Myanmar morphs to US-China battlefield
By Bertil Lintner
CHIANG MAI and WASHINGTON - A new reality is emerging amid all the hype about Myanmar's democratization process and moves to liberalize its political landscape. Myanmar's drift away from a tight relationship with China towards closer links with the West is signaling the emergence of a new focal point of confrontation in Asia, one where the interests of Washington and Beijing are beginning to collide.
Rather than being on a path to democracy, Myanmar may find itself instead in the middle of a dangerous and potentially volatile superpower rivalry. That means the traditionally powerful military
may not be in the mood to give up its dominant role in politics and society any time soon.
According to sources in Washington, US President Barack Obama's administration has made Myanmar one of its top foreign policy priorities. Trade and other exchanges are being encouraged, and, on April 25, acting US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Joseph Yun told Congress the administration is even "looking at ways to support nascent military engagement" with Myanmar as a way of encouraging "further political reforms".
The US is also rapidly increasing its intelligence gathering capabilities in Myanmar. The US embassy in the old capital Yangon is now believed to have more intelligence operatives than any other diplomatic mission in Southeast Asia.
Not surprisingly, Beijing is not looking kindly at these developments. In addition to political maneuvering aimed at pressuring the government in Naypyidaw, China has taken some provocative steps to thwart Western influence in Myanmar.
Last year, Chinese arms dealers supplied the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a militia operating along the Sino-Myanmar border, with not only assault rifles, machine-guns, rocket launchers and the HN-5 series man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS, but also PTL-02 6x6 wheeled "tank destroyers" and another armored combat vehicle identified as Chinese 4x4 ZFB-05s. Now, Jane's Defence Weekly reports in its April 29 issue that China has supplied the UWSA with several Mi-17 medium-transport helicopters armed with TY-90 air-to-air missiles.
"The provision of a range of new weapons systems - surface-to-air missiles, armored vehicles and now helicopters - appears effectively to be turning the UWSA into a cross-border extension of the PLA," one of the authors of the article, Anthony Davis of IHS Jane's, told Asia Times Online, referring to the Chinese People's Liberation Army. "Even in the context of China's large-scale military support for the Communist Party of Burma in the late 1960s and 1970s, what is happening today is unprecedented."
All of this comes in the wake of a remarkable thaw in relations between Washington and Naypyidaw. Just a couple of years ago, Myanmar was an international pariah, shunned by the West for its abysmal human rights record and subjected to economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union. Myanmar's only really close ally during this period of isolation was China. Myanmar's dependence on Beijing was so great that the country was sometimes described as a Chinese client state.
Then came a remarkable turnaround in 2011. Myanmar's new president, Thein Sein, reached out to the West through a number of conciliatory moves, such as releasing hundreds of political prisoners. Press censorship was eased, political dissidents were allowed to hold meetings, and foreign journalists were able to report from the country seemingly without any restrictions or being monitored by the previously ubiquitous secret police.
The West responded in kind. Then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in December 2011, the first such visit in decades by such a high-ranking Washington official. In November 2012, Obama became the first serving US president ever to visit Myanmar. And on April 22 this year, the European Union lifted all of its sanctions on Myanmar except for an arms embargo. European prime ministers and other EU dignitaries have flocked to the country.
The US is on the verge of making similar moves in the areas of trade and commerce - but, unlike the EU, the US approach also has a crucial military component. As a first step, in February this year the US invited observers from the Myanmar military to join the US-led military exercises in Thailand known as Cobra Gold for the first time.
Obama's so-called "pivot" to Asia has seen Washington reaffirming its alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand - all of them traditional strategic partners in the region. The US is also strengthening ties with its old foe Vietnam, but given that the US and Vietnam are on the same side in this new Cold War in Asia, this is not surprising.
Myanmar, however, is the only example of how the US has managed to expand its influence at the expense of China's. "It's a rollback situation," says a military analyst in Southeast Asia.
Meeting of minds
Myanmar's reform process was never what it seemed - nor was the West's response to it. The US, naturally, had policies and priorities other than its oft-repeated support for democracy and human rights. The main issue that no one wants to talk about too openly is, of course, the rising power and influence of China - and here, there was a meeting of minds between America's politicians and Myanmar's generals.
Internal documents from the Myanmar military leaked to this correspondent in 2011 talk about "a national crisis" and "an emergency" because China is taking over the country economically and beginning to dominate it politically - so much so that Myanmar "is in danger of losing its independence". Therefore, Myanmar has to reach out to the West, the documents stated.
This was music to Washington's ears. Myanmar's close relationship with China had long bothered the US, but the balance was tipped when a few years ago it was discovered that Naypyidaw had also established a military relationship with North Korea.
In late 2010, Washington insiders say, the Obama administration decided that a fundamental policy shift was needed. Diplomats began actively to engage Myanmar with the aim of pulling it away from China's embrace, and making sure that North Korea did not have a military ally and partner smack in the middle of South and Southeast Asia. Thwarting the alliance with North Korea may have been the main issue in the immediate term, but longer term there is little doubt that the rise of China was the main concern.
But some signs of reform were needed for Washington to justify its new Myanmar policies and a degree of liberalization came after what was by any measure a blatantly fraudulent general election in November 2010. Nevertheless, a quasi-civilian government took over, and that was enough - at least for the time being.
