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China and the Popular Unrest in Myanmar

China enjoys very close economic and military relations with the military regime in Myanmar. Perhaps it is one of the very few countries who could influence the country’s policy makers. In recent times, China had been internationalising its outlook in many spheres and participating proactively in the UN. This is in keeping not only with its status as a major global military power but also its emergence as an economic superpower. However, it had been resisting the temptation to go along with other major global powers in pressurising the military regime to democratise Myanmar. China had always held that it would not interfere with the internal affairs of Myanmar. In a demonstration of solidarity with the military regime, along with Russia early this year it vetoed a western move to discuss Myanmar and its humanitarian record in the UN Security Council.

However, of late there are signs that the Chinese might change their policy of ignoring the military regime’s failure to introduce democratic reforms in Myanmar. Two significant developments encourage this conclusion. In June 2007, China facilitated direct talks between the US representatives and Myanmar ministers in Beijing. Though the talks pertained mostly to the release of Mrs Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) who has been under house arrest for more than a decade, it was a small beginning that could pave way for more positive results.

The more significant indication from Beijing was when Senior Chinese diplomat Tang Jiaxuan told the visiting Myanmar Foreign Minister U Nyan Win that China “whole-heartedly hopes that Myanmar will push forward a democracy process that is appropriate for the country.” Tang is a foreign policy adviser to the government. Of greater significance is the timing of the statement; the Myanmar minister was visiting Beijing on September 13, perhaps to explain the actions taken by his government to control the internal situation following the public protests that started on August 19. Tang said that China “hoped Myanmar would restore internal stability as soon as possible, properly handle issues and actively promote national reconciliation.” He further added that the democratic process was “in the fundamental interests of the people of Myanmar and conducive to regional peace, stability and development.” The importance of this statement is apparent, in comparison with the attitude of China in the UN Security Council in January this year. The Chinese representative considered the problems in Myanmar were largely internal affairs of a sovereign state and the government and other groups should be allowed to continue their efforts towards reconciliation.

China normally shows a great deal of deliberation and patience in taking fresh foreign policy initiatives. So while dramatic changes in China’s public attitude towards the military regime may not come through, we can expect Chinese pressures to work on the regime quietly. In the past we have seen how the Chinese attitude to Bangladesh changed dramatically once Dhaka stabilized its relations with Pakistan, China’s ally. Such a thing could happen if the present wave of public protests gather strength and snowball into a massive confrontation with the military regime. The Chinese counsel to the Myanmar representative at Beijing was perhaps a preparation for such a contingency. China has huge investments in Myanmar, particularly in the petroleum, gas and infrastructure industries and enjoys near monopoly in arms trade. China simply cannot afford to allow the situation to get out control in Myanmar.

Do monks’ protests, going on for three days continuously from September 17 foretell the launch of nationwide people’s protest movement? Myanmar’s ruling military junta knows the monks protest could inject a lot of strength to the spontaneous peoples protest against huge increases in fuel and gas prices that started on August 19, 2007. The regime unnerved by the turn of events, apparently does not want to take a chance. The Buddhist Sangha in Myanmar has demonstrated its power through protest marches by thousands of monks, particularly in Pegu Division, Magawe Division, and in towns of Yangon and Mandalay divisions. In Rakhine province there had been public participation in monks protest. For the military junta which had been flaunting its Buddhist credentials, the monks boycott of receiving arms from their hands, patam nikkujjana kamma as the boycott is termed in Buddhism, is a slap in the face.

The monks protest was in response to the call of the Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks. The alliance had given a two-week ultimatum to the government to apologise for violently manhandling the monks on a peaceful protest march in September first week at Pakkoku, 130 km southwest of Mandalay.

For the 88 Generation student movement who are the mainstay of public protests so far, the monks’ participation should come as a shot in the arm. Actually monks gingered up the student uprising in August 1988. The monks had similarly boycotted alms and joined the massive public agitation in 1990 against the military regime and many monks were arrested and disrobed. Though the uprising for restoring democracy was crushed ruthlessly killing nearly 3000 people, it had threatened the survival of the regime and resulted in a change in the military leadership. It paved the way for the first ever free election to the parliament in 1990.

The military regime’s initial response to the present wave public protests had been typical. It used plainclothesmen, members of the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Association and the paramilitary-group Swan Arr Shin (Masters of Force) to violently disperse peaceful protesters. In a bid to nip the current wave of public protests in the bud, the junta detained as many as 150 protestors. Among those arrested were 13 leaders of the 88 Generation movement including Min Ko Naing, the most popular youth leader. The state media has reported that the 13 student leaders, arrested on August 21, 2007 could be convicted up to 20 years in jail for their protest. [In the 1988 uprising Min Ko Naing (whose name in Burmese means “Conqueror of Kings”), chairman of the banned All Burma Federation of Students’ Unions (ABFSU), was incarcerated for 16 years in the notorious Insein prison. He was released only in November 2004.]

However, as the monks’ protests spread to more towns and cities in northwest, western and central parts of the country, the regime has desisted from using violence against the clerics except in sporadic incidents. The monks also have appealed to the public not to join their protests. In a defensive move, the government has accused unnamed foreign powers and NGOs of financing the student protestors and the NLD leaders colluding with them. Specifically, it has accused a foreign embassy of sheltering the 88 Generation student leader Htay Kywe who has gone into hiding. However, this is unlikely to improve the regime’s international credibility.

So far the public protests have been sporadic and only small numbers of people have been participating in them. At the same time, considering the highly repressive nature of the regime they are indicative of the growing discontent among the public. In Myanmar public protests have always started with economic hardship as the basis, so they should not be ignored. And the monks’ involvement is sure to add to their momentum.

The protests have come at an inconvenient time for the regime, which concluded the long drawn out National Convention on August 31, 2007. The convention attended by handpicked delegates had been going on in fits and starts for 14 years to charter a new course for preparing a new constitution. The convention was boycotted by the NLD, the biggest political party which had made it conditional to the release of its arrested leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi. The Shan National League for Democracy also did not attend the convention. Though international opinion has dubbed the convention as an exercise in futility as it was not truly representative, the regime had wanted to use it as a device to legitimize the role for the military in a democratic constitution. By holding the convention, the military regime also probably expected to pacify the growing local and international demand for restoring democracy, without actually doing so. Public agitation at this juncture would dissipate the little gain that would accrue to the regime with the conclusion of the national convention.

International community realizes the importance of enrolling the help of China and India in bringing about a change in Myanmar had figured in the recent talks President George W. Bush had with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. According to Indonesian Foreign Minister Hasan Wirajuda, “Bush agreed that we should talk with China and India. They are two big neighbours (of Myanmar).” Emphasizing the need for this, he further added that the ASEAN recognized that its constructive engagement with Myanmar had not produced any tangible result just as the sanctions of the West did not work. Though both India and China have been reluctant to oblige, China at least has at last vocalized its mind on democratic reforms. Considering this, the statement of India’s foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee on September 14 that India would not like to interfere in the internal affairs of the country is disappointing. His statement, “It is essentially the job of the people in the country to decide what government they want,” runs against the fact that the people voted for democracy in Myanmar as early 1990.

(Col R Hariharan, a retired MI specialist on South Asia, is an intelligence analyst. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail: colhari@yahoo.com)

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