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Foreign Policy and Political Changes in Post-Junta Myanmar
Dr Renaud Egreteau – Associate Professor; Project/Thesis Coordinator, City University of Hong Kong.
Because of its geostrategic position and whatever the system of government in place, Myanmar must cope with a series of key security challenges.1 The country is sandwiched between two emerging giants with global ambitions, China and India. It boasts a 2,000km-long coastline opened to the Indian Ocean, through which a large part of the world’s seaborne commerce transit. It offers a gateway to, and from, continental Southeast Asia. In the twenty-first century, this peculiar geographical situation may present considerable opportunities for regional growth and future development in a country long kept away from global flows and Asia’s economic boom.2 But it can also contribute to increased concerns among Burmese ruling elites, starting with the armed forces (or Tatmadaw), over the potential sway neighbouring states, global powers and international institutions may seek to gain in a region known for its abundance of underexploited natural resources.3
In March 2011, the junta formed after the last coup d’état staged by the Tatmadaw in 1988 was disbanded. A startling transition to a semi-civilian administration followed.4 The five-year presidency of ex-general Thein Sein (2011–2016) marked a first phase in this post-junta transitional moment. Under the impetus of a handful of retired high-ranking military officers, Myanmar started to liberalise its polity, returned to a parliamentary form of elected government, allowed its pro-democracy opposition forces to join the political game, and gradually re-engaged with the world, particularly the West. After years of diplomatic isolation and international condemnations led by the United States and the European Union, most sanctions imposed against the country since the 1990s were suspended, then lifted, between 2012 and 2016. Even more, the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in the legislative polls held in November 2015 and the subsequent formation of an NLD government further rekindled hopes for a gradual, yet palpable, democratisation.
But if dramatic changes surprisingly unfolded in the early 2010s, the country still faces key enduring regional and transnational strategic stakes, as this chapter shows. First, post-junta Myanmar under Thein Sein presidency painstakingly attempted to re-join the world and burnish its international image. For the new government this meant moving away from the unapologetically authoritarian military rule, designing a set of progressive reforms, while negotiating with all key opposition actors of the domestic political landscape. In doing so, Thein Sein’s administration allowed the removal of most policies of international sanctions against Myanmar.
The NLD government inherited the difficult task of consolidating, and furthering, the good will already showed. Second, Thein Sein and his NLD successors since 2016 have demonstrated that, despite the willingness to open-up to the world, and in particular the West, the successive post-junta leaderships have shared a common reluctance to see Myanmar being dragged into great power politics. Rebalancing the Sino–Myanmar partnerships without becoming a stake in the rising contention between the U.S. and China in Southeast Asia has proved an essential and enduring foreign policy goal of the country. Myanmar’s strategic thinkers have recently shown their eagerness to revert to a traditional policy of diplomatic equidistance between India and China.
Third, the country in a post-junta era still needs to pacify its domestic politics in order to restore comity with its immediate neighbours. To bring about stability and enable a pacified development of its national economy, Myanmar must put an end to its multiple, decade-long insurgencies and communal tensions, which have all been fuelled, if not supported, by sympathies found across borders with China, Thailand, India, and Bangladesh. Lastly, the government formed by Aung San Suu Kyi in March 2016 – and its future successors – will have to increasingly deal with a state within a state. The Burmese armed forces, through constitutional prerogatives and a lingering, if not decisive, control over policymaking, remains a key government actor with essential strategic and foreign policy views not necessarily aligned with that of the new, and future, civilian leaderships. A fine balance will have to be found, thanks to a constant civil-military dialogue to avoid having the Tatmadaw going its way and define a parallel diplomacy for the late 2010s and beyond.
In March 2011, the military regime that had ruled Myanmar for twenty-three years was dissolved, and a new state leadership was sworn in. The semi civilian administration that took power after the elections controversially held in November 2010 soon initiated a startling, yet partial, liberalisation of Myanmar’s socio-economic and political spheres. The impetus came from the former prime minister of the junta himself, ex-general Thein Sein, as well as a few other retired Tatmadaw officers such as Thura Shwe Mann, the former Joint-Chief of Staff of the armed forces. Thein Sein was elected president of the Union in February 2011 and tasked to lead the republic into its first five years of “post-junta” political order, as defined by the Constitution written by military thinkers and adopted in 2008.5 His government soon outlined reformist pieces of legislation and abolished state censorship, while reaching out to the ethnic armed and pro-democracy oppositions, including Aung San Suu Kyi herself. International and domestic observers alike have since been puzzled by the rapid transformations taking place in the country.6
Yet, by the end of Thein Sein’s five-year presidency, the euphoric moment seemed to have promptly died out. Rising communal tensions between Burmese Muslim and Buddhist mobs, enduring obstacles in the internal peace process aimed at securing new agreements between the post-junta central government and several ethnic armed groups, as well as continuing human rights abuses in the country’s conflict-ridden areas all have illustrated how intricate, and above all incomplete, the transitional process has proved since 2011. The probability of a government change after the elections scheduled for November 2015 and rising expectations about the possibility of Aung San Suu Kyi taking power in 2016 pushed foreign investors, international donors, and the diplomatic community to adopt a more prudent approach as early as 2014. All remained expectant until the NLD effectively won the second post-junta polls held in November 2015.
The Muslim world and the international community, particularly in the West, have been dismayed by the appalling treatment this minority has been the object of in Myanmar. Considered outsiders by the authorities, but also the country’s Buddhist-dominated society, the Rohingya have faced decades of administrative segregation, political discrimination, and cultural alienation from Myanmar’s society. Two massive exoduses to Bangladesh occurred in 1978 and 1991, and since 2012, renewed waves of forced displacement have been observed. The relative passivity of Thein Sein’s government and the predicament the latter found itself in since 2011, wishing to break with old despotic habits and brutal repressive tools to make a good impression on the international community, have perhaps contributed to the resumption of communal unrest. President Thein Sein himself was once allegedly quoted in favour of the United Nations’ resettlement of the Rohingya populations outside Myanmar. A government-appointed commission of experts was nevertheless tasked to shed light on the reasons for the violence and assign responsibilities for the 2012 riots in Rakhine State.34 The report was however much criticized at home and abroad for its allegedly biased analysis of the unrest.
The NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi have shown themselves reluctant to tackle head-on the conundrum, including once in power. The party did not present any Muslim candidate to the 2015 legislative elections, a strategy condemned worldwide. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has been regularly criticized for delaying her government’s involvement in the matter since 2016. Frequently accused of not living up to her democratic credentials, as Nobel Peace Laureate and long-standing champion of civil liberties and human rights in Myanmar, she however formed in August 2016 an advisory commission tasked with proposing concrete measures to prevent communal violence, secure peace and development and bring about reconciliation in Rakhine State, the most affected region. A former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was appointed as the commission’s chair – signalling the NLD’s acceptance of international voices on the Rohingya question.
Yet, the continuing discontent expressed by Rakhine Buddhist politicians and various civil society groups, as well as the reluctance of the Tatmadaw leadership to see further unrest unfold in a region bordering Bangladesh, Myanmar’s only Muslim neighbour, have all pointed to the difficulties the NLD will encounter in its dealing with the issue, both internally and on the regional scene. Furthermore, if the ASEAN has welcomed a new, more liberal Myanmar under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership, most diplomats in the region seem convinced that the pro-democracy icon will not push for a broader democratisation beyond Myanmar, having too much to deal with at home.##