Unlike China’s ‘iron brother’ Pakistan, which has rolled out the red carpet for its BRI projects, Southeast Asian nation Myanmar is set to clip the wings of the dragon.
China may be aiming to conquer the world with its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) undermining local sentiments in certain host countries, but the dragon is not invincible it seems. Myanmar is one country where citizens are resisting aggressive and intrusive policies Beijing is known for.
A global infrastructure strategy, BRI reflects President Xi Jinping’s dream of taking China to the ‘numero uno’ spot in the world. It envisages road, rail, and port projects in six economic corridors spread across Southeast Asia, South Asia, Middle East, Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe.
No wonder, the Communist regime has already incorporated the BRI in the country’s Constitution as China plans to invest $1.5 trillion in the next decade.
According to global financial services group Nomura, more than 80 countries are likely to benefit from the BRI project. At the same time, it “will have enormous economic, geopolitical and investment implications for China”, Nomura warns.
What is then that Myanmar is not happy about? The Southeast Asian nation is not in favor of China having a monopoly in key infrastructure projects in the country. One such example is the Yangon Mega City Project under BRI. In July last year, Naypyitaw had allowed other foreign partners besides China Communication and Construction Company to join the project in order to cut Beijing to size.
The Chinese firm was accused of corruption in as many as 10 Asian and African countries where it is undertaking infrastructure development projects, The Economic Times reported.
The Yangon Mega City Project is part of the China-Myanmar Economic (CMEC) aimed at connecting China’s southwestern Yunnan province with Mandalay, Yangon, and Kyaukphyu in Myanmar.
Another hurdle before China’s BRI comes from the rebel-infested Kachin state where China plans to build the Myitkyina Economic Development Zone (MEDZ) along the World War-II Ledo Road that originates in Assam. As experts have pointed out, China’s ultimate aim may be to bring India under the purview of its BRI.
However, the project to be undertaken in collaboration with the Kachin state government is mired in allegations of land grab and lack of transparency, as reported by The Irrawaddy.
It said ethnic landowners within the project site expressed concerns over “possible land confiscations”. Even local politicians feigned ignorance about the details of the project proposed on 4,700 acres of land.
The report sounded an alarm over China-backed projects in Myanmar, ahead of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to the country this month.
“It has long been the view in Naypyitaw that Myanmar should be pragmatic in dealing with China,” and goes on to say that “Myanmar should be the one proposing projects to China, rather than the other way around”.
The editorial minces no words in flagging concerns that “the BRI and CMEC projects will give China increased control over Myanmar’s wealth along the economic corridor—such a strategy allows China to exert economic control without ever having to resort to military coercion”.
Such an expression is rooted in the public anger over China-initiated mega projects in Myanmar that seem to have undermined people’s grievances and environmental concerns.
Now, contrast this with what Pakistan has been doing all along vis-à-vis the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, also part of the BRI. In 2018, then-Pakistan PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi hailed this as a “game-changer” for his country.
Then, Pakistan has allowed fencing of the port city of Gwadar in Balochistan despite objections from the local population who fear it will turn the town into a “Chinese colony”, restricting their free movement. A part of the CPEC, the deep seaport is built and operated by China.
After her landslide victory in November’s elections, Aung San Suu Kyi and her government are destined to become part of a regional ‘tug-of-war’ for influence centered around China’s growing sway in the country. Tokyo is leading the charge to wean Myanmar away from Beijing. But New Delhi is also hoping to exert influence in the ‘Great Game’ centered on Myanmar, especially in the light of the deterioration in Sino-Indian relations over the past year. With the imminent changing of the guard in Washington — with a more outward looking Joe Biden administration taking over — the United States of America can also be expected to re-enter the fray.
Fresh from its overwhelming victory in last month’s elections, Myanmar’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy, now faces enormous challenges — rebooting the country’s flagging economy, worsened by the pandemic and the international recession, and pressing on with its economic reform programme; tackling Myanmar’s pressing need for constitutional reform, and regenerating efforts to finally end decades of civil war. Invigorated by its electoral success, the NLD has clearly indicated the policies and priorities it intends to pursue in the next five years, building on the solid foundation laid down in the past five years with renewed energy and political commitment.
Most analysts and diplomats believe that the government’s key policy directions will not change substantially; instead they will be deepened, strengthened, and concertedly implemented in the coming months. There is already a new sense of urgency in government circles in Naypyidaw and feverish activity in the administration as it prepares its strategy and vision for the incoming government’s first 100 days. One of those policies that are expected to experience nuanced change is foreign policy, especially in relation to Myanmar’s neighbours.
Five years on, the regional and international architecture have also changed significantly, with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic likely to have a lasting effect on foreign relations — especially trade — in the coming decade. It will necessitate the Myanmar government to re-evaluate its policy priorities and its relationships. Meanwhile, the Myanmar government has not been short of suitors. The outcome is likely to be a significantly new, nuanced approach to its foreign relations.
In the lead up to Myanmar’s elections last month, there was a flurry of diplomatic activity — largely behind the scenes — as the region’s major powers all sought to curry favour with the country’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as with the powerful army commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. There was a parade of important visitors through the capital, Naypyidaw, as politicians and senior diplomats from the region’s key nations, especially China, India and Japan, engaged in a quiet battle for greater influence in Myanmar post-election. Other important Asian players, notably South Korea and Thailand, also launched equally significant initiatives.
As the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, prepares for the next five years in office, her government is restructuring its foreign policy priorities around its key concerns: maintaining its neutrality and independent international stance while encouraging support for Myanmar’s economic recovery plans, including boosting international trade and foreign investment, diversifying its informal alliances and security arrangements, and ensuring that the country is not overly dependent on any one nation for support and protection.
