Last Saturday, the Hong Kong SAR government announced that it will officially conclude a free trade agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in November in order to further consolidate trade relations with the region, which is currently our second largest trading partner.
But while the SAR government is set to take trade relations with the ASEAN to the next level, it should also keep a close eye on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.
The crisis, if it continues to worsen, might not only ruin the country’s economy – investors around the world once had high hopes for Myanmar – but could also undermine ties among ASEAN member states.
No matter how the crisis in Myanmar plays out, it will inevitably have far-reaching implications for our future relations with the ASEAN. As such, it is very important for our government to keep abreast of what is going on in the country.
The crisis was triggered by an ethnic armed conflict that broke out on Aug. 25 between Islamic Rohingya militants and government troops in the northwestern province of Rakhine. It led to the massacre of at least 400 Rohingya civilians, including women and children.
The ethnic violence in Myanmar and the ensuing carnage have raised widespread concern in the international community. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has referred to the conflict as “genocide”, while British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has called on Myanmar’s government troops to stop their violence against Rohingya civilians.
Even Pope Francis was dismayed at the ethnic cleansing, saying in public that “our Rohingya brothers are being persecuted”.
The bloody conflict in the Rakhine province has also sparked the exodus of at least 300,000 Rohingya people from Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh. Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan have also been hit by this latest wave of Rohingya refugees.
As the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar continues to escalate, Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and incumbent state counsellor of Myanmar, has come under fire from around the world for failing to lend her voice to the suffering of the Rohingya people and halt the ethnic cleansing mounted by government troops against them.
Some human rights activists have even drawn up an online petition urging the Norwegian Nobel Committee to strip her of her Nobel prize, and so far 400,000 people have already signed the petition.
But whether Aung San Suu Kyi is able to retain her mojo as the “goddess of democracy” as well as her Nobel award is the least of her worries right now.
She is currently facing the much more daunting and urgent tasks of seeking a peaceful resolution of the ethnic conflict in her country and containing the ongoing wave of Rohingya refugees in order to allay discontent and suspicion in neighboring countries, which have taken the brunt of the refugee crisis.
On Sunday, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) declared a unilateral one-month ceasefire in order to allow international humanitarian aid to reach the ethnic Rohingya Muslims.
Whether Aung San Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy should be blamed for the suffering of the Rohingya people is open to debate, given the fact that the military is still firmly in power, but one thing is certain: the pace of economic expansion in Myanmar, which was initially regarded by many as the potential growth engine for the entire ASEAN, has slowed down.
Myanmar’s GDP growth stood at 6.3 percent last year, down from 7.3 percent in 2015 and hitting a five-year low. Worse still, the amount of foreign direct investment in the country dropped 22 percent to US$2 billion last year, compared to 2015.
Aung San Suu Kyi and her party are struggling to keep their heads above water, as the humanitarian crisis involving the Rohingya people has left her country externally beleaguered and internally inert.
And the degree to which she is able to facilitate lasting peace between the military and the ARSA and jump-start the economy would very much determine the future of democracy in Myanmar.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 11
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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