Myanmar mending ties with US
Last May, to mark its 100th birthday, the University of Hong Kong held a centenary dialogue via a video link with Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, barely six months after her release from prolonged years of house arrest.
As the only outside panelist invited by the university to take part, I was concerned that our questions ― or her answers ― might cause her to be incarcerated again.
In the event, any concern was unwarranted. The lady ― as she is called by her supporters ― responded to questions in measured tones, showing a good grasp of geopolitical issues, never departing from her democratic principles and, at the same time, refusing to be goaded to take provocative positions vis-a-vis China.
Six months later, Myanmar (Burma) is very much in the news again, with the country hosting Hillary Clinton, the first U.S. secretary of state to visit in over half a century.
Now, Daw Suu is playing a key role as Washington looks to her for guidance as to whether President Thein Sein is sincere about economic and political reforms.
While Myanmar, the second-largest country in Southeast Asia, is important in its own right, many analysts are observing the latest developments through the lens of Sino-American competition for influence in the region.
Asked whether China’s influence might suffer as a result of enhanced contact between the United States and Myanmar, a Chinese government spokesman responded that Beijing was “willing to see Myanmar strengthening contact and improving relations with Western countries so as to promote its stability and development.”
Similarly, Clinton asserted that the United States has “no concerns about Myanmar having good relations with China.” In fact, she said, China is “a big neighbor that you have to figure out how to get along with.”
It is good that neither China nor the U.S. is opposed to Myanmar developing its relationship with the other because Myanmar should do what is in its own best interests rather than what other countries want.
And Myanmar’s leadership is evidently doing just that. The decision in September to cancel the $3.6 billion Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam, which came as a surprise to Beijing, was a sign that Naypyidaw ― the country’s new capital ― was acting in Myanmar’s, not China’s, interests since 90 percent of the electricity to be generated was to be exported to China.
Since the military junta handed power last March to an ostensibly civilian government under Thein Sein, a former general, the new government has instituted economic and political reforms, which have led to a thaw in relations with the United States.
Myanmar is working to improve relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors as well. In fact, the country is now slated to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014.
It is too early to talk of lifting American sanctions. As Clinton said, while “President Thein Sein has taken the first steps toward a long-awaited opening,” much more needs to be done, including the release of political prisoners, an end to conflict with various ethnic groups, and the severance of military ties with North Korea.
Myanmar’s president has indicated his intention to continue with reforms, which have included allowing Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to participate in parliamentary elections next year in which the lady herself will be a candidate. The day after Clinton’s departure, he signed a law to allow peaceful demonstrations.
Ironically, Western sanctions, imposed in the aftermath of the crushing of the pro-democracy movement in 1988, have had the effect of turning China into Myanmar’s most important economic partner. The two countries have signed agreements for the construction of pipelines to bring crude oil and natural gas from southern Myanmar to China.
In fact, Myanmar’s recent actions indicate a desire to end its too-dependent relationship with China.
However, Myanmar is also aware that China is its biggest neighbor with whom it shares a long border and so it is not about to provoke Beijing unnecessarily. At the recent East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia stood out as the only countries not to defy China, which had requested that the issue of the South China Sea not be raised at the meeting.
Myanmar’s understanding of practical realities is reflected in Suu Kyi’s remarks last May. While the country’s relations with Western countries will be a friendship based on shared values, she said, “our relationship with China will be the special one of neighbors.”
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. Email the writer at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1.