In the past five years, Aung San Suu Kyi has pursued a foreign policy strategy that put the country’s key emphasis on its relations with the region and its top powers. This was in response to some degree to the growing Western criticism of the government’s handling of the violence in Rakhine and the mass exodus of nearly a million Muslim refugees — or Rohingya as they call themselves — to neighbouring Bangladesh. Myanmar was anxious to secure greater support from its Asian ‘friends’, especially at international forums like the United Nations. This effectively meant distancing itself from the West, especially Europe and the US. This has led the country to lean heavily on China and, to a lesser degree, on the regional bloc, Asean, for support and as a source of investment and trade. Of course, deep down, Myanmar’s fast developing dependence on China has irked the country’s diplomats, including its top diplomat, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also the foreign minister. There is a clear recognition in government circles that Myanmar’s relationship with China needs to be significantly calibrated. Myanmar will use the opportunity of its massive political mandate and the changing post-Covid international environment to adjust its policy orientation and begin to look westwards to balance its reliance on China — strengthening ties with India and encouraging warmer relations with the US, in particular.
Going forward, Myanmar wants to broaden its network of alliances and strong bilateral relationships, while remaining loyal to the country’s traditional ideological principles in foreign policy: non-alignment, neutrality, independence and universal friendship. But the international reality and the legacy of the country’s isolation during its period under military rule have meant that China remains its key partner — an ever-present, ever-dependable and uncritical supporter. Aung San Suu Kyi has had to struggle with this conundrum ever since assuming power after the 2015 elections: how to relax Myanmar’s dependence on Beijing without offending its giant northern neighbour. For a while, Aung San Suu Kyi dabbled with the notion of eliciting collaborative support from an ‘Asian triumvirate’ of China, Japan and South Korea, especially in terms of investment and trade. But she seemed oblivious to the obstacles that the political realities and rivalries in North Asia posed to this vision. It now seems that Myanmar has become much more responsive to Delhi’s recent overtures for strengthened ties between the two countries.
India has stepped up its courtship of Myanmar in the light of Delhi’s deteriorating relations with Beijing. The visit to Myanmar by India’s foreign secretary, Harsh Shringla, who was accompanied by the Indian army chief, M.M. Naravane, a month before the elections clearly reflects India’s interest in weaning Myanmar away from Beijing, or at least helping counter Beijing’s influence in Myanmar. Ostensibly, this was a visit to review and consolidate cooperation on security and development issues. A coastal shipping agreement with Myanmar was signed during a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. More importantly, it has opened the door to greater cooperation on a wide range of issues, including military matters, according to Myanmar diplomats. The importance of this strategic initiative cannot be underestimated: the fact that India’s top diplomat and top military man made a joint visit to Myanmar is highly significant, according to Asian diplomats, and was counter to the usual protocol. That it was timed just before the elections was no coincidence. It is something that their Myanmar counterparts appreciated only too well.
There have also been behind-the-scene discussions on how Japan and India could cooperate on strategic, security and development initiatives that could help balance China’s penetration into Myanmar. The resuscitation of the Quad, involving diplomats from Australia, India, Japan, and the US sharing their vision and concerns of a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, has galvanized cooperation among these four countries to counter China’s aggressive and belligerent posturing in the region. “It’s a valuable venue for sharing information and intelligence, coordinating approaches and generally promoting mutual understanding,” according to an Asian diplomat involved with these meetings. The idea was conceived by Tokyo several years ago, but has only got off the ground in the last 12 months as relations in the region with Beijing took a turn for the worst.
India and Japan have cooperated successfully on infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, including the building of a port at Matabari to counter the Chinese-built port at Payra. This model of cooperation can provide a framework for similar initiatives in Myanmar, according to Indian and Japanese diplomats. While Japan is prepared to bankroll many of these potential projects, it is particularly keen to maintain a ‘low-key’ presence.
While Myanmar has responded enthusiastically to India’s overtures, it may be even more enthusiastic about Indo-Japanese cooperation. What is certain is that Myanmar’s foreign policy will undergo changes in the coming months, including a distinct tilt westwards, as it broadens its strategic approach and tries to veer away from its unhealthy reliance on Beijing. The main focus of Myanmar’s foreign policy will be on strengthening its economic and security ties with regional partners — especially India, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and Singapore — while continuing to maintain good relations with China.
On November 8, the National League for Democracy won another resounding victory in Myanmar’s national election, claiming 920 of the 1,117 seats available in the local and national parliaments and improving on its 2015 landslide.
The election was marred by some significant shortcomings – mainly the exclusion of the Rohingya Muslim majority and widespread vote cancellations in Rakhine – but was free of any serious irregularities and widely seen as reflecting the NLD’s continued overwhelming popularity.
The pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) failed to win even in its former strongholds in the Buddhist heartlands and Yangon-based political analyst Richard Horsey said it is “effectively dead at this point as a national political force”.
While turnout for the election has been estimated at a staggering 71 percent, not everybody is enthusiastic about the political process, however.
Yangon-based activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi chose not to vote.
“Never thought I would be in this point. I was always overexcited about elections and politics,” she said in a message on election day. The main factor in her decision to boycott was the exclusion of ethnic minorities. “I feel guilty as if my vote is granted because I’m from the majority ethnicity,” she said. “I stand in solidarity with those whose rights are denied.”
All eyes are now trained on ethnic relations and democratic development, both policy areas where the government of Aung San Suu Kyi failed to make headway in its first term.
“The scale of the NLD’s victory gives it the space and political capital to adjust some of its policies and tackle more unpopular or controversial issues. Whether it will do so, or double down on the successful formula it has followed so far, remains to be seen,” Horsey said.
