IPCS Special Commentary

Transition in Myanmar: Regional Implications & Future Directions

06 Mar, 2014    ·   4325

Amb Ranjit Gupta analyses the nature of the transition and its implications for South Asia and the Middle East

Ranjit Gupta
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow
Are the changes underway in Myanmar revolutionary or evolutionary? Since the governmental structure and the methodology of governance in Myanmar since April 2012, when the transition began, represents an utterly drastic change from what had existed since 1982, the short answer would have to be that the changes are revolutionary.
However, a road map to democracy was announced in 2003 and meticulously followed, even if in an utterly arbitrary and non-transparent manner, till the actual transition started. But verbal semantics apart, the fact is that the political transition in Myanmar is utterly unique and very different from almost any other political transition anywhere ever.

Changes in Myanmar: Revolutionary or Evolutionary?
As the Chairman, since 1997, of the ruling military junta, the State Peace and Development Council, all state power got gradually completely concentrated de facto in the hands of Senior General Than Shwe alone. He was an unrelenting and unapologetic proponent of an autocratic and strong central government which exercised direct and complete control on all aspects of a citizen’s activity, existence and even life itself in Myanmar. There was no threat whatsoever from any quarter to his total control of the country. Despite that and his larger than life stature for over two decades, on 30 March 2011, he voluntarily dissolved the junta SPDC, resigned from the army and all governmental positions and removed himself completely from the public domain literally overnight. He has not been seen and there is no word at all of his activities since his resignation. No other all powerful dictator has ever done any such a thing in history.

Myanmar now has a constitution, energetically sought to be amended; a robust parliament despite an abnormal election and 25 per cent seats reserved for the military; a normal cabinet system of government answerable to parliament; a feisty opposition led by a world renowned figure, Aung San Su Kyi; and free and fair by-elections were conducted last year in which 43 of the 44 contested seats were won by the opposition, etc. This is an extraordinarily spectacular change by any standards.

Developments in Myanmar: Strategic Implications for South Asia and the Middle East
Since there has been never been any meaningful interaction between Myanmar and the Middle East, even in an increasingly globalised and interconnected world no strategic implications in the Middle East of developments within Myanmar or related to changes in Myanmar’s place in Asian geopolitics are envisaged. Unfortunately, no influential political actor in the Middle East is even remotely suggesting that the region could learn and benefit from Myanmar’s extremely positive example, in a huge contrast to the bloody transitions in the Middle East.

The Rohingya issue is undoubtedly of considerable and rising concern to Islamic countries and some bilateral relationships may come under strain but the issue has not had any significant region-wide 'strategic' impact either in the Middle East, South Asia or Southeast Asia, immersed as these regions are in their own preoccupations. No Burmese government since independence has accepted that the Rohingya – the stateless Muslim minority who reside mostly in the Arakan province along the coast and in and around Sittwe - are a Burmese ethnic group; indeed, none of the 135 officially declared ethnic groups accept the Rohingya as another Burmese ethnic group. Significantly, Aung San Su Kyi has also been silent on their status as expressing support for their cause would undoubtedly have potentially serious adverse electoral consequences given the rising militancy of the Buddhist clergy and the nationalistic fervor that has been aroused amongst the majority Bamar ethnic group. No Islamic country is prepared to accept Rohingya people including Bangladesh, from the territory of which they are originally believed to have come, though there are Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia and even Thailand (Derek Tonkin, Network Myanmar, 21 February 2014 and Kyaw San Wai, “Myanmar’s Religious Violence:  A Buddhist ‘Siege Mentality’ at Work” RSIS Commentaries No. 037/2014, 20 February 2014). As long as the issue is framed in terms of the Rohingya wanting Burmese citizenship they will not get any satisfaction from any Myanmarese government, democratic or otherwise, but their living and working conditions could be greatly ameliorated if the issue is considered solely from the perspective of human rights.

