How the West won and lost Myanmar
Aung San Suu Kyi shuns erstwhile Western allies to embrace China, Russia and others unperturbed by her regime's rampant rights abuses
When former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi and her long persecuted National League for Democracy party won election in 2015, Western nations which maintained sanctions against the previous rights-abusing military regime cheered the democratic result and hoped for transition.
Suu Kyi was subsequently feted in various European capitals, including Oslo, where she received her Nobel Peace Prize two decades late, and embraced by the United States as a champion of non-violent struggle and civil courage. The West, it seemed, had finally won Myanmar.
Fast forward to the present, Suu Kyi’s Myanmar is dramatically realigning its foreign policy in the wake of Rakhine state’s Rohingya refugee crisis, a stark shift away from recent close relations with the West and a lurch back towards China, Russia and other Asian nations unperturbed by the military’s still rampant rights abuses.
The most important rekindled relationship is with China. Beijing was stunned by Myanmar’s opening to the West during its democratic transition, and has worked hard to engage a wider range of stakeholders, including military officers, government officials, political party members and civil society, community, religious and media leaders.
A new report by the prominent local think tank Institute for Strategy and Policy (ISP) on China’s multi-layered engagement strategy towards Myanmar says it is “designed to generate local support for China’s economic and geostrategic interests in Myanmar…(and) a Chinese model of governance and economic development.”
Indeed, China has pivoted to compete with the West’s pro-democracy soft power to appeal to a broader audience. That’s been seen in the rising number of bilateral study visits and exchanges: Suu Kyi and senior military officers have spent more time in China than anywhere else since the NLD’s election, the ISP report claims.
The announcement of China’s vaunted “One Belt, One Road” global infrastructure initiative has roughly coincided with the crisis in Rakhine state, where more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the military’s brutal “area clearance” operations into neighboring Bangladesh.
But as United Nations and Western frustration over the crisis mounts, China has blocked attempts at the UN Security Council to exert more pressure on the government. That’s partly a reflection of China’s ties with Myanmar’s military: Beijing trains hundreds, if not thousands, of Myanmar’s pilots, technical air force staff and special forces troops.
China is now exalting in a rekindled relationship with Myanmar that promises renewed exploitation of its natural resources, the encouragement of anti-democratic values and reversal of recent human rights gains.
It’s all being carefully calibrated to safeguard the government from international pressure on the Rohingya crisis while also managing what Beijing knows is deep and widespread mistrust and animus towards its nationals that is only eclipsed by the nation’s widespread anti-Muslim sentiment.
Other countries who have significant investments, strategic interests or long-term development relations with Myanmar who have not been noticeably vocal on the Rohingya crisis including Russia, Japan, South Korea, India, and neighboring Southeast Asian nations which have registered only perfunctory concern.
Russia, a UN Security Council member Naypyidaw relies on to defuse pressure from the West, is a long-time major arms supplier to the Myanmar military. Mi-35 helicopter gunships and MiG-29 fighter jets purchased over the last decade are now being used regularly in war zones against ethnic insurgents in the country’s north.
Hundreds of Myanmar military officers have been trained in Russian defense academies on a range of subjects for more than a decade. In February, the 70th anniversary of Russian-Myanmar relations was celebrated in Naypyidaw with Suu Kyi and senior top brass meeting with the Burmese- speaking Russian ambassador Nikolay Listopadov.
Listopadov has said the West’s use of the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the military’s clearance operations against the Rohingya was unhelpful to alleviating the situation.
“I don’t think that it will help to solve this problem. On the contrary, it can aggravate the situation, throw more fuel…We are against excessive external intervention, because it won’t lead to any constructive results. Just pressure and blaming and accusing – it simply won’t work.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, meanwhile, visited Myanmar in January to meet with commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, after which the two sides announced a new deal to sell six advanced Su-30 fighter planes to the Tatmadaw.
When the US State Department criticized the sale on rights concerns, Moscow’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs retorted it “would like to recall that the people of Southeast Asia have hardly forgotten the casualties and destruction inflicted on them by US weapons during numerous recent wars conducted by the United States in the region.”
