Historical and political background

For many years, China adopted a dual-track approach towards Myanmar by endorsing party-to-party relations between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Burmese Communist Party (BCP), in addition to maintaining state-to-state relations. The CCP’s covert and overt support of the BCP, which resorted to armed struggle against the Yangon government soon after its independence, seriously hindered the two countries’ state-to-state relationship for many years after Myanmar’s independence.

When the military took power in a coup in 1988, thousands of pro-democracy activists, including students, fled to the border area near Thailand, where numerous ethnic insurgencies were active (Lintner 1998).[2] None of the ethnic rebels there could, however, secure a meaningful amount of armaments. On the other hand, unlike the ethnic insurgents, the BCP located along the Chinese border had access to vast quantities of arms and ammunition that were supplied by China. Hypothetically, an alliance of pro-democracy activists, ethnic rebels and an armed BCP might have posed a potential threat to Myanmar’s military government, but it was not to happen.

Instead, a mutiny caused the BCP to split into four ethnic groups in early 1989. The CCP had already withdrawn its active support of the BCP after 1985 (Than 2003). Just before the end of the Cold War, China departed from its dual-track diplomacy and renounced its policy stance favouring the BCP. Having lost Beijing’s backing, the BCP collapsed in the year after the establishment of the SLORC.[3] On the other hand, Yangon was fortunate to secure Beijing’s backing in the midst of Western ostracism.

The mutiny inside the BCP provided a golden opportunity for the Myanmar military to neutralise the newly emerged armed groups, and they were willing to pay any price for this. Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt, then Secretary No. 1 of the SLORC, wasted no time in going to the Chinese border and he achieved a successful cease-fire with these groups. Under the terms of the cease-fire, the Myanmar Government offered the former BCP mutineers development assistance such as roads, bridges, power stations, schools and hospitals as well as business opportunities, including mining and lumbering concessions and border trade. As Bertil Lintner, veteran South-East Asia correspondent, writes:

Ironically, at a time when almost the entire population of Burma had turned against the regime, thousands of former insurgents thus rallied behind the ruling military. The threat from the border areas was thwarted, the regime was safe, but the consequences for the country, and the outside world, were disastrous. (Lintner 1998:170)

Than Shwe, then Vice-Chairman of the SLORC, accompanied by Khin Nyunt, visited Beijing in October 1989 and laid the foundations for the current partnership between the two countries. The visit also marked a departure from Myanmar’s past policy on arms imports, whereby it eschewed large arms purchases from the superpowers consistent with its policy of strict neutrality (Jannuzi 1998). The SLORC apparently launched an ambitious plan to enlarge and modernise the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar armed forces, by late 1988 or early 1989, with heavy reliance on Chinese armaments (Selth 1996). At the same time, the military leadership successfully extracted a promise of economic and technical cooperation from China.

Without the change in China’s diplomacy towards Myanmar and the break up of the BCP, the relationships and structures of power would not have reached their present points. Arms transfers and economic ties have dramatically increased China’s influence over Myanmar. Indeed, a few years of military and economic aid have turned the non-aligned state of Myanmar into China’s closest ally. Today, the military government is effectively dependent on China for its survival and, some analysts say, it has become a Chinese client state (Ott 1998).

[2] For further detail, see Lintner (1990 and 1994).

[3] Lintner (1990:45) reports that a major reason why the mutiny did not happen earlier was that the ordinary soldiers and local commanders were uncertain about China’s reaction to such a move.