Myanmar’s foreign relations after the Rakhine State crisis (Part I)

Kim Jolliffe highlights impacts of the Rakhine State conflict on Myanmar’s international relations in a two-part post.

On October 12, Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivered a “report to the people” on the recent crisis in Rakhine State. She explained, “just as no one can fully understand the situation in our country as we do, no one can desire peace and development for our country more than us”. This and other comments in the speech reflect two positions widely held in Myanmar: that criticism of the government from overseas is unfair and patronising, and that the country needs to remain patriotic and stay focused on its broader political and economic agenda.

Unavoidably, however, Myanmar’s journey towards “peace and development” will be deeply impacted by its relations with other countries. In today’s globalised world, the reactions of other countries have real consequences; managing them is a crucial responsibility of good government. Dismissing international relations and relying only on internal “unity” is a risky strategy for any government, even in times of hardship. This includes cooperating on international humanitarian and security norms and preventing transnational crises.

In this two-part blog series, I explore three sets of foreign relations challenges that Myanmar could face as a result of the Rakhine crisis. This post, Part I, looks at impacts on Myanmar’s high-level strategic relations. Part II will look at, first, the relations with majority Muslim countries and, second, the increased threat from transnational Islamist terrorists. Whoever we choose to blame for recent events, Myanmar’s handling of these risks going forward will have significant ramifications for the country as a whole. Self-isolation could only make things worse.

My main intention is for these arguments to be read by people from Myanmar, and to encourage constructive discourse on the best ways forward to manage these challenges. Domestic and foreign perspectives on the recent events could not be more polarised, and I am aware that many Myanmar readers have little interest in listening to another Westerner (especially a Brit!) lecture them about the situation or espouse opinions based on foreign values. Brits not only played a major role in creating this conflict through over 100 years of unforgivable colonial rule, but we also continue to participate in deadly counterinsurgency campaigns of our own in multiple countries around the world.

I, therefore, take a predominantly realist perspective in analysing the threats to the interests of the Myanmar government and the 50 million people it views as citizens. I hope this will encourage Myanmar stakeholders to take seriously the gravity of the current crisis and the need for a considerate government response. I do not discuss the root causes of conflict, the alleged crimes by either side, or the perspectives of any of the communities directly affected by this conflict.

Myanmar’s balancing act 

Recent events in Rakhine State firstly have implications for Myanmar’s strategic relations with the world’s leading powers. In particular, the country could lose its newfound ability to balance its relations between China and the West, which has been crucial to courting international support for its political and economic advancement. Myanmar could also see significant reductions in aid and come under increasing pressure at the UN, thus re-entrenching the military’s siege mentality and perpetuating conflict and authoritarianism.

From the late 1980s until the early 2010s, Myanmar’s military government was shunned by the West on the grounds of human rights concerns. The country thus depended on relations with China and Russia for military and other aid, for foreign investment, and for diplomatic support at the UN – particularly against human rights pressure. Meanwhile, numerous UN agencies cooperated with the military government where they could, and tried to avoid significant conflict with the government.

From 2011 onwards, the Thein Sein administration invested heavily in reducing its dependence on China and attracting global investment and strategic relations with the West. Since then, Myanmar has received disproportionate international attention for such a small economy (and when compared with its regional neighbours). Following the de facto election of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015, Western powers and associated financial institutions have offered unprecedented developmental and political support to the incumbent civilian-military hybrid government. UN and other major agencies in the country have mostly steered clear of contentious human rights issues, particularly with regards to the term “Rohingya”, and regularly argued that steady progress towards democracy and peace depended on a level of respect for the military’s aversion to external interference in political and security affairs.

This support has been premised on the belief that Myanmar is pursuing an explicit liberalisation agenda to end authoritarianism and war, and that it will cooperate with the Western-led global “liberal order”. Entrance to this “order” involves the expectation that Myanmar will open its economy to foreign trade and investment, cooperate on global security agendas (such as nuclear non-proliferation), demonstrate a commitment to democracy, and respect basic humanitarian and protection norms in the interest of stability and human security.

