From hope to despair in Myanmar
To say that 2017 was a year of disappointment for Myanmar would be a gross understatement considering the earlier sky-high expectations for peace, prosperity and democratic transformation.
Many of those in the international community who had glorified and almost deified State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi were horrified when more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims fled across the border to Bangladesh, bringing with them stories of murder, arson and rape committed by the Myanmar military.
While acknowledging that Suu Kyi has no executive authority over the military or any issues related to internal security, her erstwhile supporters abroad felt that she could have somehow used her moral authority to stop the abuse.
When she failed to act, she was symbolically stripped of some of the awards she had earned in Britain and Ireland, including the Freedom of Oxford and Freedom of Dublin honors, in recognition of her past non-violent struggle as a political prisoner under military rule.
Foreign investors, meanwhile, voiced concerns about the government’s economic management as the banking sector remains largely monopolized by a handful of domestic banks controlled by so-called ‘cronies’ – local businessmen with ties to the military – and after a new ‘companies law’ fell well short of expectations.
The result was a slowdown in foreign investment at a time the country desperately needs new capital to kick-start its moribund economy.
As outside pressure mounted, the press came under renewed attack. In June, three Myanmar journalists were arrested and charged under the Unlawful Associations Act, a colonial-era law from 1908. They were later released, but in December two local Reuters correspondents were arrested for allegedly breaking the 1923 Official Secrets Act, apparently for their reporting on military abuses in Rakhine state.
The number of defamation cases against journalists also spiked in 2017. Many local reporters are now operating in a climate of fear under the elected National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government, undercutting hopes it would champion, not repress, free speech in line with its democratic mandate after decades of censorship under military rule.
The government also has reason to be disappointed, as 2017 was set to be a ‘Year of Peace.’ In May, a lavish peace conference was held in the capital Naypyitaw with the aim of finding a solution to Myanmar’s decades-long ethnic wars.
But fighting is more intense than ever in the country’s north and northeast as the Myanmar army mounts new fierce attacks on rebels from the ethnic Kachin, Palaung and Shan rebel forces.
The problem is rooted largely in the government’s decision to pursue the failed policies of previous president Thein Sein, a military-backed quasi-civilian leader who ruled until the November 2015 election that the NLD won in a landslide.
That includes a requirement that all ethnic armed groups sign a so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) before any substantial political talks towards autonomy and federalism are held.
To date, 80% of armed non-state actors have refused to sign the NCA, which they view as tantamount to surrender without any guarantees of self-determination. And there is no sign that the government or military is willing to soften that hardline stance, making a farce of Suu Kyi’s 21st Century Panglong initiative as an inclusive and equal forum for peace.
But there is one actor that was no doubt pleased by the turn of events in 2017: China. During the previous Thein Sein-led government, Myanmar distanced itself from its past heavy dependence on its northern neighbor, then Naypyitaw’s main economic and political ally, and re-established ties with the West and Japan.
The diplomatic turning point came on September 30, 2011, when Thein Sein announced that the China-backed US$3.6 billion Myitsone hydroelectric power project in the country’s northern Kachin state would be suspended. The project was scheduled to export 90% of its produced power to Myanmar and would have disrupted the flow of the nation’s main Irrawaddy River.
High-level state visits from the United States – first by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in late 2011, and then President Barack Obama a year later – and other Western countries brought Myanmar out of isolation, quickly turning the country from an international pariah to a darling of the West.
Myitsone and other bilateral issues, meanwhile, led to a nationalistic rise in anti-Chinese sentiment among the population and in media reports. But 2017 was the year that China bounced back to re-emerge as Myanmar’s closest and most trusted political ally.
After a few years of “soft diplomacy” – including sponsorship of all-paid junket trips for Myanmar politicians and journalists and contributions to state infrastructure projects – the turning point came during the Rohingya refugee crisis, which started in late August.
While the West strongly condemned and slapped punitive measures on the Myanmar military for extreme human rights abuses during so-called “clearance operations”, China kept mostly quiet while pledging to block any attempts by the UN Security Council to impose punitive sanctions.
Then, in November, Myanmar Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing visited China, where he was received by President Xi Jinping and other leaders. A couple of weeks later, Suu Kyi also traveled to Beijing for a state visit where Xi asserted that China is “committed” to “friendly ties” with Myanmar.
Myanmar’s attempts to find a solution to its long-running ethnic wars have also seen China emerge as a lead actor, sidelining a host of Western initiatives and outfits that have been involved in the peace process since Thein Sein assumed the presidency in March 2011.
Only China has close connections with the ethnic armed groups in the north that have refused to sign the NCA, including the heavily armed and influential United Wa State Army (UWSA), and is thus the only viable foreign interlocutor in the peace process.
All in all, China is increasingly seen as a “friend in need” at a time Myanmar feels it is under new and unfair assault from the West and United Nations. And there are certain indications that perceived as friendly commitment will be rewarded with a new raft of economic concessions.
While the controversial Myitsone dam was not mentioned during Suu Kyi’s visit to China, it is hardly a secret that Beijing would like to see the suspension lifted and the project to be completed as planned when it was first outlined in 2001.
China’s interests in Myanmar, of course, extend beyond electric power, ethnic wars and refugees. Myanmar is China’s main outlet to the Indian Ocean, where the Kyaukphyu port in Rakhine state and pipelines provide a strategic hedge for its fuel and other shipments that could be blocked at the Malacca Strait chokepoint in a conflict situation.
Myanmar is also a crucial corridor in China’s US$1 trillion ‘One Belt, One Road’ global infrastructure development initiative. In October, Minister for Construction Win Khaing said at a forum in Singapore that “we are talking about how to complement such [Obor] initiatives because [its] objectives can very well complement our national objectives.”
Several other countries in the region are starting to view Obor-backed projects with apprehension and suspicion, but Myanmar appears now to be a willing partner in the ambitious scheme.
How all these diplomatic dynamics will play out in 2018 and beyond remains to be seen. But China is now firmly back and with a vision to stay in Myanmar, at the expense of the country’s short-lived and disappointing dalliance with the West.