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Myanmar – A New Player in the Region

Myanmar is moving at an unbelievable pace to shed its unsavoury reputation of a ruthless military dictatorship towards a democracy ready to take over a new political and economic stand in the South East Asia.

On November 15, Foreign Ministers of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) gathered in Bali, Indonasia approved Myanmar’s bid to chair the body in 2014.  It is an annual rotating position.  For that year all important ASEAN meetings will be held in Myanmar.  This will catapult the country from a hermit kingdom suffering from stringent western sanctions to an active player in regional politics, apparently with US backing.

It is not to say that there was no opposition to the move.  Some among the ASEAN’s 10 dialogue partners which include the USA and China, had questions.  At the same time, one cannot say all other members of ASEAN run democracies as perceived in the west.  Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s fact finding mission to Myanmar in October clinched the issue.  Natalegawa said after the visit that Myanmar’s democratic reforms were not complete, but giving it the ASEAN chair in 2014 would further the process, and its road to democracy was serious and committed.  This suggests not only faith of the member countries in the new Myanmar government, but to get them in the frontline sooner rather than later.  The ASEAN chair rotates in alphabetical order.  It was the turn of Laos in 2014, and Myanmar’s in 2015.  But the adjustment was made in consensus as all ASEAN decisions are.

Significantly, this development came at a time when Myanmar’s relationship with China started slipping to an extent, Naypyidaw reaching out to the US and the west with some definite but cautious reciprocation. And new strain in relations between some ASEAN member countries and China over the Spartley islands / South China Sea issue with Beijing overwhelmingly breathing down on them.  The recent developments at the ASEAN summit and East Asian Summit (Nov. 16- 20) in Bali bear witness the tense situation developing in the Asia Pacific region over the last two years with China trying assertively even with military display, to impose its hegemony over the region and its vital sea lanes of even commercial shipping.

Few Myanmar watchers gave any credibility to the November 2010 elections conducted by the military regime under laws also formulated by the same regime. This was especially so because the most important leader of opposition, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest, her party the NLD, boycotted the elections and was blacklisted, and obviously the regime sponsored political party won the election.  Senior military officers resigned their commission under the direction of Senior General Than Swe to participate in the elections.

But from March 30 this year, when the government and a new parliament was formed, a trickling of changes started which almost became an avalanche.  President U Thein Sein, a former top general opened up to the opposition, releasing Suu Kyi from detention, gave her freedom of space gradually and has now co-opted her as a partner for both internal changes and foreign relations.  The regime has not been shy to acknowledge her importance as a national leader.  Over 200 political prisoners have been released, and talks with ethnic rebels have been initiated on a completely new platform to consolidate an inclusive Myanmar.

Two major foreign policy initiatives undertaken by President Thein Sein which starkly contrasts the previous routes have captured international attention.  One is with the US, and the West which have imposed crippling economic and military sanctions on the country because of its political and human rights records.  Naypidaw opened its doors to a stream of US official visits starting from Under Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, and more recently invited special US representative for Myanmar Derek Mitchell, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour Michael Poser and now waiting for the visit (Dec. 01-02) of Secretary of State Ms. Hillary Clinton, the first such US visit in the last 50 years.  The US officials have been pressing Naypidaw to do more on human rights, release of all political prisoners and setting up legal institutions to see democracy through, they have been given access to top Myanmar officials, Aung San Suu Kyi, and political prisoners in the (in) famous Insen prison.

The US administration is reportedly inclined to a gradual removal of sanctions, but the sanctions are laws and the US congress is yet to be convinced that Myanmar is on a non-reversible path to democracy.  Perhaps on her return from Myanmar Ms. Clinton, who is held high on both sides of the Congress, would be able to make them move on the sanctions.

Unfortunately, most US congressmen are blinkered where the political culture of Asian countries are concerned.  This is the reason they have blundered on many fronts in Asia from one end to the other.  They cannot understand that Naypyidaw cannot change everything overnight.  That will only result in chaos and give a reason to the military hardliners to try a take over again.

It would be wrong to think that Myanmar’s recent moves to be independent of China and even take steps that are not in China’s interest was a sudden decision by the new government.  The military regime had dug themselves into a deep hole following the 1988 crackdown on students movements and overturning the 1990 general election results.  After imposing a draconian rule and shunned by the west and other democratic countries, it could only turn to China.  Beijing grabbed the opportunity with both hand.