The new parliament is expected to sit in February.
Al Jazeera spoke to three incoming first-time members of parliament from different parties, ethnic backgrounds, and parts of the country about their plans for the upcoming term.
Win Mya Mya, a 77-year-old Muslim candidate from the NLD won a seat in the national parliament in Mandalay Region, after being controversially passed up by the party in 2015, a decision many attributed to religious discrimination.
“It started with the 1988 uprising,” Win Mya Mya said of her political career. She joined the mass protests against the military dictatorship that year, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and was one of the founding members of the NLD. “At that time, we faced a lot of difficulties,” she said.
The next few decades were a revolving door of arrests, with Win Mya Mya often using her own money to support NLD political prisoners.
She said she was frequently detained, questioned, and intimidated for short periods of time. “In 1999, my brother and sister were arrested and sentenced to many years in prison. I was detained again in 2000 and released in 2001,” she said. But following the 2008 Saffron Revolution protests, she was confronted with a more serious sentence.
“I was sentenced to 12 years in prison,” she said, but ultimately serving only about four.
“Living alone in prison caused me psychological problems. I couldn’t see anyone, and I had nowhere to go. With the help of a prison doctor, I was allowed to walk outside for about half an hour a day.” Win Mya Mya served most of her sentence in Putao, located in the remote northern reaches of Myanmar, among the foothills of the Himalayas. She remained behind bars until 2012, when she received a presidential pardon.
Undaunted, she immediately returned to politics. “In 2013, I was elected by the people at the National Party Congress to become vice-chair of the Mandalay Region,” she said, a position she still holds.
When asked how she feels to finally be a member of parliament after a lifetime of struggle, she is modest. “I see it as a job,” she said. “I am very happy to be able to work for the people in parliament.”
The NLD is known for being a highly centralised organisation, and Win Mya Mya declined to name any particular issue she would focus on in parliament, saying she did not know what tasks she would be “assigned”.
She dodged questions about the NLD’s decision to exclude her from the 2015 election, instead praising the party’s performance. “The NLD government has done a lot in five years. Roads and bridges in every township. Reforms in the education system, electricity distribution,” she said. While she was not a member of parliament, she was still a high-ranking member of the party, and said she was able to work on healthcare reform in that capacity.
Win Mya Mya admitted religious discrimination against Muslims exists in Myanmar but denies that the NLD itself discriminates. “They are friendly regardless of race,” she said, also declining to comment on the Rohingya crisis, which is the subject of a genocide investigation at the UN’s top court.
In Rakhine State, where Myanmar’s most intense conflict rages, the local Arakan National Party once again won the most seats in the national and state legislatures, despite widespread election cancellations, which mostly affected areas it won in 2015. The cancellations meant the ANP fell short of winning an outright majority in the state parliament, but it did win in areas that the NLD had taken last time.
Horsey said the results show the ANP has “consolidated its hold over the former NLD strongholds … in the south of Rakhine State”.
Aung Thar Noe is a 45-year-old who was recently elected to the Rakhine State parliament for the ANP, after decades in civil society. “I decided to participate in politics more deeply because I want to save the Rakhine people,” he said. He was elected to the ANP’s central executive committee just last year.
“Being in Rakhine there is no other organisation that represents the interest of the Rakhine people,” he said. Aung Thar Noe was elected in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine and one of the very few constituencies in the northern part of the state that actually held elections this year. He says the mass cancellations in the rest of northern Rakhine increase his responsibility.
“I have to perform and carry out the duty for the areas with no election. I am the only MP from northern Rakhine area where we have our own issues; the conflict, war crimes, [internally displaced people]. I have to devote more time than an ordinary MP in other parts of the country because I’m representing so many people,” he said.
While he hopes the local government can accomplish more this term, he said it depends on the NLD, which “refused to cooperate or share power” in the last five years, despite the ANP winning a majority in Rakhine in 2015. Since no party won a majority this year, the NLD will have to decide whether to form a coalition with the ANP or the military bloc. Aung Thar Noe said if the NLD chooses to work with the ANP, the risk of increased conflict could be reduced.
Horsey said the first real test will be the selection of the state parliament speaker early next year. “If the NLD bloc joins forces with the military bloc to push through its candidate, this will anger Rakhine political leaders; if the NLD cooperates with the Rakhine parties on a consensus candidate, this could be an important signal of the NLD’s willingness to consult more with ethnic parties over key decisions, and could help to de-escalate political tensions,” he said.
ote after a poor showing in the 2015 election. The MUP improved on its 2015 haul, winning five seats in the national parliament and six in the state parliament but was still a distant second to the NLD which won an outright majority in the state.
Nai Layae Tama, a 57-year-old incoming member of parliament for the Mon State parliament, came to politics via conflict. From 1987 until 1998, he served in the New Mon State Party, the political wing of the main Mon armed group, retiring a few years after the ceasefire agreement of 1995. “Then I took a rest and focused on my farming business,” he said.
He re-entered politics in 2012, before becoming general secretary of the Mon National Party in 2015, one of the two parties that merged to become the MUP.
“I have been immersed in politics all my life,” he said. “During the five-year term of the NLD government, I have not been satisfied with the NLD’s attitude towards ethnic parties,” he added.
Nai Layae Tama said his personal priority is to create a community development committee in Mon State that is elected by the people. The local parliament has drafted the law, but it has remained stalled. “When I enter parliament, I will push to finish the community development law as soon as possible,” he said.
He said much of the MUP’s goals will “depend on how positive the NLD can be in dealing with ethnic parties.” “We will have to wait and see,” he said.
