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Ms. Halimah Yacob – First female president of Singapore

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Ms. Halimah Yacob, 63, former Speaker of Parliament, became the first woman and first Malay in 47 years to ascend to the Presidency of Singapore- highest office, after successfully filing her nomination papers on Sept 13 as the sole eligible candidate for this year’s reserved Presidential Election.

She will be officially sworn in as Singapore’s eighth President on September 14 at 6pm, at the Istana, the Prime Minister’s Office announced.

Returning Officer Ng Wai Choong declared Ms. Halimah as the President-elect at the People’s Association headquarters along King George’s Avenue to loud cheers by hundreds of Halimah’s supporters. The last Malay to hold the presidency ill he died in 1970 was Yusof Ishak, whose image adorns the country’s banknotes. Yusof Ishak was President between 1965 and 1970, the first years of Singapore’s independence following a short-lived union with neighbouring Malaysia, but executive power rests with Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s Prime Minister.

Aiming to strengthen a sense of inclusivity in the multicultural country, Singapore had decreed the presidency would be reserved for candidates from the Malay community this time. Ms. Yacob’s experience as house speaker automatically qualified her under the nomination rules. Of the four other applicants, two were not Malays and two were not given certificates of eligibility, the elections department said.

 First Malay President

This year’s Presidential Election was reserved for the Malays in a bid to ensure multiracial representation after Parliament passed into law changes to the Elected Presidency scheme last November. Apart from Halimah, two other hopefuls – chief executive of Second Chance Properties Mohamed Salleh Marican, 67, and chairman of marine services provider Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific Farid Khan, 62 – had also filed application forms to contest as candidates. However, both men were determined ineligible by the Presidential Elections Committee as they did not meet one of the qualifying criteria, which requires that private-sector candidates must have served as the chief executive of a company for at least three years, with the company having at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity, on average, in the most recent three years.

While some members of the public have expressed happiness at Halimah’s ascension to the Presidency, others expressed disappointment that this was only made possible courtesy of a walkover. They want an election for full legitimacy.  However, others noted that Madam Halimah is fully qualified to become the President and will be able to perform her duties well, citing her track record of over 40 years in public service.

Malays make up about 13 percent of the population, and the government is dominated by ethnic Chinese, who make up about three-quarters. There are no Muslim Malays in the top echelons of Singapore’s army, and few among the senior ranks of its judiciary, but a member of its poorest ethnic minority is set to become the first woman President of the Southeast Asian city state this week.

The government initially narrowed the criteria last year to permit only a Malay to serve as the next president, on the ground that no Malay had held the post in the five preceding terms.

The Presidential Election Committee later tightened the criteria, including a requirement that any candidate from the private sector must have been a senior executive of a company with at least 500 million Singapore dollars in equity, or about $371 million.

Two other Malays were considered by the commission, including Mohamed Salleh Marican, chief executive of Second Chance Properties. He had said that if he was elected, he would begin an investigation into the allegations that Mr. Lee abused his power in his dispute with his siblings. Both potential candidates were rejected on the grounds that the companies they headed were not large enough.

 President Halimah

Ms. Halimah Yacob is Singapore’s eighth president and its first woman head of state, in the country’s first presidential election reserved for candidates from the Malay community.

The 63-year-old former Speaker of Parliament was the only presidential hopeful declared eligible to contest by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) “Whether there is an election or not, my passion and commitment to serve the people of Singapore remain the same,” she told reporters.

Halimah Yacob, who was born to an Indian Muslim father and Malay mother, puts minority representation on agenda.

The youngest of five children, Ms. Halimah had described her childhood as a “terrible struggle” following the death of her Indian-Muslim father and family sole breadwinner. Her mother, who died in 2015, had to single-handedly raise the family by selling food on a pushcart. Halimah had studied at the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and Tanjong Katong Girls’ School, before applying successfully to read law at the then University of Singapore.

Starting out as a lawyer, Halimah, 62, had spent over three decades in the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). Before she became Speaker of Parliament in 2013, she had served as Minister of State at the then-Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.

She collected her certificate of eligibility at the Elections Department in the afternoon, shortly after witnessing the election of her successor as Speaker in Parliament.

Ms. Halimah was a Member of Parliament and a leader of the People’s Action Party before giving up her seat last month to run for president. “I can only say that I promise to do the best that I can to serve the people of Singapore, and that doesn’t change whether there is an election or no election,” she told reporters Monday after she was certified as the only eligible candidate. Her campaign slogan — “Do Good, Do Together” — was widely panned as ungrammatical.

