Suu Kyi’s Increasingly Delicate Balancing Act — How Will History Remember Her?
Beijing and the Tatmadaw both need Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but for conflicting reasons. And Suu Kyi needs both to remain in power.
Myanmar’s all-powerful Tatmadaw — comprising the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Police Force — took over the country through a coup d ‘état in 1962. It has since been its de facto ruler, directly until 2011, then in the guise of civilian governments till today. The Tatmadaw is above any civilian oversight and reports only to the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) headed by the President.
Beijing had a keen interest in its southern neighbor since the 13th century when the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan led the first invasion there. Myanmar is crucial to China because of the shared border, its vast natural resources, and the access it provides to the Bay of Bengal. China is using commerce and conflict to maintain its influence on Myanmar, reports the International Crisis Group.
Despite the continued mutual distrust, the Tatmadaw and Beijing became ‘allies of convenience’ as the USA imposed sanctions on Myanmar in 1988. America’s ‘shutting the door’ on Myanmar forced the Tatmadaw into this alliance, as the former Information Minister U Ye Htut stated to the Irrawaddy.
Beijing nonetheless continued supporting the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO), especially those along the common border, with arms and money. The Tatmadaw, on its part, was looking for ways to open the doors to the West.
In a carefully orchestrated move, Myanmar initiated political reforms in 2010 and released Suu Kyi from house arrest. It stalled the Myitsone Dam project in September 2011, citing public criticism, especially from Suu Kyi, to the dismay of Beijing and, no doubt, satisfaction of Washington.
In May 2012, the US eased sanctions on Myanmar, a reward for the ‘reforms’ and Suu Kyi’s release.
Suu Kyi — aware of Beijing’s sway over the EAOs, financial muscle, and the balancing weight against the Tatmadaw — needed Chinese support too. She traveled to Beijing in June 2015 and met President Xi Jinping. Following November, her party National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory.
The Daw was in Beijing again in November 2017 to a warm welcome, in sharp contrast to the worldwide scathing criticism she was facing on the Rohingya issue. Beijing offered her shelter in return for her support for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In March 2019, she changed her stance on the Myitsone Dam project, advocating its continuation.
President Xi visited Myanmar in January 2020, his first visit to Myanmar since becoming the President in 2012, and concluded several infrastructure deals.
Meanwhile, the Generals were working on other plans.
Myanmar and India were getting closer, and, in 2008, commissioned the Kaladan Multi-modal Transport Project. Once complete, it will connect India’s landlocked North-Eastern states with Sittwe Port in Rakhine and then to Kolkata Port in India. Myanmar signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia in June 2016. During a recent visit to Moscow, the Commander-in-Chief of Tatmadaw Senior General Min Aung Hlaing remarked that external forces were supporting terrorist groups, apparently pointing to China’s support to the EAOs. Last June, Myanmar engaged a Swiss company to review Beijing’s proposal for building the US$8.9 billion Muse-Mandalay Railway project, a part of the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC).
Suu Kyi is the head of the government that has only limited power. Besides having sweeping authority under the Constitution, Tatmadaw also controls three crucial portfolios, Defense, Home Affairs, and the Borders. The Generals are her power base, and she can’t afford to displease them, even if it takes her to the International Court of Justice to defend the Tatmadaw facing war crime charges.
On the other hand, Suu Kyi needs Beijing’s shelter from international condemnations, and diplomatic support and veto power at the UN Security Council, in return for promoting the BRI, against the Generals’ apparent lack of enthusiasm. In July, Myanmar split up the Yangon New City Project, a flagship BRI deal for which a state-owned Chinese construction company was the sole contender, to allow for foreign companies to participate. The Myitsone Dam project is still in limbo.
Suu Kyi’s most significant test is perhaps the constitutional amendment, which was her commitment in the 2015 election manifesto. In March, the Parliament turned down her proposed constitutional amendment bill. Nobody was surprised, because the Tatmadaw maintains tight control there though their 25% uniformed members and those of other loyal parties.
Interestingly, the amendment bill didn’t propose to remove the Tatmadaw’s controversial role in the Parliament. Instead, it aimed to gradually reduce the military’s percentage of parliamentary seats over time, down to 5% after 2030, as a policy of appeasement, which Myanmar Army Chief turned down. Human Rights Watch questioned Suu Kyi’s intentions, and justifiably so.
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