Asian allies boost Myanmar’s pariah military
While Western nations sanction Myanmar for Rohingya crisis rights abuses, Asian states are taking a more pragmatic approach
By Nyshka Chandran 17 May 2019
Three years after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was elected to power, temporarily ending the nation’s decades-long pariah status under military rule, Naypyidaw is already back in the world’s bad graces.
But that hasn’t stopped Asian governments from pragmatically supporting Suu Kyi’s controversial regime, now accused of genocide by the UN and others for its violent expulsion of over 700,000 Rohingya, in the form of strengthened defense ties.
As de facto leader, Suu Kyi and her government has failed to stop a fresh spate of violence instigated by its Buddhist majority population on the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim group.
Its inaction on the humanitarian issue has resulted in economic sanctions from the West, with the United States, European Union and Canada imposing arms embargoes and penalties on Myanmar military officials.
In contrast, Asia has ramped up security relations with the NLD administration and autonomous military, which controls the powerful defense, home and border affairs ministries.
Recent months have seen India, Vietnam, Thailand and China have variously boosted alliances, expanded arms sales and established naval partnerships with the Tatmadaw, the official name of Myanmar’s armed forces, as Asian nations give clear priority of national interests over human rights.
“Geo-strategic and commercial considerations on the part of Myanmar’s neighbors and friends trump any concerns expressed over its violations of international law and universal human rights,” Andrew Selth, adjunct professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, an Australia-based research group, said in a note published on the Lowy Institute.
Naypyidaw’s supporters are helping it escape retribution for human rights violations, Selth noted.
When it comes to India and China, the Southeast Asian state has long been proxy battleground for geopolitical rivalry between the two Asian heavyweights.
New Delhi and Beijing have aired grievances with Myanmar, which shares a sensitive border with both countries, for aggression on their respective frontiers.
Yet both continue to engage Naypyidaw for self-interest, analysts say.
New Delhi has steadily expanded ties since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first state visit to Naypyidaw in September 2017, one month after violence re-erupted in Rakhine.
Following high-level visits between state officials a year later, the South Asian giant also agreed to help modernize Myanmar’s army and navy.
In December, for example, news reports said that Modi’s government agreed to donate six HJT-16 Kiran jet trainers and station an Indian air force team in Myanmar to help train Myanmar pilots.
Alongside China, Russia, Israel and Ukraine, India is a major arms supplier to Myanmar, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Beijing, however, remains Myanmar’s largest supplier of military hardware. From 2008 to 2017, the nation made up 11.1% of China’s total arms exports to Asia, with sales steadily increasing after 2015, SIPRI found. Those deals have continued since the Rohingya crisis erupted.
“India is supporting the government and Tatmadaw simply as a counter to China,” claimed Zachary Abuza, a professor specializing in Southeast Asian security at the National War College in the US.
Under Modi’s “Act East” foreign policy, New Delhi has bolstered relations with its neighbors to prevent them from falling under Chinese influence. India is aware that not everyone in the Myanmar government and military is happy about being dependent on China for everything, said Abuza.
Beijing, Myanmar’s largest trading partner, is widely considered Asia’s biggest supporter of the NLD government and is now pursuing major infrastructure investments in conflict-ridden Rakhine state under its Belt and Road Initiative.
Those include development of the Kyaukphyu port, which with connecting rail lines and pipelines could give Beijing a strategic outlet to the Indian Ocean, mitigating the risk of its fuel import shipments from the Middle East.
At a meeting with Myanmar’s military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country wished to deepen cooperation regardless of international dynamics, thinly veiled reference to Western criticism of the Rohingya crisis.
Aside from shielding Myanmar from UN sanctions and voting against the UN’s move to investigate the genocide accusations, Beijing has also backed what Myanmar officials say are counter-insurgency operations in Rakhine.
China and India take issue with Myanmar’s security practices when it impacts their own interests, including insurgency-related instability on their shared borders, but ultimately they desire a stable Myanmar, said Hunter Marston, a doctoral candidate at Australian National University and independent consultant at GlobalWonks.
Vietnam is also bolstering relations with Myanmar’s Suu Kyi-led administration.
At a meeting between Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and President U Win Myint this month, the officials vowed to boost bilateral military and national security operations. Last month, meanwhile, marked the first time a Vietnamese naval vessel visited Myanmar.
Such engagement likely reflects Hanoi’s desire to maintain centrality amongst members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), particularly in regard to counterbalancing China.
“They, too would like to coax Naypyidaw away from Beijing and to have a more independent and ASEAN-centric foreign policy,” said Abuza, who noted that commercial considerations are also at play.
Vietnam’s military-owned telecoms firm Viettel, which has large investments in Myanmar, is soon expected to market its own 5G technology as an alternative to Huawei, he said. “I think we will see deepened cyber-communications cooperation between Vietnam and Myanmar.”
Thailand, meanwhile, is the most frequently visited regional country of Myanmar commander-in-chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing. The official has travelled to Thailand ten times since becoming military chief in 2011, according to a 2018 report from the Yangon-based Tagaung Institute of Political Studies.
“The military’s international relations have taken a backseat [to regional ties] since August 2017, when the Rakhine crisis happened,” the report stated.
Since then, Min Aung Hlaing, who is widely known as the “adopted son” of former army chief, ex-premier and top royal advisor General Prem Tinsulanonda, has travelled to Singapore, China, Nepal and Thailand, the report said.
Last year, the Royal Thai Armed Forces presented Myanmar’s military chief with an award that a spokesman for the Thai Defense Ministry said was a separate issue from human rights.
“It’s hard to read these defense ties as anything other than implicit support for the [Myanmar] regime,” said Marston.
Asian nations may oppose the atrocities in Rakhine but they still prefer to maintain engagement toward Myanmar as part of a balanced foreign policy, he continued.
ASEAN as a grouping, for example, refrains from interfering in Myanmar’s internal affairs despite being vocally opposed to the government’s handling of the Rohingya crisis. But its individual members continue to engage Myanmar’s military on various fronts, contrary to many Western government positions.
Just this week, a UN fact-finding mission warned the international community to cut off financial and other support for Myanmar’s armed forces as momentum gathers for a more punitive response to ethnic cleansing and genocide allegations.