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Myanmar: New Friendship With China and the Road Back To a Military Dictatorship

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At the beginning of 2021 the world was hopeful for change after a disastrous year. The emergence of a global pandemic and eruption of pro-democracy demonstrations across the globe, raging from Belarus to Hong Kong, had left millions longing for better days to come. The start of the new year seemed more hopeful than the last one, yet it seems like 2021 simply offered us a promising one month-trial. Once the latter ended, on February 1st, the world saw the state of Myanmar fall back into the hands of a ruthless military which had already kept the country under its dictatorial rule for decades. After the coup d’etat carried out by the state’s armed forces, thousands took to the streets in protest. But as weeks pass it seems like the status quo is not improving – in fact, it’s starting to have a damaging effect on the international arena.

Historical context

It is crucial to acknowledge Myanmar’s history. After gaining independence from the British in 1948, Myanmar found itself under the rule of a civilian government. Yet, the latter was weak and hence quickly replaced by a military leadership in a 1962 coup. But after years under a military regime, the people of Myanmar decided to move towards democratic rule. In 2010 the state held elections which resulted in the victory of the Union Solidarity and Development party (USDP) – a party that’s affiliated with the military.

In autumn 2020, Myanmar held another parliamentary election resulting in victory of the National League for Democracy party (NLD). While people celebrated the result, the military puppet – USDP – saw it as a major humiliation and hence refused to accept it. With the help of the military, USDP bargained for another election but the request was rejected by the election commission, claiming that the results were fair and there were no irregularities that would suggest a rigged outcome. The military, however, still refused to concede, threatening to take serious actions – and so, they did. On February 1st, 2021 Myanmar’s military detained the State Counselor Ms. Suu Kyi as well as several other NLD officials, marking the beginning of a military coup d’etat.

What’s happening now in Myanmar?

The name to remember is Min Aung Hlaing – the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s military and the brain behind the coup d’etat. Currently, General Hlaing, who has declared a year-long state of emergency, has assumed all state power to himself and this should not be taken lightly.

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While serving as one of the most powerful men in Myanmar’s military, Min Aung Hlaing has faced worldwide condemnation and has even been banned from entering states like the US. He has been accused of human rights violations and ethnic cleansing in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin regions due to executing state’s orders on carrying out genocidal acts. This is because Rakhine is known to be a shelter for Rohingya muslims while Kachin fosters the Kachin Christian minority – all of which are communities persecuted by the state.[1] As a result, Myanmar’s military has had its $1bn worth of government funds, held in the US, frozen. But ever since the coup, Hlaing’s army has become even more aggressive. Military forces that already have major power within the state have suspended most television services and cut internet access in major cities. With flights being cancelled, banks closed and a strict curfew in place, people are stuck in a chaotic country that they cannot leave.

Oppressed by their own state, people took to the streets to protest, yet this provoked the military to take even more aggressive measures. What started off as peaceful demonstrations eventually turned into deadly clashes, with dozens wounded and even killed on a weekly basis.

As shown in the graph, around 50 people have died in total as a result of violent clashes with military forces during the protests. Simultaneously, dozens have been injured and over 1000 individuals have been detained for taking part in the demonstrations.

Not only have the military officials been using rubber bullets and water cannons, but they’ve been shooting unarmed civilians and having local pro-military supporters attack protesters with knives and clubs. What is even more concerning is the fact that the military has held major power in Myanmar for decades. Even when, in 2011, the country transitioned into a democratic regime, the military continued to play a role in politics. Since General Hlang has had great powers for years, it is likely that after arresting Suu Kyi he will become the new leader of Myanmar. This poses a question of whether Myanmar is about to become a military dictatorship once again.

Return to a military regime is even more likely considering the constant flow of propaganda, which would bring additional support to the army. Interestingly, in Myanmar, Facebook has become the equivalent of a news outlet. It’s the most popular social media network and is hence way too often susceptible to propaganda. In fact, Myanmar’s military forces have been actively using it for the purposes of indoctrination and justifying the coup. As a result, Facebook has banned the military from its media platforms, in an attempt to stop the spread of propaganda. But ensuring freedom of media is not that easy. With TV broadcasts being suspended and the internet cut off, the military has all the means necessary to control the population. Day after day it seems like the status quo is not improving and people are forced to live in great fear, increasing the need for international intervention.

In Myanmar’s social media market, Facebook owns more than 97% of shares. For the 29mil. social media users it has become the most accessible and popular platform and hence is often used as the equivalent of a news outlet.

International responses and a new friendship on the horizon

The military coup has been facing condemnation and sanctions for its actions ever since the beginning of February. Democratic giants like the European Union have officially condemned Myanmar for violating human rights and overthrowing a government that had been elected freely. In fact, last month the EU decided to allocate €38 million to help the displaced and conflict-affected communities in Myanmar and Bangladesh.[2] The US condemned the coup and “blacklisted” some of the military officials by barring them from entering the States. Biden’s administration has also imposed strict export controls and economic sanctions on the country. But, as democratic states are turning their backs and frowning at Myanmar, they may be digging their own grave. This is because as the West turns away, China, often seen as the former’s enemy, is taking the opportunity to support Myanmar.

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In order to understand this, recall Suu Kyi – the rightful leader of Myanmar who is now under arrest. During her years of serving in public office, she had turned to China after being condemned for not protecting the oppressed Rohingya muslims. Despite the rocky past of these 2 countries, Suu Kyi tried to regain her reputation by involving Myanmar in the well-known Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)[3] which led to China becoming its largest foreign investor.

China clearly has a growing presence in Myanmar and is making the latter financially dependent on it. Economic intervention is a chance to get involved in the country’s politics, since China can threaten to cut all foreign direct investment which would leave Myanmar in dire economic conditions. Considering the effect of COVID-19 on the country’s economy, it is unlikely that Myanmar will become “disobedient”. This is especially true given that the BRI has often left countries majorly indebted to China. Considering that China can use Myanmar to gain access to the Indian Ocean and in this way outcompete the new rival, India, the world is likely to witness the start of a new alliance in South East Asia.

Out of all foreign investors, China has become a dominant one in Myanmar. Out of over 50 countries investing in the country, China is likely to stay the leader of Myanmar’s FDI given the political turmoil and economic vulnerability of the state.

So what’s next?

Since the political turmoil has been taking place for less than 2 months, it is hard to predict the future. Considering Myanmar’s past and the strong presence of the military within its society, it is more than likely that the “one-year” state of emergency may lead to more decades under a military dictatorship. This could become an even more likely scenario if the West keeps its back turned to Myanmar and leaves it in the hands of China, that wouldn’t miss an opportunity to get another ally. Therefore, as for now, it seems like what started off as a single coup d’etat may soon lead to new alliances forming and Myanmar moving back to a military regime.

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[1] Hogan, Libby. “‘Slow Genocide’: Myanmar’s Invisible War on the Kachin Christian Minority.The Guardian, 14 May 2018.

[2] European Commission. “Press Corner.European Commission – European Commission, 23 Feb. 2021.

[3] Takahashi, Toru. “It’s Complicated: Myanmar and China Have a Difficult Relationship.” Nikkei Asia, 13 Feb. 2021Myanmar: New Friendship With China and the Road Back To a Military Dictatorship.

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Student of International Politics and Government. Key interest areas: politics, international relations, history, and social movements. Incredibly passionate about debating tournaments, analysing global developments, and investigating a variety of topics through writing.

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