First, the ASEAN gave its unanimous nod to Myanmar’s request to chair the Association in 2014. Then, American President Barack Obama announced that his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, will make an unprecedented visit to Myanmar sometime next month. And now, Japanese Foreign Minister Kochiro Gemba is announcing that he will do the same. This after Japan has decided to resume aid to the erstwhile pariah state.
We are clearly seeing an attempt by these Western and Asian powers to engage Myanmar, perhaps in order to boost President Thein Sein and his civilian-military hybrid of a government. And my guess is that the reasons may not be limited to the issues of human rights and Burmese democratization.
It’s still difficult to tell if President Sein’s reforms are genuine or merely another ploy to gain some concessions. The Myanmar junta, after all, had played the reform card in the 1990s and 2000s, only to follow them up with reversals and bloody crackdowns. But there is a clear difference between then and now: The ruling military clique no longer has the monopoly on policy-making. The officers are now discussing policy with civilian leaders, many of whom are former political prisoners themselves. Indeed, the reforms there have been quite significant: media and Internet restrictions have been removed, some civil rights have been restored, previously banned political parties have been legalized and hundreds of political prisoners have been released. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has been allowed to re-enter politics, and is now being consulted by the government. And she seems to be impressed with the sincerity of President Sein, whom I suspect is a real reformer in the mold of FW de Klerk or Mikhail Gorbachev. Therefore, the cautious optimism of the United States and its allies is probably well-founded.
There are those who see the glass half-empty, of course. But since the transition we are witnessing in Myanmar is a delicate one, the pace of reforms must not be too overwhelming, lest the hard-liners feel threatened enough to launch a coup against President Sein and bring Burma back to scratch. This early, there already are reports of disgruntlement among these hard-liners; though apparently, the higher echelon of the military, led by Senior General Than Shwe, still supports the President. My guess, however, is that such support is contingent on the results of President Sein’s reforms. In other words, President Sein can solidify his domestic standing only by ensuring that his reforms pay off. The restoration of Japanese aid, the chance given by the ASEAN, and the calibrated engagement being offered by the United States are certainly very helpful in this regard.
But beyond the issue of democratic transition in Burma, I think there is also a geopolitical angle at play in this renewed engagement between Myanmar on one hand and the United States and its regional partners on the other.
Some have speculated that one of the reasons why the moderates among the ruling military clique prevailed in pursuing last year’s reforms is China. The People’s Republic, whose support for the regime in the midst of the economic isolation brought about by Western sanctions had made it the most important foreign player in Burmese politics, has allegedly been infringing on Myanmar’s internal affairs. There seems to be a creeping economic domination now by Beijing, plus China has been buying much of the country’s city centers while the northern provinces are seeing an influx of Chinese immigration; all of which are subtly provoking anti-Chinese sentiments among the locals. Reportedly, these have become a cause of concern for the ruling generals as well.
Last September, President Sein stunned many observers by unilaterally cancelling a $3.6 billion dam project sponsored by China. The said project would have created a dam as big as Singapore, which would produce 6,000MW of electricity that the Chinese themselves would buy. It was supposed to be the single biggest project of China in Myanmar, and its cancellation provoked unprecedented outrage from Beijing. Apparently, the Chinese government was not even informed of the decision before the President made it public, and the justification given by Sein is quite telling: He said that the project should be cancelled because it’s against the will of the people. There had been protests, supported by Suu Kyi herself, against the project prior to the cancellation.
While it’s too early to say if the cancellation really is an indication that Myanmar is falling out of Beijing’s orbit, it certainly is a demonstration of the Burmese president’s willingness to defy China. And I suspect that this message is not lost on Washington, Tokyo and other Asian capitals.
Due to China’s recent assertiveness, there has been an on-going series of diplomatic re-alignments in Asia. Tokyo, for example, has been forging unprecedented military partnerships with Hanoi, Manila and other regional players. Realizing last year that Asia is the region to be, Washington on the other hand is reaching out to Hanoi and others in the ASEAN; renewing its alliance with Bangkok, Seoul, Manila and Tokyo; and cementing its presence in the region by placing troops in Australia. In light of these developments, both the United States and Japan are probably eyeing Myanmar as another geo-political front for their respective diplomatic offensives. Myanmar, on the other hand, is probably bent on making the most out of it.
Update, Dec. 3: Former Japanese National Security Adviser and Defense Minister Yuriko Koike has an op-ed entitled Myanmar Has Its Nelson Mandela on New Straits Times expressing the same views.