Friday, 10 July 2020

Barrister Harun ur Rashid

As many as 100,000 anti-government protesters led by a phalanx of Buddhist monks marched on 24th September through Yangon, the largest crowd to demonstrate in Myanmar's biggest city since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising was brutally crushed by the military. It was the latest in a series of protests that began on August 19 as a movement against economic hardship in the Southeast Asian country after the government sharply raised fuel prices. But arrests and intimidation kept demonstrations small and scattered until the monks entered the fray.

After a few days of calm and restraint, the military leaders cracked on the protesters, and according to a report nine are dead including a Japanese photo journalist. While the US and Europe have been aghast to see brutal force being used on peaceful monks and unarmed ordinary people, China reportedly asked both the parties to exercise restraint and invoked one of its main planks of foreign policy, non-interference in another country's internal matters.
Image
Exile Burmese demonstrated in their resident area
 

WHY IS THE RESPONSE FROM US AND CHINA SO DIFFERENT?

It is because there exists at the subterranean level a power game that has been going on in the region for some years and Myanmar has been linked to this game for strategic reasons.

The success or failure of Myanmar's “saffron” revolution has to be viewed in a larger context of political power play in Asia Pacific.

Some of the aspects of power game deserve mention:

We must recognise that China's emergency as a global power is being resisted by the US and its allies. The US considers China not a “strategic partner” but a “strategic competitor”.

India and Japan have become close to the US, and China perceives that they are being used by the US to contain China in the Asia Pacific region. China feels encircled by allies of the US.

Given the above environment, Myanmar's strategic location and its geopolitical importance is not lost on China. China reaches to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar.

The Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is known to be close to both India and Japan. She spent her childhood in India and as an adult spent some time in Japan for her research work. She can speak Japanese with ease.

Both India and Japan are democratic country and if Suu Kyi comes to power, obviously under her leadership Myanmar will be closer to India and Japan, rather than to China. This scenario does not suit China in the context of US's confrontational policy toward it.

It is reasonable to conclude China does not wish to see Myanmar fall under the influence of India and Japan for strategic reasons.

China has to effectively counter this power play injected by the US. Therefore China has become close economically with ASEAN including Myanmar. Many commentators say that China has replaced US in this region for economic and security matters. It is noted that in two forums in the region--ASEAN +3 and the East Asia Summit, China is a member while the US is not.

Former US Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage in early September said that China was establishing greater leadership in the Asia-Pacific region because the White House was so pre-occupied with Iraq that it was neglecting Asia.

He reportedly said, “In every measure China is making real hay right throughout Asia. It is not that we're ignoring Asia a little bit, we're ignoring totally.” He was critical of Dr. Rice who missed the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' meeting in Laos in 2005 and again earlier this year in Manila.

Besides the power game in the region, there are other factors for China to be quiet and silent spectator to the political upheaval in Myanmar.

First, Myanmar shares a long land border with China and whatever occurs in Myanmar has an effect in China. China wants stability in the neighbours and stability is more important than democracy.

Josef Silverstein, a political scientist and author of several books reportedly said that it would not be in China's interest to have civil unrest in Myanmar. China is eager to have a peaceful Myanmar in order to complete roads and railroads, to develop mines and integrating Myanmar's economy with its own.

Second, Beijing confronted the same predicament as in 1989: how to prevent a social explosion and preserve its rule? Deng Xiaoping and the hardliners eventually ordered the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square of student demonstrators.

Third, China, which is counting on Myanmar's vast oil and gas reserves to help fuel its booming economy and earlier this year China blocked a UN Security Council Resolution on Myanmar's human rights record saying it was not the right forum.

Fourth, if the “saffron” revolution is successful, it may destabilise Tibet and Xinjiang regions of China.

The political development or reforms in Myanmar has been inextricably linked with power game of big powers. So long China remains the “oxygen” of the regime in Myanmar, commentators say that there will be no basic change in the ruling power of the country. The leaders may tinker with the concept of democracy but a government under the opposition leader Suu Kyi is ruled out in the foreseeable future.

The author is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva

Source: Daily Star, September 6, 2007.