appointed foreign minister U Wunna Maung Lwin and China’s ambassador to Myanmar, Chen Hai, the ambassador referred to the State Administration Council (SAC), the governing body of the military regime, as the Myanmar government but also voiced concerns over the regime’s plan to dissolve the NLD.

Many Myanmar people are puzzled why China is against the dissolution of NLD, despite the junta-appointed Union Election Commission saying the NLD must be dissolved.

Political analyst Dr. Hla Kyaw Zaw, who is based in China’s Yunnan Province, talked recently to The Irrawaddy about China’s policy towards Myanmar.

Dr. Hla Kyaw Zaw

While China has recognized the SAC, it has also indicated that it doesn’t want the NLD to be disbanded. What does China mean by that?

The letter sent to the NLD conveys the Chinese government’s message to the SAC that the [NLD must not be disbanded] if the SAC wants Beijing to recognize it [as the government of Myanmar] and to continue to implement previous agreements [on Chinese investments in Myanmar].  China wants to see stability in Myanmar because it is concerned about its interests in the country.

Beijing’s strategic ambitions, the Belt and Road Initiative, can progress only when Myanmar is stable. And China knows that it cannot rely only on the Myanmar military to achieve stability in the country. So, together with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Beijing is pushing for inclusive dialogue between all parties in Myanmar.

China has raised concerns about the NLD because the party enjoys the support of the Myanmar people, despite being accused [by Myanmar’s military] of electoral fraud in the 2020 election. By protecting the NLD, Beijing is trying to touch the hearts of the Myanmar people. While anti-China sentiments are growing in Myanmar, it sends a message that China notices and respects the wishes of the Myanmar people.

The NLD sent a message to the CPC to congratulate it on its centenary. And the CPC replied thanking the NLD for its message. To what extent does that reflect current relations between the CPC and the NLD?

The CPC has departed from its usual routine lately. Its ideology is no longer that of a conventional communist party. In the past, the CPC engaged with other parties based on the ideology of social class. But, now, it has departed from ordinary communist philosophy. The party said it is searching for and inventing a Marxism for the 21st Century. It engages with all the parties around the world.

[Under the NLD government] China invited not only the NLD leaders to events in China but also the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) leaders. It invited all and exchanged political views. It tried to show them how changes can be introduced peacefully in this globalized age. The CPC focuses on pragmatism rather than theory. So it engages with the NLD and the USDP, as well as the ethnic parties. It uses soft power to improve its position on the international stage. So China developed good relations with the NLD, and the NLD also tried to improve ties with Beijing.

Why has the CPC changed?

The situation has changed a lot. In the past, Marxism was about the proletariat: industrial workers and farmers fighting capitalism. But capitalism has become globalization now. To join the globalized world, one has to join the capitalist system. That’s why China joined the World Trade Organization, because the global order is controlled by capitalists. As the US and Europe controls the global order, it joined them to reap profits. But when Beijing distributes profits in China, it distributes them based on socialism.

In January 2021, China’s President Xi Jinping said in a speech to the Davos Agenda event that China protects capitalism more than the capitalists do. Globalization has significantly boosted production and if the [profits from production] can be shared properly and systematically for the people, it is beneficial to the majority. China is attempting to replace capitalist globalization with socialist globalization. It is incorporating useful things from capitalism to create wealth for its people.

What about the CPC’s relationship, if any, with the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) which is largely comprised of NLD members? To what extent will the CPC’s relationship with the NLD influence the Chinese government?

China’s government can only function under the leadership of the CPC. All the important policies are laid down by the CPC. The CPC is the key to the foreign policies of China’s government.

Is it likely that Beijing will engage with the NUG?

I think both sides are still waiting. The NUG is seemingly reluctant to engage with China because it mainly relies on the US and other western powers for support. And China seemingly does not want to make the SAC feel uneasy. China, if possible, wants to take a neutral position as it wants to intervene impartially in conflicts between the military regime, the NLD and the other forces in Myanmar. China may engage with the NUG if the NUG gets stronger and more capable.

How will the SAC view the relationship between the CPC and the NLD?

Of course, the SAC will not like it. But my view is that the SAC needs to buy time considering the realities facing it. That’s why it has nodded to the five-point consensus proposed by ASEAN. There have been delays in the ASEAN envoy’s planned trip to Myanmar. The military has never liked the NLD. But, for the time being, it won’t disband the NLD. It will keep the party alive as China has raised concerns.

The NLD has fought the military since 1990. They have endurance. A party will cease only when it is ruined by the party members. Any party will be able to mobilize anytime if there are people who have faith in it. As long as there is injustice, a disparity between rich and poor and a lack of democracy in Myanmar, parties that have public support will continue to exist. The NLD will continue to exist even if not under the same name.

The SAC and the NUG will compete to place someone in the position of Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations (UN) at the upcoming UN Credentials Committee. Who do you think China will support?

China has taken different approaches at the UN, depending on the time and situation in Myanmar. It is not consistent. Before 2011, during the time of the State Law and Order Restoration Council and the State Peace and Development Council in Myanmar, China used its veto at the UN to protect the then military regime. It understands that Myanmar people have negative views towards China because of that. It was aware of the need to engage with Myanmar people and so it started to engage with different groups, including the NLD.

This time, China will also take a neutral position at the UN so as not to upset the SAC or the Myanmar people. If there is a majority view among the countries at the UN meeting, China might to choose to agree with them or else it will stay neutral.

Both China and the US back the ASEAN consensus on tackling the Myanmar crisis. But there are tensions between the US and China over the South China Sea.  Will the crisis put Myanmar at the center of the China-US clash?

Myanmar is trapped in the geopolitical struggle between China and the US. Since the February 1 coup, some independent Chinese analysts have claimed that western countries were behind the ousting of the NLD government because it was too close to Beijing. Some have said that when western countries took back the honorary titles given to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and criticized her over the Rohingya issue, that encouraged the military to stage the coup. Other analysts have said that anti-China sentiment is growing in Myanmar because the military is deliberately encouraging the public to hate China rather than the junta. Myanmar could end up trapped between the China and US in the same way that the Ukraine is trapped between the European Union and Russia. For example, since the Rohingya issue, China has said that the US is deliberately disrupting its Kyaukphyu deep-sea port project in Rakhine State.

But it is important for Myanmar not to be trapped in conflicts between superpowers. Myanmar people have now fully understood that Myanmar will never develop so long as it remains under military rule. That’s why people are saying they have to crush the military.

My view is that everyone should take their fair share of responsibility by taking up arms or by staging protests. We need to form an allied force that includes all the parties that don’t like the Myanmar military. No party can be left behind. It is the responsibility of all to isolate the military.

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