Horsey said some ethnic parties are “blaming an unfair NLD incumbent advantage” and “restrictions on campaigning due to COVID-19” for their poor results. However, he also expects the election loss will “prompt much soul-searching”. “If they conclude that the electoral system is stacked against them, this could deepen political division – and in some places, armed conflict,” he said.
Nai Layae Tama seems willing to continue engaging in electoral politics for now but needs to see some compromise from the NLD this term. He said there “are various reasons” why the party did worse than expected, but that he is still generally “satisfied” with the result. “In the constituencies, we lost, the vote was very close,” he said, adding that many Mon migrant workers were not able to come home and vote due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
The MUP’s continued engagement with the political process will also depend on the NLD’s engagement in the peace process. “If we can become an inclusive government after the results of the recent election, it would be very helpful for peace,” he said.
Countries like Myanmar are treading cautiously even as China is pushing several infrastructure projects, including its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in Southeast Asia. The ongoing border standoff with China seems to have offered India an opportunity to further strengthen its economic and military ties with its eastern neighbour.
In a major boost to the Narendra Modi government’s Act East policy, India and Myanmar have agreed to operationalise the strategic Sittwe port in Rakhine state early next year, and initiate steps to complete India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highways. The flagship policy aims to strengthen India’s relations with the Asia Pacific region.
The move assumes significance in the context of China’s growing footprints in South and Southeast Asia. China is also aggressively pursuing what is known as its “debt-trap diplomacy” in India’s neighbourhood and beyond, in order to extract economic and political concessions from the borrowing countries when they are unable to repay the loans.
For instance, Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port is widely cited as a classic case of China’s predatory lending practice. It is believed that the island nation had to hand over the port to China after being unable to pay off its loans issued to construct the project.
However, countries like Myanmar are treading cautiously even as China is pushing several infrastructure projects, including its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in Southeast Asia. The ongoing border standoff with China seems to have offered India an opportunity to further strengthen its economic and military ties with its eastern neighbour. India’s proposal to invest $6 billion to set up an oil refinery near Yangon is a step in that direction.
INDIA FAST-TRACKS KEY PROJECTS
Earlier this month, an Indian delegation led by Army chief General MM Naravane and foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Naypyidaw and “held extensive discussions in the areas of bilateral cooperation” with Myanmarese officials, a statement issued by the ministry of external affairs said.
Both sides agreed to operationalise the Sittwe port on the Bay of Bengal in the first quarter of 2021. Sittwe is India’s answer to the Chinese-funded Kyaukphyu port in Rakhine under its BRI, which is intended to cement China’s geostrategic footprint in the state, reports The Irrawaddy, one of Myanmar’s leading publications.
The deep-water port, which was constructed with India’s assistance, is part of the $484-million Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project. The latter is expected to create a sea, river and road corridor for cargo shipment from Kolkata to Mizoram through Sittwe port and Paletwa inland water terminal in Myanmar’s Chin state.
The Kaladan project that was initiated by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in 2008 under its ‘Look East’ (now Act East) policy received a fresh push after the Modi government took over in 2014. However, the road component – an 87-km highway connecting Lawngtlai in south Mizoram with Zorinpui on the India-Myanmar border – has missed several deadlines.
The outlawed Arakan Army (AA), which is fighting against Myanmar’s Tatmadaw or military in Rakhine state – the epicentre of the 2018 Rohingya crisis – has put a spanner in the works. Designated as a terrorist organisation, the AA wants India to pay “taxes” to continue work in the Kaladan project. Last year, AA rebels had abducted some Indians engaged in the project and later released them.
TRILATERAL HIGHWAY PROJECT
New Delhi and Naypyidaw also discussed progress on other ongoing Indian-assisted infrastructure projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highways connecting landlocked Northeast with Southeast Asia, according to the MEA statement.
The road project has its share of controversy though. In August, the Supreme Court had allowed the Modi government to continue the construction work of the highway project despite a dispute over the contract between the government and a construction firm.
India has undertaken two projects in Myanmar under the 1,360-km highway project that starts from Moreh in India to Mae Sot in Thailand through Myanmar, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said in a letter to Rajya Sabha member from Assam, Birendra Prasad Baishya, in response to his query over the status of the project.
These are construction of the 120-km Kalewa-Yagyi road sections to highway standard and upgrading of 69 bridges and approach roads on the Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa (TKK) road section of 150 km, the minister said.
INDIA’S INTERESTS IN KACHIN
Apart from these big bang projects, India is slowly, but steadily making inroads into the mineral-rich Kachin state where the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has been at war with the Myanmar army since a ceasefire pact collapsed in 2011. The visiting Indian delegation attended the virtual inauguration of the Centre of Excellence in Software Development and Training (CESDT) in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state. CESDT was set up under the ASEAN-India Cooperation Fund.
Kachin in northern Myanmar, which is located next to China’s Yunnan province, has seen massive Chinese investments in mining, infrastructure and industrial projects in recent years. India could in no way match China’s economic prowess. And, experts say, New Delhi’s interests in Kachin seem to be guided more by strategic reasons than economic ones.
The Kachin rebels can “generate critical intelligence for India” in the event of full-scale military hostilities with China in the eastern sector and “may even empower India’s so-called ‘Tibet card’,” according to Avinash Paliwal, associate professor, International Relations, SOAS, University of London.
“Equally, it can help generate access for Indian security officials with the Arakan Army, which is challenging the Tatmadaw in Rakhine State and has considerable influence on the ground to shape the success or failure of the Kaladan MMT project,” Paliwal wrote in an article.
China’s interests will be better served by the Suu Kyi-led status quo than a return to military-dominated rule
BANGKOK – As Myanmar enters an election season, the economy, Covid-19 and issues of war and peace are expected to dominate the campaign trail discourse.
