As Western nations prepare to suspend and lift sanctions on Myanmar, questions arise as to the reasons motivating the many political actors for the quick change of course. Although a multitude of reasons contribute to reforms, some observers find that the dependence on China is a significant one.
Observers point to members of the Myanmar military for being a possible major factor in supporting the recent explosion of reforms. For example, vice president Tin Aung Myint Oo had earned his title thiha thura (brave lion) in 1989 from taking part in fierce battles against the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) where he lost many of his soldiers and officers. The CPB had been in civil war with the Myanmar government for decades after partaking in the wars for Myanmar’s independence from colonial rule. After decades of being weakened by defections and battles against the Myanmar army, the CPB eventually dissolved in 1989, and reorganized into the United Wa State Army.[i]
A sticking point for the Myanmar government has been the historical support China provided to the CPB with whom they waged a civil war for decades. The CPB had been greatly influenced by Maoism to the extent a Cultural Revolution of their own was initiated in Myanmar starting in 1967, which terrorized students and intellectuals forcing many to defect. China was a major arms supplier of the CPB and maintains strong connections with rebel groups in both the Wa State and Kachin State, which borders China’s Yunnan province. Due to the historical actions of China, it is not surprising that the military and government in Myanmar remains weary of Chinese intentions. Observers of Myanmar-China relations also find that China is widely believed to be playing a double-game whereby publicly supporting the military regime but covertly continuing to supply arms to insurgents. While Myanmar is isolated, it depends a lot on China for economic and political support, which also ties the hands of the military from engaging in major conflicts against rebel groups.[ii]
Although in recent months, the Myanmar government has signed ceasefires with many rebel groups, the effectiveness of these ceasefires remains in question since most of the ethnic groups remain armed. The most dire situation remains with the Kachin armed groups, which also concerns China due to their proximity to the Chinese border and recent investments in Myanmar. The Kachin state holds major infrastructure projects such as the halted Myitsone dam and the twin gas-energy pipelines.[iii] Furthermore, the Kachin Independence Army has also seized control of large stretches of the area designated for the Shwe gas pipeline in the Shan state, which is estimated to provide up to 6% of China’s total energy needs. The Shwe gas pipeline is also expected to help China develop Yunnan province as a major energy hub for imported gas and oil through South East Asia.[iv]
Is China purposely fomenting unrest in Myanmar? Definitely not. Chinese investments have brought its monetary benefits but it also rerouted waterways, damaged ecological systems, and uprooted the lives of many ethnic residents. Though China’s massive infrastructure and energy plans in Myanmar have caused unrest, the ruling government has also been keen to launch military offensives against rebel groups. Some, such as Zin Linn of Eurasia Review, believe that President Thein Sein is unable to run the government independently and subsequently has been trying to operate around the limits established by the military. The military backed members of the ruling government have control of the 11-member security and defense committee, which prevents the President from fully controlling the operations of the military. Furthermore, the ceasefires with armed rebel groups are with the respective state governments rather than the national government thus local governments do not have the authority to rein in military actions.[vi]
Unrest in Myanmar is not a direct making of China, but the Chinese government has contributed significantly to the problems historically and in recent years. However, China is keen to maintain stability in Myanmar especially along the routes of the 2,380 km pipeline from the port of Kyaukpu to Kunming in Yunnan province, and the 2,806 km pipeline from the port to Guizhou and Guanxi province. Prior to the start of construction of the twin pipelines, the ruling military regime had made reassurances to China of Myanmar’s stability and desire to ensure the security of these investments. In 2010, General Than Shwe, former Prime Minister Thein Sein, and Shwe Mann (current speaker of the house) visited China to meet President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. The trip’s purpose was to strengthen ties, reaffirm their strategic partnership, and to reassure China of its massive investments.[vii]
So is China the main factor driving Myanmar towards reforms? I would argue that China is a reason for reforms but not the most important motivating factor. It just happens that economic and political reforms would benefit with a weaker Chinese grip on the Myanmar economy and government. Some reports find that President Thein Sein took on the mantle of reforms after the tragic death toll of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 where any preparations that were made were ineffective. Others find that the visits President Thein Sein made abroad when he served as prime minister have greatly expanded his vision for what Myanmar could be. Also, it is possible that General Than Shwe wanted reforms so he and his family could retire into history without worrying about their position of privilege being challenged.[viii]Countries such as Thailand also influenced the government to reform since the pace of economic developments of Myanmar’s neighbors contributed to some rebels like those in Karen state to decide on a ceasefire. All the mentioned reasons are motivating factors, and when the top three men of Myanmar visited China in 2010, the generals would have seen how far the Chinese military and system have benefited from reforms. Furthermore, the scenes from the waves of the Arab Spring most likely unnerved the military while isolationism has not made itself appealing, just look at North Korea