World’s attention is focused on Ms. Halimah as she will take her oath of office on Thursday, which will mark the start of her six-year term.

Despite being the establishment candidate, Ms. Yacob wears a hijab, which is banned in state schools and public sector jobs that require uniforms. But she has seldom spoken publicly on the issue and there is little sign of change in official attitudes.

 Mixed reactions

 There were three candidates for the presidency poll and they were issued certificates by the Community Committee confirming that they belong to the Malay community. After scrutiny, the PEC found only Ms. Ms. Halimah was eleigible candidate and  informed the other two – marine services firm chairman Farid Khan, 61, and property company chief executive Salleh Marican, 67 – that they did not qualify to contest. Neither had helmed a company with $500 million in shareholder equity for the most recent three years, a key threshold required for candidates relying on their private-sector experience. In rejecting his application, the six-member panel said it was unable to satisfy itself that he had “the experience and ability” comparable to a chief executive of a company of that size and complexity.

The PEC noted the shareholders’ equity of Salleh’s company, Second Chance, averaged about $258 million, a sum “considerably below the minimum” required under the Constitution.  Farid declined to disclose his company’s financials, but its value is believed to be much lower. He declined to show his letter from the PEC to the media. Both said they were disappointed not to be given the go-ahead – but thanked their families and supporters for their support over the past few months, and said they would continue to serve Singaporeans.

 Under the law, the decision of the PEC – chaired by Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo – is final and not subject to appeal or review in any court. The uncontested election drew mixed reactions from observers, who welcomed Madam Halimah making history as the country’s first woman president and the first Malay head of state in 47 years.

Institute of Policy Studies deputy director Gillian Koh said: “Madam Halimah is a double minority – not only is she a Malay-Muslim individual, but a female.” But Dr Koh felt “the statement of our acceptance of diversity would have been all the more powerful if there had been an open contest”.

However, political science professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore questioned the value of having a contest for a contest’s sake: “Being elected through a walkover does not undermine or delegitimize the winner.”

 For Lee, whose son, Lee Hsien Loong, is now Prime Minister, the answer to social cohesion lay in creating a culture of meritocracy, rather than adopting policies of positive discrimination to boost the chances of advancement for Singapore’s Malay and Indian minorities.

 Singapore

 Singapore officially the Republic of Singapore, is also referred to as the “Lion City”, the “Garden City” or the “Little Red Dot”, is a sovereign city-state in Southeast Asia. Singapore, an island city-state off southern Malaysia, is a global financial center with a tropical climate and multicultural population. Its colonial core centers on the Padang, a cricket field since the 1830s and now flanked by grand buildings such as City Hall, with its 18 Corinthian columns. In Singapore’s circa-1820 Chinatown stands the red-and-gold Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, said to house one of Buddha’s teeth.

 It lies one degree (137 km) north of the equator, just south of the Malay Peninsula across the Straits of Johor, with Indonesia’s Riau Islands to the south. Singapore’s territory consists of one main island along with 62 other islets. Since independence, extensive land reclamation has increased its total size by 23% (130 km2) and its greening policy has covered the densely populated island with tropical flora, parks and gardens.

 Singapore is a global commerce, finance and transport hub. Its standings include: the most “technology-ready” nation (WEF), top International-meetings city (UIA), city with “best investment potential” (BERI), second-most competitive country, third-largest foreign exchange market, third-largest financial centre, third-largest oil refining and trading centre and the second-busiest container port. The country has also been identified as a tax haven.

Singapore ranks 5th on the UN Human Development Index and the 3rd highest GDP per capita. It is ranked highly in education, healthcare, life expectancy, quality of life, personal safety and housing. Although income inequality is high, 90% of homes are owner-occupied. 38% of Singapore’s 5.6 million residents are permanent residents and other foreign nationals. There are four official languages: English (common and first language), Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, though almost all Singaporeans are bilingual.

Singapore is a unitary multiparty parliamentary republic, with a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government. The People’s Action Party has won every election since self-government in 1959. The dominance of the PAP, coupled with a low level of press freedom and restrictions on civil liberties and political rights, has led to Singapore being classified by some as a semi-authoritarian regime. One of the five founding members of ASEAN, Singapore is also the host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Secretariat and a member of the East Asia Summit, Non-Aligned Movement and the Commonwealth of Nations.