Myanmar is thus becoming as a bit actor in an emerging new Cold War between Moscow and Washington.
Japan has been a pivotal partner to Myanmar for years, particularly in infrastructure development, though it has always been uneasy about following the West’s lead on human rights promotion.
When Foreign Minister Toro Kono visited in January to announce emergency food aid for Rakhine state, he almost echoed China when telling state media that “Japan considers it important for the Myanmar government to restore security and safety on the ground in a manner that takes account of human rights.”
With little fanfare, the Fifth Japan-Myanmar Human Rights Dialogue was held in early February but attended only by mid-level foreign affairs officials, consistent with Tokyo’s relegation of rights concerns on its wider diplomatic agenda. That includes the provision of aid to ethnic conflict areas to shore up peace efforts by the influential Nippon Foundation.
Myanmar is becoming a bit actor in an emerging new Cold War between Moscow and Washington
South Korea’s stamp on Yangon is marked by the luxury Lotte Hotel complex, which overshadows the US ambassador’s residence, and the massive Star City gated community across the river where many South Korean businesspeople reside.
South Korea is invested in the textiles, construction and infrastructure sector, while its pop culture of films, soap operas, music and even hairstyles is popular across the country.
Seoul’s influence, however, took a hit in early March when Samsung announced it would scrap plans to build a manufacturing plant in the country. Korean media said the decision was chalked up to concerns over rising conflict, political uncertainty and the government’s inchoate economic reform policies.
Thus the keys to putting international pressure on Myanmar’s military for abuses won’t fit into the locks of all the Asian countries that have long afforded sanctuary and financial security to the country’s mostly soldier elites.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) can also be counted on to shield the country from sanctions and criticism. Neighboring Thailand, a centuries long rival, has secured key business interests and border stability over the past several years.
While calls in the West grow for the Tatmadaw leadership to be indicted by the International Criminal Court, Min Aung Hlaing recently travelled to Bangkok to receive the Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, a prominent Thai official honor bestowed by the Thai military.
Myanmar’s government senses that Asean is weak and riven with its own human rights failings. And while uncomfortable with the public outrage expressed in Indonesia and Malaysia over the treatment of the Rohingya, it realizes that Kuala Lumpur especially and to some extent Jakarta are twisting the crisis for their own domestic considerations.
The recently concluded Asean-Australian Summit made clear the priority the regional grouping has on non-interference, while Canberra has apparently also placed its bets on regional stability over championing the rights of the Rohingya.
It is ironic that the two countries which did their utmost to secure Suu Kyi’s 2015 election win and which for decades championed her defiance against abusive military rule, the US and UK, have now been dramatically shunned by the country.
The Myanmar government’s refusal to grant visas to British Parliament International Development Committee members on February 27 was another blow to bilateral relations. The committee’s visit planned to inspect a British £100 million aid program for health and education, one of the nation’s largest directed at highly vulnerable communities.
The EU, meanwhile, has announced it will support the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission through a Berlin-based nongovernmental organization, but has also announced support for new sanctions on security force officials responsible for the Rakhine state violence – even as Germany maintains deep defense ties with Myanmar.
Naypyidaw can sense the West’s divisions and will continue to exploit them to negotiate its way through the crisis with minimal lasting damage.
Myanmar’s foreign policy is now arguably divided into two blocs: relations with those who provide aid without influence, and those who seek investment and are willing to endorse impunity (although Japan straddles this dichotomy the way it has for many years in its special relationship).
The Rohingya crisis has reestablished the pre-transition divisions between East and West along human rights and accountability issues, and has pushed Myanmar back to seeking cover from its major Asian allies and trading partners.
That over-dependence, particularly on China, was a major impetus for the transition to democracy and more diversified foreign relations. The military planned a new era of increased trade and investment with a tightly controlled political opening, but its atrocities in Rakhine state have set back those designs.
Myanmar is instead fast returning to vilified isolation in the West and reliance on opportunistic allies that seek access to the country’s rich natural resources and other commercial opportunities afforded by crisis rather than democratic progress.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst