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August Breeze in Myanmar

August, 2011 may become a watershed mark in Myanmar’s recent political history. ‘May’, because, what started in this particular month has surprised the international community, especially the US and the West. The changes towards democracy still appears to many as too good to be true, and every step taken is reversible. The shifts have also surprised China, Myanmar’s special friend.

On the surface, there was nothing remarkable about August. General elections took place in November last year controlled by the military Junta.  A military backed and constructed government was set up with former military officers. A parliament was set up with a veneer of multi-party system. Senior Gen. Than Shwe stepped down from power but continues to oversee the developments. Ex-General Thein Sein was selected as President, and ex-General Tin Aung Myint Oo as Vice –President. Several hard line senior military officers, not trusted by Than Shwe, were retired. At the same time, there appears to be a balance between Thein Sein and Myint Oo. The former appears to be more liberal while the latter, conservative. The structuring appears to have been done very carefully with balance in mind.

The developments in August were subtle, but full of hope for the future. Opposition leader and chief of the still banned National League for Democracy (NLD), Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi who remained under house arrest for 15 years on and off, met President Thein Sein and came away with the view the President wanted “real positive change”. Ms. Suu Kyi has almost been given a free run. She has been allowed to address conferences abroad through the video system, the local print media allowed to publish her photographs and even edited excerpts of her speeches, and her travels outside Yangon have been unhindered. On her part, Suu Kyi ensured that she did not cross line-of-trouble and her supporters maintain discipline.

Foreign officials visiting Myanmar are allowed in. United Nations Special Representative on Human Rights (SRHR) Tomas Ojea Quintana was given unprecedented access to senior officials in Naypyidaw, and to political prisoners in the Insein prison. He went back encouraged by the developments. US President Barak Obama’s Special Representative for Myanmar, Derek Mitchell was equally well received. By giving an interview to Radio Free Asia (RFA), an US government propaganda radio station, presidential advisor Ko Ko Hlaing gave a clear signal to Washington that Naypyidaw meant change, and did not hesitate to declare that the West’s most valued person in Myanmar, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would be of signal importance to the country’s foreign interlocution because of her international standing. Suu Kyi is going to be taken into important government committees. This August change could not have been even dreamt of in the US and the West a few months earlier. No wonder they seem baffling. To Indian watchers of Myanmar, this is not surprising.

The US is beginning to see and appreciate the changes, but cautiously. To the human rights supporters, the discussions between the government and the opposition on the release of political prisoners, with about 600 of them identified, should be satisfying. So is the case of gradual lifting of press censorship.

From the regional and international point of view the close China-Myanmar or ‘Pankphaw’ relationship since 1988 has been a concern. The military crackdown of the elections and military rule, isolating the country from the democratic world, and attracting sanctions were disturbing. The Asian countries initially went with the West, but gradually realized that sanctions and isolation was not going to help.

It is not that the Myanmar junta did not realize that they were getting into the tight grip of the Chinese but Beijing was, in a manner, blackmailing the then Yangon government. But they had little option other than China. With Beijing’s growing influence among the high levels of junta, especially with people like Gen. Khin Nyunt, the Security Chief and ethnic Chinese minority of Myanmar like the Kokangs and the Was, the junta was not in an enviable situation.

China’s sway over Myanmar was especially difficult for India. Armed militants from North East India like the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the Naga separatists and those from Manipur had a free route of travelling to China and bringing lethal arms, ammunition and communication equipment to India, through Myanmar. It was only after the arrest and jailing of Gen. Khin Nyunt for treason, did these activities reduce. But they are yet to stop altogether.

The Western governments, especially that of the US, and Western human rights organizations, clubbed India with China in propping for up the Myanmar junta. It was, unfortunately, the short sightedness of the West. The USA’s human rights concerns are highly questionable. Standards are applied where they are politically necessary.

Even Aung San Suu Kyi was unhappy with India, but she will understand gradually. She has been honoured in India.

Indian interlocution with Myanmar’s junta and opening economic, trade and security relations are very different from that of China’s. India is a vibrant democracy of 1.2 billion people. India has achieved more in showing Naypyidaw the democratic path than the Western sanctions have. India can provide much to Myanmar, something Than Shwe and his new teams are looking for. This is working. President Thein Sein is visiting India (12-15 October 2011).