The optimism ends

Western enthusiasm for supporting a liberal transition in Myanmar has been in decline for at least a year, and has plummeted following the recent events in Rakhine State. Increased restriction of civil liberties, a lack of progress towards peace, and numerous signs that the military remains untethered from civilian oversight have all dashed hopes that the new government can deliver fundamental change in the near-term.  At the same time, the West’s appetite for using aid and influence in this way has reduced in general, largely due to the rise of right-wing politics at home in many countries.

Following the events in Rakhine State, international humanitarian concern has hit levels unknown even during the reign of the military junta. Whoever we blame, there is no doubt that the number of refugees (more than 0.5 million in one month) is abnormally high, and that the protracted statelessness of such a concentrated group creates deep regional and international complications.

These challenges have strengthened the voices of those in the West who want a return to heavy sanctions and international criminal action against Myanmar’s generals. Despite Myanmar’s increased strategic and economic importance, enthusiastic engagement with the government is becoming risky for any Western leader, due to the severity of human rights concerns and the vast humanitarian aid bills that their donor agencies have to meet. Even diplomats that would prefer to continue the engagement approach, will find it increasingly difficult to justify this to their seniors and domestic populations.

It is quite possible that donor funds and diplomatic interest from the West will notably decrease in coming years, while Myanmar could return to total dependence on Russia and China for protection against criminal action and other support. Lawmakers in the EU and the USA are pursuing sanctions to target Myanmar’s military leaders, trade negotiations with the EU have been halted, and hopes for a “foreign investment boom” under the current government have faltered. Through numerous agencies and protocols, the UN has become frank and forthright in its condemnation of Myanmar, alleging possible “crimes against humanity” and “ethnic cleansing”: terms not even used against Myanmar in the 1990s and 2000s.

What does this mean for Myanmar’s domestic agenda?

I am not suggesting that Myanmar should despair at the thought of decreased trade and investment from the West (which often comes with its own downsides in any case). Rather, the concern is that the government risks losing the ability it developed under the Thein Sein administration to balance its global strategic relations and thus chart its own political and economic course.

As is seen in most developing countries, global powers might increasingly engage Myanmar only when they need resources or security cooperation, investing little in solving its most endemic political challenges or overcoming corruption. Legal protection from China, as before, could come at the price of increased preferential access to Myanmar’s abundant natural resources, which are already being exploited at concerning speed, with minimal transparency and few benefits to ordinary people.

Myanmar could also miss out on billions of dollars of aid and technical support earmarked for the civilian government’s core agendas, such as rebuilding social service systems, reforming public administration and financial systems, strengthening democracy and implementing its transition to federalism. Disbursements could be limited routine grants and loans on issues of global concern or associated with regional strategies, with less consideration of Myanmar’s specific needs. At the same time, civil society, political parties, and social welfare organisations, particularly those pursuing rights-based agendas, could find it increasingly difficult to access funds.

While the generals will likely avoid actual criminal penalisation, increased tension in that domain risks re-entrenching their siege mentality and leading to increased curtailment of civil rights, internal political opposition and media freedoms. In an extreme scenario, this raises the spectre of Myanmar retreating from cooperation on basic global security norms, creating a ‘security dilemma’ cycle that exponentially increases hostility between the country and the West. Though most foreign diplomats recognise this risk, the costs of discouraging international criminal action, which include public criticism at home and the weakening of international norms, are increasingly seen to outweigh the supposed benefit (continued involvement in an unconvincing “transition”).

To conclude, many people in Myanmar feel that international criticism is unfair and might understandably say they don’t need Western aid and diplomatic support if it comes at the expense of being patronised. Inevitably, however, successful “peace and development” will require careful management of these tensions to ensure that Myanmar is able to maximise the benefits of multiple global partnerships, avoid dependence on old allies, and remain in control of its own political future. This will require the government to demonstrate a commitment to basic humanitarian values and security norms both in the further handling of this crisis and in preventing future disasters.

Part II discusses two other sets of challenges resulting from the Rakhine crisis: 1) worsening relations with Muslim majority countries and 2) threats from transnational Islamist terrorists.

Kim Jolliffe is an independent researcher, writer, and general resource person, specialising in security, development and humanitarian affairs in Myanmar. Find his work at www.research.kim.