August 19, 2016

A new chapter in Myanmar-China relationship?

A sport ground in Beijing seen from the China Daily Newspaper Building.
A sport ground in Beijing seen from the China Daily Newspaper Building.

By Thein Aye
It was in 1956 that a famous Chinese composer wrote a poem that portrayed a symbol of the friendly relations between Myanmar and China. History shows that a dance troupe of the Pyu dynasty reached China around 8 AD. Judging from this, the two countries have enjoyed long bilateral relations in the same way that they share a common border of more than 2,000 kilometres. The poet eloquently composed a poem about the ideals of coexistence and fraternity between Myanmar and China as follows: (The following is an unofficial translation of a Chinese poem into English)

Along the upper reaches of the river live we
Along the lower reaches live you
Our mutual relations know no bounds
Both drink the water of the same river
We, the upstream water
You, the downstream water
The river flows endlessly
We both share infinite joy
We both are neighbours

Long live our friendly relations
Like ever-green trees
The water flows on forever
Our countries share common border
At the mountains, by the rivers

We both fought against imperialism
And stood united at mutualism
We are none but fraternal twins
With our languages overlapping
With our unity interdependent

Peace is strength
By the rivers
We both sing hymns of praise
On the mountains
We both compose music in praise of their scenery
The river faces north but flows to the south

This poem was composed in 1956, which was eight years after Myanmar became independent. In 1954, Chinese Premier Chou Enlai visited Myanmar with the intention of further cementing the bilateral relations. Myanmar Prime Minister U Nu paid a friendly visit to the mainland the same year.
Whether or not the two countries set to broaden their relations, a need exists to perform a comparative analysis of the depth of the bilateral relations of 60 years ago and now.
China has maintained a long friendship with Myanmar by upholding the mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, one of the five principles of peaceful coexistence adopted at the Bandung Conference. Frankly speaking, China is inclined to sustain friendly relations with Myanmar, with no interference in the internal affairs of its neighbour, regardless of any government in office. However, the role of politics in world order has changed more dramatically today than it was 60 years ago. This signals the need to thoroughly review the Myanmar-China relations from different angles.
In 2010, columnist Aung Thu Nyein expressed his points of view on RFA’s Myanmar programme by presenting an analysis of the book titled “Myanmar- Prospect for Change” published by Yunnan University in 2010. In his criticism, he mentioned Myanmar’s reliance on the mighty China in areas of defence, politics and economy, describing the country as a strategic pawn of China. Another point of view of his is that Myanmar should not be a pawn of China, given its wealth of human resources and natural resources.
The installation of the first democratically elected government in 2010 coincided with the rise in border issues, with fightings flaring up in the areas of ethnic armed groups who had entered ceasefire agreement with the government for 14 years. The term ‘national reconciliation’ came into fashion again.

Along the upper reaches of the river live we
Along the lower reaches live you
Our mutual relations know no bounds

On 13 November 2010, national icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. She had been placed under house arrest for 15 years. The quasi-democratic government could move forward amid worries of backsliding. The then government vowed repeatedly that there was no possibility of the country’s backsliding.
Despite the constitution baring her from becoming president, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won the hearts of the people. They pinned their hopes on her as a national leader. Her party won a landslide victory in the 2012 by-election. During her visit to the United States on 22 September 2012, she met students of Columbia University in New York and was asked about her points of view on the Myanmar-China relations. In her response, she said that the governmental relations remained unchanged while the people-to-people relations were under strain. She continued that a majority of people in Myanmar felt Chinese business people sought their own interests without taking into consideration the welfare of the people and the country as a whole. She hoped to change the conflicting trends between the two peoples.
Speculation was mounting that the 2015 election would sweep Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to power. It was in June, just five months to the elections, Chinese President Xi Jinping invited her to Beijing in her capacity as the leader of the National League for Democracy. She accepted the invitation and visited China from 10 to 14 June last year. That signalled an abrupt turn in the political landscape of Myanmar. China expected that she would push for better relations between the two countries.
The suspension of the Myitsone dam project in 2011 greatly astonished China, with a professor of Beijing University saying that he was taken aback by the recent political reform in Myanmar.
One year after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China, I was privileged to participate in a seminar on media cooperation between Myanmar and China from 16 to 29 June. Among officials who gave talks on various topics of news media were high-ranking officials, sociologists and retired departmental officers. When asked how China viewed the new government’s commitment to democratic reform, a Chinese official said they welcomed the NLD-led government, recognised Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a competent leader and hoped for better relations between the two countries.
In response to a query about the attitudinal changes in Myanmar society towards China due to lack of transparency in commercial activities, a Chinese official reiterated the existing friendly relations between the two governments, stressing that China had pushed for the creation of greater intimacy between the two peoples.
Political columnist Aung Thu Nyein pointed out six phases of China’s approach to the Myanmar government as of 2011 in his analysis of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent visit to China, which was aired on RFA on 15 June.
They are the exchange of visits between senior officials, a variety of extensive training programmes as agreed between the Communist Party of China and the Myanmar government, the enhancement of defence cooperation and arms deals, the civil society relations, the promotion of the Chinese language by the Embassy of China in Myanmar in close partnership with the 88’ Open Society and other activists, region-level relations, and the cultural and religious relations. Regarding the region-level relations, China expects Myanmar to allow ethnic self-administration areas as in Yunnan.
According to unconfirmed sources, Chinese investments in the country have undergone a decline, following the Myanmar’s transition to democracy in 2011. The suspension of the Myitsone hydropower dam project is a prime example. It is also highly likely that Chinese investors practice a wait-and-see policy until the new government settles.
On the whole, China still keeps calm in the thought that what is important is to sustain good relations with the government, the columnist stated.
A senior official of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained that China experiences an annual rise of food supply by 10 million tons to feed its population of 1.3 billion. The world’s most populated mainland possess 300 million acres of cultivable land, with the senior official stressing three things that matter most to his country: peace, stability and development.
Anyway, the people in Myanmar have come to feel that China is gaining the upper hand of Myanmar’s economy, that the contracts are not transparent, and that both governments do not accept their responsibility and accountability to local people.
Apart from maintaining good relations between the two governments, China should do something about the enrichment of the social relations between the two peoples so as to dispel the doubts of the people of Myanmar. In addition, it is necessary for the Myanmar people to adopt an attitude of ‘Think globally, act locally’, when it comes to international relations with China, Japan, the United States and England.
We can no longer neglect the geographical location of our country, since it lies among three world’s most populated countries: China, India and Bangladesh. On the one hand, we live next to a giant market, which can turn out to be a huge opportunity if correctly utilised. On the other hand, the opportune geographical location itself will turn to a target of exploitation. While we are finding solutions to traffic congestion which takes two hours to travel 10 miles in Yangon, the people in China travel 100 miles in 30 minutes.
In a sense, Myanmar is in a position to take advantage of China’s growing economy, high technology and rising food demands. In addition, India is favourable when it comes to trade and democratic practices. The time has come for the people of Myanmar to keep their eyes open and their ears wide. It is expected that the Myanmar-China relations in the time of the new government is set to boom.

Myanmar delegates pose for a group photo together with Chinese intrepretors.
Myanmar delegates pose for a group photo together with Chinese intrepretors.
A panoramic view of the Great Wall seen from a cable car.
A panoramic view of the Great Wall seen from a cable car.


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