Despite western insensitivity towards the problems Myanmar faces in dealing with well-armed separatist-oriented, ethnic insurgent groups, Aung San Suu Kyi has acted skillfully and carefully in dealing with both India and China, on problems and challenges arising from cross-border insurgencies. There are 25 major, armed insurgent groups in Myanmar, with nine of them refusing to even accept a national cease-fire, as a prelude to talks with the government. A number of these armed groups operate across the China-Myanmar border, while enjoying safe haven in China’s bordering Yunnan and Shan provinces.
Closer to the India-Myanmar border, the Chinese have long-term ties with four insurgent groups in the Kachin State, which borders both India and China. Two of these groups have maintained links with Indian insurgent groups like ULFA and NSCN(K). They arrange to provide assistance to Indian separatist groups, facilitating their stay and activities in both Myanmar and in the Yunnan Province of China. This has, however, not prevented the Myanmar army from acting firmly against Indian separatist groups, in cooperation with Indian security forces. The larger problem that Myanmar faces is that its armed separatist groups located on China’s borders, whether the Kachin Independence Army or the United Wa State Army, have cosy relationships with the Chinese Government. This enables China to play an intrusive a role in the entire process of a cease-fire and “national reconciliation” that Suu Kyi is spearheading, with armed separatist groups. Moreover, the Chinese are going about this role in a blatantly crude manner, with scant regard for local sensitivities.
Chinese insensitivity in dealing with Myanmar is not confined to border management. Chinese businessmen in Mandalay and elsewhere in Myanmar would certainly not win popularity contests there. But what has really damaged China’s image is the contemptuous manner in which its Ambassador and media tried to ridicule widespread environmental objections to their proposed $3 billion investment in the massive Myitsone Dam and Hydroelectric Project. Unfortunately, while India and Japan are expanding cooperation with Myanmar, even the reputedly pro-western Suu Kyi has faced virtual US and EU economic indifference and even threats of economic sanctions, because of insensitive western policies on the Rohingya issue. As its largest trading and economic partner and arms supplier, China naturally wields immense influence in Myanmar. India is seen as a friendly neighbour, with whom economic, military and security cooperation is rather slowly, but steadily, expanding.
Aung San Suu Kyi recently visited Beijing for the International Review Conference on China’s One Belt One Road project. President Xi Jinping appeared determined to emphasise that Chinese “aid” projects were not exploitative to assuage worldwide concerns that their aid was aimed at leading recipient countries into a “debt trap”. China has taken over the strategic Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka after Colombo could not repay the “aid” Beijing had extended. Likewise, the Mombasa Port in Kenya and the airport in Zambia’s capital Lusaka appear set to be taken over by China. Interestingly, Suu Kyi reportedly gave her hosts no assurance on the Myitsone Dam Project, during her discussions.