Mounting pressure on Myanmar from the US and other Western nations to urgently and satisfactorily address human rights issues vis-à-vis the Rohingya Muslims, the Buddhist Arakanese and other ethnic groups, has pushed the Aung San Suu Kyi regime in Yangon further into the arms of China.
In August this year, the US Treasury had imposed sanctions on four Myanmarese army officers accused of orchestrating massacres in areas where the ethnic minorities live. But the Senators consider those sanctions to be insufficient. The want the Trump Administration to apply the Magnitsky Act, which enables the US government to seize the assets (and also prevent entry into the US) of foreign nationals accused of serious human rights violations.
Yangon considers the threat to apply the Magnitsky Act against its Army chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, as unfair. It is also feels duty bound to protect him because the Myanmar military, called the Tatmadaw, is part of the Aung San Suu Kyi regime.
In a recent interview to the Myanmar website The Irrawaddy the US Ambassador, Scot Marciel, had said that the US is mainly concerned about the restoration of democracy, federalism and human rights in Myanmar – not the massive Chinese investments in that country per se.
But being new to democracy and riddled with mind-boggling ethnic issues in the northern part of the country, the Aung San Suu Kyi regime in Yangon finds US and Western concerns and pronouncements very unsettling. The regime becomes truculent when pressured, and finds relations with China more congenial.
There is a National Cease-Fire Agreement. Talks have also been held with non-signatories to that agreement. But these efforts have not succeeded because the regime in Yangon is sticking to the theory that no human rights violations have taken place. It plainly rejected the demand of the Arakan Army (AA) that it be given the responsibility to maintain security in the Rakhine region.
According to US envoy Marciel, there is room for give and take between the ethnic armed groups and the government because no one in these ethnic minority areas is seeking independence from Myanmar. They just want democracy, human rights and federalism and they are very frustrated because of the government’s opposition to their demands, Marciel added. But Yangon does not share the envoy’s view.
The result has been violence and counter violence in Arakan displacing more than 20,000 people. The town of Mrauk U, which is bristling with Buddhist monuments, has been subjected to attacks. The army had shelled the village of Ywan Haung Taw and there were aerial raids on Myelon village. The Ta’ang National Army, has accused the Myanmar military of targeting civilians and even Pagodas (Buddhist shrines).
China’s Dual Policy
It is said that China has shrewdly exploited the crisis in Rakhine state, from where 700,000 minority Rohingya Muslims had fled to Bangladesh in the past year, unable to face the Tatmadaw’s crackdown.
While the West and the UN labeled the Myanmarese military action as “ethnic cleansing”, China supported the government’s action as being necessary for the maintenance of law and order and for the promotion of economic development of the region.China has thus positioned itself as an “all-weather friend” of Myanmar in the face of criticism and threats of punitive action from Western nations.
The main reason for China’s stance is that it has high economic stakes in Rakhine. There is a US$ 7.3 billion port coming up at Kyaukphyu. A planned Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and a road, rail, and pipeline network to move energy and other supplies from the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar to Yunnan Province in China are also on the cards.
Part of the economic corridor project is the upgrading of a highway from the Shan state-China border crossing of Muse to the commercial hub of Mandalay.
To protect these economic stakes, China has to ensure peace in the Rakhine region and other parts of Myanmar which share a long border with it. For this purpose, Beijing supports Yangon’s punitive actions against the Rakhine rebel groups.
China has another objective in siding with Yangon. That is to keep the Western powers out of the Kachin and Shan states where it has links with local rebel groups which help it serve its strategic interests in Myanmar.
When a UN Security Council delegation visited Myanmar to investigate human rights abuses, China’s representative apparently blocked a proposal to include details of alleged atrocities in Kachin and Shan states in the final report.
It is said that China is interested in both peace and war, in both stability and instability in Myanmar.
While supporting Yangon in suppressing some groups like the Rohingya rebels, Beijing has a vested interest in promoting some groups on its border. It encourages the latter set of armed groups to participate in peace processes when it wants, and prevents them from doing so when it wants.
According to the South China Morning Post some armed groups from north and east Myanmar, known collectively as the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee, travelled to the peace conference with the Yangon regime via Kunming in China’s Yunnan province. They were escorted by Yunnan’s Director General of the Public Security Department, Guo Bao. In 2013, China had designated a Special Envoy, selected from among its most seasoned diplomats, to serve as the lead point of contact and formal observer to Myanmar’s peace talks, the paper said.
China has a contradictory policy on Myamnar. On the one hand, there is the official policy of non-interference in the affairs of other countries. But on the other, China harbors some ethnic insurgent groups from Myanmar and supplies them with arms. It is surmised that the latter policy is meant to keep the Myanmar government on the leash. It is reported that China uses these rebel groups to temper the Myanmar government’s treatment of China and Chinese business interests in Myanmar.
However, China’s close links with some of the rebel groups are understandable given historical antecedents. North Myanmarese ethnic groups such as the Wa and the Kokang, have historical, linguistic, cultural, economic and political links with ethnic groups across the border in China. The United Wa State Army, among the largest militant groups in Asia with more than 30,000 fighters, is believed to get its weapons from China. The Chinese province of Yunnan has sheltered thousands of refugees during periods of intense fighting in Myanmar. Private Chinese businessmen and smugglers have been having profitable links with these rebel groups.
According to a report of the US Institute of Peace dated September 2018, China prefers neither a hot war nor complete peace in Myanmar.
“Beijing seeks a reduction of fighting along its border to safeguard stability, maintain cross-border economic ties, and mitigate refugee flows. Cessation of fighting more broadly, including in Rakhine State, allows for its investments to proceed unobstructed, including strategic infrastructure projects linking Myanmar—and the Indian Ocean—to China under its Belt and Road Initiative and China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.”
“At the same time, genuine peace risks China’s strategic position in the country. Continued friction between central authorities and border populations provides Beijing a major source of influence over Naypyidaw (Myanmar’s official capital). That leverage may be used, among other things, to prevent unwelcome influence of the United States in the country and thus the region,” the report said.
However, the feeling among all groups in Myanmar is that China’s engagement has not been disruptive but constructive from an overall point of view.
(The featured image at the top shows Aung San Suu Kyi with army chief Sr.Gen. Min Aung Hlaing)