Myanmar’s Step Father and Step Son?

Kanbawza Win | 25 October 2014 | Taunggyi Time

According to the Burmese saying the people of the country are the father and mother of the Tatmadaw (ျပည္သူလူထုသာလွ်င္ တပ္မေတာ္၏ မိႏွင့္ဘ) but this has changed since 8888 democratic uprising when the Tatmadaw (military) takes over. The Tatmadaw has unwittingly opted for a Step father (ဘေထြး) after way siding its biological father.[1]

Naturally the Myanmar’s Step father is China, as it has continue to supply not only the arms and ammunitions to suppress the pro-democratic and ethnic forces but also to prevent the UNSC from taking any adverse action for its gross human rights violations and crime against humanity. In this way it paves the way for China to exploit the people and the natural resources of the country. The Paukphaw (referring the Chinese as a brother) also taught them how to apply Mao Zedong’s dictum that power comes out of the barrel of the gun.

Only after the generals realize that they will soon become the 6th autonomous regions of China does they grudgingly change back to the so called disciplined democracy.[2] The Burmese generals seems to sense that once they became the Chinese protectorate they will soon be greeting each other as Ni郝马 instead of Minglabar (မဂ္လာပါ) and naturally they don’t seem to cherish it, even though they cherish the Chinese for helping them to keep them in power, so whenever anyone criticize the Chinese related project they are easily irritated.[3] The Generals had also discovered that time has run out for playing geo-strategic location and the energy card and so after the domestic political reforms since 2011, it favored soft balancing underpinned by the rapid improvement of external relations with the West.[4] The Tatmadaw, Generals are simply not interested in Democracy or the Union of the country but only how to sustain power and get rich via cronies.

Step Father and Step Son (ဘေထြးႏွင့္ မယားပါသား)

It is always a fact that the domestic policy always influence the foreign policy and a classic example is Putin of Russia, where he makes himself popular by annexing the small neighbours. So also consolidating power at home and throwing its weight around abroad are linked. The Chinese know that there are now things they want from beyond their borders—ideas as well as markets, raw materials and investment—and they have integrated remarkably well, if sometimes grudgingly, into many international organisations. From not understanding the Westphalian world view, China has grown into a devotee, seeing a way of looking at the world in which it thinks, as a big state among small states, that it enjoys natural advantages. It has accepted the equality of its rulers with foreign kings, though not necessarily the idea that there should be laws to bind all such princes.

However, there are rulers that have not accepted, and cannot accept, equality with those they rule at home. A classic example is that the Tatmadaw could not accept the ethnic leaders and its armed organizations as equals for obvious reasons. Taking a leave out of the Chinese they harbour the mentality of “I am the monarch of all they survey”. Maoist China created a strong state and a weak society. Now that strong state has to deal with an ever stronger society, e.g. Hong Kong, in which individuals have new ways of expressing themselves about all sorts of things, including the need for more accountable government.[5] China’s rulers like the Burmese Generals believe the country cannot hold together without one-party rule as firm as an emperor’s an increasing number of its people believe it cannot become fully modern as long as one-party rule endures.

So both the aspirations of the enriched and the resentments of the oppressed are in play in China as well as in Burma and is often rocked by unrest. The public is outrage at corruption, and other problems grows which are becoming more vociferous. Yet rather than allow more formal popular participation and move towards the rule of law, both the Burmese and the Chinese leaders are allowing less participation as they crack down on free-thinkers, free press believing that carrying out real, structural reform is more dangerous than not doing so. The deep fissures in the country will be increasingly hard to paper over with mere prosperity.

Many countries around the world, particularly the Burmese Generals admire, and would like to emulate, the undemocratic but effective way that China has managed its decades of growth. If China’s domestic politics look less stable, some of that admiration will wane soon. However, admiration for China does not translate into affection for it, or into a sense of common cause. Economically and militarily, China has come a long way towards regaining the centrality in Asia it enjoyed through much of history. But intellectually and morally, it has not. In the old days it held a “soft power” so strong, neighbours converted themselves to kowtow 汉口拖 them.