Singapore is a parliamentary republic with a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government representing constituencies. The country’s constitution establishes a representative democracy as the political system Executive power rests with the Cabinet of Singapore, led by the Prime Minister and, to a much lesser extent, the President.[54]The President is elected through a popular vote, and has veto powers over a specific set of executive decisions, such as the use of the national reserves and the appointment of judges, but otherwise occupies a largely ceremonial post

The Parliament serves as the legislative branch of the government

Singapore’s foreign policy is aimed at maintaining security in Southeast Asia and surrounding territories. An underlying principle is political and economic stability in the region.[97] It has diplomatic relations with more than 180 sovereign states. As one of the five founding members of ASEAN,[99] it is a strong supporter of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the ASEAN Investment Area, because Singapore’s economy is closely linked to that of the region as a whole.

 The separation of Singapore from Malaysia gave ethnic Malays a clear majority in Malaysia, while ethnic Chinese formed the majority in independent Singapore. Leaders of both countries, however, recognised that peace and prosperity depended on preserving harmony between the two groups. But living in a Muslim-dominated neighborhood, with Malaysia and Indonesia next door, Singapore’s leaders have long worried about the risk of conflicted loyalties among Malays.

President

The President of the Republic of Singapore is Singapore’s head of state. In a Westminster parliamentary system, as which Singapore governs itself, the prime minister is the head of the government while the president is largely ceremonial, broadly analogous to the Sovereign of the United Kingdom. A Constitutional Commission recommended changes to guarantee minority representation in the highest office in the land as well as to tighten eligibility criteria in keeping with the economy’s growth.

The President is the head of state of Singapore. The executive authority of the nation is vested in the President and exercisable by him or her or by the Cabinet or any minister authorised by the Cabinet. However, it is the Cabinet that has the general direction and control of the Government, and in most cases the President exercises powers in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or a minister acting under the Cabinet’s general authority. The President only exercises limited powers in his or her personal discretion to block attempts by the government of the day to draw down past reserves it did not accumulate, to approve changes to key appointments, and to exercise oversight over the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and decisions of the Executive under the Internal Security Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.. As a component of the legislature together with Parliament, the President is also jointly vested with the legislative power of Singapore.  The President usually opens each Parliamentary session with an address drafted by the Cabinet setting out the Government’s agenda for the session, and may address Parliament and send messages to it

The Constitution confers on the President certain executive functions to block attempts by the government of the day to draw down past reserves that it did not accumulate. Thus, a guarantee may only be given or a loan raised by the Government if the President concurs, and his or her approval is also needed for budgets of specified statutory boards and Government companies that draw on their past reserves.

 Before 1993, the President of Singapore was chosen by Parliament. Following constitutional amendments in 1991, the Presidency became a popularly elected office with certain custodial powers, particularly over government expenditure of the nation’s past financial reserves and key appointments to public offices. In November 2016, further amendments provide for “reserved elections” for a particular racial group (Chinese, Malay and Indian/other minority) – if that community has not been represented for five presidential terms.

 The President has been called “Singapore’s No. 1 diplomat” Ambassadors and high commissioners accredited to Singapore present their credentials to him, and he is called upon by visiting foreign leaders. In addition, he or she contributes to the nation’s external relations by undertaking overseas trips on Cabinet’s advice. Presidents have also used the office to champion charitable causes.

The first President elected by the majority of the people was Ong Teng Cheong, who served from 1 September 1993 to 31 August 1999. The office of President was created in 1965 after Singapore became a republic upon its secession from the Federation of Malaysia that year. It replaced the office of Yang di-Pertuan Negara, which had been created when Singapore attained self-government in 1959. The last Yang di-Pertuan Negara, Yusof Ishak, became the first President. After his death he was replaced by Benjamin Sheares, who served until his death in 1981, when he was succeeded by Chengara Veetil Devan Nair. Owing to personal problems, Nair stepped down in 1985 and was replaced by Wee Kim Wee, who served as President until 1993.

In January 1991, the Constitution   was amended to provide for the popular election of the President, a major constitutional and political change in Singapore’s history. Under the revision, the President is empowered to veto the use of the country’s past reserves and key civil service appointments. He or she can also examine the administration’s enforcement of the Internal Security Act and Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, and authorize corruption investigations The first popularly elected President was Ong Teng Cheong, a former cabinet minister. He served as President from 1 September 1993 to 31 August 1999.

