MYAN­MAR

Suu Kyi’s govt, hav­ing warmed to the West, cau­tiously em­braces Chi­nese ties

New Straits Times - - World -

WASH­ING­TON

MYAN­MAR was sup­posed to turn away from China and grav­i­tate to­wards the West when the United States helped the South­east Asian coun­try make the tran­si­tion to a civil­ian gov­ern­ment, after five decades of mil­i­tary rule.

The op­po­site is hap­pen­ing: the new gov­ern­ment is fail­ing to at­tract West­ern in­vest­ment and Bei­jing is on a charm of­fen­sive. China is of­fer­ing eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal sup­port, and a re­la­tion­ship free of the hu­man rights con­cerns strain­ing Myan­mar’s ties else­where.

Myan­mar, also known as Burma, was a for­eign pol­icy suc­cess for pres­i­dent Barack Obama. He helped coax its pow­er­ful gen­er­als into ced­ing power by nor­mal­is­ing diplo­matic re­la­tions and rolling back years of eco­nomic penal­ties, paving the way for No­bel peace lau­re­ate Aung San Suu Kyi to take power after win­ning elec­tions.

Suu Kyi’s his­toric strug­gle for democ­racy still evokes deep re­spect in Wash­ing­ton and Europe, but run­ning a civil­ian gov­ern­ment for the past 14 months has ex­posed her in­abil­ity to bring peace to a coun­try riven by eth­nic con­flict.

She also has strug­gled to pro­duce eco­nomic growth, hob­bled by a lack of con­trol over the na­tion’s still pow­er­ful mil­i­tary and a rigid man­age­ment style.

Find­ing less love among the West­ern democ­ra­cies, Suu Kyi is cau­tiously em­brac­ing closer ties with China.

“Amid the un­pre­dictable chal­lenges of this demo­cratic tran­si­tion, West­ern in­flu­ence on Burma is wan­ing, while Bei­jing is be­com­ing more as­sertive,” Myan­mar’s Ir­rawaddy news web­site said in an ed­i­to­rial.

Re­cent weeks have seen a flurry of China-Myan­mar en­gage­ment. Suu Kyi met Chi­nese leader Xi Jin­ping at a Bei­jing sum­mit in mid­dle of this month, her sec­ond visit there in the past year. Ear­lier, Myan­mar’s tit­u­lar pres­i­dent, Htin Kyaw, re­ceived a six-day state visit. Suu Kyi’s trip ended with an agree­ment with China to cre­ate an eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion zone as part of the Asian gi­ant's “Belt and Road” ini­tia­tive to con­nect with Asian and Euro­pean mar­kets.

Last week­end, Myan­mar’s Navy held drills with Chi­nese war­ships. China’s state-run Global Times said the mil­i­tary co­op­er­a­tion demon­strated “po­lit­i­cal trust”.

That trust was ex­pected to de­velop be­tween Suu Kyi and the US-led West.

Myan­mar’s en­dur­ing fear of be­ing dom­i­nated by its much larger neigh­bour, China, was one rea­son it im­proved ties with the US in the first place. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion seized the op­por­tu­nity while try­ing to “pivot” Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy fo­cus to Asia, hop­ing deeper re­la­tion­ships with its boom­ing economies would pro­vide the US long-term strate­gic and eco­nomic ad­van­tages.

Derek Mitchell, the for­mer US am­bas­sador who spear­headed Obama’s Myan­mar rap­proche­ment, said China was “stunned” when the coun­try reached out to the West be­tween 2011 and 2015. China was now mak­ing up for lost time, and cap­i­tal­is­ing on Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s re­duced at­ten­tion for Myan­mar, he said.

“It gave an op­por­tu­nity for China to say, ‘See we’re on your bor­der and we’re here to stay. You can’t count on the Amer­i­cans’,” Mitchell said.

Katina Adams, a State Depart­ment spokesman for East Asia, said the US re­mained com­mit­ted to consolidating democ­racy in Myan­mar and was help­ing the gov­ern­ment ad­dress many in­her­ited chal­lenges, in­clud­ing the dis­pro­por­tion­ate role of the mil­i­tary in the econ­omy and the need for re­spon­si­ble in­vest­ment.