There will be important implications of the political transition in Myanmar for India. Irrespective of what the political establishments in China and India publicly proclaim, there is going to be increasing rivalry between the two for influence and strategic space in Asia. Myanmar is sandwiched between China and India. For the past two decades China has unquestionably been by far the most influential power in Myanmar and has developed an extensive economic and strategic presence in that country. This had been of mounting concern, particularly to India but even to ASEAN members and indeed Western countries too. This Chinese domination will inevitably diminish steadily with Myanmar’s opening up. However, it is not India’s intention to compete with China in Myanmar.

India’s emphasis is on deepening and strengthening relations on a multi-sectoral basis for mutual benefit and advantage with India seeking to ensure that the new relationship will help secure economic development, peace and stability in India’s Northeastern states bordering Myanmar and transport connectivity to them through Myanmar’s territory. Meanwhile, the past three years have witnessed the most intense Indo-Myanmarese engagement since both countries became independent. Significantly, Myanmar participated for the first time this year in the 14th edition of the India hosted annual Milan naval exercises this year in which 17 countries participated. Mention may also be made of BIMSTEC (of which China is not a member); Myanmar is currently its chairman and will be hosting a summit meeting of the members for the first time on 3 March 2014.   

China and the Transition in Myanmar
The ongoing transition in Myanmar from a closed political system highly economically integrated with China, towards a more open system, both politically and economically, will inevitably impact considerably upon the evolving geopolitical and geo-strategic scenario in Asia. Myanmar is the second largest country in Southeast Asia; it is as richly endowed with natural resources as Indonesia, even more per capita; it is the fifth largest by population, with the second largest military; and, a strategically vital location connecting China, India and Southeast Asia. At the time of its independence in 1947 it had the best socio-economic indicators in Asia after Japan. All these advantages are going to come into play increasingly as a consequence of the ongoing political and economic reforms and Myanmar’s joining the global mainstream. Putatively, Myanmar is definitely amongst the more significant Asian countries with an important potential role in Asian geopolitics.

Burma has always harboured a primordial fear of China given the long conflictual history of their relations with waves of invasions of Burma during the Yuan and Qing dynasties. In contemporary times, due to unsettled conditions in Burma and China during the decade of the 1940s, vast numbers of Chinese labourers, farmers and businessmen illegally immigrated into Burma across a disputed and mostly un-demarcated border, and Britain, the then colonial ruler of Burma, did nothing to discourage this. Large numbers of Nationalist Chinese Kuomintang troops retreated into Burma’s northeastern hill areas following their defeat in the Chinese civil war and their removal was one of the early publicly avowed goals of the new Communist regime in Beijing and PRC troops intruded into Myanmar several times. All these factors combined with the assertive, expansionist, revolutionary rhetoric emanating from the new rulers of China made the leaders of the newly independent Burma particularly wary of China. Prime Minister U Nu sounded India more than once about a defence pact but Nehru not only turn down such suggestions, in fact with some asperity, but actively assisted in bringing Burma and China closer to each other. Meanwhile, until very recently, India had paid the least attention to Myanmar amongst all of its direct neighbours.

Apart from this history of bitter animosity, Myanmar’s armed forces have engaged in armed conflicts with China’s proxies within the country more or less continuously since its independence and senior generals have been personally involved. The first time was in 1948 when the Chinese Communist Party-backed Burma Communist Party came close to overthrowing the fledgling new post independence government. The second time was during the 1960s when a violent anti-Chinese pogrom erupted throughout the country even leading to China sending in several thousand ‘volunteers’ and the suspension of diplomatic relations for several years. Meanwhile, throughout there was armed conflict with different ethnic minorities since independence to the mid 1990s; most of these ethnic groups were armed, funded and otherwise supported by China. The fact is that Myanmar’s relationship and interaction with China has rarely been one of choice but always a consequence of circumstantial compulsions, including due to the world distancing itself from Myanmar after1962 and particularly after 1988.