Discrimination

There are serious elements of discrimination in Singapore against minorities in all walks of life. A government report published in 2013 found Malays felt they were sometimes discriminated against and had limited prospects in some institutions, such as the armed forces.

Malays, who form just over 13 per cent of Singapore’s 3.9 million citizens and permanent residents, also underperform on measures such as university and secondary school education.

The election of a Malay President is by itself unlikely to resolve concerns over under-representation, but analysts and advocates say it could help foster trust among communities.

Singapore’s economic success and education policies have helped swell the ranks of middle-class Malays, but the last census in 2010 showed they lagged other ethnic groups on socio-economic measures such as household incomes and home ownership.

Farid Khan, one of the unsuccessful candidates and the chairman of marine services firm Bourbon Offshore Asia, told Reuters more Malays now hold political office, and some are making their way in the corporate world, but “there is still room for improvement.”

Yet the reserved election has also injured some pride. “It cheapens the credibility of a Malay person that it requires a token election for us to be President,” said Malay comedian and television personality Hirzi Zulkiflie. “Some people intending to run are very capable.” 

Observation

A popular public figure, Ms. Halimah was widely expected to win the presidential election but rejection of other two candidates made the poll fairly easier. West like many anti-Islamic insiders might not like the Muslim woman is elected to presidency in Asia.

Singaporeans are used to predictable elections, with the same party winning every parliamentary poll in the carefully managed country’s 52-year history, last time with a landslide. It’s partly due to loyalty to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), but also because the government tightly controls the media and political freedoms. As the head of state, the president plays a largely ceremonial role and doesn’t hold much power, apart from having say in the use of Singapore’s hefty financial reserves.

Ms Halimah, who is Muslim, is only the second president to come from the Malay ethnic minority. It’s a move that should be celebrated by Singapore, which prides itself on its multiculturalism and diversity. That’s because this election was only open to Malay candidates – the first time the government has reserved an election for a particular race. Otherwise a Muslim cannot t hope to be the elected president, especially in the present era of Islamophobia.

The government, which lauds its careful maintenance of national racial harmony, argued it was necessary to ensure minorities could have a chance at becoming president in Chinese-majority Singapore, which has always had an ethnically Chinese prime minister. But some Malays saw the move as positive discrimination that went against Singapore’s golden rule of meritocracy, which is that the best person gets the job, regardless of background. It also stirred up questions about Malay racial purity, after people realized Ms Halimah was half-Indian, and many have mocked her ethnicity. Singapore’s government has often clamped down on such unhealthy discussions, fearing it would hurt racial harmony.

After getting elected as the first ever female President Ms. Halimah said she is the president of entire Singapore as she is committed to Singapore and Singaporeans. She asked people to forget the differences and instead work on the similarities among them to make the nation achieve greater goals.

Ms. Halimah with a genuinely positive mindset has a long way to go forward to strengthen secular democracy, Singapore too!

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Ready for the Dry Years: Building Resilience to Drought in Southeast Asia

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Authors: Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana and Lim Jock Hoi*

South-East Asia has long endured severe droughts, which occur on average every five years. The prolonged 2015 and 2018 droughts were the worst on record for two decades. They simultaneously affected more than 70 per cent of the land area, with over 325 million people exposed. No ASEAN member States was spared from the devastating impacts including the disruption to livelihoods and food security, as well as forest fires and haze.

The drivers of drought risk in South-East Asia are inherently complex, resulting in considerable year-to-year variations. Drought is heavily influenced by various climatic drivers, mainly the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). Yet, despite this complexity, clear trends point to an intensifying drought risk across the region.

New analysis of observed data and climate projections in the second edition of Ready for the Dry Years: Building Resilience to Drought in Southeast Asia, a joint report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) reveals a statistically significant increase in temperature from 1981-2020, that is expected to continue. This means that drought severity will increase as the climate gets warmer.

This urgency has been enhanced by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has converged with the climate crisis. Both disasters have simultaneously disrupted people’s health, livelihoods and supply chains across the region. These compounding impacts have led to severe economic stress and undermined the ability of the region to deal with current and future disaster risks. It is crucial that we understand how recurrent droughts and the current pandemic are interacting, to identify appropriate policies that can address these crises simultaneously.

ASEAN and ESCAP are working together to prevent the destructive impacts of droughts by promoting a paradigm shift towards more adaptive drought risk management and governance. This cooperation is anchored in a forward-looking, science-based approach to drought risks. The adaptive policy interventions must support the most vulnerable and those furthest behind in the region.

