Myanmar: Embarrassing The Neighbours


Ian Wilson

More than eleven years since her opposition alliance won the general election to replace the ruling military junta, the army remains in power in Myanmar and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is again under virtual house arrest and her National League for Democracy (NLD) is in tatters. Many of those elected in 1990 are dead, in exile or have been persuaded to defect. The grassroots party apparatus has been broken up and replaced by a better funded mass movement, carefully crafted and administered by military intelligence under Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt. And yet, since last October, the regime leadership has been conducting regular talks with the opposition and their high profile leader.

The talks are in secret and no communiqués have been issued, which indicates that no agreement has yet been reached on the role of the army in any new political power sharing. Neither has there been any hint of the part envisaged for the democratic forces. Perhaps more significantly, the future for the ethnic minorities remains obscure. Many of the ethnic groups, together with their armies, had been brought under some semblance of central control through armistice agreements reached with the government but these are beginning to break up as the capacity to reward their allegiance is eroded. Ethnic distrust of the centre is endemic in Myanmar, no matter whether the largely Burman army or the Burman-led NLD is in power.

The pressure being applied to the military to open talks with the NLD has been significant, coming from the European community, Japan, the United States (pre-George W. Bush Administration) and the UN, particularly the International Labour Organisation. While China and the ASEAN states had formed up behind Myanmar to oppose outside interference over human and democratic rights, Myanmar was beginning to embarrass its neighbours who were seeking more markets and capital investment in Europe. Furthermore, ILO sanctions were more threatening than first imagined. It was time for a change.

A single nation perspective might lead one to conclude from this case that sanctions do work but this would be premature. Myanmar must be seen in the context of the great power rivalry that is operating in the region. The US has demonstrated a willingness to get very tough when it comes to protecting American youth against heroin and other mind expanding substances, most of which increasingly originate in Myanmar. Chinese influence in Thailand’s north, Myanmar and the Wa state is strong and growing. On the wider front however, China is opposed to any strengthening of the US regional presence, such as the dispatch of US Special Forces to train the local Thai military for effective combat in anti-narcotic operations. To the west, India has expressed anxiety over Chinese support for ethnic rebels on the Indo-Myanmar border. China’s interest in Myanmar is partly province-based and partly due to its nuisance value. It will not lend great public support to an unpopular regime if this might endanger much more important relationships in Asia. In the present context, China may well see talks with the opposition, over the objections of local and central army friends in Myanmar, as a useful tactic.

WATCHPOINT: How much influence will the military junta allow to the democratic opposition in the determination of foreign policy? Will this be acceptable to China?


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