China’s dim(ish) view of the Myanmar junta – Asia Times

China wanted Myanmar’s junta to enter into dialogue with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic minority groups in the months after the 2007 “Saffron” revolution protests, newly released US diplomatic cables show. Yet Beijing also warned US officials that even if talks made progress, the generals’ inept handling of the economy could throw the country into turmoil.

BANGKOK – Newly released United States diplomatic cables show that in the months after the August-September 2007 “Saffron” revolution protests in Myanmar, China was concerned about the country’s stability and preferred that the military regime enter into dialogue with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic minority groups.

“The Chinese ambassador no longer tried to defend the regime, and acknowledged that the generals had made a bad situation worse. The Chinese have used their access to the generals to push for change, without much observable result, but remain interested in working with us to promote change,” according to an account of a January 17, 2008 meeting between US charged’affairs Shari Villaraos and China’s ambassador to Myanmar, Guan Mu.

“The Chinese are clearly fed-up with foot-dragging by Than Shwe regime,” Villarosa’s report of the meeting concluded.

A lower-level meeting in Beijing took place a week earlier, on January 10 2008, and involved Chinese Ministry for Foreign Affairs Asia Department Counselor Yang Jian and politiburo-linked China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) Asia scholars Zhai Kun and Zhang Xuegang, along with three American officials.

While China and Vietnam have underpinned strong one-party rule with fast economic growth and investor-friendly policies – though recently Western multinationals have started to chafe at Chinese conditions – in China’s view Myanmar’s military junta failed to legitimize itself domestically due to its incompetent management of the economy, according to the Chinese assessments outlined in the US cable.

Gambits mentioned in WikiLeaked-cables from the US Embassy in Yangon, such as the creation of a “bread and circuses” domestic football league and rumors that Senior General Than Shwe, the junta’s strongman, mulled a potential US$1billion bid for a majority stake in the Manchester United football club – apparently at the behest of his grandson – will only add to the perception of a regime at odds with economic realities beyond the self-enrichment of a narrow cabal of cronies.

According to the American account of the January 2008 meeting in Beijing, Zhai said the Myanmar government exerts control over society only on the surface and the potential for “lots of trouble” persists. He said the regime’s inept handling of the economy costs it legitimacy and even if Myanmar’s generals and Suu Kyi undertook a healthy dialogue, economic problems could throw the country into turmoil. Foreign affairs official Yang added that China’s main reason for opposing Western sanctions on the Myanmar junta is that these could contribute to civil unrest inside the country, according to the Chinese view.

Scholar Zhang said that the US should “play two hands” with Myanmar’s junta, advising the Americans that “the United States has been sufficiently critical of the regime and now should send messages, via China if necessary, to reassure Burmese military leaders that their personal security would not be imperiled in a democratic transition”. Similarly, ambassador Guan suggested that that if junta leaders could be assured that “they would not lose their lives” and could retain economic interests, they might be amenable to a gradual concession of power.

To be sure, a measure of skepticism is required in reading the dated cables, however, with the real possibility that the Chinese representatives were, to a point at least, telling the Americans what they thought they wanted to hear and/or engaging in dissimulation, as all diplomats must. The status quo in Myanmar means that China, along with India, Thailand and others, has a relatively unhindered run at investing in resource-rich Myanmar, as Western countries and companies are hindered by US, European Union and Australian sanctions.

Whether the Americans bought into what they were told, or whether the cables were incorporated into ensuing higher-level Sino-American discussions on Myanmar, is hard to say. However, since the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2009, Washington has made conciliatory gestures toward Myanmar’s junta, including an offer to reassess sanctions in exchange for reforms – such as holding credible elections and the release of political prisoners – only to be rebuffed in turn.

Nuclear concerns

Zhang said that guaranteeing the safe future of the current military leadership is the key to “unlocking the deadlock”, which in hindsight suggests that the drive to establish a United Nations-backed commission of Inquiry into whether war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in Myanmar, a motion backed by the US, might have impelled the junta to batten down the hatches – if, indeed, the generals had ever contemplated any opening to begin with.

According to other cables released overnight by WikiLeaks, the US has since 2004 been concerned about Myanmar-North Korea military cooperation, which more recently has featured allegations that Myanmar is seeking nuclear weapons. Those worries have been exacerbated by revelations by American scientist Siegfried Hecker, who in early November reported that he was shown around a modern, sophisticated uranium enrichment facility in Yongbyon, previously unknown to outsiders by all accounts. It was a revelation that hints the technology Pyongyang could transfer to Myanmar is significantly more advanced than hitherto thought.

China’s views on a potentially nuclear-armed Myanmar are not known, nor mentioned in the leaked US cables. However, Beijing’s apparent and somewhat surprising views on ethnic relations in Myanmar are closer to Suu Kyi than those of junta leader Than Shwe. Since her November 13 release from house arrest, de facto opposition leader Suu Kyi has called for “a peaceful revolution” in Myanmar and for a second Panglong conference to address relations between the military government and the country’s restive ethnic minority groups. Myanmar’s state-run media has since dismissed the call for a convention.

Myanmar’s civil wars have lasted since the end of World War II, with the 1962 military coup justified by apparent threats to national unity posed by the demands by ethnic minorities for some form of federal Burmese state. The original 1947 Panglong conference, chaired by Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, sought to address concerns that the newly-independent Burma, as Myanmar was then officially-known, would be dominated by ethnic Burmans at the expense of the country’s 135 ethnic minority groups.

Almost three years old, China’s views on Myanmar as expressed in the US cable might be somewhat different now, given a number of developments in the interim. According to the cable “Counselor Yang stated that the Chinese accept the Burmese regime’s so-called ‘roadmap’ to democracy as the best route to democracy and national reconciliation in Burma.”

The November 7 elections in Myanmar were won by the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in a predictable landslide, amid allegations of rigged advance voting, ballot stuffing and intimidation of rivals. China welcomed the elections as the fifth in Than Shwe’s seven-step roadmap to democracy. However, with clashes between the Myanmar military and ethnic militias almost a daily occurrence since the election, and the junta reinforcing troop numbers in Kachin and Shan State, both bordering China, the junta could be set on a military solution to its demands that the country’s ethnic militias merge their forces with the army.

An intensification of fighting in ethnic minority areas could impinge on Chinese economic interests in its southern neighbor, which as US diplomatic cables reveal is seen by Washington as on the verge of becoming a Chinese vassal. China’s real views on the situation in Myanmar may become clearer if and when Myanmar’s junta attempts to defeat the ethnic armies once and for all and instability rises on its southern flank.

The formation of a new post-election government and regional assemblies is predicted to take shape in mid-February 2011. Myanmar’s junta could then try to justify an attack on “insurgents” – as it recently-labeled the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), in contrast to the previous “ceasefire group” categorization – by saying that a civilian government and regional autonomy has been granted and therefore groups such as the KIO have no legitimate reason to exist.

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