Guest Column

Myanmar Needs More Engagement From the West, Not China

By Joe Kumbun 13 December 2019

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid a visit to Myanmar on Dec. 7, at the invitation of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He met with the State Counselor, President U Win Myint, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing—the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar army, known as the Tatmadaw—and several other Myanmar government officials. His visit came just before Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s departure to contest the genocide case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, the Netherlands.

It appears that Myanmar has asked for help from China to get through this tumultuous time. Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing thus praised China as a “trusted friend forever”.

China may promise Myanmar help, from technical support to its veto power at the United Nations. China has already used its veto in the UN Security Council (UNSC) to diplomatically shield Myanmar from scrutiny and punishment.

On March 17, 2017, for instance, China blocked a short UNSC statement expressing concern about the situation of human rights in Myanmar, after a 15-member body met to discuss the situation in Rakhine State. China also vetoed a UN draft resolution on Myanmar in January 2007.

China has departed from its traditional non-interference policy in foreign relations and started to get involved in Myanmar’s political affairs. China is mediating the Rohingya repatriation process between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Wang met Myanmar Minister of the State Counselor’s Office Kyaw Tint Swe and Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen to discuss the issue on Sept. 23 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

China is also closely involved in the peace process, mediating between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). Chinese mediation resulted in the Northern Alliance—the Arakan Army (AA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)—attending the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference, initiated by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

China’s interference even helped both the Myanmar military and three members of the Northern Alliance to take the unprecedented step of declaring unilateral ceasefires, in December 2018 and September 2019 respectively.

According to an officer from the Northern Alliance, high-ranking Chinese officials will soon meet leaders from the Northern Alliance in Yunnan, China. The meeting seems to have been quickly arranged following the meeting between Wang and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. It appears that the senior general questioned China concerning the Tatmadaw’s recent seizures of Chinese-made weapons, including FN-6 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, from both the TNLA and KIA.

China is conspicuously clear that it does not want the West, particularly the US, to become involved in Myanmar’s peace process. China perceives the attempts by the West to facilitate peace talks as efforts to undermine Beijing’s longstanding influence in the region and rejects the involvement of other foreign powers. For instance, Lieutenant General Gun Maw of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political arm of the KIA, visited the US Embassy in Yangon and met then-Ambassador Derek Mitchell, reportedly seeking an avenue for US involvement in talks in 2013. He also visited the US and met senior US State Department and UN officials. China reacted by gearing up its own involvement in the peace process, appointing special envoys, sending high level officials to visit Myanmar and inviting Myanmar leaders to China.

Myanmar, however, should remain vigilant and aware of China’s involvement and support. China will never help Myanmar unless there are interests and incentives. China supports Myanmar because Myanmar occupies a strategically important geographical position for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, through which China seeks to build links to the Indian Ocean, followed by the Middle East and Africa, bypassing the Strait of Malacca.

Wang’s recent visit was also meant to speed up the implementation of BRI projects in Myanmar. China’s support for Myanmar, even its offers of protection at the UN Security Council, has been guided by its own interests, not a genuine desire to help.

As China is under an authoritarian regime, the country isn’t interested in helping Myanmar in order to foster democracy and freedom or promote peace. The current crisis in Hong Kong and the oppression of Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang Province highlight how China can and will undermine democratic values, cultural rights and freedom.

But as a nascent democracy, Myanmar needs more engagement from the West to foster democracy. Democracy and elections—taken for granted in established democracies like the US—are still fresh and new in Myanmar. The health of these vital institutions will require more than mere hope but rather the practical application of lessons from the West. Political freedom, religious freedom, political tolerance, human rights and a free market system can be bolstered in Myanmar by looking to the West, but not to China.

The pressure from the West, including targeted economic sanctions and the lawsuit at the ICJ, may not be meant to tear down the country, but instead to ensure that Myanmar respects human rights and international laws.

If Myanmar turns away from and cuts our engagement with the West due to mounting international pressure, the authoritarian Chinese government will seize the opportunity to buy Myanmar’s leaders and politicians and to inject their political doctrine—Marxist-Leninist ideology—into Myanmar. Placing too much trust in the momentum of Chinese engagement may be misleading the country.

It is a sine qua non for Myanmar to continue engagement with the West in order to foster liberal democracy in the country. Only a liberal hegemon like the US—a power that frames and sponsors liberal democracy—can help Myanmar achieve the goals about which Myanmar’s citizens have dreamed.

Myanmar’s move to accelerate engagement with China, in light of international pressure and threat of punishment, will earn only illiberal values and practices that no citizen wants, and the hope of fostering democracy will then fade away.

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

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