Myanmar (or as it has also been known, Burma) has a problem, and its name is foreign influence. This threatens Myanmar’s progress toward democracy and its steady convergence toward international norms. Of course, in its 1,300 years this south east Asian territory has faced more than its fair share of humanitarian challenges – but this is a subtler issue that has been played out many times over the last 70 years, often with tragic consequences for its population. It is the battle for influence between the USA and the other great power of this multipolar world; not the Soviets of old or the modern Russian state; but the Chinese.
This drive for influence and engagement with the territory has had far reaching consequences. The USA and China’s negative impact on Myanmar’s democratic prospects can be seen in its current political situation. Its unique history is also relevant to this current predicament: Upon Burma’s independence from the United Kingdom on 4th January 1948, it became an independent republic named ‘The Union of Burma’ with Sao She Thaik as its first president and U Nu as its first prime minister. Initially, the prospects for Burma were good. Unlike most other former British colonies and overseas territories, Burma did not become, and has never has been, a member of the Commonwealth.
Multi-party elections were held in 1951-52, ’56 and 1960, and during this time Burma strove to be completely impartial in world affairs and was one of the first countries in the world to recognise Israel and the PRC (Peoples Republic of China). As we now know, this democracy was not set to last; despite Burma, having finally begun to recover economically from the damage inflicted by the Japanese forces during WWII, saw its politics were beginning to fall apart. This culminated in the 1962 Burmese coup d’état which led to a dictatorship (strictly speaking) until 1990, when free and fair elections were held after thousands were killed in a 1988 uprising, during which time the name of the country was changed to Myanmar. These were later annulled, and thanks to that reversal, it was not until the 2015 election in which the NLD (National League for Democracy) led by Aung San Suu Kyi gained its largest ever vote share (60%) since the 1990 elections. These 2015 elections were the first held in the country that were not later annulled, while also being considered free and fair albeit with the significant caveat that a quarter of the state legislature seats are allocated to military appointees.
The central figure for many of the improvements in the restoration of democracy to Myanmar is Aung San Suu Kyi, at least from a western perspective. From birth you could argue that she was destined for a great future: Being the youngest daughter of Khin Kyi, who was considered the father of the modern state of Burma, she was almost guaranteed a high profile no matter what she chose to do with her life. She graduated from the University of Delhi with a degree in politics in 1964, and then again from the University of Oxford in 1968 with a B.A. Degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, subsequently working for the United Nations for 3 years. She initially rose to prominence in her home country during the 8888 Uprisings in 1988 (known as 8888 due to key events occurring on the 8th August 1988) leading to her addressing half a million people at a mass rally in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda in the capital calling for a democratic government later in the year and became the general secretary of the NLD. These events greatly contributed to generating their massive electoral landslide in 1990.
Unfortunately, this election elation was not to last; the Military refused to hand over power. Having already been held under house arrest since just before those elections, Suu Kyi would remain so for 15 out of the 21 years between 1989 and further elections in 2010, becoming one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners.
Between the elections of 2010 and 2015, Myanmar underwent a series of political, economic and administrative reforms that were undertaken by the military government. These resulted in amnesties of many political prisoners, institution of new labour laws, relaxation of press censorship and abolished laws that had led to the NLD’s boycott of previous elections. Due to her British-born children, Suu Kyi was not able to run for the presidency directly in accordance with strict citizenship laws imposed by the military, seen as specifically targeting her. It is widely acknowledged that though her position as ‘state councillor’ holds little constitutional power, she is the de facto ‘co-president’ through her ally Htin Kyaw, who holds the actual presidential title. These reforms and the allowance of Myanmarese democracy by the military Junta can be pointed to as a direct effect of US economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure that has encouraged the military government to pursue this path of reconciliation and civilian governance.
Since those elections in 2015, there have been a few issues that have plagued the NLD’s government, but none more so than the Rohingya. you may have heard a little about this humanitarian crisis; the condensed version is that the Myanmarese army is instituting the wholesale slaughter and expelling of an entire ethnic group with a population of around 1 Million from the north-west of the country in Rakhine State. With around two thirds of this population having fled to Bangladesh (which borders the state) it is rapidly becoming one of the largest humanitarian disasters in Southeast Asia. Considering that these atrocities have been conducted under the auspices of civilian rule, can it really be said that the NLD is truly in charge? These have happened under a government supposedly run by a party that fought on a platform of representative democracy and equal rights for all, a party that has now not publicly attempted to reverse the Military-led decisions that have rendered the Rohingya effectively stateless and denied citizenship in the country within the country in which they live. If the NLD truly is in charge they are at best wilfully negligent, or at worst complicit in ethnic cleansing. However, if it is the military that is leading the effort without oversight of the civilian government, and can seemingly do as it pleases with no major repercussions from the international community or the civilian government beyond the standard denunciations, how is this at all different from what came before? There is a serious case to be made that the Myanmar military have used Aung San Suu Kyi to simply create a veneer of democratic governance.
