In Myanmar, China should support the NLD and ditch the army

February 16, 2021 08:18
Photo: Reuters

Myanmar has descended into darkness – the darkness that had long been familiar to thousands, millions residing within its borders; the darkness of unaccountable governance, but also a junta that seeks to oppress, to silence, and to eliminate any and all threats. A junta government that doesn’t want the country to return to the economic destitution that had plagued it in the run-up to 2011, yet wants absolute discipline and order. In other words, a military government that knows exactly what it wants – yet clearly doesn’t know that what it wants is destined to fail.

China has a stake in Myanmar. Indeed, I would argue that its stake extends to seeing the country’s transition – from a military, autocratic, kleptocratic rule under generals and ‘strong men’ such as Min Aung Hlaing – into a full-fledged democracy. Peace and order matter, and it is imperative that China lives up to its motto and commitment on this front – it should prefer a representative, efficacious, and competent Myanmese government under the National League for Democracy, as opposed to the military.

Let’s be very clear here – the attempts at excluding the League (henceforth NLD) from state and official politics is untenable. Large-scale protests, violent skirmishes, and looming civil disobedience or passive resistance have been brewing in Myanmar – threatening to disrupt the very economic infrastructure that Chinese investors and businesses lean on; the Myanmese army is incapable of commanding minimal loyalty or compliance from the population – the proverbial proof in the pudding has prematurely been exposed by the revelation that the army is struggling to collect taxes to fund its extravagant, exorbitant oppressive activities. Given this, the army’s grip over actual power, despite its coercive apparatus, is tenuous at best. Hence the one-year state of emergency is likely to be marred by vehement violence, uprisings from ethnic minorities and subjugated masses, and turmoil and strife.

None of this would facilitate greater geopolitical stability in a region already fraught with ethnic tensions. None of this would help bring about a conducive business environment for merchants coming in from the north. Indeed, there is every reason to think that, as the priority of the state shifts drastically towards suppressing contentious politics, it would flounder in the other parts of its remit – including upholding overarching law and order. There is nothing compatible with law and order in the army’s unilateral decision to release the 23,000 prisoners, amongst which only a handful are political prisoners and dissident activists – a majority of them are genuine law-breakers who would do little good for the fractured polity.

The army hasn’t a clue as to what its long-term game-plan is. China, in contrast, should and does know where its long-term interests lie. China is primarily preoccupied with securing stable and consiste returns from the Sino-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines, as well as the nascent China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. Political stability, presence of competent technocrats and administrators (indeed, the army had recently purged even some of the more moderate and West-friendly, finance-savvy administrators from the Central Bank, precipitating a substantial spike in concern amongst foreign investors) are vital for the maintenance of these projects. As a fledgling yet increasingly important piece in the Belt and Road jigsaw, Myanmar’s stability is of paramount importance to China’s regional game-plans.

On that note, it is well worth noting that the League remains, by far, the sturdier and more reliable partner for China – especially in light of its prominent pivoting away from the West, under the mass rebuking of the party’s stance on the Rohingya crisis. Myanmar’s trade with China has climbed substantially over the past decade, with the Chinese market comprising 31% of the country’s total exports in 2019, a sharp increase from the paltry 6.24% in 2010. The five-time increase can and should be attributed to Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership and the League, which have both lent legitimacy to Chinese forays in the country, but also in Southeast Asia at large – through its offering substantial political capital and regional backing (in form of allies) to Chinese ventures in Cambodia and Laos. It would be imprudent for China to castigate the League as merely any other ‘civilian-led’ government: the League has proven to be demonstrably reliable as a partner to Chinese economic activities, and, as much as the army may have been an amicable ally in the past to the economic Behemoth, it is the League – with its popularity and command of respect from the domestic population – that China should seek to court in the long run.

The West has deserted Aung San Suu Kyi – citing reasons ranging from her track record on human rights abuses, to her unwillingness and reticence over distancing her country from China’s ongoing efforts in expanding its socioeconomic presence within the region. Myanmar sees value in the bilateral and mutually beneficial relations with China – which, some in the West, naturally, do not.

The League’s openness to working with the Chinese is no coincidence – the NLD prefers China’s fewer-to-no-strings-attached developmental approach, as well as its willingness to forego explicit moralisation in association with its economic presence. Aung San Suu Kyi has always treaded a very fine line in balancing between competing interests in the country, and Beijing has been substantially more sensitive to the League’s political proclivities than the West. This is not to say that Chinese investment in the region has been a net-positive, or that the League should not be held accountable or responsible for its negligence and omissions over the Rohingya refugee crisis – but it is to say that China should not rule out the League as the go-to partner in Myanmar.

Instead, Beijing should beware the Myanmese military – which has turned increasingly inward and guarded against the perceived threat and displacement by the country’s northern neighbours. NLD banks on popular support, which is tied innately with economic performance and growth; in contrast, the gun barrel politics that has promulgated the rise and fall of generations of military strong men does not depend upon the goodwill of Beijing. There have already been reports of Myanmese generals seeking Russian aid and military backing, in lieu of Chinese arms – the army cannot be trusted, and its mercurial nature renders it a distinctly worse partner than Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

Beijing must acknowledge and listen to the voices of the people in Myanmar – the very people who have come under encirclement, harassment, and violent attacks over recent weeks. Biden’s foreign policy regime has keenly portrayed China as a pariah and rogue element on human rights issues – there really are few better ways, other than action over Myanmar, for China to prove its critics wrong. It is high time for all parties – China, US, EU, or otherwise – to rally behind Aung Sang’s party, and put an end, once and for all, to the geopolitical quandary that is the Myanmese problem. The Myanmese problem has little to do with its people – it is the army, and, more generally (Aung Sang included), gentocratic, kleptocratic rule, that must and ought to be tackled with urgency. China must put their foot where their mouth is, and ditch the army.

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Assistant Professor, HKU

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