With unceasing brutality by the junta, and an increasingly engaged China and India, deferring to languishing ASEAN efforts has proved ineffective to support conflict transformation in Myanmar. Australia could, but is not yet, stepping up diplomatically.
16 April 2022 marked the one-year anniversary of the National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, formed out of the parliamentarians elected prior to the military coup. In the international context of the NUG’s diplomatic efforts, led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there were significant geopolitical shifts in the IndoPacific region in 2021 which affect Myanmar. Myanmar occupies a strategic position at the heart of the Indo-Pacific and borders the globe’s two most populous nations.
One of the most influential developments in the Indo-Pacific in 2021 was the new US Indo-Pacific strategy. The United States, Japan, Australia, and India’s Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) has re-awoken since the Leaders’ Summit in March 2021. In addition, the trilateral security pact of Australia, UK, and the US (AUKUS) emerged on 15 September 2021 to attempt to balance military power in the region. The United States National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) has significantly increased US commitments to Myanmar, and the US House of Representatives has also approved the Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act of 2022 (BURMA Act of 2022) to authorise humanitarian assistance and civil society support, promote democracy and human rights, and impose targeted sanctions with respect to human rights abuses in Myanmar, and other purposes.
At the same time, China is centrally engaged in Myanmar and the region. China has shifted from its neutral stance on leadership and stated it will support Myanmar’s military junta “no matter how the situation changes” in the country over the coming months and years. Despite earlier statements for openness to talks, just days before the meeting, during the Armed Forces Day ceremony on 27 March , military leader Min Aung Hlaing said he would not speak to the NUG or the government in exile (CRPH). Hlaing added that he would fight to annihilate them, a statement seemingly emboldened by open support of the Chinese government.
This shift brings into question Australia and the international community’s decision to depend on ASEAN to lead negotiations to end to the violence. NUG Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung appealed to the Australian government for support, saying that the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Canada had led the way not only in words but in effective action. Meanwhile, Australia’s inaction was notable.
More proactive engagement and consultation with the NUG is needed to re-energise support for restoring democratic governance in Myanmar. ASEAN’s diplomatic response has been ineffective. Moreover, the ASEAN Chair and his special envoy still keep the Myanmar Taskforce led by the military council at the centre of ASEAN’s humanitarian response. They hosted a consultative meeting on ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance to Myanmar on 6 May in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, but the UN Special Envoy to Myanmar, the NUG, and other crucial stakeholders were deliberately excluded. The NUG warned of the high risk of failure and politicisation in the urgent delivery of humanitarian assistance that such exclusion poses.
For China, Myanmar is its only outlet to the Indian Ocean, which is vital to China’s strategy for energy security to sustain economic growth. In addition, Myanmar has rare earth minerals in abundance. China accounted for 60 percent of global production in 2021, and half of its raw materials come from Myanmar. Under the Chinese government’s foreign policy objectives, Myanmar is seen as being able to serve its national interests.
Myanmar has seemingly faded from the public eye in Australia as attention is drawn to the Solomon Islands and Ukraine. Myanmar is in the meantime experiencing shifts that will reverberate across the region. Some observers believe the sudden change in the Chinese government’s stance on Myanmar is a direct response to the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US. It is also worth considering whether, with Russia engaged in Ukraine, the Chinese government has significantly increased its support for the military junta. There are also speculations that the Myanmar junta continues its confidence in Russia and the relationship between the Myanmar junta and the Russian government is much broader than that of the Chinese government. One of Russia’s interests in Myanmar is also access to the Indian Ocean.
India, which has its own strained relations with China, is on Myanmar’s western border. Myanmar is at the heart of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Act East Policy, which emphasises defence cooperation. Today, the Indian government is paying close attention to the Myanmar military junta. Modi’s government has fostered friendly relations with the military junta since the coup. The Indian government thinks the fighting between the Myanmar military and People’s Defense Forces (PDF) along the Myanmar-India border, especially in Chin state, has compromised the Myanmar military’s support of India’s counterinsurgency efforts against Indian Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) that operate from Myanmar. This has resulted in the Indian government’s decision to partner with the military junta to attack pro-democratic PDF and EAOs in the border areas of Myanmar and India. This position goes against Quad members’ commitment to engagement in constructive dialogue, and to the early restoration of democracy in Myanmar.
Both China and India may see the junta as a stable partner despite both governments being aware of the consequences of political instability due to Myanmar’s military involvement in politics since 1962. If Myanmar can establish a true democratic federal state and the country is peaceful and stable, then the interests of China and India can be at their best. Myanmar will be an excellent neighbour to assist with a positive implementation of India’s Act East Policy, potentially assisting in the development of the North-eastern states of India. Longer-term and sustained peace, stability, and prosperity in Myanmar will help China’s energy security given its extensive assets in the country.
Given the geopolitical movements in the Indo-Pacific region which directly or indirectly affect Myanmar, Australia and the international community cannot continue to limit their efforts by relying on ASEAN. Significant results have yet to come as the five-point consensus of ASEAN leaders nears its one-year term. The junta does not seem to care about ASEAN, and it has failed to take any meaningful steps towards ending the conflict. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is chairing ASEAN this year, said he raised the issue of Myanmar but noted it would probably fall to his successor as there is no prospect of a resolution in his term. Having also recently appointed a Representative to ASEAN, the NUG welcomes revitalised ASEAN efforts.
The complex international dynamics at play in Myanmar suggest the conflict has regional implications and is not only an internal dispute. The NUG’s role in sharing its analysis and strategy with the international community is more important this year than ever. The NUG’s diplomatic efforts will need to be handled with special care to manage these dynamics and relationships, as they impact internal resistance and the ongoing dialogue and efforts of diverse groups and actors. The NUG will face its biggest challenges in 2022 as it seeks protect the lives of its people who continue to struggle for peace and pursue a future federal democratic union.
Dr Tun-Aung Shwe is the Representative of the National Unity Government of Myanmar to the Commonwealth of Australia.
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