As the People’s Republic of China approaches the 60th anniversary of its founding, Beijing has been unpleasantly surprised by the sudden outbreak of unrest on its long border with Myanmar. It’s a lesson to China about the tenuous nature of its friendship with the junta, and a reminder that political change in Myanmar is in Beijing’s best interests.
The flare-up began last month when Myanmarese forces attacked a recalcitrant militia in Kokang, near the Chinese border, forcing tens of thousands of refugees to flee into China’s Yunnan province. A diplomatic battle soon ensued. China issued an uncharacteristically stern warning that Myanmar should “properly deal with its domestic issue to safeguard regional stability.”
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Myanmarese military leaders hinted at Beijing support for their move against Kokang. And for the first time in history, their official press published a news item about the Dalai Lama visiting Taiwan.
The public bickering is noteworthy because China has invested heavily in its relationship with the junta. Beijing has given Myanmar decades of generous military assistance, built factories and infrastructure and mined its wealth of resources. China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner. On the political front, Beijing has acted as the Myanmarese regime’s primary protector in the United Nations Security Council and other international fora to blunt the impact of Western sanctions and hostility against the military government.
The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Myanmar’s military leaders are determined to clear away the remaining vestiges of their long-running insurgencies before heading into multiparty elections next year as part of the country’s transition to “disciplined democracy”. According to local reports, army units have already begun to move into Mongla, another autonomous former insurgent area, as well as the heavily armed and fortified northern and southern Wa areas along the Chinese and Thai borders. Tens of thousands of refugees from the northern Wa area have reportedly already fled into China, even as Kokang refugees return home.
The Myanmarese regime may also be egged on by its own citizens, many of whom harbour strong anti-Chinese sentiment. The junta’s move against the ethnic Chinese border groups, long notorious for drug dealing and other criminal activities, has been quietly cheered by many locals. Chinese investment has done little to improve the lives of average person and they view Beijing as propping up a hugely unpopular government.
It’s clear that this is a critical moment for China in its relations with Myanmar. Beijing harbours a strong interest in promoting political transition in Myanmar to replace the long-standing military regime with a more stable and rational civilian government. Chinese frustration with Myanmar’s inept and capricious military leaders is only thinly disguised. Beijing recognizes that the underlying causes of instability and violence will only become more acute the longer the current situation lingers.
Myanmar also poses a regional threat that China can’t ignore. Not only does violence there spill over into China, Thailand, Bangladesh and India, the porous border with China is rife with illegal trafficking in narcotics, contraband and humans, and HIV/AIDS has spread from Myanmar into Yunnan province at an alarming rate. Myanmar’s expanding military relationship with North Korea, rumoured to include a nuclear technology component, threatens to bring a new security threat to nuclear weapons-free South-East Asia.
Beijing could start by making overtures to various political forces inside Myanmar that are likely to emerge soon in a new parliamentary setting, not just the generals and their business cronies. China might also strengthen ties with other ethnic minorities, not just with ethnic Chinese groups in that country, as well as with the political opposition and exiles.
China could also help revive the UN effort to encourage political dialogue and transition in Myanmar. If China were to support UN and other international efforts to promote free and fair elections in 2010, it would not only win plaudits from the international community, but would be warmly welcomed by a wide swathe of the Myanmarese population of all ethnic races. It would be awkward for the military regime to take issue with this stance without suggesting that it had no intention of running free and fair elections.
Beijing could also send a powerful signal to both the generals and the Myanmarese public by holding back on arms supplies to the regime during the transition period. China is Myanmar’s primary source of military equipment and has been seen in the past to deliberately curtail arms supplies to signal its displeasure with the regime.
In light of the current unrest on the border, it might be an appropriate gesture by Beijing to refrain openly from fuelling further instability with new arms supplies and to reassure the Myanmarese public of its friendly intentions to support a peaceful and stable political transition.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Edited excerpts. Priscilla Clapp was charge d’affaires in the US embassy in Yangon from 1999 to 2002. Comments are welcome at email@example.com