But it was this same junta now in civilian clothes that, exasperated by increasing Chinese demands and exploitation, had decided to explore new relationships.  Everyone noticed that Gen. Than Shwe quietly cancelled the undertaking for China’s proposed road-cum-water way from Kunming to the Indian ocean through Myanmar.  Yangon then started looking for military relations with Russia, and Myanmar military recruits are quietly studying in Moscow. More recently, it has quietly sat on a joint China-Bangladesh proposal to allow a road that would join China through Myanmar to Bangladesh’s Chittagong port – another access for China to the Indian Ocean.  Myanmar has also resisted Chinese pressure in recent months to place naval ships in Myanmar waters to protect Chinese assets in Myanmar.

The Chinese were surprised when President Thein Sein ruled stoppage of work on the construction of the Myitsone dam in Kachin state due to local opposition.  The dam involved $3.5 billion investment from China, and the electricity produced would go to China.  Beijing had no compunction with the ecological devastation and human tragedy the state would suffer.  This position indicated that Naypyidaw is beginning to protect national interests, which include the recent move to repair and consolidate relations with its ethnic minorities.

There is enough evidence that the Myanmar military junta has been smarting under Chinese pressure for a long time.  One clear signal came in 2004 when Lt. Gen. Khyn Nyut, Myanmar’s intelligence chief was charged with corruption and is still under house arrest for life.  Khyn Nyut was China’s “assassin’s mace” in Yangon’s “emperor’s chamber”.  Smuggling of national wealth has been growing for long.  Antagonism against the Chinese is deep among the Myanmar people.  The military junta finally realised that they could not hold off China unless they changed to civilian and democratic rule and get western support.

What has really has shaken up the politic of the immediate region is an op-Ed article by Zaw Htay, director of the office of President Thein Sein, which appeared in the Washington Post of November 16.  Zaw Htay made three clear points (i) in today’s geopolitical situation, particularly given the rise of China, the west needs Myanmar, (ii) cancellation of the Myitsone dam signalled to the world what President Thein Sein (and Naypyidaw) stood for, and (iii) if the United States neglected the opportunity Washington will part ways with the new order in the Indo-China region.

This sounds Myanmar has thrown a challenge to China and offered an opportunity to the USA and the west support to come in and balance China’s hegemony.  Such a declaration could not have been made without Naypyidaw consulting the other ASEAN members.  This must be seen in the first overtures visit of the new Myanmar army Chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing,  to Vietnam in the second week of November.  The points to note is that the Myanmar army Chief broke tradition of the first overseas visit to China. And the choice of Vietnam, China’s historical adversary and a country under serious threats from China over maritime territorial issues.

Zaw Htay’s article and military relations with Vietnam suggests that Myanmar may have taken the responsibility, after consultation, to become the spokesman for the ASEAN to tell the Chinese that their assertive behaviour and hegemonic designs are no longer acceptable.  The date of the publishing of Zaw Htay’s article is equally significant.  It was the time when US President Barack Obama declared US political, economic and military surge in the Asia Pacific region at the APEC Summit in Hawaii, and the subsequent East Asia and ASEAN summits in the following days.

This, by no means, suggests that Sino-Myanmar relations are about to collapse.  Myanmar is too important to China in strategic and security terms, and it has invested heavily in Myanmar.  But this is certainly a serious set back to Beijing’s strategy to convert Myanmar into a Chinese peninsula  into the Indian Ocean, and build its South Western economy using Myanmar’s gas and oil reserves, electricity, and other natural resources.  Of course, Beijing can create problems for Naypyidaw through the armed ethnic groups like the Khokang and the Wa army who are ethnically Chinese.  But that will not be a wise move.

Naypyidaw is also not playing a zero sum game with China.  It cannot afford to, but it can also safeguard its independence and sovereignty.  Soon after his Vietnam visit, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing visited China and met the PLA Chief Gen. Chen Bingde and Vice President Xi jinping, discussing enhancement of military relations and working towards “peaceful and stable environment”.  The Chinese would not have missed that it was Gen. Hlaing, who led a charge against the Khokangs (ethnic China) in northern Myanmar two years ago evoking angry Chinese response.

When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Myanmar (Dec. 01-02), she will be on a critical fact finding mission.  Naypyidaw will lay out the red   carpet for her, and all doors will be open.  Her assurance to the Myanmarese leaders will help to move further on the political prisoners’ issue.  A decision has already been taken to allow peaceful demonstrations.  Much of the region’s political future will depend on what Clinton takes back and the position of the US congress thereafter.

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

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