The latest evidence shows that 15 to 25 per cent of the region’s population lives in drought hotspots, with low levels of socio-economic development and high exposure to recurring droughts. Targeted policy interventions in these areas will be essential to prevent the cumulative impacts of recurring droughts, which over time, pose a serious threat to hard-won development gains, particularly the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. These interventions must follow three clear policy tracks to reduce and prevent droughts from occurring; prepare and respond to droughts when they happen; and restore and recover after a drought has passed. Accordingly, they should cover a wide range of policy areas, from the management of food, water and energy systems, to the implementation of early warning systems and drought risk financing.

Governments should capitalize on several opportunities to meet this challenge. Firstly, the cyclical and slow-onset nature of drought provides time for us to take risk-informed actions now, to prevent a drought hazard from becoming a crisis. Secondly, governments can benefit from ASEAN’s extensive experience and expertise through greater regional cooperation, driven by ASEAN’s agenda on drought and the newly adopted ASEAN Declaration on the Strengthening of the Adaptation to Drought. Thirdly, the COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to act now to reduce the impacts of future droughts, by incorporating measures to build resilience into COVID-19 recovery stimulus packages.

The latest developments in science and technology will underpin the successful scale up of drought management interventions. ASEAN member States must take concrete steps now to strengthen national and regional drought monitoring and improve our understanding of the causes of drought. It is now more vital than ever for the region to build resilience to drought. By working together, we can mitigate the impact of future droughts and ensure that the entire ASEAN Community will be ready for the dry years ahead.

On this note, strong partnerships between the United Nations, ASEAN and national governments and other stakeholders are essential to deal with the increasingly complex and uncertain extreme weather and climate situations along with the impacts of transnational slow-onset disaster risks. ASEAN and the United Nations has enjoyed fruitful cooperation through implementation of the Comprehensive Partnership and the Plan of Action. This joint ASEAN-ESCAP work has reflected our cooperation and partnership for the benefit of our peoples.

*Lim Jock Hoi, Secretary-General of ASEAN

UN ESCAP

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Cambodia’s Hun Sen, Asia’s longest-serving PM, continues to quell the Opposition

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Image source: Wikipedia

For the past 35 years, the former French colony of Cambodia is ruled by the 68-year-old Prime Minister Hun Sen, Asia’s longest serving head of the government. His policies are regarded as autocratic, aimed at forcibly limiting the scope for the Opposition to rise politically and come to the forefront of democratic activism.

The latest in line of such policies is the politically-motivated mass trials of more than a hundred members and supporters of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

The 2012-founded CNRP’s unexpected success in the polls of 2013 and 2017 was seen by Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party with trepidation. The democratic opposition party’s performance came amid sustained pressures of intimidation and electoral malpractice.

The CNRP was the only opposition represented in the country’s National Assembly or lower house of the parliament, with 55 out of 123 seats, until November 2017 when the pro-Sen Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the party, ending its five years of existence.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights referred to this arbitrary move as the final nail in the coffin for Cambodian democracy. Also, CNRP’s leader Kem Sokha was arrested on fake charges of treason, accusing him of conspiring with the US to overthrow the prime minister and his government, a claim which Washington has categorically rejected.

Strikingly, these moves came ahead of the 2018 election. In the absence of an effective Opposition, Hun Sen’s CPP unsurprisingly won 100% of parliamentary seats in the last elections held in July 2018.

Meanwhile, Sen’s biggest political rival during his three-and-a-half decade rule, Sam Rainsy, has been living in exile in Paris for the past fifteen years. Last year, he was planning to return to Cambodia along with other senior opposition figures via Thailand, but was denied boarding on the Thai flight due to Cambodian threats to the airlines.

However, to Sen and the CPP’s dismay, in January 2020, some former members of the CNRP and other democratic activists announced the formation of a new party named the Cambodian Nation Love Party (CNLP) to continue the CNRP’s legacy and participate in future elections.

The Cambodian people’s undying quest for democratic reforms was exemplified with the formation of a new democratic party. Sen’s previous attempt to prevent the erstwhile CNRP from reconstituting itself under another name, by banning more than 100 of its leading members from politics for a period of five years thus failed to reap sustainable gains.

As the suppression of democratic expression continues for a long time now, relations with the West have deteriorated in the past few years, pushing the ASEAN country further into Beijing’s orbit. The US is also watching the trial closely. Meanwhile, the European Union, a key export destination for Cambodia, has withdrawn special trade privileges given earlier.