It seems that the military is fortunate, in the sense that they are in a rather unique period of geopolitics. With the removal of financial sanctions on the country the general withdrawal of US engagement on human rights from Southeast Asia, it has opened up an opportunity for China to increase its geopolitical influence in the country thanks to its close proximity and investment leverage, while creating a problem for India and Bangladesh which are lagging behind in these areas, and wary of Chinese encroachment. Myanmar is a country that occupies an incredibly strategic location as the crossroads between the Indian Subcontinent, China and Southeast Asia. With a litany of vast natural resources that has been incredibly under-exploited, decent infrastructure and a low-wage workforce all combine to make it a prime target for investment and industrialisation akin to China in the 1980’s and 90’s. Thanks to the election of Donald Trump and his proven track record of business-friendly leanings, the United States is now far less likely to be the architect of any new sanctions, with US corporations now being much more likely to be able to sway the presidency. Due to the increased pliability of the president, he could be encouraged to press congress into forgoing any sanctions that may hurt corporate investments made since the country opened up to international markets.
It has been demonstrated quite clearly in the past that Trump only cares about what the world can do for America, and by extension the US Economy. What does it matter to him that Myanmar could once again be backsliding into dictatorship with a figurehead civilian government? There have been multiple demonstrations of his lack of either empathy or knowledge of what an actual democracy looks like. As an example: His visit to China earlier in 2017. There was not a single mention or criticism about China’s expanding territorial ambitions, either through force in the South China Sea, or through economic domination as part of the ‘One Belt, One Road Initiative’ which bears hallmarks of the US strategic aims of the original Marshall Plan of post-war Europe (which was itself a plan to bind Western Europe to US strategic aims). While Obama also did not address this issue during his trip to the G20 in September 2017, he at least alluded that religious rights should be respected, and has generally been an advocate of human rights (if not directly to China). Trump’s actions in support of human rights are essentially nil most of the time on the international stage (His actions are merely uncaring). Trump’s only issue with China nowadays seems to be their continued (whether real or imagined) support for North Korea. Despite this, knowing how often Trump resorts to recidivisms of facts and abrupt contradictions of previous statements and foreign policy decisions, who knows how long this state of affairs will last?
Prior to 2016, it could have been reasonably concluded that Myanmar’s extensive institutional and democratic deficits were, or at least on the path towards, being resolved. However, with the 2016 presidential election and the ‘challenging’ year that American foreign policy has suffered since, this has allowed China’s relations with Myanmar to improve at a rapid pace after previously cooling significantly with the election of the new democratic government. After the Myanmarese elections in 2015, the US presidency did very little to support the fledgling democracy beyond removing economic sanctions. This had unfortunate parallels of Afghanistan in 2001 when the US shifted its focus to Iraq in 2003, and forced a relocation of assets that caused America to essentially forget about Afghanistan. This lack of consistent American foreign policy is a major contributing factor for many of the problems that we are seeing now, showing that the Trump is not entirely at fault here and Obama must shoulder some of the blame. However, With China investing heavily in Myanmar’s energy infrastructure and economy more generally as part of their silk road initiative, this is increasing China’s influence. Meanwhile the Trump presidency and their strategic objectives have them looking elsewhere when now is the time to act to prevent the tide from turning. It seems unlikely that China will have much interference from the US until the next presidential election, provided Trump doesn’t win again. This leaves Suu Kyi in a rather precarious position; she cannot actively oppose the military as the US is unlikely to impose any more sanctions or intervene on her behalf. With China’s increased activity in the country and indifference to human rights, there is little incentive for the military to keep her as anything more than a figurehead should she try anything.
Suu Kyi’s position in Myanmar’s government and silence on the subject can be seen in two ways: either she is both responsible and complicit in the persecution of the Rohingya people, or it could be dangerous for her to become outspoken on the subject, and it could lead to her losing any the remaining influence she has on other social and economic issues. Given her track record, it is entirely possible that this persecution is driven by the military. Separately, it does appear that she is attempting to build a strong rapport with the Chinese Leader Xi Jinping – but whether this is to forestall any reckoning on behalf of the Rohingya from the international community (or an attempt to gain Chinese support for her to be able to control the military), or whether it is simply at the behest of the military and she is now simply a puppet for the military apparatus in government remains to be seen. Either way, both of these possibilities are based on the assumption that she is opposed to the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State.
Ultimately, Myanmar’s issue with foreign influence is a dichotomy: influence is both the problem and the solution. Unfortunately it seems unlikely that the geopolitical situation is going to change anytime soon in southeast Asia. Outside the American and Chinese political giants, it’s possible that states like India and Bangladesh could throw in a surprise horse in the race to compete for influence in Myanmar. However, with Myanmar being on a trajectory of economic growth and prosperity despite the humanitarian issues thanks to close relations and investment from China, it seems much more likely that there will be less, not more democracy, as there is no incentive for them to change. This will in due course end any sort of significant American influence in the country, leading to Chinese domination – something considered only moderately likely no more than 2 years ago. With the ethnic cleansing of their minorities having no end in sight – and even with the military recently admitting to small portions of their atrocities in Rakhine State – there is nothing to suggest that the United States will re-engage in this region in the near term, cementing the primacy of Chinese influence and potentially causing increased tensions between India and China. Finally, other states that might face a potential fallout from this problem of foreign influence must also be considered. Given the lack of international interest and sympathy for the Rohingya, the Shan states and its many ethnic groups in the north-east of the country are a concern. With their proximity to the Chinese border and long history of armed insurrection, and the propensity of both the Chinese and the Myanmarese to suppress ethnic minorities; they could find themselves next on their hit-list, with little or no international will to help them.
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