Since 1988 more than two million Chinese, who have fraudulently acquired Myanmarese identity papers, have settled in northern Myanmar whose economy is now more integrated with that of Yunnan than with the rest of Myanmar. Even otherwise China dominates most sectors of Myanmar’s economy. China had succeeded in Myanmar beyond its most optimistic expectations; ironically this success contained the seeds of a setback because it engendered a new and different additional fear of China - of being suffocated by its claustrophobic embrace through economic means rather than by internal subversion and bullying, as in the past. Reaching out to other countries had become an absolute strategic necessity for Myanmar.

Since the political transition began in Myanmar, in addition to the particularly impressive internal changes, there has been an equally remarkable transformation of its external relationships – for example, it has received visits of more heads of state and government and foreign ministers in the past three years than in all the 60 years since independence, including the first ever visits of an American President and a British Prime Minister. President Thein Sein has paid official visits to more countries in the past three years than the dictator Gen Ne Win did in 26 years of his rule, the largest number of whose visits were to China. The global business community never paid Myanmar the kind of attention that it is doing now. ASEAN members had twice earlier felt compelled to deny Myanmar its turn to assume the organisation’s chairmanship but have now deliberately advanced the date for Myanmar to take over the chairmanship of ASEAN which it has done this year. China is the only country that is deeply anxious about and disturbed by the changes in both the external and internal dimensions. China is particularly concerned about the future American and Japanese roles in Myanmar.

The most remarkable manifestation of Myanmar’s change happened on 30 September 2011, when, just six months after assuming office and amidst considerable uncertainty, both inside and outside the country, about the sustainability of the processes of change, President Thein Sein suspended construction of China’s largest flagship investment - the US$3.7 billion Myitsone Dam project - without giving China any prior intimation. China was stunned and very angry and is still hurting very deeply; for the first time in many decades China found itself unable to do anything about a publicly administered strong snub and that too from a still completely dependent client state. This utterly unexpected and singularly audacious decision enormously enhanced the prestige and popularity of the president amongst all sections of Myanmar's population and was received with applause abroad. However, we must not allow all this to obscure the reality that change in the extremely close economic relationship in particular will be slow and incremental; for example President’s Office Minister Aung Min admitted that “we are afraid of China” during a public meeting where he met local people protesting a highly controversial Chinese-backed copper mining project. An even more telling manifestation of this guardedness is that an Aung San Su Kyi-chaired parliamentary committee recommended the continuation of this project on the grounds that sanctity of signed contracts should be maintained and Chinese investment is needed for Myanmar’s development.

Myanmar: The Future Directions
The direction that Myanmar is going to follow is going to be very different from that which it was virtually compelled to do earlier. Myanmar’s internal situation is quite different now with the civil war which began before its independence having mostly ended. In strong contrast to 40 years of military dictatorship Myanmar today is a budding democracy ready to harness the long suppressed energies, talents and enormous potential of its people for economic development and political progress. The post Cold War world of today is very significantly different from what Myanmar had encountered during the previous six decades when it chose isolation; in contrast, Myanmar is now vigorously pursuing engagement with the outside world which is equally vigorously courting it. Its political dependence on China will automatically lessen even while Myanmar will ensure that it does not gratuitously anger China. Chinese domination of the economy will also be diluted as a natural process with the whole world rushing into Myanmar enthusiastically. As it is, China’s investment has come down drastically and no new projects have been awarded to it in the past two years.

Myanmar’s Foreign policy will gradually align its position on various issues with those of ASEAN including on the rather ticklish issue of the South China Sea. The days of overweening Chinese domination in and of Myanmar are coming to an end. Till recently, Myanmar was considered a pliable tool to further China’s ambitions to dominate Southeast Asia, but looking ahead, Myanmar - a fiercely nationalistic country - is likely to strive quietly but steadily to erase this stigma.
This essay is based on an earlier presentation made by the author, as a part of IPCS delegation to an international dialogue organized by the Strategic Studies Network, Center for Strategic Studies in Bangkok in February 2014