Giants vie for influence in Myanmar

Giants vie for influence in Myanmar

Behind the scenes of this year's Asean and East Asian summits, currently taking place in Bangkok, the region's key nations -- China, India and Japan -- are engaged in a quiet battle for greater influence in Myanmar. While on the sidelines, the countries of Asean, especially Thailand, as the current chair of the regional organisation, are offering qualified support for its problematic ally, largely behind the scenes.

The fact that the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, is here is a measure of how important she and the Myanmar government regard their relations with the region and its top powers. In the face of growing Western criticism, Myanmar is anxious to secure greater support from its Asian "friends".

Sources close to "the Lady", as she is affectionately known in the country, say she feels bitterly betrayed by the United Kingdom and United States. Last year she told a close confidante that Myanmar only had two friends it could really trust -- China and Japan, and to a lesser degree India. Asean's support, though less significant than the big three "neighbours", was taken for granted, according to diplomatic sources.

Since then, Myanmar's alienation from the West has deepened -- though the UK has softened its criticism at the UN, according to Myanmar diplomats, as it reaches out simultaneously to explore bilateral trade prospects post Brexit -- Myanmar has sought to strengthen its relations with Asia. In the past six months, in the face of an increasing international clamour for accountability and sanctions against Myanmar because of the horrendous events in its strife-torn Rakhine region, Myanmar has sought to ensure China's protection at the various international forums, particularly the UN.

In this regard, Russia has also been targeted -- as one of the five permanent members of the UN security council, it has veto powers -- with crucial visits from the country's military commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing and senior government officials shoring up Moscow's support, especially at the UN. Of course, Russia has increasingly become a major supplier of weaponry, to some extent surpassing China as a source of military hardware. There has been a series of high-profile visits by Myanmar's military chiefs, and less public trips by lower rank soldiers, over the past three years.

This is part of Myanmar's military commanders' concern to broaden their supply routes and to lessen their dependence on Beijing, who they still do not fully trust.

"This is a legacy or a lesson, from Senior General Than Shwe's days," said a military source who was previously in close contact with him.

"He insisted that the Tatmadaw should maintain close ties with Russia, in order to balance their dependence on Beijing," he said, before adding Than Shwe was, at heart, an advocate of a non-aligned foreign policy.

This thread runs through the country's political leadership, from the founder of modern Myanmar, Gen Aung San, then clearly articulated by U Thant -- the famous Myanmar diplomat, who once served as the UN Secretary General -- to the current government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD).

"We will adopt a policy of 'non-alignment' when the NLD comes to power," U Lwin, then the party's secretary, told me 15 years ago.

This remains the guiding principle of foreign policy now, but has had to be adapted to the modern world and the current global reality, according to numerous Myanmar diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they had no authority to talk publicly.

This is the conundrum that Aung San Suu Kyi has had to struggle with ever since assuming power in early 2016 -- after the NLD's landslide electoral victory. Like most people in Myanmar, she harbours suspicions about Beijing's long-term strategic ambitions in Myanmar. Like most political activists, she also shares the resentment of China because of its backing of the previous military regimes.

Nevertheless, Aung San Suu Kyi's attitude towards Beijing remained much more pragmatic even before she came to power.

"I have to be careful with China," she told me in an interview in March 2003, shortly before the unfortunate attack on her convoy at Depayin and her return to house arrest. Putting aside her resentment and suspicions she said: "They are a big and important neighbour, and I cannot afford to offend them."

This attitude seems to have framed her approach since she became State Counsellor and simultaneously foreign minister. Of course events in Myanmar -- particularly the crisis in Rakhine and the exodus of nearly a million Muslim refugees to Bangladesh to escape a brutal military crackdown -- has left Myanmar internationally isolated, apart from Asia, and increasingly dependent on China for moral and political support, but more importantly economic investment and aid.

However, this poses a major quandary for the Lady: while incredibly grateful for Beijing's support, she was concerned that Myanmar was becoming over-dependent on China, and this undermined her commitment to a balanced, independent and non-aligned foreign policy. This was clear at least two years ago, when she told a government insider that while Myanmar's reliance on China was a fact, at least publicly Myanmar should not appear to be so close to Beijing, for fear that it would limit the country's international options in the future.

In the past year, it has become clear that Myanmar's leaders have been intent on broadening their strategic umbrella of "alliances". During that time Japan has become increasingly important, both politically and economically -- though much of this support is the result of quiet diplomacy and behind-the-scenes financial support. Of course, this could pose dilemmas for Myanmar in the future, particularly as it has not gone unnoticed by Beijing.

Chinese diplomats have complained privately that they do not feel Myanmar has given them sufficient public credit for their contribution -- especially in regard to the peace process and the repatriation plans for the Rakhine refugees. They believe Japan gets more credit for a lesser contribution in comparison. The State Counsellor's recent trip to Tokyo for the official crowning of the new Emperor was also seen as symptomatic of Japan's superior position: two trips to Japan this year and only one to Beijing.

Although this numerical approach does a disservice to the details and complexities of foreign policy, it indicates Beijing is anxious for great public recognition of its support for Myanmar, and its current and future importance. Talk of a state visit by China's leader, President Xi Jingping to Myanmar seems to be back on the agenda.

Japan meanwhile is basking in its new-found relationship with Myanmar. Tokyo may have quietly replaced Beijing as the "preferred friend", according to Asian diplomats who monitor the ins and outs of Myanmar's international relations. Though China remains a crucial ally.

So Aung San Suu Kyi has some crucial diplomacy to carry out as she attends the current Asia summits, with the leaders of Asean, China, India and Japan all in attendance.

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

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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