There was no shortage of bad news from Myanmar in 2018 and few foresee cause for new hope in the year ahead. The Rohingya refugee crisis, the possibility that Myanmar’s military leaders may be held to account on charges of genocide at the International Criminal Court, and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s fall from grace as a pro-democracy icon dominated international media coverage of the country.
At the same time, the United States imposed limited sanctions on certain Myanmar military leaders for their roles in the abuse of Rohingya; the European Union contemplated whether to remove the country’s tariff-free access to the bloc for the same reason.
Adding insult to reputational injury, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters reporters, were sentenced in September to seven years in prison on Official Secrets Act charges many suspect were motivated by their exposé reporting on a security-force massacre of Rohingya.
In December, the sentencing and jailing for defamation of three Kachin youth activists who had led anti-war protests was another nail in the coffin of human rights and civil liberties in the country. They had demanded protection and safe passage for civilians trapped in the middle of fighting between the Myanmar army and Kachin guerrillas.
Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and other subsequent accolades for her non-violent struggle for democracy in Myanmar was held partly responsible for the deterioration of human rights. Her critics argued that as nominal head of government she should have spoken out against the military’s persecution of the Rohingya.
In 2018, she was stripped of one award after another: Edinburgh, Oxford and Glasgow all revoked their respective Freedom of City Awards. The US Holocaust Museum withdrew its Elie Wiesel Award, while Canada stripped her of honorary citizenship.
Amnesty International stripped her of its highest honor, Ambassador of Conscience, for what it said was a “shameful betrayal” of the values she once upheld. The rights group cited her “apparent indifference” to atrocities committed against the Rohingya and seemed intolerance of free speech.
Once the darling of the West and an international human-rights icon, she has become one of the world’s most heavily criticized state leaders in 2018. “Rarely has the reputation of a leader fallen so far, so fast,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group wrote in a report.
Those negative perceptions had adverse economic impacts. A 2018 survey conducted by the European Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar showed that 81% of its member firms were not satisfied with the country’s business environment, compared with 76% in 2017 and 67% in 2016.
Economic nationalism and protection of domestic producers were seen as major obstacles. New sources of bureaucratic red tape and corruption also deterred foreign investors. Myanmar approved less foreign investment for a second straight year, the lowest level since 2013.
While Western nations shunned the country, China seized the opportunity to regain influence that had been lost since the country normalized relations with the US, the European Union and Japan beginning in 2011.
China pushed ahead to expand its controversial copper-mining projects near the central city of Mandalay and a plan to build a high-speed railway from Ruili in China’s Yunnan province to Kyaukphyu port on the Bay of Bengal, which had been scrapped by the previous Thein Sein administration.
In November, a leading committee for the implementation of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was formed in Naypyitaw with Suu Kyi as its chairwoman and toward the aim of establishing an “economic corridor” from China through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean.
The committee’s members include region and state chief ministers and heads of federal ministries in Naypyitaw, emphasizing the extent, importance and apparent urgency of the project.
Faced with international isolation and in need of new sources of investment, Suu Kyi appeared willing to reverse the trend set by Thein Sein, who famously suspended a multibillion-dollar hydroelectric project backed by China in northern Kachin state.
However, observers have said that if Suu Kyi moves too close, too fast to China it could also put her on a collision course with Myanmar’s powerful military, which views itself as the main guardian of the country’s sovereignty.
Myanmar’s move toward a more open society, which became evident during the military-backed Thein Sein administration, were largely prompted by the military’s desire to hedge its heavy dependence on China at a time when the country was still subjected to Western sanctions and boycotts.
Today, it is hardly any secret that many nationalistic officers in Myanmar’s army are wary of the revitalized relationship with China, even if Suu Kyi is trying to balance it with improved relations with other Asian powers such as Japan, India and Singapore.
The tug-of-war between Suu Kyi and the military, which is happening largely behind the scenes, is bound to intensify and could have implications for stability in 2019. The military’s top brass has benefited largely from the blame Suu Kyi has absorbed for their atrocities, so it’s not clear those internal tensions will break out into the open.
Myanmar will in effect enter a campaign season next year ahead of new polls in 2020. China’s moves will bear watching in that context as Beijing is unlikely to repeat its past mistake of putting all its eggs in one political basket like it did when the country was ruled for decades by a military junta.
Through its flexible foreign policy of separating government-to-government and party-to-party relations – and also adding a third layer of military-to-military relations – China will maintain ties with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy as well as whatever political party the military backs or favors in the 2020 election.
There are also incipient indications that China is indirectly contributing through businessmen to the coffers of other opposition parties.
Even if Suu Kyi has lost much of the adulation and respect she enjoyed internationally, she remains popular at home. Whether that translates into another landslide election win, however, remains to be seen.
Media members and civil-rights defenders are appalled at the sentences meted out by her government against journalists and peaceful activists. A peace process meant to bring the government, military and ethnic armed groups together has badly stalled or is arguably dead in the water. New fighting is thus a given in 2019.
An announcement by military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing on December 21 that it will suspend operations in the north of the country until April 2019 is seen by observers as a ploy to improve the military’s tattered international image and deflect attention from the new atrocities it has committed.
But the announcement also shows that the military, not Suu Kyi’s largely civilian government, maintains command control of war and peace in the country, a fact that will not change in 2019. Nor will the fact that the military, despite political reforms and a civilian government façade, is still the country’s most powerful and largely unaccountable institution.