The Chinese Dragon has been trying to subjugate its southern neighbor for more than 700 years. It never succeeded. But now that seems to be happening, slowly but surely, thanks to the world’s longest running ethnic conflicts ravaging the country. How has this come about?
Myanmar is too coveted a prize for China. It provides a quick access to the Indian Ocean to project Chinese commercial and strategic interests. Its resources are crucial for fueling China’s economy. Jade from Kachin is irresistible to the upper-class Chinese. And finally, Myanmar is an important piece in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) vision.
The first invasion from the North to Myanmar was led by the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan in 1277, followed by several others until 1303. Eventually all ended in failure. The next major Chinese offensive came in late 18th century, but that too ended in disaster, giving the mighty Qing Dynasty their first taste of defeat, and that in the hands of the Bamars, whom they considered “barbarians”.
Bamars were the most dominant ethnic group in Myanmar since pre-historic times. By the 18th century, they were able to establish a kingdom roughly within the boundaries of the present-day Myanmar. The other notable ethnic groups were Mons, Shans, Karens, Kachins and Rakhines. Some of these groups were, however, only loosely under Bamar suzerainty. Nevertheless, Bamar valor formed the root of Burmese nationalism.
Britain’s colonial power conquered Burma in 1885 after three major wars. Areas which were home to ethnic minorities were designated as Frontier Areas, administered directly by Britain’s Burma Frontier Service. There were many such actions by the British which did not please the Bamars. The ethnic groups, for their part, acted in their own interests. For example, Karens helped the British during the Anglo-Burmese Wars and in the suppression of rebellions in Lower Burma.
The British left Burma in January 1948. Several groups such as the Burmese Communist Party (BCP), Karens and Kachins commenced their respective armed insurgencies soon thereafter, followed by similar actions of other groups. In 1962, Myanmar Army, Tatmadaw, staged a coup, on the pretext that the country was on the verge of disintegration.
Ethnic insurgencies, however, continued, fueled by competing interests for control of mainly illicit trading in precious stones, drugs and arms. There was a complex web between the BCP, Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), Beijing, Yunnan, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and private businesses. However, despite China’s significant role and influence in this network, Myanmar was able to maintain a neutral path in the region.
Under Deng Xiaoping, China’s policy shifted towards direct engagement with the Tatmadaw and the government, while still maintaining links with the EAOs. Chinese military aid increased significantly following the violent repression of pro-democracy protests in Yangon in 1988, when Myanmar faced growing international condemnation. Between 2008 and 2011, China initiated projects that would invest approximately US$12 billion in large-scale infrastructure. Myanmar government, however, was becoming uncomfortable with the accompanying publicity and increasing Chinese dominance. Being perceived as a Chinese puppet does not bode well for any government in Myanmar, as it contradicts the glorified image of the Bamars. To shrug off any such perception, Myanmar suspended the Myitsone Hydropower Project in September 2011, after a huge public outcry against it. At the same time, Myanmar tried to improve relations with other international players, including India and the Western countries.
Interestingly, in northern Myanmar next to China, hostilities between Tatmadaw and EAOs continued, despite peace efforts initiated by Myanmar’s Thein Sein government. A Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was signed by eight EAOs in October 2015, but most of the larger groups abstained, especially those along the Chinese border.
Against this backdrop, in August 2017, Tatmadaw commenced their “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” in Northern Arakan, home to the Rohingya minorities.
The Rohingya crisis came as a golden opportunity for China to assert control on Myanmar. With widespread international condemnation and drastic UN Security Council resolutions, Myanmar required a sympathizing power. China provided this readily. It voted against any resolution or motion that criticized Myanmar for the atrocities committed against the Rohingya people, although there was strong evidence to the contrary, as reported by the UNHRC.
But this favor came for a price.
The suspension of the Myitsone Project in Kachin, a crucial piece in the BRI game plan, was a shock to China. Failure of this project will have a telling impact on the future course of BRI. Beijing cannot afford this and has stepped up pressure on Myanmar to re-commence the project. There are already signs that Suu Kyi is changing Myanmar’s policy on the Myitsone Project, as she has emphasized the importance of continued commitment to such investments. Any decision to re-commence it under Chinese pressure, as a price for shelter from international condemnation, will only confirm that Myanmar is well on its way to be under firm domination of its great northern neighbor.
Continuation of the ethnic conflicts is necessary for the Tatmadaw to maintain the original premise which it cited in 1962, as a justification for the coup at that time. This, coupled with lack of governance, discontent among the ethnic minorities, illicit trading in drugs and arms, competing interests in resource-rich ethnic areas and personal greed of some Tatmadaw officers have led to continued gross violation of human rights. Every time such an incident or involvement of the Tatmadaw officers in illicit trades comes to light, the regime gets under renewed criticisms and sanctions. This is when China becomes a convenient savior, and the regime falls right into their lap. In return, China presses ahead with its BRI projets, as is likely to happen with the Myitsone Project.
As I write this, Amnesty International reports fresh wave of violence in Rakhine, targeting Muslims, Buddhists and Christians alike. In all likelihood, the vicious cycle of violence will continue in Myanmar. And the ethnic minorities will be the subjects of collateral damages in a brutal power game, as China’s 700-year vision becomes a reality. “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity”, as Sun-Tzu has said in his famous book “The Art of War”. Indeed.