While China maintains reservations about Burma’s 7 November election, it has stood by the junta’s decision to take the step. Yet, the possibility of renewed instability and uncertainty inside Burma should prompt Beijing to become more active in a broader reconciliation and stabilization process.
By Bernt Berger for ISN Insights
The cooling of diplomatic relations between China and Burma in 2009 did not lead to disruptions in economic cooperation or compromise key interests on either side. Developments in Burma have, however, posed a headache to Chinese policymakers, particularly because Beijing is often seen as co-responsible for the ruling junta, given its close, if unloving, relationship with it.
Beijing’s regional foreign policy, particularly in its neighborhood, is dominated by a concern for stability. Its strategy is therefore based on economic and development cooperation that helps to establish viable working relations with, and stability within, these countries. Yet, besides Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan, the political and security situation in Burma has become one of the inconvenient realities in this ‘Greater Periphery’ strategy. China fears that destabilization of its neighborhood could spill across borders, provide a safe haven for militants and cut important transportation links.
In view of the impending Burmese general elections, Beijing has been diplomatic and careful in its approach. Government officials have stated that the elections and national reconciliation are an important step and should receive international support. Li Baotong, Chinese Ambassador to the UN, made it clear that China wanted to see continued stability and development in the country.
From Beijing’s perspective, the Burmese generals have not been reliable providers of stability but are still its best hope for it. Attacks on ethnic militias in August 2009, however, triggered refugee-flows into neighboring Yunnan Province, angering Beijing.
An uncertain political future
The first elections in 21 years could be a vital step toward political development, and may offer opportunities for Burma to get out of its decades-long deadlock. However, the move appears to be little more than a controlled experiment. So far no information has been made available on what rights and powers civilian legislators will have in the new parliament. Burma’s opposition, particularly those who have decided to take their chances and partake in the elections, are moving toward an uncertain future.
As a consequence of the uncertainty surrounding the election process and its aftermath, the opposition movement has become deeply divided along the lines of pragmatists and fundamentalist. While the pragmatists are taking a risk by participating in the elections, the fundamentalists insist on political deadlock as long as no fundamental constitutional changes based on a national convention are introduced. Infighting among the opposition groups has made it easy for the generals to push their agenda, and the disunity can easily be used as a justification for the military’s continued rule as a ‘caretaker’ government.
A key concern relating to next week’s election is that civilian parliamentarians might simply become ‘staffage’ in the staging of political change, with 25 percent of the 440 seats in the House of Representatives reserved for military personnel. Additionally, the military has set up a civilian pro-military party called Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), based on the junta’s old mass organization. Participants and some commentators continue to hope that incremental changes might eventually set in, despite such serious concerns.
The root of Burma’s deadlock
The longstanding political deadlock and divisions in the opposition movement are not the only or even central source of instability in the country. Ethnic militia groups have not complied with the junta’s demands to disarm and integrate into the National Border Guard (NBG) as set out in the Roadmap to Democracy – with armed clashes taking place in August 2009 between the Myanmar Armed Forces and militias of the Kokang and Wa in the predominantly ethnic Chinese region.
Most of the armed groups do not trust the military leaders and want to maintain their independence in terms of self-defense and trade along the border. Some have even joined forces in order to fend off possible attacks by the Burmese military.
Ethnic resistance movements such as the Karen National Union (KNU) recently stated that a nationwide ceasefire and the release of political prisoners were necessary preconditions for elections. Elections, as they are being staged now, are not acceptable to the KNU because the constitution is considered illegal and does not contain enough provisions protecting ethnic groups. The demand for ethnic self-determination and the right for association in a federal state are of particular concern for many of the groups fighting the junta’s forces. The positions of the ethnic groups and the military junta will remain difficult to reconcile, leaving ethnic issues as a source of friction for the foreseeable future.
For Beijing such sources of instability, in addition to the potentially destabilizing elections, represent a real worry, although it does not oppose politcal change or elections in Burma per se. A loss of the junta’s grip on power is nevertheless regarded as unfavorable as long as no alternative source of stability exists.
Stability at all cost?
In the past years, China has invested heavily into resource extraction, infrastructure and trade with its southern neighbor. Beijing has also always asserted its influence on ethnic (Chinese) groups in Burma, undermining the power and influence of the junta in some regions. In terms of sticks and carrots, China’s economic and ethnic ties give it a fair degree of leverage, which it has used in the past to get the Burmese regime to comply.
Although, after the so-called ‘Saffron Revolution’ in 2007, China facilitated UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari’s visit to Rangoon, its actions vis-à-vis Burma tend to focus on maintaining stability and securing its investments. After the August 2009 incident in Kokang, for example, Beijing set up a fact-finding commission with officials visiting ethnic groups in the border region. Beijing was willing to assert its leverage on the regime in reaction to what it perceived to be an unnecessary destabilization of its immediate neighborhood and an infringement of its economic interests.
Recently, however, Beijing has been criticized for playing ‘puppet master’, and for failing to pressure the generals into greater political reform. Yet, although China possesses considerable leverage in some areas, Burmese leaders have regarded diversification of their international relations as a crucial element of regime survival, thus narrowing Beijing’s space for manoeuver.
Although the election process might deliver some positive results, it will not resolve the country’s deep problems. Ethnic militias, for example, will not comply with the central government’s demands as long as it does not guarantee autonomy in a federal system. Beijing will continue to keep a close eye on an unstable situation that might lead to renewed violence in the country, whichever way the election goes.
China, however, should actively contribute to the stabilization of Burma. With influence over ethnic groups in the border regions, including the economic survival of several armed groups, as well as close ties to the regime itself, China could help facilitate reconciliation on the ethnic front in particular. China could also help foster the stable and peaceful political transformation of the country, by taking a leading in the economic reconstruction process. If carefully planned and handled, this process would not only benefit the regime, but the Burmese people as a whole.
Bernt Berger is a researcher at the German Insitute for International and Security Affairs / Stiftung Wissenschaft and Politik. Publisher: International Relations and Security Network (ISN)