If China could resolve its identity crisis and once again become an attractive civilisation rather than just an enviable development model, it would be much better placed to get the respect and influence it craves. But it is hard to see that happening unless the party gives more power to its people, and Xi Jiinping 习近平 has made it clear that will not happen on his watch. The danger is that China will seek greater power in the world as a substitute for fundamental changes at home is real and threatening its neighbours will be sure. This will compel all the ASEAN countries, East Asia like Japan, Korea and Taiwan will continue to cling to the coat-tails of Uncle Sam. Everybody seems to sense that China is itching to regain its eminent place in the world as China’s economy will overtake America’s in size (on a purchasing-power basis, it is already on the cusp of doing so). China’s state-owned businesses stealing a march in Africa; its government covering for autocrats in UN votes; its insatiable appetite for resources plundering the environment.[6] Once a reactive diplomacy is growing more sophisticated and helpful. China is the biggest contributor to peacekeeping missions among the UN Security Council’s permanent five, and it takes part in anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa. In some areas China is working hard to lessen its environmental footprint, for instance through vast afforestation schemes and clean-coal technologies.[7] Of the latest China is so far the biggest contributor to contain the Ebola disease in Africa.[8]

But the question can be asked why should China be satisfied with a bit more engagement when primacy is what it seeks? There is no guarantee that it will be. Just now the rhetoric coming out of Beijing is full of cold-war, Manichean imagery. Yet sensible Chinese understand that their country faces constraints—China needs Western markets, its neighbours are unwilling to accept its regional writ and for many more years the United States will be strong enough militarily and diplomatically to block it. [9]

Coming Back of the Biological Father (အေဖရင္းျပန္လာၿပီ)

While China remains Burma’s largest trade partner and supplies the bulk of the Tatmadaw’s weapons, the quasi-military government was being force to lessen its Chinese investment in its infrastructure due to public resentment. The Burmese Ministry of Rail Transportation announced the cancellation of the, 215 km Kunming-Kyaukphyu (ကူမင္းေက်ာက္ျဖဴ ရထားလမ္း) railway agreement. The railway will follow the pipeline from the Bay of Bengal to Kunming open last year but is delivering only 15 percent of its intended annual capacity. The cancellation of the Kunming-Kyaukpyu railway project follows a growing trend of opposition to Chinese investment in Burma’s infrastructure. In 2011, public opposition to the multi-billion dollar Myitsone Dam (ျမစ္ဆံုေရကာတာ), another Chinese project, prompted President Thein Sein to suspend the project indefinitely.[10] The cancellation of the Kunming-Kyaukpyu railway project, the lackluster performance of the China-Burma gas pipeline and the offer to renegotiate dam deals with China endanger all of Beijing’s objectives. Chinese projects in Burma are consistently falling prey to public disapproval. [11]All of Mandalay good places are occupied by the Chinese as they are more efficient in business and knowledge than the locals in Mandalay hence the Burmese people dubbed it as Second Beijing. A common complaint among the residents of Mandalay – the ancient religious capital in the north of the country – is that the influx of Chinese money, goods and people has inflated the prices of real estate and living, forcing locals out of the city centre. Almost half of the city’s million or so inhabitants are now Chinese.[12] It has also grown with the massive influx of drug money from wealthy ethnic Chinese Kokang heroin traffickers in lieu with the Tatmadaw. These concerns have become a political issue ahead of national elections in 2015.

Chinese companies are struggling to come to terms with a new culture of protest in Burma. “The move away from reliance on China is growing, and the government is welcoming western companies as a deliberate policy to diversify.” says Vicky Bowman, director of the Burmese Centre for Responsible Business in Rangoon and former British ambassador to the country.[13] It should be remembered that President Thein Sein’s liberalisation in 2011 was in part fuelled by elite concerns that Burma had become too dependent on China, and his government reform programme sought to rebalance Chinese influence with Western investment and political relations. As a result, there has been a sharp drop in Chinese investment in Burma since 2011, though China remains an important presence in hydropower, oil and gas, and mining. The Burmese people knew that the Chinese had trampled over local interests, propped up the unpopular military regime and pillaged the country’s natural resources. The suspension of the Chinese-backed 6,000-megawatt Myitsone dam was planned for the source of the Irrawaddy – a sacred place for local Kachin and also considered the founding place of Burmese civilisation.

“Although environmental damage is the concern most prominently voiced by opponents to the dam, it is not the only reason they fight it. It is also the cultural significance of the area.” Says Vicky Bowman. Pictures of the iconic Myitsone hang in tea houses and small eateries across the country. Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River was one of the few issues to unite the ethnically diverse country. Attempts by the company building the dam, CPI (China Power Investment Corporation), to woo local communities with piecemeal promises failed. It’s well known that almost all the hydropower will be exported to China’s Yunnan province and local people will see little benefit. The current scenario is that biological father (ျပည္သူလူထု) has made a comeback and the step father China is very itchy and looked at the Step son Tatmadaw for help.

