President Xi Jinping has just completed a two-day official visit to Myanmar, on 17 and 18 January 2020. This was the first state visit by a Chinese President, in 19 years; though, in 2009, Xi Jinping as Vice President had visited Myanmar. The geopolitical significance of the visit is three-fold; PRC support to Myanmar in the Rohingya Crisis; assertion of Myanmar control in the Northern states, particularly Kachin and Shan; and, the revival of the stalled BRI (Belt & Road Initiative) projects in Myanmar.
The Rohingya Challenge
According to historians, the Rohingya Muslims have been living in the Arakan (presently called Rakhine), in Western Myanmar, since British colonization (1824 – 1948). At that time, both Myanmar and Bangladesh were provinces of British India. Thus, the internal movement of labour, within the British Empire, was considered normal; though, perhaps the local population resented the influx of foreigners. After Myanmar gained independence in 1948, this migration was declared illegal, and the Rohingya people were denied citizenship. From the late 1970s, the Myanmar Army has been deployed in the Rakhine State, and several Rohingya villages have been vacated, with the population seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Many refugees attempt to cross the Straits of Malacca and the Andaman Sea on rickety boats; thus, they have been dubbed the ‘Boat People’. From 2015 onwards, the plight of the Rohingya people received international attention. In 2019, the West African state of Gambia filed a lawsuit, at the ICJ at The Hague, against Myanmar. The Gambia estimates that because of the brutal crackdown by the Myanmar Army, 0.7 million refugees, have been forced to relocate to Bangladesh and an estimated 10,000 have lost their lives. India also has an estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees.
Aung San Suu Kyi, a former human rights activist and Nobel Laureate, is currently Myanmar’s de-facto leader and the State Councilor. In December 2019, Suu Kyi was forced to appear before the ICJ, to defend Myanmar’s military actions against accusations of genocide and other crimes against humanity. The ICJ is likely to announce a provisional verdict, on 23 Jan 2020.
China is one of the only powers to have backed Myanmar, despite confirmation of human rights violations, by UN investigations. The visit of President Xi Jinping should provide a much-needed show of support, for the Aung San Suu Kyi’s Government; which faces global condemnation, over the treatment meted out to the Rohingya Muslim minority. Suu Kyi’s reputation as a human-rights activist and campaigner for democratic rights has suffered, after the testimony at the ICJ, in which she supported the Myanmar armed forces.
The Challenge of Myanmar’s Other Northern States
Kachin is the Northern-most state of Myanmar; and, bordered by the PRC to the North (Tibet) and the East (Yunnan). Since the mid-1960s, Kachin has been virtually independent, with the assistance of the KIA (Kachin Independent Army) and an economy based on agriculture and trade. Kachin carries out active trade with PRC to the North; Timber, Gold, Rare Earth metals and Jade are the main commodities of trade. Since independence in 1948, the Myanmar Army has been periodically engaged in operations, with the KIA.
The Shan State lies to the East of Kachin and also borders China (Yunnan), with Laos to the East and Thailand to the South. Shan is Myanmar’s largest state but also remains in the control of several ethnic militias. Since Myanmar’s independence, the ethnic movements and their armed wings have resisted domination by the central government. The Myanmar Army has been periodically engaged in operations with these militias, but the difficult mountainous terrain and the underdeveloped state of communications, have undermined efforts. The ethnic militias, particularly those East of the Salween River, remain firmly outside Central Government rule. In recent years, the state has come under increasing Han-Chinese economic and political influence, from Yunnan.
Both Kachin and Shan States were part of the notorious ‘Golden Triangle’ which produced most of the global supply of opium till it was surpassed by Afghanistan early this century. However, as per UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC), ‘Shan and Kachin (States) are experiencing a protracted state of conflict, high concentrations of poppy cultivation have continued – a clear correlation between conflict and opium production’.
Since independence in 1948, the Myanmar Army has been involved in a series of ethnic conflicts covering the states of Rakhine, Kachin and Shan. Myanmar’s internal conflicts have been called the world’s longest civil war. During these decades of conflict, several ceasefires and peace settlements were negotiated, which have largely fallen apart. The latest such agreement is the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), signed between the government and 10 insurgent groups, on 15 Oct 2015. China, with its military and economic power, can play a key role in controlling the ethnic militias, which are dependent on support from Yunnan Province, in PRC.
China – Myanmar Economic Corridor
Of late, China’s BRI, the sprawling infrastructure and investment scheme, which spans Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond, is being dubbed as a ‘debt trap’. The accusation gained credence because, in 2017, Sri Lanka defaulted on repayments for the Hambantota Port project and was forced to hand over the port to China, on a 99-year lease. Consequently, in 2018, Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamed cancelled several China-funded projects in Malaysia, accusing China of practising a new form of colonialism. India also has consistently opposed the US$ 62 billion China – Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), over concerns of territorial integrity and sovereignty. China’s BRI has also come under intense criticism from the US, Japan, and other powers in the Asia Pacific.
Similar to the CPEC in Pakistan, the BRI plan for Myanmar is called the China – Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). This infrastructure development plan calls for building rail, road, and pipelines from Yunnan Province (China) through Muse (Shan State) and Mandalay to Kyaukphu (Rakhine State). Kyaukphu is also to be developed as an SEZ (Special Economic Zone) and deep-sea port. Initially planned with an outlay of US$ 7.3 billion, in the light of debt-trap fears, Myanmar has scaled down the project to US$ 1.3 billion.
Another China-funded program is the Myitsone Dam & Hydro-electric Project, to be constructed at the confluence of the Irrawaddy River, in Kachin State. Construction of the 6000 MW project has been suspended since 2017, over public concerns over inundation and environmental impacts.
For the PRC, the visit of President Xi Jinping was an opportunity to revive the BRI (Belt & Road Initiative) and other China-funded projects, in Myanmar. While on the one hand, Myanmar would like to revive the stalled infrastructure projects, on the other hand, they are also wary of Chinese business interests and the dangers of debit-trap. Also, of concern is Chinese unpopularity with ethnic tribals, who have over decades witnessed the exploitation of their natural resources, by Chinese private companies. This is an immediate consideration because the ruling NLD (National League for Democracy) will be seeking re-election, later this year.
- It may still be idealistic to hope that mankind, the predominant species on the planet, should be free to travel and live, wherever they choose. However, it is contemptible that any community is displaced on the grounds of ethnic cleansing. The Burmese are a proud people, and it must have been difficult for Aung San Suu Kyi, a Noble Lauriat for Peace, to defend the actions of the Myanmar Army, at the ICJ tribunal.
- The PRC aspires for global leadership and has the resources to meet that aspiration. In concept, there can be little dispute that the BRI, is a laudable initiative to share economic surpluses with a larger global community. However, in South Asia, by investing first in Pakistan (CPEC) and then with Myanmar (CMEC), the PRC appears to be supporting regimes that nurture terrorism and ethnic cleansing. We should hope that with greater power, the PRC also demonstrates greater responsibility.
Image Courtesy: scmp.com