Nastasya Tay
Nastasya Tay

Families, closed doors and raps on the knuckles

So, the Burma saga continues. After recent events — September’s bloody crackdown on peaceful rallies in the South-East Asian country, global protests and a worldwide vigil outside various Chinese diplomatic missions — the monks took to the streets again. In the days following the October 31 rally in Pakokku, a number of attempts to solve Burma’s problems with diplomacy have resulted in some vague glimmers of hope.

Aung San Suu Kyi met her party, the National League for Democracy, for the first time in three years. She also met the government negotiator Aung Kyi. UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari visited the military junta again, but to little effect. Another UN envoy, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, visited prisoners in jails. The generals rejected a UN plan for three-way talks. And the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper carried a four-page letter addressed to Mr Gambari from Information Minister Mr Kyaw, including the statement: “We will welcome positive coordination and cooperation for Myanmar affairs, but will never accept any interference that may harm our sovereignty … Myanmar is a small nation and if a big power bullies her with its influence by putting Myanmar’s affairs on UNSC [UN Security Council], we will have no other way but to face and endure.”

It is a statement that seems strangely familiar. No surprise there — it echoes the sentiments of Burma’s big-power neighbour, the PRC. And indeed, many identify China’s relationship with the country as the key to resolving the crisis. So, can China walk the fine line between wielding enough influence without appearing to be a heavy-handed bully? And, importantly, does it have the incentive to do so?

The PRC, above all else, desires stability — stability in its own home region, stability for its business and resource interests, the ability to predict what will happen tomorrow and who will be in charge, and the security in knowing that its own sovereignty will not be questioned.

In the weeks after August-September’s pro-democracy protests, the media furore has died down. But, as documented by organisations like Amnesty International, the arbitrary arrests, instances of torture, and recrimination continues. The PRC, as a new “responsible stakeholder” of the new world order, cannot avoid the characterisation of itself as a supporter of the regime, if it stands by with complacency. Indeed, Beijing’s politicians appear to have recognised this, and are attempting to take constructive action.

Many have drawn parallels between Chinese behaviour in the Security Council in relation to Darfur, and Chinese engagement with the South-East Asian country. While China’s principle of non-intervention prevents it from supporting (or indeed, ignoring) any UN resolution that questions the sovereignty of any state — pariah or otherwise — one can hardly describe the outcome of discreet Chinese negotiations with the Sudanese government as being entirely negative. Chinese pressure on Khartoum has resulted in both an AU and UN presence in the region, with the acknowledgement of the Sudanese government.

The human rights atrocities in Darfur are just that — and the ongoing repression in Burma is no more palatable. The PRC should take this opportunity to review its relationship with the country, and examine ways in which it can foster the peaceful empowerment of the Burmese people. But likewise, when one calls for the Chinese to take action, one must be willing to accept the forms these actions might take.

Constructive action on the part of China may not necessarily be obvious or manifest itself in ways favoured by Western governments. Western sanctions (including October’s flurry) have, to date, had little effect on the stronghold of the Burmese military junta.

Beijing, in turn, has shunned the notion of economic sanctions, which has allowed it to foster close economic ties with the resource-rich country, in favour of diplomacy.

The Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) has itself avoided enacting sanctions, pursuing the same diplomatic route. This year represents the 10th anniversary of Burma’s membership of Asean. It has, however, managed to overcome the ambiguity of its previous moves (support of non-intervention, but opposition to Burma’s scheduled chairmanship of the Asean 2006 summit) with strongly worded entreaties for the Chinese to pressure General Than Shwe and the rest of the State Peace and Development Council to have discussions with Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD.

Asean recently made one of its strongest statements ever against a member country, calling on the Burmese authorities to halt violence against the demonstrators, but stopping short of threatening to suspend Myanmar’s membership.

Asean’s annual summit culminated on Tuesday in the signing of a landmark charter that will also establish a regional human rights body — albeit with no recourse within its structure for the punishment of human rights infringements. When it comes to its wayward son, Burma, the belief is that confronting the generals with punitive measures will drive them further into isolation. Tellingly, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, questioned how the expulsion of Burma would make a difference: “How will it improve the situation, or enhance our influence?”

The key here is influence — who has it, and who will wield it constructively. But Burma is a part of the Asean family — and raps on the knuckles are handed out behind closed doors. And without question, given the primacy placed on local solutions for local problems, China will not intervene without Asean support.

So what next for Beijing? The official Xinhua news agency quoted Assistant Foreign Minister He Yafei as telling UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari in late October that “China will continue to give all-out support to your work”. This support will most likely take the form of a “pro-engagement stance” with the ruling junta. China does not have a comprehensive White Paper for Asia that governs its engagement with the region, as it does for the African continent — although one is currently being compiled. One hopes if China has truly has a commitment to regional stability, and by that token, peace and freedom in Burma, that, regardless of their motivations, the diplomatic wiles of Beijing’s politicians will trump the junta’s iron grip on government.

  • Grant Walliser

    A really interesting perspective on Asian politics. Please write more!

    Myanmar and Zimbabwe present a number of interesting parallels, most especially what to do about the situation, as you have highlighted.

  • francois williams

    I wonder if Ms Tay is from SE Asia or ?
    Anyway, SA definitely much more perspective of what is going on in Asia…being eurocentric is perfectly useless when the West is going down the tubes like ‘n brick in a cesspool…