Grow­ing Chi­nese in­flu­ence in Myan­mar pol­i­tics

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - Sai Wan­sai

Are­cent po­lit­i­cal talk-show in Ra­dio Free Asia (RFA) on the is­sue topic of China's po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence in Myan­mar men­tioned the Arakan Army (AA) en­dorse­ment of China ini­ti­ated One Belt One Road (OBOR) or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was taken as a re­mark­able tes­ti­mony of bow­ing to re­gional power, which is aim­ing to be­come an­other su­per­power in the near fu­ture.

In fact, it is not only the AA that is back­ing up but the seven-mem­ber Fed­eral Po­lit­i­cal and Ne­go­ti­a­tion Con­sul­ta­tive Committee (FPNCC) has also been staunchly be­hind it, when a few years back it came up with an un­re­served back­ing of China's mega project, which is an am­bi­tious pro­gramme to con­nect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and mar­itime net­works along six cor­ri­dors with the aim of im­prov­ing re­gional in­te­gra­tion, in­creas­ing trade and stim­u­lat­ing eco­nomic growth.

The FPNCC is made up of United Wa State Army (UWSA), Na­tional Demo­cratic Al­liance Army (NDAA), Shan State Pro­gres­sive Party (SSPP), Kachin In­de­pen­dence Army (KIA), Ta’ang Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Army (TNLA), Myan­mar Na­tional Demo­cratic Al­liance Army (MNDAA) and AA.

Dif­fer­ent level of en­gage­ment

Gen­er­ally, China em­ploys gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment and party-toparty two-pronged re­la­tion­ship with Myan­mar as it usu­ally does with the other coun­tries. But lately with the am­bi­tious BRI mega project, it seems to have added up an­other chan­nel which is mil­i­tary to mil­i­tary.

Eth­nic Armed Or­ga­ni­za­tions (EAOs)

China's in­flu­ence on FPNCC or north­ern al­liance group goes back to the time when China started in 1967 to overtly sup­port the Com­mu­nist Party Burma (CPB) to over­throw the gov­ern­ment. But in 1989 China with­drew the sup­port and the CPB dis­in­te­grated be­cause of mutiny by its eth­nic troops, which be­come the present day MNDAA, UWSA and NDAA, the three or­ga­ni­za­tions that are now part of the FPNCC.

This al­liance re­lies heav­ily on China from arms, mu­ni­tions, uni­forms to food supplies and also two way trad­ing, which in­volved ex­port­ing nat­u­ral re­sources and min­eral ex­trac­tion, among oth­ers, from the EAOs' side and im­port needy con­sumer goods from China.

The out­stand­ing ex­am­ples of the Chi­nese in­flu­ence were the pres­sur­ing the Tat­madaw, which is bit­terly against to in­vite some of the FPNCC mem­bers to the sec­ond (May 2017) and third (July 2018) 21st Cen­tury Pan­g­long – Union Peace Con­fer­ence (21PC-UPC). The FPNCC was also not too keen to at­tend the con­fer­ence, as it had de­clared an­other dif­fer­ent ap­proach of peace initiative out­side the 21PC-UPC, which has a pre­con­di­tion to sign the Na­tion­wide Cease­fire Agree­ment (NCA) in or­der to par­tic­i­pate.

But nev­er­the­less, the FPNCC at­tended the open­ing cer­e­mony of the sec­ond and third 21PC-UPC, although it was only there at the open­ing cer­e­mony and re­turned a day or two later without be­ing able to present its po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion in the con­fer­ence in an of­fi­cial man­ner.

NLD Gov­ern­ment

The Union Sol­i­dar­ity and De­vel­op­ment Party-led Thein Sein gov­ern­ment in 2011, hav­ing es­tab­lished a hy­brid civil-mil­i­tary regime, tried to re­duce its de­pen­dence on China by open­ing up its door to the West.

Thein Sein's truce with the Na­tional league for Democ­racy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi paved way for its party reg­is­tra­tion, en­tered by-elec­tions in 2012 and won 43 out of the 45 con­tested seats; and Thein Sein's sus­pen­sion of China's My­it­sone dam project; sub­se­quently led to lift­ing of the var­i­ous sanc­tions by in­ter­na­tional play­ers on Myan­mar.