But for the international community, speculation centers on which direction foreign policy will likely take after the poll: toward an even stronger and closer relationship with China or a shift towards a more independent posture.
Much has changed since the leaders in Beijing favored Myanmar’s authoritarian military regime and were deeply suspicious of then opposition leader and one-time pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
Now, Chinese government representatives have made no secret in recent private discussions that they would prefer to see Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) win and are wary of the generals, who they find it increasingly difficult to influence and control.
The military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party lost badly to the NLD at the 2015 election and it’s not clear it will fare much better at this November’s poll.
While Myanmar’s military sees it as their duty to defend the nation’s sovereignty and seek to lessen national dependence on China, Suu Kyi turned to Beijing for economic and other assistance after her previous allies and admirers in the West distanced themselves from her over the Rohingya refugee crisis.
Beginning in August 2017 and still ongoing, thousands of Rohingyas have been killed while hundreds of thousands have fled across the border into Bangladesh due to a Myanmar military crackdown.
Once seen as a champion of human rights, Suu Kyi refused to condemn the carnage the UN and others have termed as possible “genocide.” As such, Suu Kyi turned dramatically and almost overnight from darling to pariah of the West.
The third force in Myanmar’s topsy-turvy foreign relations is Japan, which sees the dangers of the region’s shifting geopolitics and thus has not joined the West’s condemnations.
From August 21 to 24, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi paid visits to Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to strengthen Tokyo’s presence in the four Southeast Asian countries. That his tour took place amid the pandemic underscores the importance of his mission: to counter China’s rising regional clout.
In Myanmar, Motegi met Suu Kyi as well as Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Motegi promised Suu Kyi technical assistance to contain the spread of Covid-19. They also agreed to better facilitate travel for businesspeople and students between the two countries.
In discussions with Min Aung Hlaing, Motegi pledged support for Myanmar’s peace process. A statement issued by Japan’s Foreign Ministry also stated rather curiously and without elaborating that Motegi and Min Aung Hlaing “exchanged views” on regional affairs, “including the South China Sea issue and concurred on deepening cooperation between the two countries.”
It remains to be seen whether Motegi’s promises to Suu Kyi will be enough to make a dent in Beijing’s already strong influence over Myanmar. That’s plain to see in the so-called China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a bilateral scheme that involves the construction of high-speed railways, highways and upgraded waterways along Myanmar’s rivers.
The project is seen as a crucial link in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which arguably will take on more importance in neighboring Southeast Asia as tensions rise with the US in a new Cold War.
Myanmar’s link and outlet to the Indian Ocean will provide an alternative route for China’s trade with the Middle Eat, Africa and Europe, which currently travels via vulnerable sea lanes through the contested South China Sea and congested Malacca Strait.
During a historic visit to Myanmar in January, Xi secured no less than 33 memoranda of understanding, including 13 relating to infrastructure projects, in talks with Suu Kyi and other mostly civilian officials.
Those included a multi-billion dollar plan to establish a special economic zone and industrial park near Kyaukphyu, where a deep-sea port is already being developed with Chinese investment.
Min Aung Hlaing, on the other hand, stunned many observers when he said during a visit to Moscow in June in an interview with a Russian news network that “terrorist groups” exist in Myanmar “because of the strong forces that support them.”
Although the military leader did not name any group or foreign force in particular, it was clear that he was referring to the insurgent Arakan Army (AA) in the country’s western Rakhine state which is known to be equipped with Chinese-made weapons.
In November, the Myanmar military seized a huge cache of Chinese weapons, including brand-new rocket launchers and a surface-to-air missile, from another rebel army in northern Shan state.
China’s carrot and stick policy towards Myanmar consists of loans, grants and support for anti-Covid-19 campaigns on one hand while providing some of the country’s many ethnic armies access to China’s huge, informal arms market, which is grey rather than black.
Despite the Covid-19 crisis and numerous talks between government officials, military leaders and representatives of the country’s many ethnic armed organizations, Myanmar’s civil war is raging in several border areas and it has become increasingly clear that it is being heavily influenced by China.
Initiated by former president, ex-general Thein Sein shortly after he assumed office in March 2011 and continued under the present Suu Kyi administration, the peace process has attracted rich support from the West as well as Japan.
But a national ceasefire agreement (NCA) comprises only a handful of groups, some without arms or territory under their control. The most recent peace meeting was held this month and ended with nothing more than an agreement to hold further talks about talks.
The fact remains that groups representing more than 80% of all ethnic combatants have not signed the NCA and are unlikely to do so. Those groups, seven in all, are united under the umbrella of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC). All are known to be close to China.
The most powerful of them, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), is equipped with Chinese-made assault rifles, machine-guns, mortars, surface-to-air missiles and even light armored personnel carriers and other military vehicles.
AA is a close ally and has via other FPNCC members received weapons from the UWSA. So, too, has the powerful Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the far north of the country and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, an ethnic Palaung group that operates over large swathes of territory in northern Shan state.
The West and Japan may be involved in the peace process, and Motegi may have pledged increased support for efforts to bring decades of civil war to an end. But Chinese security officials have in recent meetings with FPNCC members told them not to have any dealings with peacemakers and other officials from the West or Japan.
It is thus clear that China has no intention of giving up its big stick and that recent developments have exposed just how irrelevant other outside actors have become to the peace process.
While the West is caught in the quagmire of the Rohingya crisis and Japan is doing its utmost to maintain and develop ties with Myanmar, China still rules the roost. And that largely explains why China backs a continuation of the democratic status quo, with Suu Kyi and her NLD still in power after November’s election.
(Bangkok) – The Myanmar Union Election Commission should amend rules governing political parties’ access to state-owned radio and television stations to ensure that all parties can present their positions without undue interference, Human Rights Watch said today.
