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EFSAS Commentary

Even as the junta talks of democratic transition, China urges all parties in Myanmar to prioritize the big picture


For the first time since Myanmar’s military junta seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on 1 February 2021, the country hosted an international regional meeting this week that the junta’s spokesman claimed proved the legitimacy of the current regime. The meeting, held in the city of Bagan, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was one of the China-led Lancang-Mekong Cooperation group, and was attended by the Foreign Ministers of China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It was held at a juncture when the brutal repression of the non-violent nationwide demonstrations that characterized the early days of the junta’s coup triggered armed resistance across the country that some United Nations (UN) experts now characterize as a civil war. Al Jazeera reported on 3 June that according to a detailed list compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 2,053 civilians have died in the crackdown on the resistance movement.

As CNN pointed out, the Lancang-Mekong meeting came at a time when Myanmar has plunged into deeper turmoil, with Suu Kyi, 77, being kept virtually incommunicado by the military after being recently transferred from house arrest to solitary confinement while she faces multiple trials that could see her sentenced to more than 150 years in jail. The planned State executions of two men, veteran democracy activist Ko Jimmy and former National League of Democracy lawmaker Phyo Zayar Thaw, have prompted an outcry from the UN, which called it a “blatant violation to the right to life, liberty and security”. Meanwhile, the junta is also confronting renewed fighting across swathes of the country against ethnic rebel groups and dozens of People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) that have sprung up. Local media have reported killing and burning sprees by junta troops as they struggle to crush opposition to the coup, and the UN said in May that almost 700,000 people had been forced to flee their homes since 1 February 2021. The country’s economy is also in tatters.

The military government has been boycotted by the United States (US) and all Western nations for its refusal to respect the people’s mandate that gave an overwhelming majority to Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, in the November 2020 elections. However, while the US and its allies imposed sanctions on Myanmar for the coup, the arrest of Suu Kyi and thousands of others, and the brutality that followed, and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), in a move that was both out of character and unprecedented, barred Myanmar’s Foreign Minister from attending a summit of his ASEAN counterparts in February, China has even refused to term the violent military takeover a coup. In April, Beijing pledged its backing for junta leaders, saying its support would remain “no matter how the situation changes”. Since the military seized power, Chinese Special Envoy Sun Guoxiang has visited Myanmar twice and Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also met his Myanmar counterpart Wunna Maung Lwin twice in China. Such contrasting responses are not only confusing, they actually end up posing serious questions and challenges to other regional powers such as India that by virtue of having long borders with Myanmar have substantial economic and security stakes in its stability, and in engaging with it.

The Beijing-led Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism focuses on development along the Mekong, which is known as the Lancang in China, and is intended to discuss issues such as hydroelectric dams and water quality monitoring, as well as easing tensions over the use of the river. Some of the projects, however, have been criticized by environmentalists, who say dams on the upper stretches have caused floods and droughts and damaged the ecological systems and livelihoods of fishing communities downstream. The increasing number of hydroelectric projects, with China, which controls the headwaters of the Mekong, alone having built 10 dams along the upper stretch of the river, has raised concerns. The 2-5 July meeting of the grouping in Bagan was held under the theme ‘Solidarity for Peace and Prosperity’. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the participants discussed and mapped out six directions of cooperation, namely strengthening strategic guidance, deepening economic integration, expanding agricultural cooperation, pursuing green development, promoting digital cooperation and maintaining closer people-to-people and cultural exchanges. Myanmar’s military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun claimed at a news conference in the capital Naypyitaw that the attendance of the Foreign Ministers at the meeting meant recognition of the military government.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement on Wang Yi’s bilateral meeting with his junta counterpart Wunna Maung Lwin was more interesting. As per the 3 July statement, Wunna Maung Lwin thanked China for its “selfless help” to Myanmar’s national development, and told Wang Yi that Myanmar highly cherished the everlasting Myanmar-China ‘pauk-phaw’ (fraternal) friendship. He stressed that Myanmar would continue to firmly support China’s positions on issues related to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xizang (Tibet), Xinjiang, human rights and others. Wang Yi responded by appreciating “Myanmar’s firm adherence to a friendly policy toward China”, which “supports the Myanmar people in exploring a development path suited to its national conditions, and supports Myanmar in safeguarding its legitimate rights and interests and national dignity on international occasions”.

On the economic front, the two ministers agreed to speed up delayed projects along the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a project that forms part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, set up a cross-border electricity grid, ensure the smooth operation of the China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline, and increase bilateral trade cooperation, the statement added. The 1,700 kilometer corridor will connect Mandalay in central Myanmar with Kunming in China’s Yunnan province. It will give this landlocked Chinese province access to the Indian Ocean, through which much of the oil and gas from the Gulf travels to East Asia. China is dependent on the Strait of Malacca for such deliveries, and being able to import oil and gas through the economic corridor would reduce its reliance and potentially remove a chokepoint in China’s energy security. The statement also said China will import more agricultural products from Myanmar and increase direct flights to help students return to China.

