Myanmar Needs Major Powers’ Cooperation, Not Competition
By Joe Kumbun 21 January 2021
Myanmar has recently received high-level delegations from major powers and will continue to do so. Major powers, such as Japan, China, India, Russia and the US, are vying to engage with Myanmar.
On January 19, a new US ambassador to Myanmar, Thomas Vajda, presented his credentials to President U Win Myint. He will be the key diplomat advancing US interests in the next five years. The US sent a delegation led by Adam Boehler, chief executive officer of the US International Development Finance Corporation, to Myanmar in October 2020 to meet State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
China also closely monitors Myanmar’s political dynamics by constantly sending high-level representatives. On January 11, Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, paid a two-day visit, meeting U Win Myint, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief. Likewise, on September 2, Yang Jiechi of the political bureau of the Chinese Communist Party visited Myanmar’s leaders.
Japan is also vying to play in Myanmar’s politics. On January 19, Hideo Watanabe, chairman of the Japan-Myanmar Friendship Association and a former parliamentarian, met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing.
After the November 8 general election, Tokyo sent Yohei Sasakawa, Japan’s special envoy for national reconciliation, to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing and visit conflict-torn Rakhine State. The envoy attempted to facilitate talks between the Tatmadaw (military) and Arakan Army after years of fighting.
In August 2020, Tokyo sent its foreign minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing to discuss deeper bilateral relationships.
As other powers are vying to play in its backyard, on October 5 India sent a high-level delegation, comprising General Manoj Mukund Naravane and Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, to strengthen bilateral ties, meeting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing.
Amid deeper military ties, Russia pushes for a foothold in Myanmar in pursuit of its interests. Since the European Union and US imposed heavy sanctions on Russia after it invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, its economic growth has been hovering around 2 percent. It has since partly been attempting to avoid economic stagnation by exporting weapons. Myanmar is no exception. When its defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, visited in January 2018, Moscow sold six Su-30 fighters. He is scheduled to return in the next few days to further boost military ties.
All these foreign powers are vying to engage with Myanmar in pursuit of their primary interests, rather than offering the support the country needs. Russia and China diplomatically shield Myanmar from scrutiny and punishment over its actions in Rakhine State at the United Nations Security Council to maintain their relationships with the Tatmadaw.
Foreign democracies appear to be largely interested in advancing their interests.
India is less interested in Myanmar’s democratic transition and instead looks to boost military ties by offering training and weapons, including its lightweight torpedoes.
Japan is also more interested in its economic investments in Myanmar than helping the country to foster democracy. It also vowed to strengthen military relations during Hideo’s visit.
The US, under Donald Trump, avoided full engagement with Myanmar, only sending Rex Tillerson, a former secretary of state, to visit the country.
But Myanmar needs international cooperation at this critical moment, amid grave challenges such as COVID-19, endless civil wars, the festering peace process and huge numbers of internally displaced people. These issues may be opportunities for the major powers to cooperate. Persisting competition from major powers may lead Myanmar to be torn apart.
Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of an analyst based in Kachin State
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