Tue 5 Feb 2013
Filed under: Opinion,Regional
Since the escalation of tension in northern Myanmar, Burmese artillery shells have twice landed in China. Chinese Foreign Ministry has stated serious concern and dissatisfaction, and demanded the Burmese to conduct investigation of the incidents. The rising conflict in northern Myanmar is increasingly involving China. The geopolitical lever effect of Myanmar’s political reform is being released, leading to the concurrence of political reform and a civil war, as well as interaction between its domestic politics and great power games. Myanmar has turned from an isolated country into the bellwether of world politics.
The internal logic of the war and reform
The reform of a country usually requires internal political stability, but Myanmar’s political reform is taking place at the same time as the conflict in northern Myanmar. The Myanmar government waves the “carrot” of political reform on one hand, and launches major attacks in the northern states on the other. Myanmar fighter jets and artillery shells cross Chinese territorial space so often that the intensity of the fighting can only be imagined.
Although civil war and reform seem incompatible, they follow the same logic: to build a modern federal nation. More than half a century has passed since the independence of Myanmar, but its intelligence is rather low. The adoption of a federalist political structure back then was a choice made out of despair. There are more than 130 ethnic groups in Myanmar, with distinct religious beliefs, and languages, but little national identity. Under the mediation of General Aung San, a federal nation with high level of autonomy was established. Political scientist Danial Elazar once argued that real federalism “is based on the division of territorial power. Therefore, the territory becomes the foundation for political actions. The actual permanent territories of each main state are a strong guarantee for the expansion of power.” But in the case of Myanmar, the federation/union was a division of power based on language and religious beliefs. Since the founding of the nation, the central government has been trying to centralize its power. The root of the conflict in northern Myanmar is due to the fact that the central government could not tolerate the independent armed forces in each autonomous state and therefore tried to “reduce their armed forces” to centralize the power in the central government. The Myanmar military is still the most important political force despite the political reform. The process of the conflict in northern Myanmar seems to have exceeded the control of President Thein Sein.
The conflict in northern Myanmar did not reverse the political reform process. News media censorship was abolished. Private newspapers will become a reality. And it is no longer a dream for political dissidents to return to their homeland. The pace of Myanmar’s political reform is accelerating. The political reform itself is also the process to reestablish federalism. In world history, there has never been any federalist institution that could reject freedom and democracy in the long term. True federalism is established through decentralization based on civil rights and broad participation. U Thein Sein’s reforms have expanded the space for citizens’ participation, which is also the implementation of federalism.
The political reform has strengthened the legitimacy of the central government, giving it the leverage to use both hard and soft approaches with the northern states. It “subdued” the Karen through negotiations, and launched ferocious attacks on the Kachin. Neither war nor conquering by force would establish a political order based on equality. Negotiation and compromise are the only solution. On Jan 16th, the NLD’s Aung San Suu Kyi called for immediate ceasefire in the Parliament. On the 17th, the federal parliament released a public statement calling for KIA to give up fighting and negotiate with the government.
Political reform has softened internal hostility. The democratic opposition, including Aung San Suu Kyi, is yet to announce its public position on the conflict in northern Myanmar. The power structure of northern Myanmar is changing. This might be the top geopolitical effect of the political reform.
The Silence of the U.S.
While the conflict escalates in northern Myanmar, big powers like U.S. and Japan are keeping their mouths shut. Some American and British media have even seen the conflict as a test for China without any interest in carrying the “policing role” that they are so fond of. Since the political reform of Myanmar started, leaders of big powers, including U.S. president Obama, visited Myanmar one after another. The “outcast” of the international community suddenly turned to a “superstar” wooed by all powers. To use political reform to shut the western powers up is the grand strategy of the Myanmar government. It is also the geopolitical bonus of political reform.
The geopolitical value of Myanmar doesn’t require much elaboration. Since it has been an isolated zone in the geopolitical chessboard, political reform has offered Myanmar the chance to “cash in”. The U.S. has lifted economic sanctions on Myanmar, as well as providing assistance to it. The new Japanese government has dispatched its deputy prime minister to pay a first visit to Myanmar, forgiving 300 billion Yen’s worth of foreign debts while providing low-interest loans. The Indian defense minister will visit Myanmar soon to strengthen the military cooperation. The big power competition has driven up the value of Myanmar tremendously.
Political reform has changed Myanmar’s international image, making it a member of the “democracy club”. This is the important reason why the U.S., Japan and India are showing their good will. The U.S. hopes Myanmar’s political reform will continue, hence has remained silent about the conflict in northern Myanmar. The economic development of Myanmar is at its startup stage. Countries like U.S., Japan and India all wish to catch the opportunity and enter the Myanmar market. Political reform has shut the door for the U.S. criticisms and sanctions.
The “defreezing” of Myanmar has turned into a platform of great power politics. China has broad interests in Myanmar. The oil and gas pipelines currently under construction from Myanmar to southwest China will pass through areas controlled by the Kachin military. China is in a dilemma on the conflict in northern Myanmar. The conflict is a direct threat to China’s southwestern border security and becomes a strategic burden for China. Meanwhile, countries like U.S., Japan and India are using value-based diplomacy and material enticement to compete for Myanmar. Sino-Myanmar relations are facing many variables of change. The role of Myanmar as China’s access into the Indian Ocean is being tested. Myanmar is turning into a geopolitical risk to China’s rise.
Myanmar’s political reform has brought about geopolitical risks and bonuses. Only positive actions will bring the dissolution of tensions and the winning of bonuses. China is a big power in East Asia and Myanmar’s neighbor. To resolve the conflict in northern Myanmar and promote negotiation and reconciliation between the Kachin and the central government should be a priority in China’s policy toward Myanmar. The financial crisis of East Asia offered China the opportunity to foster East Asian economic cooperation, while the conflict in northern Myanmar is showing the chance for China to build an East Asian security framework. Positive and active foreign policy will not only bring profits to China, it will also create peace for the neighboring region.
Sun Yingjie is an Adjunct Researcher at Jilin University’s Institute of International Relations