The Burmese NGOs are now coordinating actions against unpopular projects, including Myitsone dam. One coalition is working to identify gaps in the existing environmental impact assessment for the dam, with support from more experienced Chinese NGOs in Yunnan province. The Letpadaung copper mine in central Burma offers another example of increased citizen action against Chinese projects. A joint venture between Wanbao Mining (a subsidiary of the Chinese arms manufacturer Norinco北方工业公司) and a company controlled by the Burmese military UMEH, the project went into lockdown at the end of 2012 after farmers complained of the environmental and health problems caused by acid waste. A protest camp – mainly of monks – was violently suppressed by Burmese security forces using phosphorous grenades, transforming a local dispute into a national cause. The project restarted months later only after the company was forced to renegotiate the contract giving 2% of revenue to the local community. Tensions often erupted again as people rallied against Wanbao’s removal of an important religious building and a pagoda, which in Burma is taboo (အိမ္ေထာင္ျပဳ ဘုရားတည္၊ ေဆးမင္ေရစုတ္ထုိး ကုိျဖက္၍မရ) to make way for further mine expansion. It seems that the Tatmadaw is too afraid to tell this taboo to the Chinese Step father, lest the latter would get angry and stop supporting them. The company has now invested in a new environmental and social impact assessment. The Chinese companies also appear to have a poor track record compared to international competitors. China National Petroleum Company (CNPC中国石油天然气公司) has employed far fewer local workers along the upper section of the Shwe pipeline than the Indian company, Punj Lloyd, who built the lower section. [14]A recent investigation by Chinese NGO Green Watershed绿色流域revealed similar discrepancies. Although Korean companies provide some schools or health services, the Chinese companies do not.[15] Almost all the controversial projects are Chinese projects.

The ruling and retired Generals seems to have short memories as they did not seems to take lessons from the Chinese riots in Rangoon in 1967 and faced severe discrimination during the 1970s. Ethnic Chinese have, in fact, had a presence in Burma for centuries, with waves of immigration under British rule, and the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Some are also members of the ethnically Chinese Kokang group who straddle the border and unlike the Rohingya has been accepted as one of the ethnic races of Burma due to the pressure of the Chinese Step Father.

The two countries are linked by the famous Burma Road – built in the 1930s to supply vital provisions for Chinese Nationalist forces battling the Japanese imperialist army. It has been the lifeline for the Burmese Junta for an otherwise isolated Burmese regime since western sanctions were imposed in the 1980s. Trucks loaded with Burmese gems, jade, teak and food pour across the border into China – often illegally – and rumble back with cheap consumer goods. These goods have flooded the market in a country whose manufacturing industry has yet to take off, causing inevitable resentment. As the local saying goes, “When China spits, Burma drowns”, 当中国吐奶缅甸淹没

The thinking of the Chinese companies operating in Burma today, believe they just need a little public relations boost. Gao Mingbo 高明波, former head of the political section at the Chinese Embassy in Rangoon, has been spearheading efforts to repair the image of Chinese companies working in Burma. “The companies must retain the support of the local communities. That has been the consistent message of the embassy: to be open, to be engaged,” he said. He created the embassy’s Facebook page to reach the ordinary Burmese citizens; a luxury for him since Facebook is blocked in China. But the Chinese Step Father is not use to talking with the biological father, perhaps of guilty conscience, e.g. the Chinese-owned North Mining Investment Company北方矿业投资公司 which is developing a US$480 million nickel mine in Western Burma’s Chin state, appears to be repeating the same mistakes. The company has no office in Burma, website or public face and relies exclusively on government contacts. Unrest is now brewing as the company carries out surveys for the open-top mine and refinery without giving any information to local people.[16] It seems the Chinese Step Father just wants to sleep with the mother, with the encouragement of the Step son (Tatmadaw.)

Step Father, Role Model for Step Son

It is everybody’s knowledge that the quasi-military government (လံုခ်ီ၀တ္အစုိးရ) owes its power to China. After the subsequent military takeover, Burma relied on China for political, economic and military support—with profound internal and international ramifications. In a domestic context, the public became increasingly intolerant of Chinese migrants who had settled in the country or come for employment after the military takeover. The population of Chinese descent currently living in Burma is estimated to be between 3 million and 5 million. Even U Aung Min has publically admitted, “If they feel annoyed with the shutdown of their projects and resume their support to the communists, the economy in border areas would backslide,”[17] Unwittingly in Burmese we say Law Pan Khit Yawt Lar Pyi (ေလာပန္းေခတ္ေရာက္လာၿပီ) meaning the era of rich Chinese boss has arrived.