On the prevailing political situation, the Chinese Foreign Ministry informed that “Wunna Maung Lwin introduced the domestic situation in Myanmar, saying that Myanmar will be committed to implementing the ‘five-point roadmap’ and the ASEAN’s ‘five-point consensus’, and continue to push forward the process of democratic transition. Wang Yi said, as Myanmar’s largest neighboring country, China sincerely hopes that Myanmar will enjoy political and social stability, that its people will live a happy and fulfilling life, and that the country will realize development and rejuvenation. China expects all parties in Myanmar to prioritize the big picture and the interests of the people, adhere to rational consultation, and realize political reconciliation and lasting peace and stability at an early date within the framework of the constitution and laws”.

What was noticeable in this Chinese statement was that it was Myanmar that brought up the thorny topic of a possible return to democracy by assuring that it would “push forward the process of democratic transition”. Wang Yi, on the other hand, seemed to use jugglery that was meant to appear profound, but which actually conveyed little of substance. Hoping that “Myanmar will enjoy political and social stability” and that “its people will live a happy and fulfilling life” at a juncture when many believe that China’s encouragement of the junta was what led to the present instability and the tragic loss of young lives comes across as lame. Expecting “all parties in Myanmar to prioritize the big picture and the interests of the people” appeared a tad more ominous as it seemed to advocate acceptance and endorsement of the coup and the continuing military rule by the people of Myanmar. Given the substantial and enduring support that Beijing has been extending to the junta, the Chinese expectation that all parties would “adhere to rational consultation” can be interpreted as suggesting that the decision on what was “rational” would lie in the domain of the Generals, and not in that of the protesting proponents of democracy. Wang Yi’s message was clear enough – Beijing believed that the junta was here to stay for quite some time to come, and the Generals could do pretty much as they pleased within the country so long as China did not encounter any hindrances to its economic and strategic plans and projects in and through Myanmar.

With support as fundamental and as strong as this from a major world power, it is little wonder that pressure from the US-led West is not squeezing or scaring the junta in the way the West would have anticipated and hoped it would. Furthermore, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine even the already waning Western interest in geographically and culturally distant Myanmar has all but dissipated. Despite occasional military setbacks, the junta seems much more firmly entrenched than it was six months ago, and the voices of the protesters, both the non-violent type in the streets of cities and towns and the armed guerrillas of the PDFs in the villages and forests, are now being heard much less often and much more infrequently. The statement of the Foreign Minister of Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government, a government-in-exile, criticizing the holding of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation meeting in Bagan, for example, was reported by less than a handful of prominent media houses. The shadow Foreign Minister had strongly protested against the meeting, saying that any such efforts in partnership with Myanmar’s military violated the will of the people and undermined community building. He added that holding the Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Myanmar was in direct contravention of the peace plan by the ASEAN. He specifically blamed Wang Yi’s visit of being aimed at lending legitimacy to the junta.

The expanding Chinese footprint in Myanmar facilitated by the Western sanctions against the country and the lackluster performance of the West in enforcing and expanding these sanctions have made the issue a tricky one for Myanmar’s other neighbours to navigate. India, for one, not only shares long land and maritime borders with Myanmar, but it also sees the country as a strategic corridor to Southeast Asia. As the author Brahma Chellaney put it, “Given the porous state of the frontier and the cross-border movement of people and guerrillas – some trained and armed by China – close counterinsurgency cooperation with Myanmar is vital for India's security”. Chellaney is among a growing list of regional experts who believe that it is not in India’s strategic interest to “Fall in line with double standards practiced by the US”. He quoted as evidence of such double standards the case of “Thailand, where the army chief who staged a coup in 2014 remains in power in civilian garb”. He added that “The military has long dominated politics in Myanmar and Thailand. But Washington, while seeking to isolate and squeeze Myanmar, has deepened cooperation with the Thai government, despite its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters”. Chellaney further opined that “Biden’s Myanmar policy has had the perverse effect of weakening America’s hand while strengthening China’s. And by nudging India into giving Myanmar the cold shoulder, Biden is pushing that resource-rich nation into China’s arms”. This, he contended, was certainly not in India’s interest.

Similarly, in an article in the Indian magazine Outlook on 16 June, Seema Guha wrote, “Despite India’s concerns over the military coup in Myanmar, the fact that it borders its sensitive north eastern region makes it difficult for New Delhi not to engage with the junta. In the past, India had to pay a heavy price by keeping out of Myanmar and allowing China to spread itself across that country, which is right on India’s backdoor. For the Western world, far away from Myanmar’s borders, it is easier to cut off engagements with the isolated nation”.

The decreasing interest and ability of the West to influence or pressure dictators and autocrats to mend their ways, a tendency exacerbated by the West’s wholesome focus on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is creating pressures on regional democratic powers such as India to reassess whether ostracism of coup leaders and the like is tenable or strategically wise when others such as China, that care little for democracy and human rights, are making deeper inroads into their backyards and threatening their hard earned ingress and goodwill in countries such as Myanmar.