Myanmar Geopolitics

Myanmar Geopolitics

Located between the Indian subcontinent and China, until 2010 Myanmar was, together with North Korea, one of the last two Asian states still almost completely closed in on themselves. Today the country presents itself as an interesting case of a totalitarian system which by the will of the military leaders themselves has gradually opened up, triggering a process of transition towards a democratic regime. Despite the strong skepticism shown by international observers at first, what is certain is that the country is indeed proceeding along the reform line, creating a real historical exception. Myanmar therefore projects itself as an important player in the area, aiming to rediscover the role it had played until the English occupation, which began in 1824.

In 1962, after fourteen years of democratic government following independence in 1948, the military managed to take control of the country thanks to a coup d’├ętat and to establish a dictatorial regime. The economic crisis that erupted in 1987 led to a great wave of protests which, albeit repressed in blood, led to the calling, in 1990, of the first free elections in the country after thirty years of dictatorship. The unpopularity of the military junta clearly emerged from the results of the historic electoral appointment, in which more than two hundred parties representing the various ethnic minorities took part. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National Democratic League and a very popular figure as the daughter of Aung San, one of the two leaders of the Burmese independence struggle, obtained 60% of the votes, despite being forced to house arrest. The decision of the military junta not to recognize the victory, dissolving the newly elected People’s Assembly and arresting the leadership of the National Democratic League, then created a deep socio-political rift within the country. In November 2010, the first multi-party elections in twenty years were held, the first timid sign of the regime’s opening, despite the fact that the Union for Solidarity and Development Party, which supports the military junta, has officially obtained around 80% of the votes and the vote has been denounced as fraudulent by the international community. The by-elections of April 2012 awarded 43 of the 45 vacant seats in parliament to the National Democratic League led by Aung San Suu Kyi, main Burmese opposition party; the same leader was elected to the lower house. Thegeneral elections in November 2015 represented the first testing ground for the Burmese transition process. The historic victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party (NLD), which won 60% of the seats, could open a new phase in Burmese political history.

To date, the efforts of the Burmese government have been rewarded by the easing of sanctions by the United States and the European Union; the United States, in particular, started a direct dialogue with Naypyidaw, functional to the implementation of the rebalancing strategy towards the Pacific that is characterizing American foreign policy. If Barack Obama’s visit on November 19, 2012, following his re-election, sanctioned Myanmar’s re-entry into the international community from a diplomatic point of view, economically the abolition of sanctions by the European Union and the United States has put the an end to the country’s isolation. In fact, in April 2013 Brussels completely eliminated sanctions, with the exception of the arms embargo; while Washington is progressing gradually, keeping those relating to precious minerals in place. These developments mark a historic turning point if we consider that the long period of isolation to which Myanmar has been subjected by the Euro-Atlantic countries in the past years has led Naypyidaw to get closer and closer to China. Despite the pressure exerted by Western diplomacy on Beijing to interrupt assistance to the Burmese regime and exercise its influence to push the military junta to openings in a democratic sense, China has not in fact given up on relations with its neighbor, according to the famous formula of the ‘Beijing Consensus’ – China’s way to economic development. In fact, between 1988 and 2012 Beijing has poured into Burmese coffers an average of 800 million dollars in foreign investments per year, for a total of over 20 billion. However, the new context increases competition, making the Burmese government feel less constrained. The forced suspension in September 2011 of the construction of the Myitsone dam, a 3.7 billion dollar project entrusted to two Chinese companies, symbolizes the new course of Burmese foreign policy; no longer dependent on Beijing, but open to the West and to the renewed interest of most of the Asian states, India and Japan above all. The forced suspension in September 2011 of the construction of the Myitsone dam, a 3.7 billion dollar project entrusted to two Chinese companies, symbolizes the new course of Burmese foreign policy; no longer dependent on Beijing, but open to the West and to the renewed interest of most of the Asian states, India and Japan above all. The forced suspension in September 2011 of the construction of the Myitsone dam, a 3.7 billion dollar project entrusted to two Chinese companies, symbolizes the new course of Burmese foreign policy; no longer dependent on Beijing, but open to the West and to the renewed interest of most of the Asian states, India and Japan above all.

A critical element that still remains today is the fact that, after being banned following the 1990 elections, many of the parties representing the numerous ethnic minorities (especially those in the eastern part of the country, where the Karen groups reside, shan and karenni) have also organized themselves militarily, thanks to the profits deriving from the opium market. Although some of them have negotiated over the years a ceasefire agreement in exchange for some autonomy at the local level, the constant repression of any expression against the regime carried out in the past has continued to fuel sources of rebellion. The Burmese government, which today finds itself acting under the scrutiny of the international community, has given tangible signs of its will to resolve the inter-ethnic conflict; a first, partial, ceasefire agreement was reached in March 2015, confirmed in October of the same year; however, the road to the definitive resolution of disputes still appears long and arduous. The main source of tension concerns the violence perpetrated by extremist fringes of the Buddhist majority against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the state of Rakhine, on the border with Bangladesh. Therefore, despite the recent positive developments, the persistence of these risk factors contributes to making Myanmar one of the The main source of tension concerns the violence perpetrated by extremist fringes of the Buddhist majority against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the state of Rakhine, on the border with Bangladesh. Therefore, despite the recent positive developments, the persistence of these risk factors contributes to making Myanmar one of the The main source of tension concerns the violence perpetrated by extremist fringes of the Buddhist majority against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the state of Rakhine, on the border with Bangladesh. Therefore, despite the recent positive developments, the persistence of these risk factors contributes to making Myanmar one of the more fragile countries of the area.

Myanmar Geopolitics