By Enze Han*
Amid the worsening domestic COVID-19 situation, Myanmar’s election in November 2020 brought a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite voting restrictions in parts of Rakhine and Shan states, the election was overall a step in the right direction, and the NLD increased its majority in the Pyithu Hluttaw (lower house) and Amyotha Hluttaw (upper house).
The show of support at the ballot box for the NLD indicates the domestic popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi. Her defence of Myanmar’s handling of the Rohingya crisis at the International Court of Justice — and in many other international venues — was dubbed a betrayal of democracy and human rights by Western media, but it boosted her domestic aura as a defender of Myanmar.
The priorities for the NLD government are no doubt domestic. The COVID-19 pandemic ransacked Myanmar’s economy and the domestic poverty rate skyrocketed. High on the government’s agenda is creating employment for millions of Myanmar workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic.
The country still faces one of the worst humanitarian crises with the Rohingya issue which battered its international image and led to economic sanctions. Myanmar’s domestic peace process has also stalled and militarised conflicts in the north of the country have no end in sight.
To deal with these issues, China is the most indispensable country for Aung San Suu Kyi and her government. As one of the manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines and with a promise to contribute to the accessibility and affordability of vaccines in developing countries, Myanmar needs to work with China to vaccinate its population. Vaccine diplomacy was high on the agenda during a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Myanmar in early January 2021, despite Naypyidaw making the first order of 30 million doses from India.
As the largest trading partner and second largest FDI source for Myanmar, the continued economic growth and opening up of the Chinese market will also have positive reverberations. Although Myanmar society overall holds anti-Chinese sentiments, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government still sees the benefits of engaging in close economic cooperation with China. Initiatives such as the China–Myanmar Economic Corridor aim to further connect the two economies.
With the recent signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Myanmar is also set to benefit from further relaxing of trade restrictions among its major trading partners. The government is optimistic that participating in RCEP will help Myanmar gain access to a large market for its exports, and that there will also be opportunities for responsible, high-quality investment inflows.
While Myanmar faces tremendous pressure from the West on the Rohingya issue, Myanmar’s Asian neighbours are hesitant to jump on the bandwagon. Only Malaysia and Indonesia — as the two Muslim-majority countries in ASEAN — have been more vocal.
China is Myanmar’s strongest supporter on the Rohingya issue and is actively involved in facilitating negotiations between the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh. The protection China offers to Myanmar at international institutions is crucial. A quid pro quo is evident between the two countries with Myanmar offering support for China at the United Nations on Xinjiang and Hong Kong. This cooperative relationship will likely continue as both face similar pressure from the West.
More importantly, Myanmar’s domestic peace negotiations with a number of ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) has also stalled. At the Fourth Union Peace Conference in August 2020, six prominent EAOs did not attend the meeting, partly due to a lack of pressure from China. Given China’s close historical ties with these EAOs, Myanmar needs to make sure China sees the value in facilitating dialogue between them and the central government.
Beijing needs to be aware of a possible public opinion backlash within Myanmar towards China’s close relations with these EAOs and ultimately push for a peaceful settlement. At the same time, by participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Myanmar intends to convince China that peace along the bilateral borderland area will bring benefits for China as well.
Myanmar’s relationship with the West — particularly the United States — might not improve any time soon. The Rohingya issue significantly soured Naypyidaw’s relationship with Washington and tarnished domestic goodwill within Myanmar towards the United States. A nationalist backlash towards the West on the Rohingya issue is palpable.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed the weakness of Western governments. Like other governments in Southeast Asia, Myanmar may use the COVID-19 pandemic to strengthen its domestic control while ignoring much of the pressure from the West about its handling of domestic affairs.
Of course there are other Asian states Myanmar can turn to balance China’s influence. Some would suggest India but given its own current COVID-19 situation and historical issues Myanmar has with South Asia, there is perhaps little India can offer long term. On the other hand, given the souring of the relationship between India and China, it may be in India’s interest to offer support to Myanmar to balance out China’s influence in the country.
The other option is Japan, which can offer a genuine alternative for Myanmar, given its technological prowess, financial largess and positive public image. For the NLD’s second term, Myanmar’s foreign policy could deepen relations with China while also keeping other Asian neighbours such as Japan on side for balance.
*About the author: Enze Han is Associate Professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration, the University of Hong Kong.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum