A narrative of the crashing descent from democratic icon status to one of run-of-the-mill, repressive Asian Head of government of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi reads like a Shakespearean tragedy with a few amendments. Today, she stands exposed as a Myanmarese ruler who did not spare the coercive capability at her disposal to beat into submission and humiliation her country’s minority Rohingya community. She is accused, among other things, of presiding over a 2017 military crackdown that forced around 740,000 Rohingyas from her country’s Rakhine state to flee to Bangladesh.
For, democratic opinion the world over Suu Kyi’s crash is one of the greatest ‘let downs’ of the 21st century. She possessed the moral and political stature to take her country to an Asian democracy of distinction but this was not to be because she gave in to the lure of the chauvinism of the Mayanmarese majority community. She has come to possess ‘tragic failings’ reminiscent of Shakespeare’s heroes.
The currying of the favour of majority communities by political leaders is quite a common feature among Southern states but in the case of Suu Kyi the phenomenon is doubly troubling because she gave every indication of being a stateswoman of considerable distinction. For long years she stood up to the Generals of her country but once in power she too succumbed to the temptation of ‘playing-up’ to the majority. Rather than saying ‘no’ firmly to the repression of Muslim Rohingyas by oppressive sections and taking measures to integrate the community into mainstream society, Suu Kyi today stands accused of acting collaboratively with the relevant oppressive forces. Hence, her loss of face with the world community.
It is against a backdrop of this nature that Myanmar seems to be considering it opportune to strengthen its ties with China. The grand welcome accorded to Chinese President Xi Jinping by the Suu Kyi administration recently had all the graces and flourishes of a momentous meeting of minds between two world leaders who experience exceptional ease and comfort in each other’s company. Besides other things, the meeting needs to be seen as carrying notable meaning, because China herself is currently up against a restive Muslim minority within her fold. The rebellious Uighurs are being firmly contained by China and this factor seals the increasing bonds between China and Myanmar.
As important as the 30 plus agreements in the infrastructure and economic fields that were signed between the countries was the pledge by China to the effect that she ‘Firmly supports Myanmar’s efforts to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests and national dignity in the international arena’, besides backing Myanmar’s advances in the direction of ‘peace, stability and development in Rakhine state.’
In the absence of concrete efforts by Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya crisis by democratic and political means, the Chinese statement should be construed as meaning that China is behind Myanmar’s efforts to contain the Rohingya issue by law and order or coercive measures. In the Chinese perspective, this is the way to ‘peace and stability’. Consequently, Myanmar could find a trusted ally in China in her efforts to keep the Rohingya issue in check by military means.
With minority rights and democratic development being thrust to the back burner, Myanmar seems to be at pains to stress that it is economic advancement that takes a prime position in her national agenda and in her international relationships. China is, once again, the best example on this score. The crowning infrastructure investment agreement to be inked between the countries during the recent Heads of Government meet was ‘a concession and shareholders agreement on the $1.3 billion Kyaukhphyu deep-sea port and economic zone’, a project that is expected to pave the way for a ‘China-Myanmar Economic Corridor’. This is proof of the emerging stress on economic linkages that are seen as mutually-beneficial.
These developments in China-Myanmar relations could be seen as symptomatic of key trends in current international economics and politics. Not surprisingly, we are seeing world- wide too, an eclipsing of democratic development by Realpolitik or power politics. These issues are most marked in the Middle East and adjacent regions.
In Iran, for instance, Ayotollah Ali Khamenei is quoted as standing by the country’s Revolutionary Guards in the aftermath of the accidental downing by Iran of a Ukrainian airliner, claiming scores of lives. This pledge of loyalty also comes on the heels of the US killing of the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Qassem Soleimani a couple of weeks back. The Ayatollah went on to say that the Guards ‘could take their fight beyond Iran’s borders’ following the killing of the commander.
If one is in need of added proof that the world would need to brace for an upsurge of tensions in the Middle East and beyond, centring on the US and Iran, here it is. Taking ‘the fight beyond Iran’s borders’ could lead to an implosive crisis in the Middle East and the Gulf with highly distressing results for the rest of the world. ‘American targets’ world- wide would need to be on the alert from now on. But a ‘Third World War’ could not be said to be in the offing for reasons provided earlier in this column.
In a way, the world seems to have come full circle from Cold War times with these current international developments. One would have thought that proxy wars were never to be but they are back in a major way. There are the cases of Libya and the Yemen, for example, where ‘foreign interference’ in their internal conflicts is decried by the major stakeholders. The UN-backed regime in Libya currently engaged in an armed conflict with foreign-backed rebel forces is protesting such interference and so is the Yemen government, facing a rebellion suspected to be backed by Iran.
Needless to say, aggravating conflicts of this kind would sooner rather later suck into them the world’s most preponderant powers, including the US. Russia, another such power, could not be expected to stand idly by when the US begins to figure in these theatres in a major way. We are about to see a major return to Cold War-type geopolitics.