Myanmar, a country located between communist China and democratic India, is the site of an important political transitioning period that could prove vital to the stability of the region.
Since the establishment of army rule in 1962, after a supposed bloodless coup d’etat by New Win, Myanmar has been home to social instability, fiscal poverty and political repression. Formerly known as Burma until 1989, the socialist state has played a strategic role in the geopolitical situation of the region, mainly due to its firm alliance with China. Myanmar was the first non-Communsit country to recognize the “People Republic of China” after its foundation on October 1st, 1949. Relations soured after a wave of anti-Chinese riots in 1967 but mimicking Tiananmen Square in China in 1989, Myanmar’s junta violently repressed pro-democracy movement sin 1988, quickly repairing past transgressions. The growing international condemnation led to the re-cultivation of a strong relationship with China, allowing China’s influence to grow rapidly. Currently, the bilateral trade between Myanmar and China exceeds $1.4 billion, with China being the most important supplier of military aid: jet fights, armed vehicles, naval vessels and personnel training.
With the “Arab Spring” escalating throughout the Middle East and North Africa, countries like China have been experiencing its own social instability which has grown harder to impede due to the expansion of technology and networking. With such tumultuous times approaching communist and militarily controlled countries, alliances such as these seem vital to the geopolitical identity of China and the surrounding environment.
Moreover, since the formation of the military junta, pro-democracy movement have persistently sparked civil unrest in Myanmar, escalating at every opportunity. Now it seems democracy has a change of firmly rooting itself in Myanmar, uprooting a vital ally for China and leading to a possible power shift in favor of democracy and against communist China. Being led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a cycle of historic reforms under way in Myanmar could lead to Asia’s newest democratic transition. As seen in Syria and Yemen, the junta has tried to appease demonstrators with calls for free elections, which were held in November, for the first time in 20 years. Nonetheless, the elections were widely condemned as being far from free and fair. So saying, the new president of Myanmar, former General U Thain Sein, has raised state pensions for nearly a million people as much as a thousandfold, reduced taxes and dismantled trade cartels. The thaw comes after the General’s inaugural address, condemning the high poverty rates, corruption, ending the country’s armed conflicts and working towards political reconciliation.
“Burma’s foreign minister would be more convincing if the government released all political prisoners and held security forces accountable for the brutal suppression of monks and peaceful protesters exactly four years ago.” – Elaine Pearson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch
Mimicking past responses to mass protests, Myanmar’s military crushed demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in September 2007, jailing hundreds and killing dozens. The story has been oft-repeated throughout the history of the unstable country, resulting in Western nations urging Myanmar to free its more than 2,000 political prisoners. On July 19th , the democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and invited to the annual Martyr’s Day ceremony. Thousands of her supporters were permitted to hold their first lawful march in years. By August, the Myanmar Parliament began debating previously “taboo” issues, such like the release of political prisoners and passed multiple laws legalizing micro-finance for rural poor and allowing trade unions. Clearly, the steps being taken by the regime has accelerated, potentially leading to an irreversible track towards democratization.
The impact on China has been exemplified this past week when Myanmar halted work on a $3.6 billion hydroelectric dam being built by China on the Irrawaddy River, which was meant to send power to Chinese provinces in neighboring lands. The dam project was loudly opposed by Myanmar’s nascent environmental movement and the area’s minority Kachin people. Apparently, the president knew the Myitsone Dam project was against the will of the people and has stated that he will not let it resume in his tenure, no matter the pressures from China.
“As our government is elected by the people, it is to respect the people’s will. We have the responsibility to address public concerns in all seriousness. So construction of Myitsone Dam will be suspended in the time of our government.” – U Thein Sein, Myanmar President
Nevertheless, monumental challenges remain for Myanmar’s future. Much of the future of Myanmar and its transitioning period rests on the shoulders of the Obama administration. Since the 198 repression of civilians, Western nations have isolated the country for all aid and communication. Over the next few weeks, the US could make a monumental difference by publicly supporting the democratic transition and supporting the rhetoric by ending the country’s isolation. Ending the isolation of Myanmar would end limitations on the UN and international financial institutions like the World Bank, who could then offer the country technical expertise and trade.
Yet, the changes could lead to a democratization of neighboring countries like China, thus serving as a strategic attack against China through the geopolitical significance of Myanmar. China would not allow such a close neighbor the experience of democratization, Western aid and political openness. Such social liberty and political liberalization have been fought for within China, resulting in various repressive actions by the country. If events were to unfold in surrounding countries, and be effective, the Chinese people would be emboldened by such success. With technology being a vital asset of the majority of the “Arab Spring” movement’s, Chin would very well find itself in a similar position. For these reasons, China will most likely put as much fiscal pressure on the US to avoid such Western intervention. With the mutual interdependence of China-US bilateral trade, the circumstances would very well limit US support, of China would only be able to voice empty threats without serious implications.