On July 23, 2020, the Union Election Commission announced that political parties would be permitted to deliver electoral speeches and explain party policies on state-owned television and radio stations during the two-month period leading up to the national election scheduled for November 8. However, all political broadcasts must be pre-approved by the election commission under overly broad and vague restrictions on what political parties can say, in violation of international standards for protection of freedom of speech.
“The UEC’s regulations hamstring the political opposition by effectively prohibiting any criticism of the government, existing laws, and the military,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch. “Doing so strikes at the heart of political speech and campaigning, and seriously undermines the fairness of the electoral process.”
Under international standards, a transparent and independent body, separate from the election commission, should be established to regulate broadcasting content during elections. Campaign messages for broadcast should not be subject to prior approval and there should not be undue limitation on topics allowed to be covered in the campaign.
Under the rules announced by the UEC, a political party must apply to the election commission for permission to present a campaign broadcast and submit a script for the proposed broadcast for review. The UEC can either permit the broadcast or require revisions to ensure that the script does not violate vague and broadly worded restrictions on content.
The rules prohibit any content that “can disturb the security, rule of law and the peace and stability of the county,” or “disrespects” the existing laws of the country, or “defames” or “tarnishes the image” of the country, or defames the Tatmadaw, or can “harm dignity and morality.” The rules also prohibit any content that could “incite” members of the civil service “not to perform their duty or to oppose the government.”
The cumulative effect of the restrictions clearly violates international human rights law by precluding almost all criticism of the government, the Tatmadaw, or current abusive laws, Human Rights Watch said. Voters have a right to receive and obtain information that will enable them to decide how to exercise their vote. It is critical for all parties to have fair access to state-owned broadcast media in Myanmar, so they can present their programs to the voters.
While the decision to allocate time to opposition political parties is a positive step, any limits on the right to disseminate electoral statements should conform to international standards, including that public figures should be required to tolerate a higher degree of criticism and scrutiny than ordinary citizens. Limits on voters’ access to information can have a chilling effect on debate around issues of public importance during campaigns and elections, Human Rights Watch said.
Using Myanmar’s numerous defamation laws, the government and military have treated almost any criticism of their record as defamatory. For example, three Kachin human rights defenders were sentenced to six months in prison in December 2018, for “defaming” the military during protests in Myitkyina calling for the rescue of civilians trapped by renewed fighting in Kachin State.
Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which covers defamation online, has been repeatedly used to prosecute those who criticize the government or the military. The military charged the Burmese language editor of The Irrawaddy,Ye Ni, with defamation under that law in April 2019 for reporting about military attacks in the town of Mrauk-U in Rakhine state, though the charges were later dropped. The restriction on content that “defames” the country or the Tatmadaw thus places severe restrictions on what political parties can say about the current National League for Democracy-led government or the military.
The restriction on content that could cause members of the civil service “not to perform their duties” is also problematic given the history of similar restrictions in Myanmar. Penal code article 505(a), barring speech that may cause members of the military to “disregard or fail” in their duties, has been repeatedly used against critics of the military.
On August 29, 2019, a court sentenced the prominent filmmaker, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, to one year in prison with hard labor under that provision for criticizing the military on Facebook. Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi suffers from liver cancer and was visibly unwell during his trial.
The military also used the law against members of the Peacock Generation, a traditional theater group, for a satirical performance deemed critical of the military. A court sentenced five members of the troupe to a year in prison for violating section 505(a) in October 2019. A different court imposed an additional one-year sentence under the same law in November 2019, and three members of the troupe face charges of defaming the military under section 66(d) for streaming the performance online.
The prohibition on content that “disrespects” existing laws could be used to prohibit political parties from criticizing abusive laws and discussing their plans to change those laws, Human Rights Watch said. The prohibition on content that can “tarnish the image of the country” could be applied to prohibit almost any criticism of the government or the military, including commentary on military abuses in Rakhine, Shan, and Kachin states.
Each of these restrictions violates international standards on freedom of speech, Human Rights Watch said. They also undermine the fairness of the electoral process by preventing opposition parties from presenting their policies in full where those policies involve criticism of the government, the military, or the country’s many abusive laws.
“The Union Election Commission should revise the broadcast rules to ensure that voters are able to hear opposition parties on state-owned media speaking freely about their policies and platforms,” Lakhdhir said. “Robust political debate lies at the heart of the electoral process, and Myanmar voters are entitled to hear all political views, including those critical of the government in power and its policies.”
US new Ambassadorial nominee to Myanmar Thomas Laszlo Vajda told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, US engagement with Myanmar is “essential” in order to advance the Southeast Asian country’s reforms and help defend the country against “malign influences”.
NEW DELHI: US new Ambassadorial nominee to Myanmar Thomas Laszlo Vajda has emphasised that one of his goals as envoy would be “to advance US interests and values” in the Southeast Asian country and help defend the country against “malign influences” in a veiled reference to China.
He told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, US engagement with Myanmar is “essential” in order to advance the Southeast Asian country’s reforms and help defend the country against “malign influences”.
The hearing took place after US President Donald Trump’s nomination of Vajda as the US envoy to Myanmar in May.
“It is also critical that we support Burma’s efforts to resist malign foreign influences and challenges to its sovereignty,” he said at the hearing.
“To support Burma in this regard, the United States will need to continue helping government officials, economic reformers and civil society actors who are pushing back on unfair investment practices and deals that provide little benefit to local communities,” he added.
Though the nominee didn’t name the “malign influences” mentioned in his testimony, his reference to “unfair investment practices and deals that provide little benefit to local communities” was obvious as being to China.