Trump has started to reach out to South­east Asian lead­ers, prais­ing Philip­pines’ pres­i­dent, Ro­drigo Duterte, for his deadly war on drugs and invit­ing him and Thai­land’s prime min­is­ter, who took power in a coup, to the White House.

Obama helped her trans­for­ma­tion from po­lit­i­cal prisoner to na­tional leader, fos­ter­ing democ­racy on China's doorstep. Repub­li­cans and Democrats pro­moted the change as a vic­tory for US in­ter­ests and val­ues.

In the com­ing week, Trump is host­ing com­mu­nist Viet­nam’s prime min­is­ter. Trump has yet to speak with Suu Kyi.

For two decades, while Myan­mar was un­der mil­i­tary rule, US ad­min­is­tra­tions and in­flu­en­tial law­mak­ers adored Suu Kyi. Obama helped her trans­for­ma­tion from po­lit­i­cal prisoner to na­tional leader, fos­ter­ing democ­racy on China’s doorstep. Repub­li­cans and Democrats pro­moted the change as a vic­tory for US in­ter­ests and val­ues.

China, which sees Myan­mar as a land bridge to the In­dian Ocean, saw a strate­gic set­back.

Yun Sun, a China ex­pert at the Stim­son Cen­tre in Wash­ing­ton, said Chi­nese pol­icy ex­perts even char­ac­terised it with a proverb: “The cooked duck flew out of the win­dow”. She said the proverb’s mean­ing was clear: “Myan­mar was al­ready in our pock­ets, but some­how the Amer­i­cans stole it from us”.

But Trump may have lit­tle po­lit­i­cal in­cen­tive now to pri­ori­tise US ties with Myan­mar.

“What are left now are the prob­lems,” Sun added.

SLUG­GISH eco­nomic growth: Wash­ing­ton has in­creased for­eign aid and en­cour­aged Amer­i­can in­vestors last Septem­ber by lift­ing the re­main­ing eco­nomic sanc­tions other than on arms sales. But the moves haven’t spurred eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity in one of Asia’s last un­tapped mar­kets.

Myan­mar ranks 170th out of 190 na­tions in the World Bank’s ease-of-do­ing-busi­ness rank­ings, and third worst glob­ally for con­tract en­force­ment. For­eign in­vest­ment dropped al­most a third be­tween April 2016 and April 2017, ac­cord­ing to Myan­mar gov­ern­ment fig­ures, with no new US projects.

HU­MAN rights: West­ern na­tions in March backed a United Na­tions fact-find­ing mis­sion on re­ported atroc­i­ties against Myan­mar's down­trod­den Ro­hingya Mus­lims. Suu Kyi op­posed the idea, tar­nish­ing her in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion.

ETH­NIC con­flict: Suu Kyi has pri­ori­tised re­solv­ing Myan­mar's decades-long wars be­tween the army and eth­nic rebels, with lit­tle suc­cess. She tried again this week, bring­ing rebel groups to­gether for talks with the gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary. Res­o­lu­tion, how­ever, hinges on Myan­mar's will­ing­ness to cede power to mi­nori­ties and fa­cil­i­tate greater fed­er­al­ism.

On eco­nomic devel­op­ment, China faces wary Burmese cit­i­zens. Chi­nese projects have up­rooted vil­lagers and hurt the en­vi­ron­ment, fac­tors that led Myan­mar in 2011 to sus­pend a US$3.6 bil­lion (RM15.4 bil­lion) dam pri­mar­ily funded by Chi­nese en­ergy in­ter­ests. The sus­pen­sion re­mains a sore point.

Mitchell, the for­mer Obama en­voy, warned of a larger strate­gic set­back for the US.

Fail­ing to con­sol­i­date Myan­mar’s tran­si­tion would tell the re­gion’s au­to­cratic gov­ern­ments they were right, he said, that “democ­racy doesn’t work in Asia”. AP

REUTERS PIC

Aung San Suu Kyi with Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping at a Bei­jing sum­mit this month.

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