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Anti-China sentiment a challenge for Myanmar
Publication Date : 14-01-2013
As major powers like the United States, Japan and India flock to Myanmar for a seat at the table of this newly opened up country, China's economic and strategic footing there is slipping, analysts say.
And Beijing could lose even more ground, with anti-China sentiment surfacing among the grassroots in Myanmar.
This poses a challenge for the government in Naypyidaw: It has to find a middle ground in its foreign policy while simultaneously keeping a lid on the growing sentiment against China, the South- east Asian nation's biggest investor and second-biggest trade partner.
Since Myanmar began rolling out economic and political reforms, the US has offered its officers observer status at the annual Cobra Gold exercises - the biggest and longest-standing US military exercise in the Asian-Pacific region. The exercise brings together thousands of US and Thai military personnel and participants from other Asian countries, including Singapore, for joint manoeuvres.
The US military will also soon restart its search for some 1,200 air crew and passengers still officially missing in action in Myanmar, then known as Burma, during World War II.
President Thein Sein's decision in 2011 to bow to public opinion and halt the China-backed Myitsone dam in Kachin state, which was seen as a signal to Beijing on the limits of its clout, won praise from Myanmar civil society.
But more recently, a minister unwittingly stoked anti-China sentiment over a dispute involving a joint investment between the Myanmar army and a Chinese company. Locals at the site of the Letpadaung copper mine are demanding a better deal for their land, which they have to evacuate to make way for the mine's expansion. They also want to save a historic monastery from being shifted.
In comments during a visit to the site, however, the Minister in the President's office, U Aung Min, said Myanmar could not afford to anger China, and recalled that Beijing helped end the insurgency by the Communist Party of Burma in the 1980s.
His remarks were not welcomed. The newly freed Myanmar media has been printing cartoons of political leaders kowtowing to China.
A subsequent crackdown on the protesters at the mine on Nov 29 last year left several severely burnt. In a country where rumour is a potent force, it was said that the tear-gas or smoke-bomb canisters used were made in China.
Thus, anti-China sentiment, historically not far below the surface in Myanmar, is re-emerging in the new liberal environment.
In an e-mail, one Yangon- based political analyst wrote: "To say China's position in Myanmar has slipped badly is an understatement." Asking not to be identified because "this is very sensitive", he added: "Remember that for long China was in the regime's good books and not in that of the Myanmar people."
Not surprisingly, China is concerned. A team from Yunnan and Xiamen universities is visiting Yangon and Naypyidaw this month to discuss Beijing's foreign assistance and "international responsibility" to the people of Myanmar.
In a commentary in the Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times this month, writer Yu Jincui said: "Some analysts hold that China's backyard is on fire, and an anti-China front is gradually being shaped in Myanmar."
The analyst in Yangon agreed, writing: "I would say an anti-China front is in the making. It's mostly from some civil society organisations and grassroots movements."
Government sources in Myanmar blame "communist" anti-China provocateurs for escalating the situation at the Letpadaung mines - and acknowledge that the police played into their hands.
Letpadaung is a good example of the complexities of dealing with exploitative deals with Chinese investors under the previous military regime.
The Yangon-based analyst warned: "Myanmar communists are anti-Chinese, and a home- grown communist underground appears to be re-emerging. With peasants getting further impoverished and workers' protests mushrooming, it is an ominous moment."
Still, China's footprint in Myanmar remains significant. A United Nations report last September noted that China's investment in Myanmar had "increased exponentially in recent years, reaching a peak and accounting for 34.5 per cent of total foreign direct investment inflow in 2011".
The Global Times piece concluded that, given China's deep investment and trade ties with Myanmar, the "geopolitics and economic exchanges" of the relationship were unlikely to be harmed.
In an interview, Dr Ian Storey, a senior fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said: "There's always been anti-China sentiment in Myanmar; it has built up over the years and now that the government has relaxed media control it has more exposure."
The Myanmar government would want to keep a cap on anti- Chinese sentiment in case it got out of hand, he said.
But the commentary was laced with caution, noting the added complication of the war in Kachin state, which borders China. It has displaced some 100,000 people. On December 30, when Myanmar jets attacked Kachin Independence Army units, three bombs landed across the border in China.
"Those Western countries keen on promoting democracy in Myanmar are not adjacent to Myanmar, and thus don't have to worry about the consequences of Myanmar domestic chaos," Yu wrote. "But if these problems are not properly handled, Myanmar's democratic reforms will be affected".