Nominee US Ambassador to Myanmar Hints at Need to Counter China’s Influence in Senate Testimony

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 7 August 2020

YANGON—When Thomas Laszlo Vajda, a career diplomat with nearly three decades of experience, joined a US Senate videoconference on Wednesday to testify in support of his nomination as the US ambassador to Myanmar, he said one of his goals as envoy would be “to advance US interests and values” in the Southeast Asian country.

To achieve this, he told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, US engagement with Myanmar is “essential” in order to advance the Southeast Asian country’s reforms and help defend the country against “malign influences”.

The hearing took place after US President Donald Trump’s nomination of Vajda as the US envoy to Myanmar in May; the post has been vacant since Scot Marciel stepped down that same month. The nomination requires Senate approval.

“It is also critical that we support Burma’s efforts to resist malign foreign influences and challenges to its sovereignty,” he said at the hearing, using Myanmar’s former name.

“To support Burma in this regard, the United States will need to continue helping government officials, economic reformers and civil society actors who are pushing back on unfair investment practices and deals that provide little benefit to local communities,” he added.

Though the nominee didn’t name the “malign influences” mentioned in his testimony, his reference to “unfair investment practices and deals that provide little benefit to local communities” showed clearly what country he had in mind: China.

His remarks come at a time when tension between the US and China in Southeast Asia is running high, as illustrated in an op-ed penned last month by the chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Yangon, George Sibley, who alleged that China’s actions in the South China Sea and its aggressive crackdown on Hong Kong are part of a larger plan to undermine the sovereignty of its neighbors, including Myanmar.

The chargé d’affaires warned that China has threatened and undermined Myanmar’s sovereignty in the form of unregulated banana plantations in Kachin State, questionable investments and corruption in the mining and forestry sectors, and infrastructure projects and special economic zones that pile on debt and require that Myanmar cede regulatory control. He also pointed to rapid environmental destruction, which he said was a result of corruption and poorly regulated investment from China.

In response, the Chinese Embassy accused Sibley of “outrageously smearing China” and attempting to sow discord between it and Myanmar, damaging the countries’ relations and bilateral cooperation. It said the article not only reflects the “sour grapes” mindset of the US toward China-Myanmar relations, but also a global effort by the US to shift attention away from its domestic problems and seek selfish political gain.

When asked why the US had drawn parallels between Myanmar and the South China Sea and Hong Kong issues, a spokesperson from the US Embassy in Myanmar told The Irrawaddy last month that they raised these issues only because they support Myanmar’s autonomy.

“We are concerned about policies and behavior of the government of the People’s Republic of China that impede it,” the spokesperson said.

The US concerns about “malign foreign influences” in Myanmar reflect the country’s geopolitical importance due to its direct access to the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal, and its position between India and China. With the Chinese presence at their deep seaport and industrial zones at Yanbye and Made Islands in the Bay, maritime security in the area will be a concern for the US.

Myanmar had warm relations with the US under the Obama administration. However, things turned sour when the Rohingya issue drew an international outcry after the NLD came into office in 2016. This is where China came in with investments, and even support at the UN, while the US repeatedly pushed the UN Security Council to adopt resolutions against Myanmar on the issue. That left many Myanmar observers wondering aloud whether the support from Myanmar’s big neighbor to the north was pushing the two countries closer together.

The ambassadorial nominee told the Senate on Wednesday that the need for continued “meaningful change” in Myanmar was never clearer than after the Myanmar military committed what he described as horrific atrocities, including ethnic cleansing, against the Rohingya community in August 2017.

“We must continue efforts to change the military’s behavior, prevent future atrocities, and promote justice and accountability,” said Vajda, who has been a career diplomat since 1991. He served as deputy chief of mission in Yangon from 2008 to 2011, and worked with the US Embassy in Yangon to support the early stages of Myanmar’s opening to the world, leading to the country’s first credible national election in 2015.

He also told the Senate that although the current civilian government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has made important progress in consolidating some reforms, the pace has slowed and in some cases stagnated. The nominee said that among other things, the ongoing marginalization of ethnic and religious minority groups, and the involvement of the military in politics and the economy underscore that meaningful change in Myanmar remains an ongoing effort and an ongoing necessity.

“In light of Burma’s enormous challenges and our own interest in the country’s democratic and free-market development, the US engagement is essential to advancing these reforms and helping Burma defend against malign influences. Change in Burma will take time,” he said.

Based on his testimony, Vajda seems quite aware of developments in Myanmar, while appearing to relish the challenges that a posting here would present.

Marciel told The Irrawaddy before his departure that Myanmar has more than its share of really difficult challenges—ones that date back to independence or even before that. For a lot of years, he said, those challenges weren’t really tackled.

“What I feel, after four years here, is a recognition that you want to make progress every day as much as possible. That’s true everywhere. But it takes time to overcome all these challenges,” he said.

Another outgoing ambassador, Kristian Schmidt of the EU, told The Irrawaddy in July that he understood very well after three years that nation building in Myanmar was an ongoing process, adding that the West and Europe need to understand that not all of the country’s problems are linked to the Rohingya issue.

The two former ambassadors’ observations will no doubt be helpful to Vajda, who said he “look[ed] forward to representing the United States and working with the people of Burma to achieve the peace and prosperity they deserve” if he was confirmed. If that happens, he is assured of an exciting time in the country.

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