Suu Kyi warns of shift to China
Aides to Aung San Suu Kyi have been warning Western ambassadors that their pressure on Myanmar in support of ethnic Rohingya Muslims is pushing the country closer to China — a sign of the resistance that awaits US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he visits this week.
Washington and others are pressing Buddhist-majority Myanmar and its Nobel Prizewinning leader to do more to address a humanitarian crisis caused by a military crackdown on the Rohingya that drove more than 600,000 people across the border into Bangladesh.
Mr Tillerson in September condemned the “horrors that we are witnessing” in Myanmar, amid reports the military had burned Rohingya villages and killed and raped villagers. Proposed legislation in the US congress seeks to block the assets of military leaders and ban their travel.
Mr Tillerson intended to meet leaders and officials on actions to address the crisis and US support for the democratic transition in the former military-ruled country, the State Department said.
Myanmar denies refugee accounts of atrocities during the security operations, which came after a Rohingya militant group attacked military outposts near the border in August. Ms Suu Kyi’s government accuses Western leaders of falling for what they say are biased reports.
Ms Suu Kyi’s aides said she would not change course in response to Western sanctions. “We are used to being under pressure — first it was the military, now it’s the West,” said Win Htein, a party leader close to Ms Suu Kyi.
Mr Win Htein said he had told Western diplomats that if such pressure continued, “it’s inevitable” that Myanmar will move closer to its neighbour China.
Beijing has been Myanmar’s most vocal defender, last week blocking Western efforts for a resolution in the UN Security Council, which settled for a nonbinding statement that demanded an end to violent treatment of Rohingya and access for humanitarian agencies. Ms Suu Kyi’s office later thanked those “who upheld the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries”.
Western officials said they had failed in dozens of meetings to push Ms Suu Kyi’s government to take steps that would help ease the global outcry. A Western diplomat said the US and Europe had little leverage because China, Japan, India and other Asian nations had indicated they would remain engaged with Myanmar.
Advisers to Ms Suu Kyi said they expected the US to reimpose some of the restrictions lifted last year after Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy came to power in Myanmar’s first free election in half a century. The previous sanctions were removed to encourage Myanmar’s democratic transition. Some US officials said they were worried that reinstating sanctions would undermine that process and deter Western investment that they say could dilute military influence.
Ms Suu Kyi’s aides are also sending the message that sanctions could worsen her relationship with the army and cause the generals to tighten their grip.
Aides said Ms Suu Kyi’s priority was to be able to work with the military to achieve long-term goals, which include constitutional change towards a fuller democracy.
Ms Suu Kyi’s party is operating on the belief that military leaders expect her to shield them and would see renewed sanctions as a sign of her intent to undercut them, according to a party official and a Suu Kyi adviser.
Aides also said Ms Suu Kyi felt betrayed by the West and had sunk into siege mentality, reflecting the shifting attitudes of many citizens who view the US as a preaching foreign power.
“Nationalism is going up because our small country is under so much pressure,” said democracy activist Ko Ko Gyi.
For China, Myanmar is a strategic prize. Gas and oil pipelines run through the country to China’s Yunnan province. A Chinese-led consortium is in finalstage talks for a deepwater port — a key piece of Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure project.
The port would give China access to the Indian Ocean, reducing its dependence on the narrow and easily blockaded Strait of Malacca for its oil supplies.
Aung San Suu Kyi has developed a ‘siege mentality’