With the country currently experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases, whether it will manage to hold the election on the scheduled date of Nov. 8 remains to be seen. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that China will be betting on the NLD and its leader, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Indeed, as the election draws near, Naypyitaw has received a series of high-profile visitors.
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi paid a visit, announcing emergency loans and discussing a range of issues including the need for a free and fair election, reopening the country’s borders to long-term residents and businesspeople, and financial support to help improve conditions in Rakhine State.
A week later, Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC)’s Central Committee and director of the committee’s Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission, was in Naypyitaw, where he met President U Win Myint, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and armed forces commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
The senior Chinese diplomat called for a strengthening of high-level exchanges, and for the consolidation and deepening of political trust between the two countries. The aim of the visit was to promote and speed up implementation of the long-delayed China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) projects, which form part of Bejing’s vast international infrastructure scheme, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Jiechi also said China is also willing to give priority to sharing a COVID-19 vaccine with Myanmar once it is developed.
This month, senior officials from India are also scheduled to visit Myanmar, though no details have materialized yet.
China, Japan and India are Myanmar’s most important allies in the region and will be keenly following the results of the upcoming election.
The US, too, has a stake in the outcome. Over the past three decades, it has invested in the democracy movement in Myanmar and gained considerable influence inside the country. Washington cannot afford to see this process reversed.
The US Embassy in Yangon announced that the US government has provided more than US$46 million (61.22 billion kyats) to the Union Election Commission (UEC), civil society groups and political parties to administer and participate in the 2020 election.
China makes a move
Myanmar was the first country to welcome President Xi Jinping on an overseas visit in 2020, as the Chinese leader made the country the first item on his well-choreographed diplomatic calendar for the year.
The visit was in part timed to mark the 70th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Myanmar and China this year. In an op-ed published in Myanmar’s state-run media during the visit, Xi said China supports Myanmar in “safeguarding its legitimate rights and interests and national dignity.”
Behind the pomp of the visit, and the accompanying sugar-coated messages and state-sponsored reception, Chinese officials confided that they respect Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her political stance. They also said that compared to the notoriously corrupt generals that ran the previous regime, the Chinese find Daw Aung San Suu Kyi pragmatic and believe she will keep her promises (on Chinese-funded projects in Myanmar).
China made an unmistakable shift in 2015, adopting a pro-active foreign policy towards Myanmar, months before the country held its election in November of that year. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, then opposition leader and a member of Parliament, was invited to Beijing, where she met with Xi. The NLD subsequently won a landslide election.
By inviting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to China, Beijing sent a signal to the military and long-time allies in Myanmar, including the military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), that it is capable of making new friends in Myanmar. The invitation also sent a message to the West that Beijing is pragmatic in dealing with Myanmar and understands the necessities of geostrategic competition.
For a number of years, the Communist Party of China and the USDP developed close party-to-party relations. In 2012, then Vice President Xi met with U Htay Oo, then Secretary-General of Myanmar’s ruling USDP, in Beijing, vowing to boost inter-party ties. “China has always handled its relations with Myanmar from a strategic perspective,” the Chinese vice president told U Htay Oo in the Great Hall of the People. This was the last high-profile meeting between the CPC and USDP.
Courting the NLD
In fact, in the past, China cultivated deep friendships with the leaders of the former military regime and the military elite. The Chinese Embassy in Yangon was close to the military regime and in constant contact—reports of a flurry of meetings between the two sides were published in state-run papers. (A downside of the friendship, however, was a rise in anti-China sentiment among Myanmar’s oppressed citizens.)
But this has changed since the NLD won a landslide election in 2015. China has taken steps to strengthen ties with the NLD government and the ruling party.
According to NLD sources, more than 100 NLD members including key players, lawmakers and youth wing members have visited China since 2016. The number of delegates visiting China has outpaced those from the US, EU and Asian countries. Usually they first fly to Beijing and other provinces and end their trips in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, which shares a border with Myanmar.
Along the way, Myanmar delegates study the CPC’s leadership model and China’s economic and social reforms, according to NLD delegates who have visited the country.
An NLD Central Executive Committee member previously told The Irrawaddy that the NLD has built a constructive relationship with China amid growing tensions with Western countries over the Rohingya issue. Seizing the advantage, China has also promoted its own agenda of investments and projects, showing the visitors mega-dams and other development projects.
There is no doubt that China will continue to bet on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. After the 1990 election, then-Chinese Ambassador Cheng Ruisheng was the first diplomat to call NLD headquarters in Yangon to offer congratulations, though the regime never honored the outcome.
Influence with EAOs
Moreover, China maintains regular contact with armed ethnic minorities in northern Myanmar. In fact, China has far more influence over ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in the north than Myanmar’s own mainstream political parties, including the NLD.
Over the past few decades, many ethnic armed groups have become dependent on China for political and economic support, as well as arms. This has left them indebted to the country. Unable to refuse their patron’s requests, they have become China’s foot soldiers in Myanmar. Through these armed groups China has been able to exert influence—albeit limited—on some ethnic political parties in the ethnic regions.
In Yangon, the Chinese Embassy maintains regular contact with organizations such as the Myanmar Chinese Chamber of Commerce, as well as NLD leaders, top-ranking government officials and the military, though it no longer has the kind of broad-based contacts it once enjoyed among Myanmar politicians, influential writers and “Red China” sympathizers in the 1950s and 1960s.
The US, meanwhile, has built up influence through a network of contacts throughout Yangon and Myanmar in recent years, in the wake of the country’s political opening.
Nonetheless, China’s influence on Myanmar, both direct and indirect, remains potent, with broad geopolitical implications and requiring of Naypyitaw a delicate balancing act.
Influence on the election
China has the ability to exert its influence in other countries and elections in the region. This comes in many forms, from economic measures like buying up local media and promoting pro-Beijing businesses, to launching “fake news” campaigns on social media and espionage. Unlike Russia, China doesn’t get involved in direct electoral meddling, but the rise of Chinese influence and power projection in Myanmar, and its massive infrastructure investment in the country, have sparked a heated, and unprecedented, debate among not only the elites but also ordinary Myanmar citizens.
In the next 10 years the political and economic influence of China will only increase in Southeast Asia, highlighting the decline of US influence in the region. Myanmar must prepare to face these challenges.
China is growing more assertive in trying to influence elections in the region. For instance, in Cambodia several years ago, China took assertive and bold steps to help Hun Sen, one of Beijing’s staunchest allies in Southeast Asia, win the country’s election in 2018.
In Sri Lanka, China welcomed “old friend” Mahinda Rajapaksa’s landslide election victory in August this year and assured him of its full support, as Beijing looked to advance its strategic cooperative partnership with the island nation. Since 2015, after Rajapaksa became the president of Sri Lanka, China has substantially increased its engagement and investment there; the election victory no doubt strengthened China’s influence in the country.
A similar story can be seen in Nepal. In 2017, communist parties in Nepal with close ties to neighboring China emerged victorious in the country’s largest democratic exercise ever. China poured investment into the building of airports, highways and hydropower projects in Nepal, while Chinese diplomats have worked to increase ties with Nepali political leaders.
A similar pattern can be seen in Myanmar. Chinese influence is visible in the country, but equally, anti-China sentiment is strong and persistent. No political leaders—and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is no exception—want to be seen as too close to China in an election year. (In 1967, Myanmar saw anti-Chinese riots, stemming from the spread of China’s cultural revolution ideology among Chinese expatriates in Myanmar.)
Another example of this phenomenon can be seen in Indonesia, where President Joko Widodo appeared to distance himself from Beijing and downplay the importance of Chinese-funded projects in the country, when seeking re-election last year.
Overcoming the perception of being too close to China is a difficult task that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and many other Myanmar politicians face. As she has been accused of being a pro-China politician in the recent past, the State Counselor will have to walk a tightrope.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has embraced China’s BRI projects, will also be well aware of the recent spat between the US and Chinese embassies in Yangon. It is a politically delicate, and diplomatically awkward, moment for her.
Understandably, the Myanmar government does not want to be seen taking sides in an extended tussle between China and the US amid rising geopolitical competition. On the other hand, a majority of Myanmar people have a negative view of Chinese-funded projects in the country.
November’s election will have significance for the country’s relationship with the major powers and its often-delicate geopolitical alignment with its giant neighbors, including China.
Whoever leads the next government in Naypyitaw, it would be foolish to expect an administration that is overtly pro-China, Japan, India or US. As such, we can expect Myanmar’s strictly neutral foreign policy to be maintained.
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Westerner Behind the Wheel
PART 3: Bordering on Trouble
A brush with officialdom
Asia Highway 1 (AH1) to Hpa-an, Kawkareik and Myawaddy was narrower and less smooth than Highway 8; it would be foolhardy to go more than 90 kph.
The first tourist attraction on the way to Hpa-an is the Bayin Nyi Cave, a cavern more than 100 meters deep with dozens of Buddha images. At Kaw Gon Cave, nearer Hpa-an, thousands of small bas-relief images cover the rock face like tiles above the opening to the main cavern.
At Kaw Gon we noticed our rear number plate had fallen off. Not wanting a missing plate to cause a problem at a checkpoint, we set off to make a report at the transport compound near Hpa-an.
An official barely took interest longer than it took him to direct us to the police station downtown in Hpa-an. In front of cells in the grey wooden jailhouse, a bemused duty officer asked Tom why we had come to report at a police station for crime suppression. He directed us back to the correct office in the sprawling compound of the transport department.
While Tom was making the report, I wandered outside to look at rows of newish-looking cars and pickups parked in a field. I got my camera out to shoot an expensive-looking white BMW sports convertible.
There was a shout. I turned around. A man wearing a longyi and white shirt was approaching, gesticulating wildly from across the field. After what seemed an hour of explanations, having our IDs photographed and making profuse apologies, we were free to go. Government property in Myanmar is sacrosanct and taking pictures is strictly forbidden.
As for the cars, they had been seized due to a lack of proper paperwork. Perhaps some if not all had been illegally imported if not stolen in Thailand. Placating the official was a question of reassuring him that the pictures would be left to the imagination.
The delay meant we had to spend an extra night in Hpa-an. It was a major tourist destination that I had to study in any case, and Tom introduced me to the outstanding San Ma Tau Restaurant.
One chance meeting
AH1 between Hpa-an and Kawkareik is uneven, barely two lanes wide and has many bends. To overtake slow-moving trucks required good acceleration. The truck’s nearside wheels had to go on the hard shoulder. It was not easy.
Driving along the new Thai-built highway from Kawkareik to Myawaddy was simple and fast in comparison. At Myawaddy, Tom went off on his business, while I wandered down to the river and watched boatloads crossing into Thailand not 100 meters from the road bridge. His business over, Tom booked a night bus back to Yangon.
Though folks in Myawaddy’s market were friendly, a return journey on the AH1 to get there from Hpa-an did not seem worth the trouble. When a man in his 50s introduced himself to me in the market, I was happy to go to a teashop with him rather than visit a pagoda. A schoolteacher, he invited me to teach some private students early the next morning. He asked if I could take him to Kawkareik. He was welcome.
After dark, one or two buildings in Myawaddy had frontages hinting at impropriety behind doors closed to quiet, uninviting streets. By day, Myawaddy did not appear to have anything particularly special beyond a bridge to Thailand.
I first rode a motorcycle along the pretty route north of Mae Sot on the Thai side of the Moei River in the 1980s and wondered what the route might be like on Myanmar’s side. Years had passed since the fall of independent Kawthoolei and the Karen fortress at Manerplaw in 1995, but security concerns likely remain an issue. No doubt it would be a most interesting drive, but the boss had said he didn’t want company cars anywhere near “AK-47 country”.
Early the next morning I gave an impromptu English lesson in a small private classroom with split-bamboo walls at the back of the teacher’s house. Six high-school students read a poem about bridges and then we drew pictures of them. Attempting to explain the grammar behind why I was interested in meeting these young, interesting learners reminded me why I had long quit English language teaching.
People in Kawkareik’s market greeted my friend, who had taught in a high school there. He showed me around the market, which was dominated by an old mosque that was a stone’s throw away from a pagoda. Kawkareik seemed like a pleasant small town, but that was all.
And then we went to another teashop before parting. I do like the teashops in Myanmar, but are there fewer of them than in 1996? Beer stations seem to have taken a more visible role as places for social interaction, but I don’t drink. Perhaps that was one reason why no one else ever approached me in like manner in Myanmar as that Mon teacher.
Leaving Kawkareik, I felt more confident. Visitors planning to drive in Myanmar would face the same language problem, but would they want to drive without a local companion?
Checkpoints and tolls in Myanmar
Checkpoints in central Myanmar are few and tend to be at crossroads or between regions. Police will want to see passports, vehicle registration documents and maybe driving permits.
Tolls booths are frequent and unfortunately, collectors assume drivers will be on the right side of vehicles. Keep to hand banknotes in small denominations.
Oliver Hargreave created “WorldClass Drives in Myanmar” for Yomacarshare.com. Opinions expressed in this article are not those of Yomacarshare