Myanmar’s New Leadership and Prospects for Sino-Myanmar Relations
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

Myanmar’s New Leadership and Prospects for Sino-Myanmar Relations

Mar. 24, 2016  |     |  0 comments

On March 15, 2016, Myanmar’s newly-elected parliament, dominated by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), elected Htin Kyaw, Suu Kyi’s close aide and confidant, as Myanmar’s next president — the country’s first civilian president since the military coup d’état of September 18, 1988. Due to a provision in the 2008 military-drafted constitution that bars Aung San Suu Kyi herself from assuming the presidency, due to her children and late spouse having British citizenship, President-elect Htin Kyaw will serve as Suu Kyi’s proxy in the country’s new leadership, with Suu Kyi herself acting from the cabinet, where, as of this time of writing, she has been nominated for four ministerial positions, including the positions of Minister of the President's Office and Minister of Foreign Affairs (“Htin Kyaw,” 2016; “Myanmar’s Suu Kyi,” 2016; “Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi,” 2016).

Due to this same constitution, Myanmar’s new government will be a civilian-military hybrid. This is because of privileges granted to the military in the new parliament, including its control of a quarter of the seats, as well as its right to nominate one of the candidates for the presidency. Although its candidate lost, under the constitution he will assume the position of one of the country’s two vice-presidents. This has caused consternation among observers, as this military candidate, now Vice-President Myint Swe, was the general in charge of special operations in Yangon during the bloody crackdown on the 2007 Saffron Uprising, and who still remains on a US blacklist due to his position with the former junta. The military faction’s selection of Myint Swe has also suggested to observers a widening rift between the civilian and military factions in Myanmar’s new leadership. This in turn has raised concerns about whether the incoming administration will be distracted by conflict between its civilian and military factions, or whether there will be the political consensus necessary among the key parties for the government to move forward with difficult political and economic reforms (Chandran, 2016; Webb & Aung, 2016; “Myanmar’s Suu Kyi,” 2016).

In June 2015, Beijing, perhaps sensing the prospect of regime change in Myanmar’s 2015 general elections, invited Aung San Suu Kyi for a state visit. While the details of the visit remain confidential, it is known that Suu Kyi’s meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, and other senior Chinese leaders, involved discussions on the long-term direction of Sino-Myanmar relations (Chen & Chung, 2015; Garafola, 2015). Sino-Myanmar relations had suffered a downturn under the administration of outgoing Myanmar President Thein Sein, which also witnessed a sharp decline in Chinese investment in Myanmar following the unexpected 2011 suspension of China’s Myitsone Dam megaproject (Lim, 2015b). Indeed, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced on March 8, 2016 that China intends to negotiate for the resumption of the construction of the Myitsone Dam with President-elect Htin Kyaw’s incoming administration, and recent statements from the NLD indicate that the incoming administration is open to reconsidering the megaproject, including the possibility of a redesign or even a relocation of the dam (Wong, 2016; “Suu Kyi party,” 2016). In his official statement of congratulations to President-elect Htin Kyaw, President Xi stated: “China is willing to work hard with Myanmar to promote the continued steady development of the all-round strategic cooperative relationship to better benefit both peoples.” (Quoted in “China to push,” 2016).

A separate ethnic conflict that could impact Sino-Myanmar relations is that of the Muslim Rohingya, whose suffering under the outgoing Thein Sein administration triggered a refugee crisis last year in the Andaman Sea.

A different project which shows increased Chinese confidence in the incoming administration is the controversial Letpadaung copper mine, whose Chinese operator Wanbao Mining announced last month that production will be commencing in May 2016 (Khin, 2016; “Chinese firm aims,” 2016). Likewise, the consortium led by China’s CITIC Group has commenced the training of its local employees at its Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, even though this project could potentially be suspended or cancelled by the incoming administration, which has promised to review lucrative economic projects that had been awarded by the outgoing Thein Sein administration (Mahtani, 2016). Indeed, this is likely to be one of the sources of conflict between the civilian and military blocs in the new administration, and which has the potential to impact Sino-Myanmar relations.

Another possible factor that could derail Sino-Myanmar relations is the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the militia of the ethnic Chinese minority of Myanmar’s Kokang region. Fighting between the MNDAA and the Myanmar armed forces last year triggered bilateral tensions between China and Myanmar after the Myanmar air force accidently bombed border villages in China’s Yunnan province (Lim, 2015b). The MNDAA, which had failed to recapture Kokang during its 2015 offensive, has recently issued declarations in mid-March 2016 warning of a resumption of military action against government forces in Kokang (Ye & Lun, 2016).

A separate ethnic conflict that could impact Sino-Myanmar relations is that of the Muslim Rohingya, whose suffering under the outgoing Thein Sein administration triggered a refugee crisis last year in the Andaman Sea, and who were effectively disenfranchised from the 2015 general elections (Holmes & Perria, 2015; McPherson & Saw, 2015; Lim, 2015a). The US State Department has recently determined that Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya amounts to persecution, and this could strengthen the position of those seeking a continuation or an enhancement of US sanctions against Myanmar (Gilmore, 2016; Zengerle & Wroughton, 2016). Should this happen, and should other Western powers be persuaded to join in, China is well-positioned to resume its role as an economic lifeline for Myanmar, which it last was during the military junta years of the late 1980s and 1990s (Lim, 2015b).


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