On this edition of Dateline Irrawaddy, Irrawaddy English edition editor Kyaw Zwa Moe speaks with political commentator Dr Yan Myo Thein and International New York Times reporter Wai Moe to discuss how the Mar. 13 aerial attack on a Chinese village by the Burma Air Force will impact upon the diplomatic relationship between China and Burma.
Kyaw Zwa Moe: China-Burma relations have reached a sensitive stage after recent clashes between Kokang rebels and the Burma Army. On Mar. 13, a bomb dropped by Burma’s warplanes killed five Chinese citizens and injured eight others. In the aftermath, diplomatic relations between the Burmese and Chinese governments suffered. Political commentator Dr Yan Myo Thein and reporter Ko Wai Moe from the International New York Times will join me for the discussion. I am Irrawaddy English edition editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.
Ko Yan Myo Thein, looking back at China-Burma relations, the recent incident is a bad development. After 1988, China and Burma maintained fairly friendly relations, described as Pauk Phaw [fraternal warmth]. Looking back at history, the current tension is the most severe since the 1967 anti-Chinese race riot in Burma. What is the worst possible scenario that can develop from the current tensions? Do you see any changes in the Burmese government’s foreign policy, its policy toward China and China’s foreign policy?
Yan Myo Thein: It affected the Pauk Phaw relations between Burma and China to some extent. The vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of China telephoned our Commander-in-Chief. Then the Burmese government dispatched a special delegation to China. The situation has never been this intense since 1967. Personally, I think Burma is important for China because its route to the Bay of Bengal cuts through Burma. Oil and gas pipelines are built through Burma into China. And China is also thinking of investing in the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port. So, Burma is important for China. From a regional political point of view, China is also important for Burma. For example, its relations with China can give Burma bargaining power in dealing with western countries, including the US.
KZM: China and Burma had closer ties after 1988. The two governments were similar. While the Chinese government mounted a crackdown on student protestors, the military regime clamped down on the pro-democracy uprising in 1988. So, the two governments were close. The international community imposed sanctions against Burma after that time. Some have suggested that Burma has dropped the bomb to provoke China. At the same time, from the point of view of Burmese government, it can be said that it owes a debt of gratitude to Chinese government. Because China gave overall support to the Burmese government while western countries imposed sanctions on Burma. It also defended Burma against recriminations from the international community. So, to what extent can the tension harm the relationship between the two countries?
Wai Moe: It is fair to say that the fall of the Burmese Communist Party was partly due to pressure from China. After a shift in Deng Xiaoping’s policy, China had gradually given a great deal of political support to Burma’s government, including an unprecedented amount of support after 1988. Though Burma was an international pariah after 1988, China continually protected it. And then this tension has arisen all of a sudden. Last month, chief of Burma’s Military Intelligence, Maj-Gen Mya Tun Oo, said that Chinese citizens were involved in the Kokang fighting. That strained relations between the two countries. Chinese netizens reacted with anger to the allegation. The Chinese government even put its troops at the border on alert. The situation got worse to the extent that it seemed a war might break out. So, the relationship is fairly strained. To outsiders it also seems that the Burmese government is trying to reduce its reliance on China and foster its relationship with western countries.
KZM: Undeniably, Burma has built closer ties with western countries after U Thein Sein’s government opened the door to the international community in 2011. The US and other EU countries have entered Myanmar. At the same time, Myanmar takes it for granted that it cannot neglect China, because it is its neighbor. Looking at the history of Burma’s foreign relations, the government has always had great concerns about China. I think the Burmese government will get into trouble if it totally neglects China and leans towards western countries.
YMT: I share your view. Another point is that China brokered the meeting between Burma and the US in 2003, in Beijing. That time, U Khin Aung Myint, U Kyaw Hsan and U Yan Win were present at the meeting. So, it can be said China has played an important part in helping normalize relations between Burma and the US. As Ko Kyaw Zwa Moe has said, it is difficult for the Burmese government to completely reduce its reliance on China and focus on its relations with western countries, including the US.