It seems the Burmese Generals were unable to see that China’s Leninist leadership is already managing a huge contradiction between change and stasis at home as it tries to keep its grip on a society which has transformed itself socially almost as fast as it has grown economically. Conceptually, what China wants in East Asia seems akin to a Monroe Doctrine: a decrease in the influence of external powers that would allow it untroubled regional dominance including Burma.[18] The difference is that the 19th-century Americas did not have any home-grown powers to challenge the United States, and most of its nations were quite content with the idea of keeping European great powers out of the area. China knows that, in fact, it enjoys various asymmetric advantages, and can drive wedges between America and its allies in the region. Hugh White, said that threatening other Asian countries with force, “China confronts America with the choice between deserting its friends and fighting China.”[19]

Tatmadaw leaders are no doubt keen to hold on to power for its own sake. But the country’s grim history also helps explain why they are so determined not to give ground to the ethno-democratic forces who want to replace the country’s fake democracy (disciplined democracy) with the real thing. The Generals may be right that autocracy can keep a country together stable in the short run. In the long run, though, as Burma’s own history shows, it cannot. The only guarantor of a stable country is a people that is satisfied with its government.[20] And in Burma the dissatisfaction with the Tatmadaw and its USDP is on the rise. In Burma , the Generals are is using a combination of tyrannical dictatorships and colonial tactics of “Divide and Rule” have accused the protesters of being “political extremists” and “black hands” manipulated by “foreign lackeys. Such language is straight out of the Tatmadaw’s well-thumbed lexicon of calumnies; similar words were used to denigrate the protesters in Tiananmen by the Chinese authorities. It reflects a long-standing unwillingness to engage with democrats. The quasi-military government used to buy the support of cronies and tycoons to keep activism under wraps. The government supporters in Burma argue that bringing business onside is good for stability, though the resentment towards the cronies and tycoons on display suggests the opposite.

The widespread expressions of anger on social media suggest that there, too, many people are dissatisfied with the way they are governed. Repression, co-option and force may succeed in silencing the protesters in Letpadaung Copper mines and Myitsone dams today, but there will be other demonstrations, in other part of the country soon enough. Burma needs to find a way of allowing its citizens to shape their governance without resorting to protests that risk turning into a struggle for the nation’s soul. But with the 2008 Nargis Constitution it is impossible.

As long as the strong Step Son (Tatmadaw) construe that the Step Father (China) is worthy of imitation and admiration it seems that the Biological father (Peoples of Burma) will have no choice but grudgingly will have to agree to his son’s desire to let the Step Father come and sleep with his wife whenever the Step father desire. Such is the plight of the缅甸人 Mien Tien Ren.[21]

Foot Notes

[1] A stepfather is the husband of one's mother and not one's natural father. The Free Dictionary by Farlex.
[2] Five autonomous regions are Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Guangxi, Ningxia
[3] Zin;Min, When the Chinese Press Down The Irrawaddy 14-8-2014
[4] Yi; Hnin, Myanmar’s Policy toward the Rising China since 1989 Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University 19-7-2013
[5] Local media in China just like in Burma must not publish the Hong Kong students demonstrations
[6] What China Wants The Economist 23-29 Aug.2014
[7] Ibid
[8] BBC Broadcast 18-10-2014
[9] What China Wants The Economist 23-29 Aug.2014
[10] Goldberg; Jacob, Myanmar’s Great Power Balancing Act 28-8-2014
[11] Ibid
[12] Walker; Berth, Anti-Chinese sentiment on rise in Myanmar China dialogue 13-5-2014
[13] Walker; Berth, Anti-Chinese sentiment on rise in Myanmar China dialogue 13-5-2014
[14] Ibid
[15] Even where Chinese companies do provide services, they do not get the credit because they do so through the unpopular government, or do not really benefit local people.
[16] Walker; Berth, Anti-Chinese sentiment on rise in Myanmar China dialogue 13-5-2014
[17] Zin:Min, The Irrawaddy 14-8-2014
[18] History indicated that in 1823 James Monroe laid out as policy a refusal to countenance any interference in the Western hemisphere by European nations; all incursions would be treated as acts of aggression
[19] What China Wants The Economist 23-29 Aug.2014
[20] The Party V the People Economist 4-10 Oct 2014
[21] People of Burma

No comments: