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Myanmar: The Dangers of a Chinese Brokered Peace for Democracy

Lachlan Forster


Source: Ninjastrikers

Since falling victim to a coup d’état on February 1, 2021, Myanmar has found itself stuck in an authoritarian crisis, having lost the support of crucial international partners at a time when development and investment was increasing. The Tatmadaw, the ruling military junta, holds the nation’s future in a vice grip after ending a promising experiment with democracy which had begun with multi-party elections, following the adoption of a new constitution, in 2010. 


Myanmar is currently embroiled in a civil war between the Tatmadaw and the remnants of the ousted democratic government, who have allied themselves with a broad collection of ethnic militias seeking freedom from the junta’s oppression. Despite the military government’s power, this rebel force has made considerable gains throughout late 2023, leading many to consider what modes of negotiation may be available for returning peace and democracy to Myanmar. 


In light of the failure of leading international organisation ASEAN to make any progress, China has emerged as the most likely negotiator to provide a framework for development and peace suitable for all parties. However, the involvement of China in this peace process must be scrutinised to determine whether it will truly restore the democracy lost in 2021 or create a new brand of authoritarian rule similar to the CCP-backed Cambodian political system. 


Experiment with Democracy


Since gaining its independence from the British Empire in 1948, Myanmar (then Burma) has struggled to maintain a consistent regime of governance. A series of military coups and crackdowns against democracy movements branded Myanmar a pariah state for the majority of the twentieth century. 


Hope did emerge in November 2010 as multi-party elections took place, seemingly suggesting that the previous junta had caved to consistent pressures and allowed for a democratisation process to be seen through. Critic of the military and democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Myanmar’s founding father Aung San, was freed from prison in November 2010 and her National League for Democracy party was allowed to stand in November 2015’s multi-party election, convincingly winning.


Beginning in 2016, a flawed but markedly improved democratic regime took control of Myanmar, headed by Suu Kyi as State Counsellor. Despite this, the nation’s military, the Tatmadaw, continued to hold significant sway in Myanma politics. Long-standing conflicts with ethnic minorities throughout the nation continued. In particular, the plight of the Rohingya people grabbed international headlines due to the level of cruelty used by the Tatmadaw. Aung San Suu Kyi’s lacklustre response to the violence offended many who felt her stance was too tolerant of the military’s actions, but also highlighted the difficult position in which she found herself - having to appease an institution which was not afraid to undermine the democratic process. 


Growing pressures on Suu Kyi culminated on February 1, 2021, when the Tatmadaw overthrew the democratic government and claimed power for themselves, naming commander Min Aung Hlaing as Prime Minister. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest and the new government commenced a coordinated crackdown on advocates for democracy and critics of the Tatmadaw throughout the nation. 


Civil War


The Tatmadaw has found firm resistance throughout all of Myanmar’s civil society. Its primary opponents are the remnants of the democratic government which it overthrew, the National Unity Government of Myanmar. Allied with the government-in-exile is a collection of ethnic-based militias, composed of Karenni, Bamar and Rakhine people, and other minority groups, seeking a federal system of government which will protect their cultural identities. The Tatmadaw has historically pursued a highly centralised system of government, prioritising Burmese culture as the supreme national identity. This has naturally placed the country’s vast array of tribal minorities against the junta. 


Despite the Tatmadaw’s massive spending on weapons, arms and ammunition, resistance forces have made considerable advancements throughout late 2023. It is estimated that the Tatmadaw uncontestedly controls less than 40% of Myanmar’s territory, as guerrilla campaigns in the Chin and Rakhine States slowly squeeze junta forces towards the country’s centre. Cities in the country’s east, such as Loikaw and Laukkai, are still being besieged by rebel forces, who are slowly working their way towards the isolated national capital Naypyidaw, overtaking military bases along the way. 


The Tatmadaw is plagued with personnel issues, as historically low morale and rampant desertions threaten to leave the junta without an effective fighting force. Conscription has been its most recent solution, as men aged 18-35 and women 18-27 face a possible five-year mandatory service to make up for these shortcomings. Furthermore, the rebels’ unexpected access to advanced technologies, such as drones capable of bombing military positions, have helped to further even the odds between both sides of the civil war. 


Process for Peace 


The determination of the campaign against the Tatmadaw has left Western academics and media outlets speculating as to whether the junta might engage in negotiations to avoid further embarrassment and potential defeat. Previous diplomatic efforts from ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member state, have failed to make any headway in liberalising the nation’s military, with Indonesian President Joko Widodo leaving office having failed at his goal to come up with some form of process towards democratic reintegration. 


It seems that the most likely state to convince the junta of the necessity for negotiations is China, having provided a consistent level of diplomatic support to the Tatmadaw just short of open endorsement but far from the condemnation issued by countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Additionally, a number of the rebel forces identify themselves as Marxist organisations, placing them within China’s ideological sphere of influence and positioning the superpower on both sides of the conflict. China’s own state-run international media mouthpiece, the Global Times, have highlighted the nation’s initial efforts to deescalate tensions around the Northern China-Myanmar border, asserting that China endeavours to facilitate a ceasefire and…prioritise peace and stability.” 


China also maintains an active interest in Myanmar, regardless of which regime is in charge. The nation’s geographical position in the Indian Ocean has been desirable for Chinese trade interests, as the CCP seeks to strengthen a trade corridor with Myanmar to maintain access to its Southern Sea. Furthermore, Myanmar is the home to a number of criminal syndicates who hide in the Northern jungles to avoid capture by Chinese State and Police Forces. These crime-fighting efforts have been hindered by the civil war, distracting Myanmar’s state forces from targeting individuals China wishes to apprehend. 


China’s leverage with both sides of the conflict means that it is well-placed to sponsor and facilitate a negotiation process. However, if China is to embrace this role, it is highly unlikely that Myanmar’s previous democratic advancements will be restored. While war is not in China’s interest, neither is true democracy. Any Chinese efforts to broker a pathway forward will likely be dominated by the state’s desire to shape Myanmar in its own image, creating a loyal southern neighbour in the process. 


The experience of other Chinese backed nations in the region validates these fears. Cambodia, having emerged from its own periods of internal conflict, is empowered by Chinese support to operate as a de facto one-party state, where elections have little consequence. This was demonstrated when previous leader Hun Sen handed national power to his son Hun Manet in 2023 without fear of political repercussion. China’s empowering of the Cambodian government’s authoritarian tendencies by avoiding condemnation of poor democratic performance has allowed for the superpower to retain a firm hold as Cambodia’s primary partner for investment and trade. It is highly likely that a post-conflict Myanmar government, formed following negotiations with China, would likely fall into this cycle of appeasement, as authoritarian tendencies are overlooked and potentially empowered by China, leading the superpower as the nation’s sole partner for international development – rendering Myanmar a vassal state of the CCP. 


The Importance of Diplomatic Action


Myanmar and its people deserve a legitimate democracy which fairly represents all of the nation’s people. In order to achieve this, it is essential that complacent nations begin to take a more proactive role in the peacemaking process. Despite the organisation’s ineffectiveness, ASEAN has made attempts to liberalise the Tatmadaw, and these efforts deserve more vocal support from nations like Australia, Japan and India, who can provide legitimacy towards efforts for peace. Without this support, China will continue to be the best option for a rapidly weakening Tatmadaw to seek counsel from, potentially leading Myanmar back into the cycle of authoritarianism which has dominated its independent history. 


2024 is a critical year for the future of Myanmar, as the civil war rages on and the rebels continue their staggered advancement towards freedom. The Tatmadaw’s dominance is crumbling under the weight of internal pressures, and it is necessary for democratic states around the world to form a diplomatic united front backing the rebel forces and demanding a return to the promising regime overthrown in 2021. Not only is this necessary for ensuring that China does not turn Myanmar into a proxy state, but it is also critical for securing a future for Myanmar that is finally free from dictatorship and military rule. 

 

Lachlan Forster is a young writer studying at the University of Melbourne, majoring in International Relations and History. Lachlan is a New Colombo Plan Scholar, studying in Singapore and Malaysia. He has been published in the Herald Sun, the Chariot Journal of History and Farrago Student Magazine.


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