An op-ed penned last month by the chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Yangon, George Sibley, alleged that China’s actions are part of a larger plan to undermine the sovereignty of its neighbors, including Myanmar.
In response, the Chinese Embassy accused Sibley of “outrageously smearing China” and attempting to sow discord between it and Myanmar, damaging the countries’ relations and bilateral cooperation. It said the article not only reflects the “sour grapes” mindset of the US toward China-Myanmar relations, but also a global effort by the US to shift attention away from its domestic problems and seek selfish political gain.
mericans won’t be the only voters going to the polls in November. Myanmar’s third national election since transitioning from half a century of military rule is slated for Nov. 8.
Already, several questions loom over this test of the country’s democratic trajectory. How will the government ensure ethnic civilians displaced by armed conflict can vote? How will Facebook protect voters from disinformation? How will the government manage campaigns and polling in the age of COVID-19?
These are tough challenges. But there is another critical question, easy to resolve, that will also determine whether the exercise is free and fair: Will the government ensure the right to vote for Rohingya?
The Rohingya are an ethnic and religious minority, mostly Muslim, indigenous to western Myanmar; and today, far more live outside the country than inside. The reason for this is summed up in a word: genocide.
In October 2016 and August 2017, the Myanmar military responded to nascent Rohingya militancy with full-scale attacks on civilians, forcing more than 800,000 to flee into neighboring Bangladesh. They have no hope of safely returning to Myanmar anytime soon, and this creates new but surmountable logistical challenges for the 2020 elections.
Rohingya-led refugee groups have already said they want the government to facilitate voting from the camps in Bangladesh. One of these organizations, called the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), has urged Myanmar to set up voter registration and polling in collaboration with the Bangladesh authorities. Many other Rohingya have since reiterated the request.
Some in Myanmar dismiss this option out-of-hand, calling it unfeasible. But this is a cop-out.
In 2004, some 850,000 Afghan refugees voted in their country’s first presidential election from camps in Pakistan and Iran and through absentee ballots. In that case, concerned governments and international humanitarian organizations did their part to ensure refugees could exercise their right to vote. Myanmar and its bilateral partners could do the same.
There are also an estimated 600,000 Rohingya still in Myanmar, and many there are also anxiously awaiting news about the election. The three Rohingya-led political parties in the country—the Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP), the National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD), and the National Democracy and Peace Party (NDPP)—are all registered and intending to field candidates.
But Myanmar has denied Rohingya the right to vote since the 2015 elections that brought Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to power. Despite Myanmar’s wholesale exclusion of Rohingya, the international community made the profound mistake of lauding those elections. President Barack Obama, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon all congratulated Aung San Suu Kyi on the outcome. Hillary Clinton even claimed partial credit for nudging Myanmar onto the reform path during her tenure as Secretary of State, recognizing the election was “imperfect” but calling it “an affirmation of the indispensable role the United States can and should play in the world as a champion of peace and progress.”
Few stopped to consider the repercussions the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya could have. Some analysts suggested that Aung San Suu Kyi would have to build a constructive working relationship with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in order for her government to be effective. None imagined she’d do so in the commission of genocide against Rohingya, but that’s precisely what happened.
In December last year, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi went so far as to represent Myanmar at the International Court of Justice, defending the military from allegations of genocide in a historic, ongoing lawsuit brought by The Gambia.
By wholly denying any intent to destroy Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi won military favor, and by taking aim at Rohingya on the global stage she strategically scored perverse ethno-nationalist points ahead of the elections.
Now, the cycle is poised to continue. Government insiders, diplomats and even representatives of international non-governmental organizations are saying that if all Rohingya were in Myanmar, they would still not meet the requirements of the election law because they lack citizenship. This is a politically convenient excuse.
Not only did Rohingya vote in past elections—during which they were still unjustly denied full citizenship rights—but since the 1990s, Myanmar authorities have kept detailed records of Rohingya through “household lists.” The government has other sources of data on Rohingya as well, including former identity cards and other evidence it could use to determine Rohingya voter eligibility.
Officials may suggest that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and those in Myanmar will have the right to vote only if they accept National Verification Cards (NVCs). However, these cards are discriminatory, effectively requiring Rohingya to identify as outsiders, thereby foregoing any chance to restore full citizenship under the current law. Any demand that Rohingya accept NVCs in exchange for the right to vote would be unacceptably coercive.
As November approaches, Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh are hoping that access to the polls might help them secure a better future.
“Rohingya need a voice in parliament,” Abdul Rasheed, an expected candidate with DHRP in Sittwe Township, tells me from Yangon. This will be his second attempt to seek office.
“This is not only about voting and democracy, it’s also about dignity and protection,” he says.
The international community, including the U.N. and other organizations, must now do everything in their power to ensure the Rohingya have the right to vote.
Governments around the world overlooked Rohingya disenfranchisement in 2015, and that was at least one paver on the road to genocide. They must not make the same mistake twice.
The Netherlands-based court had in January issued an order for Myanmar to implement provisional measures for the protection of the Rohingya.
Myanmar says it will submit a report due on Saturday outlining its claims of compliance with an order from the International Court of Justice to protect members of its Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority.
The Netherlands-based court in January issued an order for Myanmar to implement provisional measures for the protection of the Rohingya. The court agreed last year to consider a case alleging that Myanmar committed genocide against the group, an accusation vigorously denied by the government. The court’s proceedings are likely to continue for years.
Myanmar’s military in August 2017 launched what it called a clearance campaign in Rakhine state in response to an attack by a Rohingya insurgent group. The campaign forced about 7,40,000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh and led to accusations that security forces committed mass rapes and killings and burned thousands of homes.
