Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

BURMA: China Stands Behind New President

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Feb 12 2011 (IPS) - China is throwing its weight behind Burma’s predicted political transformation from military rule to a supposed civilian government, deepening its strong economic ties with the resource-rich Southeast Asian nation some have described as Beijing’s “client state”.

China was the first to commend Burma’s new leadership, with President Hu Jintao sending his congratulations within hours after Thein Sein assumed the presidency Feb. 4.

The move is seen as “another confidence building measure by Beijing towards its western neighbour at a time when many countries in the region, from India to Southeast Asia, have their eyes on engaging economically with Burma,” a Southeast Asian diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

“Beijing wants to have a solid presence on the ground in case the political change leads to a flood of other economic players,” the diplomat added.

China’s gestures toward Burma have come even as Burmese national security experts caution against the rush to accept the new government under President Thein Sein, which is seen as no different from the junta, headed by strongman Senior General Than Shwe, it is replacing.

The 65-year-old Thein Sein, a retired army general and former prime minister in the outgoing military regime, was chosen by lawmakers in the first multi- party parliament since the military grabbed power in a coup nearly 50 years ago.

Thein Sein, however, was practically assured of victory in the legislature, of which 80 percent were military delegates and their political allies.

“Unfortunately the civilian head is a puppet. Thein Sein is weak, less ambitious and lacks a powerful base in the army,” says Win Min, a Burmese national security expert living in exile in the U.S.

“Nothing really has changed,” he told IPS. “Than Shwe will still be the most powerful man, operating from behind Thein Sein.”

Junta or no junta, China has in fact already established a footing in Burma, also called Myanmar. Its economic record bears this out: last year, China invested 8.17 billion dollars, mostly in Burma’s hydropower, oil and gas sectors.

This surge in Chinese investments has brought to 12.3 billion dollars Beijing’s total investments, out of the nearly 20 billion dollars in foreign funds for big- ticket projects that Burma has attracted since it opened its economy up to free market policies in 1988.

The ties between China and the most recent Burmese junta, which held power for two decades till the general election in early November last year, was also aided by the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union for Burma’s dismal human rights record.

The U.S. government banned new investments in Burma in 1997, and gradually tightened punitive measures, including limiting financial deals and visa restrictions on members of the junta. The E.U. imposed bans on the sale of weapons to Burma in 1996, followed by visa bans and the freezing of assets of the junta, their families and cronies.

“As long as Western sanctions are in place, China’s economic power in Burma will grow,” says Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian and author of ‘The River of Lost Footsteps’, an account of Burma’s transformation during British colonization. “In the eyes of the (Burmese) government, the cost of Western sanctions is diminishing by the day.

“If the government was willing to ignore Western sanctions ten years ago when it was essentially broke, it’s hard to imagine how they’re going to suddenly pay attention to these same demands now, when (gas and oil) pipeline transit fees, natural gas and jade sales and the sale of electricity of new hydropower plants are set to bring in well over ten billion dollars in revenue a year,” Thant told IPS, explaining the trade and investment portfolio dominated by China.

China’s growing influence has prompted Burma’s giant neighbour to its west, India, to also increasingly place security and economic interests over political ones to expand its presence in the Southeast Asian nation.

India has also opted for a tone of accommodation toward Burma’s attempts to gain much needed legitimacy for its civilian-led government.

“The recent elections in Myanmar are an important step in the direction of the national reconciliation process being undertaken by the government of Myanmar,” India’s External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna said of the Nov. 7 poll, the first general elections in 20 years, which was plagued by irregularities.

While New Delhi has still not followed Beijing’s lead in praising Thein Sein, the tone of the Indian government’s statement following the elections suggests that “relations with Myanmar have become truly multi-faceted, with cooperation in a range of developmental and other projects in the areas of roads, power, hydro-carbon, oil refinery, transmission lines, telecommunications and information technology,” says a South Asian diplomat.

Indian economic cooperation with the Burmese junta began in the mid- 1990s, marking a break from the strong pro-democracy positions it took, backing opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in her struggles with an oppressive regime. China’s growing footprint in Burma was among the reasons for this shift.

“China has majorly expanded in Myanmar and this has facilitated China’s entry into the Bay of Bengal,” the South Asian diplomat noted on condition of anonymity. “India needs to have a countervailing presence in Myanmar to ensure its own interests are not jeopardised.”

Burma’s neighbours in a 10-member regional bloc, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have, like India and China, also come on board to accept and give legitimacy to the political culture emerging out of last November’s election.

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