KZM: It is not a pragmatic policy, I think.
WM: Yes, you are right. I think the Kokang case is quite striking during the last sixty years of ties between China and Burma. The Burma Army alleged for the first time that Chinese people are involved in the fighting. It seems that the Burmese government wants to open up a new chapter in its relations with China.
KZM: China will be displeased with the latest developments. The bombs were dropped in their territory and their citizens were killed. To China, it is like the rebellion of a government which it has supported militarily, economically and financially. The Burmese government was first among the global community to recognize the new regime as the legitimate government of China in December 1949. I think Burma is very cautious in dealing with China. During General Ne Win’s leadership, he dealt well with China. But then, he told his men that China was the main threat to Burma. His regime was deeply concerned and exercised caution in dealing with China. The current leaders, I think, will find it difficult to deviate from the path their predecessors took.
YMT: Here is a question. Is the Burmese government doing things in the same way the Chinese government has constantly dealt with the Burmese government? For example, when China supported the Communist Party of Burma in the past, it was through the Chinese Communist Party, perhaps trying to make it appear that Chinese government was not associated with it. It manifested itself in form of party-to-party support. The allegations of Chinese government and Chinese military involvement were made by the Burma Army. So, the question is if the Burmese government will be handling the issue diplomatically, steering itself clear of the Burma Army’s allegations. At the beginning, the Burmese government accused China and then it withdrew its allegations. This makes it obvious that Burmese government has to take great caution in dealing with China.
KZM: There are allegations that some Chinese men, particularly from Yunnan Province were fighting for Jeng Piasheng in the clashes because their state-run newspapers like Global Times featured interviews with him. So, the Burmese government would doubt whether or not it was China’s state policy to support the Kokang rebels as the state-run newspaper featured the interview. To what extent can the current tension affect China policy towards Burma? Though the relationship between China and Burma is said to be characterized by Pauk Phaw, China would only view Burma as a small country. Burma is small in size, amongst other things, compared to China. Ko Wai Moe, what changes do you expect to see in the foreign polices of Burma and China?
WM: The Chinese Ambassador relayed the response of the Chinese Central Military Commission to Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. China reportedly called for the speeding up of reforms. So, this means China no longer has as much trust in Burma as it did in the past. The likely response of China is that it will call on Naypyidaw to focus more on reform and regional stability. It is also making contact with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and increasing direct contact with the commander-in-chief as opposed to the government. So, we can expect China will make more policy changes with regard to the Kokang issue.
KZM: There has been a talk that the government has deliberately incited the fighting so as to win the support of people. This view is also widely shared on social media. What do you think of it?
YMT: Some parts of the issue are quite hard to explain. In fact, the Burma Army in the past has benefited from the Kokang forces. The armed revolution of Communist Party of Burma failed thanks to the Kokang armed group. I think the way the Burma Army has responded to a group to which it owes gratitude may impact the trust offered by other ethnic armed groups. Under the five principles of peaceful co-existence, it is difficult for China to directly interfere in the internal affairs of Burma. As Ko Wai Moe suggested, China may give recommendations or hold negotiations. But the real question is if the Chinese government is happy to see the emergence of a true democratic government in Burma.
KZM: Looking back on the past 20 or 30 years, the policy of China is that it has a lot of ties with Burma, especially economically. It takes resources from Burma. The relationship between two countries is more of a state-to-state relationship.
YMT: Speaking of the economy of Burma, more than the half of the country’s businesses are in the hands of Chinese businessmen. More than the half of Burma’s natural resources have been signed over to Chinese companies to exploit. All of this was done by the current president and the current government, which succeeds the previous government. So, people need to see clearly who created all these problems.
KZM: Ko Yan Myo Thein, Ko Wai Moe, thank you for discussing a complicated issue.