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How Did Myanmar’s Reforms Change Its Relations With China?

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I first visited Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) in February 2013, two months after then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s landmark visit to that country. One thing that has been inscribed in my fond memories of the visit is that many street vendors in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) were hawking T-shirts with Obama’s headshot and a caption above reading “Burbama” (presumably a combination of Burma and Obama).
I saw quite a few pedestrians dressed in that T-shirt too. I surmised the former U.S. president’s “charm offensive” was irresistible to the locals. From conversations with several vendors, I found out that on the day of Obama’s arrival, about 100,000 Myanmar people lined up the road leading to the airport. No person, local or foreign, has ever received such an enthusiastic welcome from the Myanmar people, they told me.
When I arrived in Yangon four years ago, the country was still under military rule. Nevertheless, Aung San Suu Kyi, icon of the Myanmar people’s struggle for freedom, had already been released from house arrest, and the National League for Democracy (NLD), an opposition party under her leadership, had just won an overwhelming majority of the seats in the 2012 by-election. Two years later, Obama would pay his second visit to Myanmar, this time to attend the summit of the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
In late February of 2017, I landed again at Myanmar International Terminals Thilawa (MITT), located at the mouth of the Yangon River. The port looked nearly the same: a few ships with long cranes that were busy loading and unloading cargo, a depot about the size of a soccer field that was dotted with cars and trucks, and a golden pagoda in the far distance that glittered against the hazy sky. But I knew this Southeast Asian country is no longer the same country I visited in 2013. The biggest difference, of course, is that Suu Kyi is now the de facto leader of the new government established after NLD’s landslide victory in the 2015 general election, the first truly competitive election Myanmar has seen since 1962.
Few observers were prepared for “the Burmese Spring,” Myanmar’s democratic transition since 2011. One explanation puts the spotlight on China, arguably the largest benefactor of the military regime during decades of Western sanctions. “China was the most important negative incentive that promoted the changes inside Myanmar,” wrote one analyst. “For the Thein Sein government, the failure to reform will prolong Myanmar’s international isolation and deepen its overdependence on China.” Such an overdependence, according to this analyst, “gives China an asymmetrical leverage over Myanmar, putting it at a highly disadvantaged position.” In addition to economic problems created by Chinese investment (e.g., reliance on extraction and damage to environment), the analyst claimed, “the unbalanced relationship forced Myanmar to reluctantly accept China’s de facto interference on the border ethnic groups issue and agree to adjust its diplomatic positions for China on regional forums such as ASEAN.”


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