Myanmar’s isolation was a Christmas hamper fit for the Kings, for Beijing. It was in terms of political, economic and security, all rolled into one to work together. Myanmar’s military is almost totally equipped and trained by China. In terms of economy, Myanmar’s oil and gas reserves, minerals and semi-precious stones are almost captive in China’s hands. Consider this: in the hydropower sector, there are 46 Chinese state owned companies involved in Myanmar; in the oil and natural gas sector, there are 16 companies; in the mining sector, there are 10. This is only the big picture. There are other issues like Myanmar’s timber smuggled to China, Chinese demographic intrusion in Myanmar (like in Russia’s Siberian region), and Chinese business pushing out Myanmar’s small businesses.

The Myanmar military leaders had realized quite some years back that they were being colonized by China. Oil and natural gas, hydroelectricity, and mining products are all going to China. The Chinese government argues that their projects provide jobs for the Myanmarese people. This is the same policy that the Chinese are employing in African countries.

In China’s modern strategy, that is the post Mao Zedong era, Myanmar became more important than North Korea. But they deliberately underplayed it. North Korea was China’s hand. Myanmar, was the jewel in the crown.

Myanmar is an extremely rich country in natural resources. But it is also strategically placed, jutting into the Indian Ocean, the Ocean of the 21st century. It serves China’s south-west development programme including oil and gas imports through the pipe lines being laid from the Arakan coast to China’s Yunnan province. Chinese oil and gas tankers from the Gulf and Africa will dispense with the Malacca Strait and pirate infested route and also save about 3000 kms of sailing.

Strategically, China is looking for  naval deployment in Myanmarese waters. China has proposed that such a deployment was required to safeguard their investments and assets in Myanmar. Naypyidaw is yet to agree. In a futuristic scenario, Chinese naval deployment in Myanmar waters links up with its facilities being built in Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and the existing facility in Gwadar, Pakistan.

The sudden and “baffling” change the West is witnessing in Myanmar is neither “Sudden”or “Baffling”. People have generally been blinded by the junta’s human rights record, stifling of democracy, and proximity to China.

The first sign of resistance to China came when Gen. Khin Nyunt was arrested. Next was cancellation of the agreement for the construction of the road-cum-waterway from China’s Yunnan province to Myanmar’s Indian Ocean coast. China had demanded that the Myanmarese customs had no right to inspect the goods going out from and coming into China. This was infringing Myanmar’s sovereignty. But it is interesting that the Chinese have not persued this project since.

The latest in Myanmar-China disagreements in the order from President Thein Sein suspending the work on the Chinese funded $3.5 billion Myitsone dam hydroelectric project on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State. The work was suspended on the ground that this 6000 MW project, meant for China, was opposed by the people, would harm their livelihood, and adversely affect the environment. The Kachin have been opposing this and four other hydroelectric projects put up by China from 2007.

The Chinese have obviously been shocked and have officially asked the Myanmar authorities for consultations and protection of China’s legitimate rights. Vice President Myint Oo will be visiting China soon for consultations. Myint Oo is reportedly in favour of this project. The outcome will indicate how strong a stand Naypyidaw can take in national interest.

Perhaps inspired by the Kachin protests against the Myitsone dam, activists in the Arakan State have started protesting against the oil and gas pipe line from the Myanmar Bay of Bengal coast to Yunnan being constructed by China at a cost of $ 2.5 billion. To China, this project is more vital than Myitsone dam.

China can hit back in many ways. It can suspend assistance to the various projects in Myanmar, stop military supplies and stop trade. A bigger threat will be unleashing the armed Khokangs and Wa State army against the Myanmar forces on the borders.

It will depend how Naypyidaw deals with its minorities especially in the North. These minorities like the Kokang’s and the Wa are secretly funded and supplied weapons by the Chinese. Naypyidaw is trying new approaches and have taken Suu Kyi on board. Can Suu Kyi convene a second Panglong initiative successfully?

No one can deny that Myanmar cannot live by cutting off relations with its huge northern neighbour. Beijing is also prepared for a change in government in Myanmar, and have maintained clandestine contacts with the Myanmar opposition.

What Myanmar requires is independence from China, not become China’s pawn its strategic game, but maintain normal friendly relations with China. The West must realize that because of their short sightedness, Myanmar has been sucked deep into China’s ambit. If the US and West do not act with alacrity and to “match step with step”, it will be another blunder. But US strategic policy is replete with blunders.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email:

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