Chan Aye, director general of the International Organisations and Economic Department of Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry, said on Friday that the government was working on the report, but would not discuss its contents before submitting it.
Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for Myanmar’s military, said it has complied with government orders by providing “complete and necessary information” for the report.ALSO READMyanmar and the limits of pan-Islamism
There is no obligation to make the report public.
The court order requires Myanmar to “take all measures within its power” to protect the Rohingya from genocide, to safeguard evidence relating to allegations of genocide and to prevent “public incitement” to commit genocide.
The court has no enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance, and similar orders in high-profile cases in the past involving Serbia and Uganda were ignored without consequence.
The most significant measure taken by Myanmar’s government since the court order appears to have been an April 8 presidential directive that all “military or other security forces, or civil services and local people under its control or direction do not commit (genocidal) acts.”
Critics, however, note that Myanmar’s military has a record of impunity regarding alleged offenses conducted by its personnel.
“While Myanmar’s recent presidential directives ordering government personnel not to commit genocide or destroy evidence appear in line with the International Court order, the reality remains that no meaningful steps to end atrocities — including the crime of apartheid — have been taken,” the human rights group Amnesty International said in a statement Friday.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar has long considered Rohingya Muslims to be “Bengali” immigrants from Bangladesh even though their families have lived in the country for generations. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless. They are also denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.
If the polls move forward despite the pandemic, it will be a landmark development for Myanmar.
Later this year, Myanmar is scheduled to hold its third general election in six decades in a landmark development for the country’s democratic transition. While details remain unclear amid the global coronavirus pandemic, as of now the Southeast Asian state is set to hold its expected polls as the ruling party faces manifold challenges that could pose significant risks for the future trajectory of reform and freedom.
While Myanmar had been under the rule of the military, known as the Tatmadaw, for a half-century, an opening in the 2010s saw subsequent political inroads made that turned the country into a rare story of hope for democracy and freedom in Southeast Asia. The changes culminated in the assumption of power by the long-time opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, following a landslide win in free national elections held in November 2015.
Nearly five years on, while Suu Kyi and the NLD have undertaken reforms in some areas, they have not lived up to the high expectations that existed when they took office. Politically, at home, Suu Kyi’s relationship with ethnic groups has worsened over the years as hopes for national reconciliation and decentralization have dimmed, and her ties with the military – which continues to exercise significant independent influence – remain strained. Abroad, though Myanmar has reinforced its foreign alignments, the balance of those alignments continues to be hampered by the legacy of the Rohingya crisis, which soured ties with some Western countries including the United States and reinforced Myanmar’s continued dependence on China.
Security-wise, the country’s ongoing ethnic conflicts, which have plagued it since independence in 1948, earning the title of the world’s longest-running civil war, have shown few signs of abating. Despite initial hopes for peace and talk of a temporary ceasefire amid COVID-19, a series of structural challenges – including lingering civil-military tensions, fierce divisions among its various ethnic groups, and the influence of insurgent groups, including the new Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – suggest that there is little chance of things truly changing for the better until the dust settles after 2020 polls.
Economically, while the NLD has made some efforts to encourage businesses, this has largely been an area of missed opportunity. Major issues remain in areas such as jobs, infrastructure, and foreign investment, in part exacerbated by the aforementioned stalled efforts at national reconciliation. Though Myanmar itself has thus far not been majorly affected by COVID-19 relative to the rest of Southeast Asia, the virus has nonetheless further dimmed economic prospects in the near term, with the NLD as of now set to enter into the 2020 elections with the lowest growth rates since the country’s opening began.
The confluence of these political, security, and economic challenges reinforce the reality that the NLD will enter into 2020 elections amid a much more somber atmosphere than the hope displayed in the historic 2015 polls that brought it to power. The NLD is facing waning support in certain ethnic and urban areas of the country. More broadly, even though the elections could help consolidate the country’s fragile electoral democracy, these underlying challenges have also heightened anxieties about polls themselves, including whether or not they will be held on time, will proceed in a free and fair manner, and will be held peacefully in the country, especially in conflict-ridden areas.
To be sure, despite these challenges, it is far from doom and gloom for the NLD heading into polls expected later this year. While the ruling party has had a rocky road during its term in office and has at times admitted as much, for now, the fact is that the 2020 elections still remain the NLD’s to lose, with Suu Kyi herself continuing to retain significant popularity in most of Myanmar and little appetite for the military to return to power. It is also important to keep in mind that the focus on COVID-19 can cut both ways: It can exacerbate the NLD’s governance challenges, but it can also reinforce the case for continuity and political stability and take the focus away from the party’s own problems, thereby cementing its expected return to power.
Even so, the realization of an expected NLD election win, albeit one smaller than the landslide that the party had recorded back in 2015, will not change the sobering reality of the NLD’s tough road ahead and the prospects for Myanmar’s democracy and reform moving forward. While a second term for the NLD would keep the prospects for reform intact, the dizzying array of issues it will have to deal with – from constitutional reform to managing ethnic conflict – remains daunting. And as the years progress, other variables, including discontent among smaller ethnic parties, maneuvering by elements within the military to maintain or even increase their political influence, and the NLD’s succession dynamics beyond Suu Kyi herself, mean that the ruling party’s continued ability to govern Myanmar may be far from assured.
This is not to say that Myanmar’s upcoming polls are unimportant: indeed, if and when they are held and whatever their limits, competitive elections will be a landmark development in helping consolidate fragile electoral democracy in the Southeast Asian state. But a broader, future-oriented perspective must be kept in mind even as the focus is on the dynamics and then the results of Myanmar’s upcoming elections in the coming months. Otherwise, the window of hope for change in the country that we saw open in the early 2010s could soon begin closing and the country’s trajectory could take a turn for the worse.