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HomeAnalysisAt a critical juncture, Burma's government needs a Plan B

At a critical juncture, Burma’s government needs a Plan B

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stated last week in Denpasar, Indonesia, that “[Burma] has reached a critical juncture.” While Clinton was referring to releasing political prisoners and opening up dialogue with pro-democracy activists and ethnic minorities, her statement was also unintentionally applicable to another, equally pressing matter: the Burmese military’s relations with China.

Despite all official communiques to the contrary, the People’s Republic of China and the military government of Burma are chafing under their mutual tight embrace. American cables from WikiLeaks revealed Chinese exasperation with Burmese foot-dragging in opening up to the rest of the world. Former US Chargé d’Affaires Shari Villarosa, after dining with Chinese ambassador Guan Mu, revealed in a January 2008 cable entitled “China Fed Up”, that Beijing had been pushing the regime for talks with the pro-democracy movement but had received push-back from its senior generals.

Villarosa also reported, as a consequence of the Burmese military’s unwillingness to improve living standards for the masses, that the Chinese were concerned about a potential mass uprising that could imperil its business interests in Burma. “The Chinese [stated they] can no longer rely on the generals to protect their interests here,” wrote Villarosa, “and recognise the need to broker some solution that keeps the peace.”

An article last month in The Economist entitled “Myanmar: Chinese takeaway kitchen” also stated that China harshly criticised the Burmese junta for not properly protecting the Kokang, an ethnically Han Chinese minority in Burma, after 37,000 people fled to China during an ethnic insurgency.

The weariness is not limited to Beijing: Naypyidaw and the rest of Burma has been equally irritated with the results of close Chinese-Burmese relations. According to The Economist, while massive Chinese immigration into the northern provinces and China’s ostentatious display of wealth in an impoverished country has been met with the chagrin of Burmese people, Burmese military leaders are equally annoyed with China’s cavalier policies of coercing military officials into granting it access to Burma’s infrastructure.

Along with the WikiLeaks revelations of the Chinese pressuring Burmese officials to include the pro-democracy movement in democratisation talks, Burmese military officials would have, as The Economist stated, “a deep-seated suspicion of its powerful northern neighbour” over these outstanding “neuralgic” issues.

In the light of this simmering animus, why hasn’t there been a more definitive split? Chinese Ambassador Guan Mu, in his meeting with Shari Villarosa, cited two hindrances to restarting dialogue with the pro-democracy movement: the ruling clique’s anxiety over “losing power and [losing its] economic interests.”

Guan further speculated that if “the senior generals could be offered assurances that they would not ‘lose their lives’ and could keep their economic interests, they might be more amenable to ceding power gradually.”

His conclusion is revealing as it delineates the top two concerns of the Burmese ruling clique. But the question is, if the Burmese military continues to cede power to the Chinese, will the army’s clout and its ability to keep hold of the lifestyle to which it is accustomed disappear? The Burmese government is divided primarily on how it answers this question.

Ultimately, in the Burmese government, there are those who view power as the primary vehicle to a continuation of their lifestyle, and those who feel money will do a better job at this. The deciding factors of where government officials and other people of influence would fall is not apparent. A government official with extensive business connections in China may be willing to sacrifice his side business in the name of protecting his influence in Burma, while those without any connection to China may see Chinese opportunities as the only way to financially advance expeditiously.

There are three scenarios, the first being that factions would struggle in a figurative bloodbath until one triumphs. A second, that would see slow series’ of movements away from China (two steps forward, one step back), is far more likely of the two scenarios that differ from the status quo. The last scenario, which is the received wisdom of Burma observers, is the continuation of the special relationship between Naypyidaw and Beijing, despite mutual irritation.

The dance between those in the military who covet money above all and those who covet power above all, not the struggle between the military and the moribund pro-democracy movement or the terminally weak ethnic separatists, will be what dictates Burma’s path in the near future. While Burma is not looking to remove itself from its special relationship with Beijing quite yet, the option to leave its Chinese alliance has been explored in the case if China should ever become too demanding, too meddlesome or too cavalier. There are no good options. A suitable partner needs to be willing to listen to the military government, willing to trade on a massive scale with a Burmese establishment rife with conflict of interest, and not a pariah state.

The main problem with a Burmese exit from its alliance with China is the lack of a way forward without China keeping the military-backed government afloat. A clear path that doesn’t rely on the extensive Chinese support that the Burmese military now enjoys must replace all that would be lost.

Burma may then need to explore alternatives to China, and the one country, whose potential will be explored in the next article, that it has shown willingness to do this with lies well outside of Burma’s immediate neighbourhood.

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