Myanmar better off in good graces with the West

Two developments stood out in Myanmar’s international relations landscape in 2017: The increasing Chinese influence in the country and the immense diplomatic pressure from international community on the government’s handling of the Rakhine crisis.

Analysts cautioned Myanmar against overdependence on China for its development and urged the country to mend ties with the West to ensure a balanced growth.

Growing China influence

After the August 25 attacks by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which the government labelled as a terrorist group, and the subsequent counter-insurgency operations by government security forces, over 650,000 Muslim people from northern Rakhine were forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The international community has accused the government forces of violating human rights during the clearance operations, which the latter vehemently denied.

Amid mounting international pressure, China stood firmly on Myanmar’s side, vetoing attempts by Western nations to bring the issues to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in March.

China said the crisis in Rakhine was Myanmar’s internal affairs, which should not be interfered.

While its relations with the Western world soured, Myanmar builds closer ties with China. It has endorsed China’s strategic Belt and Road Initiative. President Xi Jinping and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi agreed to speed up the building of the China-Myanmar economic corridor during a meeting in November last year.

“The Chinese One Belt One Road initiative is big. It is globalisation by Chinese way. It’s so large that it encompasses about 60 countries, and it’s inevitable for us,” said U Aung Thu Nyein, a political commentator.

China also has deep involvement in Myanmar’s peace process that is the topmost policy priority of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, by influencing armed ethnic organisations that are active along Myanmar-China border and by acting as a moderator, and sometimes as advisor in the domestic peace process.

For instance, three armed ethnic groups were allowed by government to attend as observer at the opening ceremony of the second round of 21st Century Panglong Conference held last May because of China’s last-minute negotiation.

The three ethnic armed groups, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (Kokang) and Arakan Army were previously not invited by government to attend such event.

The exchange of views during the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Myanmar’s top regime leaders Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hliang last year has also clearly exhibited that Myanmar and China are enjoying closer ties than in the past.

Due to the protection it accorded to Myanmar against international community’s pressure on the Rakhine conflict, China’s reputation inside Myanmar has quickly changed from too negative to slight optimism.

Waning relations with the West

Because of its differing views in resolving the crisis in Rakhine, the relations between NLD and the Western world have strained.

Since the crisis unfolded in 2016, the reputation of de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a democracy icon, has diminished greatly.

Criticisms against her were focused on her failure to speak for the Muslim community in Rakhine – perceived as the most persecuted minority group in the world.

Amid allegations Myanmar troops had used disproportionate force in its operations against the ARSA and committed human rights violations, Western nations, most noticeably the European Union and Britain, suspended its military assistance to the Tatmadaw.

Unless the human rights situation in Rakhine state are improved, assistance would be delayed, World Bank and EU also announced.

While there is widespread domestic acceptance that the international pressure on Myanmar concerning Rakhine is a clear sign of interference on Myanmar’s domestic affairs, some analysts believe this is because of rivalry between superpowers.

U Kyaw Win, an author of several books and a political analyst said the international pressure was intentional, to slowdown China’s ‘One Belt One road’ initiative.

“By letting Myanmar solve its internal problem alone, then the Chinese initiative of ‘One Belt One Road’ will succeed without facing difficulties. I think they have touched the Rakhine crisis to counter-balance the Chinese initiative,” he said.

He said the impacts of rivalry between the superpowers are inevitable to small countries like Myanmar, which people in Myanmar should be aware of and be patient to endure.

Sanctions, and then what?

While sanctions against Myanmar are highly unlikely, an international embargo could hamper the country’s economic growth. The United States last month placed former commander of Western Command General Maung Maung Soe on its list of individuals facing targeted sanctions over his alleged involvement in northern Rakhine abuses.

Yun Sun, senior associate at the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, reminded Myanmar of the consequences of Western nations’ sanctions imposed on the country decades ago.

“I think Myanmar should be very careful of what it is running into. Ten years ago, it was in a similar situation on human rights violations where China vetoed a UNSC resolution in protection of the military government. And the result was the overwhelming Chinese influence in the country’s economy and politics. Over dependence on any single country is not a good idea,” she said.

Due to the embargo imposed against Myanmar in the past, it was forced to inevitably do business with China. Deals on many investment projects including the controversial Myitsone mega hydropower plan was made during the rule of military regime.

The International Crisis Group on its report in December warned policy makers from the West to resist the urge to disengage Myanmar as it is home to millions of poorest people in the region, and their aspirations for a better economic future must not be forgotten.

It also suggested that Western countries should maintain development assistance and trade preferences recently reinstated by the EU and US are critical in supporting manufacturing jobs in Myanmar and should not be revoked. But it also urged to maintain non-military engagement.

Need to repair ties with the West

Analysts noted Myanmar should repair its relations with the West to have more balanced development.

With the lifting of sanctions after 2010, the door for Myanmar products were opened to the European market.

As a consequence, Myanmar’s economic growth in 2013 soared to 8.3 percent, fastest among the emerging and growing economies.

Having healthy relations with Western countries would be of great significant for the country’s growing economy, said Vicky Bowman, director of Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business.

“Western countries provide investment capital to Myanmar and markets for its goods,” she said.

Bowman said 44pc of the export market for the Myanmar garment sector were European countries in 2016. Local businesses could get larger benefits from Western tourists than regional travelers from Thailand and China due to their high-end and high margin nature.

“There is also a risk that reduction in investment from Western countries reduces the pressure for reform, and the pressure for improved environmental and social performance by business, greater transparency and less corruption,” Vicky Bowman said.

U Kyaw Win said the Western countries will be more reliable in providing significant help in developing Myanmar.

“The transfer of the most effective technology to drive Myanmar’s growth is expected to be coming from (the investments of) the West. The assistance of the West is very important for Myanmar’s change process,” he said.

The way Myanmar handles its troubled Rakhine State should be long-term and visionary. For instance, granting access to international humanitarian organisations and assistance into Rakhine and letting local and foreign journalists to freely do their jobs in the state with zero restriction would be easy things for government to do.

“In the past, hostile response to the international pressure did not work. Now, government should remember that it needs smart ways to respond the pressure from abroad,” U Kyaw Win said.

Bowman said the country’s deteriorating human rights record and the detention of journalists would imprint negative perception to potential investors from the West.

The announcement of Myanmar military last September that the country faces heightened security risk has frightened visitors and businesses.

Myanmar should not stop diplomatic relations with the West despite current setbacks over the handling of the Rakhine crisis, Yun Sun said.

“Alienating great powers one after another only hurts Myanmar’s own credibility, its reputation and its future, presenting Myanmar as fickle, wayward and unprincipled,” she said.

“It will gradually eliminate the choices available for Myanmar, which will not be in its interests in the long run,” Yun Sun added.

Source: Myanmar Times

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