This, how­ever, was short-lived as the West con­demned and aban­doned Myan­mar on Ro­hingya cri­sis that oc­curred in 2017, which sent some 700,000 refugees to Bangladesh due to atroc­i­ties and hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions, which is not re­solved un­til to­day. This, in ef­fect, has pushed back Myan­mar into the am­bit of China again.

Since then, China has been shield­ing the NLD gov­ern­ment and the mil­i­tary in the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil (UNSC) on whit­tling down a Se­cu­rity Coun­cil state­ment drafted by the UK; at­tempted to stop a Se­cu­rity Coun­cil brief­ing on the Ro­hingya is­sue and re­duce the bud­get al­lo­cated for in­ves­ti­gat­ing the in­ci­dents in Arakan state; and has po­si­tioned it­self as a me­di­a­tor be­tween Myan­mar and Bangladesh, on three-steps so­lu­tion to the Ro­hingya prob­lem of stop vi­o­lence, start repa­tri­a­tion and pro­mote de­vel­op­ment, ac­cord­ing to The Diplo­mat re­port in May.

Eco­nom­i­cally, Myan­mar gov­ern­ment re­cently agreed to be­gin work on key projects un­der the Chi­naMyan­mar Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor (CMEC) agree­ment which is part of Chi­nese am­bi­tious BRI, wrote The Ir­rawaddy in Jan­uary 2019.

An es­ti­mated $2 bil­lion will be spent in the ini­tial stages of the project which is ex­pected to be made up of 24 projects in to­tal.

Among the 24 pro­posed CMEC projects, Myan­mar has agreed to speed up the process of nine ma­jor projects, which in­clude the Kyauk­phyu SEZ in the west, the New Yan­gon City De­vel­op­ment in Yan­gon and the bor­der eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion zones in Kachin and Shan states.

Myan­mar’s for­eign ex­change reserves to­talled $6.35 bil­lion in 2018, while the to­tal na­tional debt was es­ti­mated at around $10 bil­lion. Of that, $4 bil­lion is re­port­edly owed to China, wrote Ber­til Lint­ner in re­cent Asia Week re­port.

Tat­madaw

Chi­nese diplo­mats vis­it­ing Myan­mar make it a sort of tra­di­tion see­ing the com­man­der-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing and his top brass, in­clud­ing reg­u­lar visit in­vi­ta­tion to China, where mil­i­tary facilities, arms fac­to­ries and peace-keep­ing train­ing cen­tre for in­ter­na­tional mis­sion un­der UN flag were shown, ac­cord­ing to Ms Hla Kyaw Zaw, a China-Myan­mar re­la­tion­ship ex­perts in a re­cent RFA talk-show. In short, the re­la­tion­ship of mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary has been firmly es­tab­lished.

Be­sides, China is the big­gest sup­plier of mil­i­tary hard­ware to Myan­mar, ac­count­ing for 61 per­cent of weapons im­ported by Myan­mar be­tween 2014 and 2018.

Per­spec­tives

As all could see, China is im­por­tant for all stake­hold­ers one way or the other.

The FPNCC which is not part of the NCA-based peace process have 80% from the es­ti­mated to­tal EAOs 80,000 troop­ers coun­try­wide. While it may be in­clined to have its own po­lit­i­cal agenda, it is in no way in a po­si­tion to go against the pres­sure of China, as proven by the at­ten­dance of sec­ond and third 21CP-UPC. The al­liance de­pen­dence on China for ar­ma­ment and econ­omy are cru­cial for its sur­vival, which means China's in­flu­ence is tremen­dous.

The gov­ern­ment, met with the West aban­don­ment has no way out but to de­pend on China for pro­tec­tion against the on­slaught in the UNSC and also eco­nomic sur­vival, as in the days of the suc­ces­sive mil­i­tary gov­ern­ments.

Like­wise, the mil­i­tary has to tread the same path like the gov­ern­ment to re­al­ize its “stan­dard army” am­bi­tion, as the West has boy­cotted it. The United States even re­cently doled out visa sanc­tions on the com­man­derin-chief and its three top gen­er­als. It might shop around in Rus­sia and In­dia for arms, but China will re­main the main source for some­times to come.

Thus, there is no de­nial of the grow­ing po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence in Myan­mar and it needs to live with it, while try­ing to nav­i­gate the po­lit­i­cal waters as best as it pos­si­bly can and avoid the so-called debt trap, which is closely link to the BRI.

Myan­mar State Coun­sel­lor Aung San Suu Kyi with Chi­nese Premier Li Ke­qiang. Photo: EPA

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