But a major hurdle remained: the iconic pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She was released from house arrest a few days after the 2010 election and immediately embarked on a campaign to solve Myanmar's ethnic crisis. She called for a "second Panglong" - a reference to a series of meetings between the majority Burmans and some of the leaders of the ethnic minorities that her father, Aung San, initiated half a year before he was assassinated and nearly a year before Myanmar became independent. For that, she was attacked by bloggers close to the government as a "traitor".
Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide victory in April 2012 by-elections, capturing 43 out of 44 seats it contested. Tens of thousands of people rallied to hear her speak and people were jubilant. But then, she began praising the military, which had kept her under house arrest for most of the time since 1989 and, as she herself had stated on numerous occasions, was responsible for heinous human rights abuses.
In December last year, she told the BBC that, "It's genuine, I'm fond of the army. People don't like me for saying that. There are many who have criticized me for being what they call a poster girl for the army - very flattering to be seen as a poster girl for anything at this time of life - but I think the truth is I am very fond of the army, because I always thought of it as my father's army."
On Armed Forces Day this year, March 27, she, as the only woman among uniformed generals, was given a seat in the front row, where she could watch the Myanmar military display its latest hardware.
It is now becoming clear that Suu Kyi must have reached an agreement with the military - and that there has been considerable outside, read US, pressure on her to come to terms with the country's rulers. A politically divided Myanmar would not serve America's purposes; an alliance between Thein Sein's government and the popular Suu Kyi would.
NLD activists admit in private that Suu Kyi and the party leadership were told by the US that they could count on continued support from Washington if they could reach an understanding with Thein Sein and the de facto ruling military. On August 19, 2011, Suu Kyi met Thein Sein at the presidential palace in Naypyidaw. Since then, she has generally not said anything critical of the government or the military. Nor has she said anything meaningful about the country's ethnic conflicts, which are considered a question of national security and, therefore, the responsibility of the military.
China is still smarting from the Myanmar government's decision in September 2011 to suspend construction of a US$3.6 billion China-backed mega-dam in Kachin State, which would have flooded 600 square kilometers of forestland, displaced thousands of villagers and supplied 90% of the project's electricity to China. A popular campaign against the Myitsone dam was quietly supported by the US embassy in Yangon. A January 14, 2010 cable from the embassy, made public by Wikileaks, stated: "An unusual aspect of this case is the role grassroots organizations have played in opposing the dam, which speaks to the growing strength of civil society groups in Kachin State, including recipients of Embassy small grants."
For China, Myanmar is of vital economic and strategic importance. Apart from the Myitsone project, China has substantial investments in other hydroelectric power schemes and mineral extraction, including mining for copper and rare earth minerals. The country is also a significant trade outlet for China's landlocked southwestern provinces. Moreover, China is building gas and oil pipelines that will facilitate the import of energy from the Bay of Bengal and the Middle East, bypassing the potential strategic chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca. In other words, China cannot just "hand over" Myanmar to the US.
As a result, China is playing a complex diplomatic game with Naypyidaw. While supporting the UWSA, including through the provision of arms, China has become involved in the peace process with the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
This began in earnest when, on January 19, then Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying visited Myanmar and met with Thein Sein, as well as Gen Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Several rounds of Chinese-sponsored peace talks have been held in the Chinese border town of Ruili, and Chinese officials have reportedly told the Kachin rebels, who are eager to have foreign observers present, that "outside" participation is needed. China, the go-betweens said, will "solve the problem". Presumably, the Chinese have sent a similar message to the government.
While waving a carrot in front of the Myanmar government - a promise to solve the bloody conflict in Kachin State and, in January this year, pledges of generous loans in the order of $527 million for infrastructure development and other projects - China's big stick is its support for the UWSA.
Few observers believe that China would want the UWSA to actually go to war against the government, but the MANPADs, armored vehicles and now missile-equipped helicopters supplied to the UWSA serve as a deterrent and will make the Myanmar military hesitate to launch an offensive against the Wa. They also serve as a reminder that China, unlike the US, is Myanmar's immediate neighbor and has the means to interfere in its internal conflicts - and that it can, and is willing to, step up the pressure if Naypyidaw moves too close to Washington.
Local sources living in Sino-Myanmar border areas say that Chinese authorities increased security all along the frontier during Obama's one-day visit to Myanmar on November 19. This was, of course, not necessary from a security point of view, but, as one source put it, the gesture was another way of reminding the Myanmar government that China will always be there, while the US is far away. Myanmar, in other words, is caught in the middle and is now finding out that its engagement with the West has a price if it affects the interests of its powerful neighbor.
According to Jane's: "The acquisition of helicopters marks the latest step in a significant upgrade for the UWSA, which has emerged as the largest and best-equipped non-state military force in Asia and, arguably, the world."
It remains to be seen what China's next step will be and if the US is prepared to counter it with increased support, including possible military-to-military engagement, for the Myanmar government. But whatever those moves may be, Myanmar has been dragged into a superpower rivalry that it may not be able to handle as the competition for influence intensifies. It is already the country where Obama's pivot comes into greatest contact with China's own strategic designs for the region.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar, including Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 (published in 1994, 1999 and 2003), Land of Jade: A Journey from India through Northern Burma to China, and The Kachin: Lords of Burma's Northern Frontier. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.
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