China’s Belt and Road Initiative—A Bargaining Chip for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

By Joe Kumbun 8 January 2019

Years after the launch of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and several meetings between top officials from China and Myanmar, the government formed a steering committee for the implementation of tasks relating to the BRI in late November 2018. The committee is chaired by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, with and Vice-President U Myint Swe serving as vice chairman and other ministers and regional chief ministers as members of the committee.

I here argue that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s motivation for forming the steering committee and taking on the role of chairperson is to use the BRI as a bargaining chip for her political goals.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party came to power with a campaign slogan “Time for Change,” and she was keen to make unprecedented reforms in Myanmar. People piled tall hopes on her when they voted in the 2015 general election and the following by-elections.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, however, faces a major obstacle in her efforts to make changes in Myanmar. She herself has admitted that, according to the 2008 Constitution, she cannot control the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) meaning it does not comply with or listen to her.  The Tatmadaw holds the ultimate political power in Myanmar as granted by the Constitution and it can reject any reforms that may negate their interests or benefits.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself appears to understand that influencing the Tatmadaw can only be possible through China as Beijing firmly shields the Tatmadaw from international punishment.

With the plight of the Rohingya leading to Myanmar’s spurning by the West, which coincides with an ongoing and fierce civil war and human rights abuses, Myanmar appears helpless in international politics. In response, China stepped in to show its “paukphaw” or brotherhood in a crisis. China diplomatically protects Myanmar from any scrutiny or punishment meted out at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

For instance, China along with Russia blocked a short UNSC statement expressing concern on the situation of human rights in Myanmar after a 15-member body met to discuss the situation in Rakhine State in March 2017. China again boycotted talks on a British-drafted resolution at the UNSC which was considering action to push Myanmar to work with the UN to address the Rohingya refugee crisis in December 2018.

On the other hand, China wants to speed up its ambitious BRI projects in all designated countries, especially Myanmar as China is keen to gain access the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean, bypassing the Malacca Strait as an energy conduit.

As the Myanmar saying goes “make yarn while the moon shines,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has grabbed a rare chance by forming the steering committee and taking the leading role which she can use as a bargaining chip.

In the run-up to the formation of the committee, on Nov. 6, 2018, she met Song Tao, Minister of the International Department of the Communist Party of China. Just two weeks later, on Nov. 16, she met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. On Nov. 26, she received Ning Jizhe, deputy head of China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi kicked off Myanmar’s involvement in the BRI project by attending the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing in May 2017 and is expected to attend the next Belt and Road Forum planned to be held in Beijing in April.

It appears that the State Counselor wants to achieve peace in Myanmar while she still has power. She wants to speed up the peace process and gain peace before the next general election in 2020. It was she who initiated the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference aimed at ending conflict, though despite three rounds of talks being held so far, no tangible results have been achieved.

She also wants to amend some articles of the 2008 Constitution, if not all. The Constitution grants 25% of the seats in central and state legislatures to the Tatmadaw as well as the control of three powerful ministries—Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs.

With the formation of the steering committee, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be using the BRI as a bargaining chip, and it could even be said that she has set a secret agenda with China to push the Tatmadaw.

On Dec. 21, the Tatmadaw declared a four-month unilateral ceasefire, despite not covering the Western Command in Rakhine State where it is currently in conflict with the Arakan Army. A week later, it transferred control of the powerful General Administration Department (GAD) to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government. Perhaps these moves made in recent weeks by the Tatmadaw exemplify the progress of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts.

China also appears to be taking a role in pushing the non-signatories of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA)—particularly the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC)—to sign it. The FPNCC comprises of seven powerful ethnic armed groups—the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Shan State Army (SSA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA).

The Northern Alliance, a three-member group consisting of the AA, the MNDAA and the TNLA has already expressed interest in joining the peace process. These groups are expected to meet the government’s Peace Commission in Kunming, China in the coming week.

Once the faltering peace process embarks on the right track, Aung San Suu Kyi will then be able to push for the amendment of the Constitution. So far her bargaining chip has worked. Only time will tell whether she can achieve peace and amend the Constitution in the very near future.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of an analyst based in Kachin State.