China and Myanmar’s Transition
By Bhaskar Roy
When prisoner of conscience for a cumulative 18 years Aung San Suu Kyi received her Nobel Prize for Peace in Oslo’s town hall on June 15, a loud warning went to Myanmar’s autocratic neighbour that democracy and human rights will break the shackles of coercive governments. Ms. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1991. She personally received it after 21 years. Human freedom ultimately prevails.
This truth would not have been missed by the top leaders of China, Myanmar’s neighbour. In 2010, one of China’s most celebrated democracy activists, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Not only was Liu or his relative not allowed to go to Oslo to receive the prize, but the Beijing leaders again incarcerated him and went on a diplomatic offensive and propaganda blitz. Despite pressure from Beijing, India sent its ambassador to attend the Nobel ceremony felicitating Liu Xiaobo. An empty chair at that ceremony told a telling story.
Speaking to a television channel immediately following Suu Kyi’s ceremony a former Chinese ambassador to Myanmar said that China was very happy with the ongoing pro-democratic changes in Myanmar. Comments from strategic experts in China state that China had very little influence on Myanmar and the generals did not listen to China. The idea is to sell the perception internationally that China was always inclined towards a democratic Myanmar. A preposterous suggestion. According to reports former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, during his last visit to Yangon (Old capital) had advised the military rulers to ignore western pressures for democracy and persist on their political path.
In the immediate context, Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize ceremony hardly received coverage in the mainline official Chinese media. At the moment China is in a difficult situation. The country is expected to see a total transition of the top leadership this autumn as per law laid down by the Communist Party’s constitution. Factional strifes can be seen already. There is a struggle inside the party on political reform and freedom of speech. The future Chinese politics is under question.
In such a situation even the most vocal liberal leaders cannot voice their true beliefs. Given that all factions are deeply engaged in security and legitimacy of the Party, any revolutionary political shift remains out of question. This strengthens the hands of the leftist hardliners.
But things are not static in China. The decision to allow blind activist Chen Guangchen to emigrate to the USA with his immediate family is of note. That Chen could escape from his guarded home from a distant village and travel to Beijing to take refuge in the American embassy can only suggest that cracks have emerged even in the lower level of China’s draconian security apparatus. This is an ominous sign, however small. But the whip is also being cracked on other dissidents.
The June 04, 1989 anniversary passed off generally peacefully in China. The democratic activists have learnt from the 1989 lesson. The might of the state has to be challenged in a different way. And this chosen way is reflected in the internet blogs. Twitters and face book have been banned in China. But the more than 100 thousand internet army of the authorities have failed to contain the critics. Demands are rising to reopen the history of the 1958 Great Leap Forward and the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution that cost the country dearly in lives and development.
The Chinese official media have carefully avoided reporting on internal developments in Myanmar including transition towards democracy. The main reporting have been broadly on bilateral relations. Difficulty in bilateral relations like on the Mytsone dam have been reported briefly.
Censorship of news, however, cannot work in China any longer. The World Wide Web has ensured that. Chinese netizens will certainly take note of the reality that while political activists in neighbouring Myanmar are being set free from prisons to participate in national politics, their own people who ask their voices to be heard are being incarcerated, tortured, jailed and reportedly even eliminated by the state. Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize speech puts will the Chinese scenario in stark contrast.
The ongoing political changes in Myanmar would certainly impact Sino-Myanmar strategic relations. Of course, the changes in Myanmar are not yet irreversible. But the manner in which Senior Gen. Than Swe engineered the process suggested that he had this challenge in mind. The process, therefore, was very deliberate and Suu Kyi responded appropriately. There are of course, many challenges ahead especially in the constitution in the run up to the 2015 elections.
It is well known that the isolated Myanmar’s military run government became almost a captive state of China. It is also known that the relationship was not always smooth. But it was inevitable. Oil, gas and mineral rich Myanmar, with its abundance of fine timber, and occupying a very geographically strategic position was a boon for China. As a Chinese commentator remarked, Myanmar is of major strategic value to China.
China has invested heavily in Myanmar, but much of it has been exploitative and without consideration for environmental degradation. This is a particular reason for Myanmar suspending work on Mystone dam after locals agitated. The electricity produced would go to China’s province bordering Myanmar. The Chinese invested $3.2 billion dollars in the project and were outraged, and are pressing Naypyidaw to resurrect the project.
Another major project is the oil and gas pipe lines being laid from Kyapkpyu in Rakine state to Kunming to transfer a large part of its oil and gas imports instead of using the longer and pirate prone route through the Malacca strait. Myanmar has also been dependent on China for its defence needs. There are a large number of other areas of cooperation.
Chinese strategic advance in Myanmar have concerns for neighbours like India. It has been persistent in trying build military facilities especially a port, and posting a detachment of its navy in Myanmar’s waters on the pretext of safeguarding its investment and assets in the country. Naypyidaw has resisted these moves.
A proposal from Beijing is still pending to build a road from Kunming to Bangladesh’s eastern coast through Myanmar. Bangladesh has agreed to this and to the Chinese proposal to build a deep water port in Sonadia near Chittagong by China. Myanmar has yet to permit the road project though its territory. A Chinese built deep water port in Bangladesh is a concern for the region. It would replicate China’s construction of the Gwadar port in Pakistan with hardly any cost to Pakistan. It is also seen by strategic experts as a chain of Chinese naval assets if the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka is included. This may be read with Chinese intentions to build ports or naval bases in the western Indian Ocean countries like Seychelles.
A Chinese port in Bangladesh is almost certain to draw the US in especially with the new US views of joining the Indian Ocean with the Pacific. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar will have to take this into consideration.
As Myanmar re-enters the international community China’s almost total domination in the country is under challenge. Of course, both the US and China have said that the change in Myanmar will not bring them into conflict.
But that is diplomatic talk. Myanmar is a member of the ASEAN and will take over its ASEAN chairmanship in 2014. It is, therefore, an active participant in western pacific, and it is also pertinent in the Indian Ocean.
India is as much interested in Myanmar in terms of security and its Look East economic policy. It is well known that Myanmar was a conduit for India’s north-east insurgents to travel to China to procure arms and communication equipment. Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh laid out a road map from India to South East Asia through Myanmar during his recent visit to Naypyidaw where he met both President Thien Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Is there full trust between Myanmar and China? Definitely not. At the same time the two countries have interdependence. What the changes in Myanmar portend is that it is no longer China’s kitchen garden. The impact of the new Myanmar on China will be considerable.