Myanmar army moves worry China

Myanmar army moves worry China

Myanmar's President Htin Kyaw (right) received a report and recommendations from former UN secretary general Kofi Annan during a formal meeting at the Presidential House in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar on Aug 23. (EPA photo)
Myanmar's President Htin Kyaw (right) received a report and recommendations from former UN secretary general Kofi Annan during a formal meeting at the Presidential House in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar on Aug 23. (EPA photo)

Since the Kofi Annan Commission on Rakhine state announced its recommendations a month ago, Aung San Suu Kyi has been insisting that her government is committed to implementing them. As a part of this plan, a ministerial-level committee to monitor progress on the implementation of the commission's recommendations has been formed.

But the government has yet to indicate how it proposes to implement the other recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led advisory commission. In the meantime, Myanmar is likely to face further criticism until a detailed road map is announced. For Western countries in particular, a show of commitment alone will not be enough as they want to see some substantial action.

Recently the United Kingdom suspended an aid programme, aimed at educating the country's armed forces on democracy, leadership and in the English language, until there is an acceptable resolution to the current situation. Though it only amounted to around US$411,000 last year (13.6 million baht), it could be a precursor of more sanctions to come particularly designed to punish the military for their behaviour.

Larry Jagan is a Myanmar specialist and former BBC World Service news editor for the region.

This was a nuanced approach on London's part as it aimed a shot at the military's commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, at a time when the general is trying frantically to broaden his army's sources for hardware and military training. The military chief has also been desperately courting Washington and there are hints that the Pentagon is interested in improving their bilateral relationship with Congress' approval.

The British move may now delay any further movement in that direction, especially as the general will learn that the suspension of the aid programme most certainly has Aung San Suu Kyi's seal of approval. Of course, this also highlights the hidden strife in the government -- between Aung San Suu Kyi and the army commander. The State Counsellor fears the increased international criticism of the government's handling of Rakhine crisis has weakened her position in relation to the army chief, who is increasingly seen in the country as a hero.

As the international criticism mounts, especially at the UN, Beijing is waiting in the wings to take advantage of Aung San Suu Kyi's isolation. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has backed the Myanmar government's efforts to protect its national security and condemned the violence in Rakhine.

"China is willing to continue promoting peace talks in its own way, and hopes the international community can play a constructive role to ease the situation and promote dialogue," Wang Yi said after a meeting with the UN secretary-general recently. For Myanmar diplomats, that is understood to mean Beijing would use its veto at the UN to stop any moves to impose sanctions against Myanmar. It is reminiscent of the past, according to one senior Myanmar diplomat, "when China protected us from international censure". While it is unlikely to come to that, it has given Beijing a golden opportunity to underline its unwavering support for its ally. This has become an important strategic concern for China. Fearing that the Myanmar military is seeking too many "alternative friends", Beijing has thrown its political weight behind the country's civilian leader, rather than the army.

Beijing is especially suspicious of Delhi's recent overtures to Myanmar -- both to Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing. And as far as the commander-in-chief is concerned, it may not be entirely misplaced. In his recent visits abroad, especially to Delhi and Tokyo, Min Aung Hlaing is reported to have stressed that the Myanmar military takes a thoroughly independent position on Beijing, contrary to Aung San Suu Kyi, who he suggested has completely entered the Chinese camp.

Beijing's qualms about the commander-in-chief's demeanour have not gone unnoticed and according to senior military sources, Min Aung Hlaing is likely to visit Beijing in the coming weeks to allay China's concerns. But what remains certain is that China and Myanmar have strengthened their bilateral relations for both strategic and economic reasons. In the past few months, Beijing has played a more active role in the peace process, trying to encourage the Northern Alliance -- made up of ethnic groups that are closely aligned with China, led by the Wa -- to sign the national ceasefire agreement.

Beijing has also offered to be a mediator between Myanmar and Bangladesh to help find a common approach towards the violence in Rakhine, which erupted in late August, but the offer has been turned down by the Myanmar government. China is also concerned about the security situation in Rakhine as it could potentially affect China's crucial economic interests in the region -- the planned Kyaukphu port and special economic zone, and the oil and gas pipeline to Kunming in southern China.

This strengthening of bilateral ties between Beijing and Nay Pyi Taw, and their growing special relationship, will be highlighted when Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Myanmar next month. The MoU for the Kyaukphu port with Chinese company CITIC, the lead firm in a consortium handling the project, is expected to be one of many deals signed during the Chinese president's visit.

Larry Jagan

A specialist on Myanmar

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

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