China closely watching as Burma evolves from a socialist winter

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — A new dawn has come to Burma. At long last the political pariah state, also known as Myanmar, has ushered in a new civilian government in which Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has a strong if not formal hand at the democratic helm.

Yet, the lingering legacy of the past; Burma’s half century of left wing nationalist military rule, a history of bloody crackdowns on opposition, and a close political and economic dependence on the People’s Republic of China, have left this Southeast Asian country in the shadows of a self-imposed isolation.

The political formalities were in themselves extraordinary; the long banned National League for Democracy and its tireless standard bearer Aung San Suu Kyi formed a new civilian government in the glitzy golden capital of Naypyidaw. Htin Kyaw, an economist and longtime NLD activist, holds the Presidency, because constitutional trickery by the former junta disallows parliamentarians such as Aung San Suu Kyi who have foreign spouses and children, to hold the highest office. So be it, but Aung heads a host of portfolios including the Foreign Ministry.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Li with Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this week.. / Aung Shine Oo / AP
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Li with Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this week.. / Aung Shine Oo / AP

Yet despite the whiff of political springtime, the military junta holds enshrined constitutional powers not to mention being entrenched in holding important ministries such as defense, home affairs and border affairs. The military also secures its patronage in an economy marinated in corruption.

Burma is one of a handful of places where focused American diplomacy seemed to have worked for a positive outcome. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit in 2011, pressed for efforts to bring Burma out of the shadows. Yet despite the West’s political good wishes suffocating sanctions were still imposed on Burma for all the right reasons in the past but remain in force and are hardly helpful for the present.

Priscilla Clapp, former Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar opines in a recent study, “Continuing to rely on a sanctions regime designed primarily to inhibit U.S. participation in and assistance to Myanmar’s economy and government no longer makes sense particularly when Western allies and others observe no restrictions on their activities in Myanmar.”

Writing in a Council on Foreign Relations report, Ms. Clapp adds, “More than five decades of military rule have left large parts of the country in near semi-feudal condition, beset by an overly large army, a multitude of ethnic armed forces, and hundreds of militias.” She cautions, “rule of law is almost nonexistent.”

The new government must strive to heal ethnic and religious fault lines.

Thus Myanmar’s tilt to the West may have less to do with the military’s conversion to democratic politics than the gripping reality that the country of 54 million people maintains a moribund socialist economy, was locked in a dependence with neighboring China, and may be trying to spread the blame for its broken kleptocracy.

Myanmar is one of the few members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) lagging socio/economically in a region which is prospering. Though a resource rich but ecologically plundered state, its xenophobic rulers echoed Tony Soprano in taste and style.

China’s shadow has made many in Myanmar uneasy including among the military elites. The controversial Myitsone mega-dam hydropower project, was the last straw; it was suspended by the previous military regime in 2011 but its future now looms over the new government.

Significantly the first foreign visitor to Myanmar after the formal transition to democracy was none other than Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Li.

Minister Li spoke of China’s “cherished” ties with Myanmar adding, “We appreciate our long relations. We will not change that attitude even though the government has changed…Myanmar can rely on China for its development.”

Beijing is clearly concerned over Myanmar’s political tilt, the PRC-based China Daily wrote “Admittedly problems have cropped up between the two countries in the past few years. China has endured economic losses when Myanmar stalled the construction of some projects” and added there were “some anti-China sentiments” in the country.

Mainland China remains Burma’s biggest trading partner and largest foreign investor.

Beijing sees its influence slipping to Western states not to mention prosperous ASEAN neighbors.

Despite some loss of political clout, the PRC is not willing to let this strategic Southeast Asian state slip from Beijing’s sphere and may try to co-opt the popular Aung San Suu Kyi. The West and Japan must redouble their efforts to offer Myanmar credible and sustained socio/economic support as to rebalance Burma’s standing and to help outshine Beijing’s shadow.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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