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Michael Sainsbury

The West looks to China to curb murderous regime in Myanmar. What chance of that?

As Myanmar’s brutal military junta resumed state-sanctioned executions for the first time in more than three decades, China’s pivotal role in trying to resolve the country’s ongoing conflict has returned to the top of the West’s diplomatic push.

The US has pushed China to join with other nations, including Australia. in condemning the killings. It has not — and there is much more that needs to be done.

“When it comes to rhetorical condemnation, when it comes to imposing costs, when it comes to the core charge that it cannot be business as usual with the junta. We have discussed the goal of putting Burma back on the path to democracy with virtually all of our allies and partners in the region,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

“When the [US] Secretary [of State Anthony Blinken] met with [Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister] Wang Yi not all that long ago, Burma [Myanmar] was a topic of discussion. We have discussed it with other senior PRC officials. Arguably no country has the potential to influence the trajectory of Burma’s next steps more so than the PRC.”

But by carrying out the executions, the regime in Myanmar has shown just how little it cares what the outside world thinks. Its response was a fair indication that words of condemnation are more or less wasted. 

“This was justice for the people. These criminals were given the chance to defend themselves,” spokesman for the self-styled State Administrative Council Zaw Min Tun told media in Naypyidaw, admitting the regime knew its actions would be criticised.

But right now there seems little chance of China joining the critique of the execution; its relationship with Myanmar is complex and deep.

On one hand there is the relationship between Beijing and the various leaders that the country has had.

Back in 1988, China identified that Aung San Suu Kyi, who would receive a Nobel peace prize for her resistance to a military that has ruled Myanmar in various iterations since 1962, could be a key player in the future of the neighbouring, resource-rich nation. There remain strong rumours that the inner circles of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy included an important Chinese go-between.

Once the NLD won the 2015 election, she was seriously duchessed by Beijing, making several visits to the Chinese capital and receiving a string of Chinese senior leaders in Myanmar. China still, of course, kept very close to the military to which it is the biggest arms supplier. The military was the senior partner in what was effectively a power-sharing deal with the NLD where it retained the key defence, border and home affairs portfolios.

Hedging its bets, Beijing now has a relationship with the National Unity Government (in exile) that consists of politicians who have fled that country, though this contact is far less visible or deep than with the junta.

At a more local level, China has played both sides in the 13-year conflict in northern Kachin and Shan states where four ethnic-based militia have been battling the Myanmar military adjacent to China’s Yunnan province. Businesses in Yunnan have used workers from Kachin and Shan as cheap labour, including prostitution, in China.

Most importantly for Beijing and the Yunnan provincial government has been the construction of the Chinese-Myanmar Economic Corridor) between Yunnan and the port of Kyaukphyu. Its aim is to further enjoin the two country’s economies better, tap into Myanmar’s significant oil and gas reserves in the Bay of Bengal, and provide China with a long-desired land bridge to the Indian Ocean.

In early July Wang visited Myanmar, the first visit by a Chinese leader since the coup, and he appeared to shore up Beijing’s support for the junta — and its economic interests. Indeed, further projects were announced and China is typically and cynically using Myanmar’s increased dependence upon it to push its own interests.

While some level of internal instability in Myanmar suits the Chinese, the more escalated levels during periods of the Kachin/Shan conflict have not, and at stages it has spilled into China. Since the February 2020 coup, conflict has spread into other parts of the corridor and across the country affecting China’s investment interests. The Myanmar military is now fighting ethnic and armed groups on at least seven distinct fronts.

Such levels of conflict only disrupt Chinese projects and investments, so it has an interest, longer term, in helping to solve the problem. Still it is, as always, trapped by its (rubbery) claims of non-interference in the “internal” matters of other nations. At some stage, something may need to give.

This week’s executions are unfortunately only the tip of the iceberg for a ruthless regime that is desperate to stamp its authority as it increasingly loses control of large parts of the country. Even in the largely stable major cities of Yangon and Mandalay there were street protests and guerilla attacks after the executions.

The executions do not bode well for the fate of the other 110 on death row, according to Human Rights Watch, and there are already unconfirmed reports that a further 41 prisoners will be executed.

Since the coup almost 15,000 people have been arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, with just under 12,000 still detained. At least 2123 people have been killed. More than 1 million people have been displaced internally.

Australian economist Professor Sean Turnell remains in detention and his fate appears linked to his former boss Suu Kyi, now in solitary confinement and in the midst of a string of court cases that could see her jailed for life. Turnell was her long-time economic adviser and is being tried with her and three other cabinet ministers.

Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong recently stepped up her rhetoric demanding the release of Turnell. She indicated in Jakarta recently that Australia would chart its own policy on Myanmar while respecting the (compromised) position of ASEAN, and these two public commentaries are a welcome step up from the almost invisible approach taken by Wong’s predecessor, Marise Payne.

There is more that Australia can do and former diplomats and Australia’s substantial Myanmar community want a special envoy appointed, one of many ideas that Wong is believed to be considering. And unlike in Ukraine, the people of Myanmar are not being given weapons to fight for their democracy and their lives. Many are questioning whether this is racism.

Australia has also not yet joined the US, New Zealand and other Western nations in imposing more sanctions on the junta and its leaders after the coup. And then there is recognition of the NUG, which will open an office in Canberra next week. Who will attend from the government?

The path out of the mire for Myanmar is a long one, and now that the world’s attention has belatedly been drawn back to it, far stronger actions than admonishments must be made.

Like it or not, China is the central player outside the country in trying to carve such a path.

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