Now, the recent summoning of 140 ex-CNRP members and supporters, for charges of conspiracy and attempting to overthrow the government, is the latest political drama in the long set of desperate moves from Hun Sen to cling on to power.

Among those who showed up in court include former opposition senator Thach Setha and Cambodian-American human rights lawyer, Theary Seng. But, there are many who fled into exile believing that they would not be given a fair trial.

Cambodia, bearing the painful memory of a genocide that happened under Pol Pot’s notorious Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s killing 2 million people, saw the country slipping into the hands of another would-be autocratic leader, Hun Sen, in 1985.

The interventions by the United Nations and other human rights-oriented organisations appear to be failing in the Southeast Asian nation as long-established democratic processes drift away and elections are held for namesake, adding up to the political drama. With Sen unwilling to forfeit power, the future prospects for Cambodia seem to be a dreary continuation of the past.

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The 2020 Myanmar Election and China: Push and Pull factor in ‘Paukphaw’ friendship

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National Democratic League (NLD), the ruling party of Myanmar under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had a landslide victory in the election, which led the party to continue in power for another five years. While Myanmar still struggling with the civil war crisis and without any solution-oriented approach the crisis in Rohingya is nowhere near to end since the breakout of the severe crisis in 2017.

The pre-election and post-election international media coverage and scholarly discussion on Myanmar bring back the China factor in the Myanmar election and general China’s undeniable ties with Myanmar. It’s been argued that a vote for Aung San Suu Kyi would mean the continuation of the unprecedented expansion of China in the country and a vote for multi-ethnic parties would mean resistance to China-backed infrastructure and other projects.

While the backlashes against China among multi-ethnic parties and towards China-led infrastructure projects are omnipresent in Myanmar, however, China has not loosed its heart to engage in the Myanmar peace process. It is also to be noted that China does not only have good relation with NLD but it also keeps its relationship with the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). It also frequently engages itself in discussion with ethnic groups. What China likes to call itself is a “neutral player”. Thus, the election results would not have a significant impact on the China-Myanmar relationship.  

The irk of Western countries towards Myanmar, who initially supported Myanmar’s democratic transition only intensified with the 2020 election as the Myanmar election commission only allowed election in 8 townships in Rohingya state, and denied election in 9 other townships. A joint statement was issued under the leadership of the UK and the US regarding the inclusion of left out Rohingyas into the election along with urging Myanmar to be more serious regarding the global ceasefire and confidence-building steps that include lifting restrictions on access to health, education, and basic services, lifting restrictions on freedom of movement. China’s as under the principle of non-interference abstained from commenting on the exclusion of nine districts in Rohingya state from the election. Chinese government since 2017 has blocked draft resolutions at UNSC regarding international intervention in the crisis in Myanmar. China, however bilaterally posited itself as a mediator between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the repatriation of Rohingyas. A role, China now often seems to play in conflict-ridden countries, for example in the Afghan peace process China plays a similar mediator role.  

Myanmar’s foreign policy after 2015 and China

After the first democratic election in Myanmar in 2015, and NLD’s new manifesto was focused on upholding ‘an active and independent foreign policy’. Under the AngSyu Ki leadership, the foreign policy of Myanmar was considered to be hedging towards a neutralist foreign policy to work together for the benefit of the region on issues relating to regional organizations and programs. Another important pledge in Myanmar’s 2015 foreign policy manifesto was to “to identify and cooperate with other countries on joint economic enterprises of mutual benefit. In particular, to work together for the benefit of the region on issues relating to regional organizations and programs.” Which, as mentioned by Moe Thuzar of Singapore’s ISEAS-YusofIshak Institute is missing in the 2020 Manifesto. The reason for missing the important article from the 2020 manifesto could be Myanmar’s subtle attempt to balance China’s unprecedented presence in the region. As, it also aligns with some of the recent activities of other international actors in Myanmar. Such as high-level delegation visits by India, in October 2020, Myanmar’s growing interest in business engagement with Hong Kong, and eagerness to expand its economic co-operation with other Asian countries such as South Korea and Singapore. All this renewed interest within a span of two months from September to October 2020, before the election in Myanmar also could be an attempt to recover the focus in Myanmar’s democratic transition as opposed to growing clout over claiming Myanmar as an authoritarian regime, especially after 2017.

In terms of Myanmar’s policy towards China, Myanmar could not be seen as prey to China’s economic interest. As, even though the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor is kicking off, Myanmar is still apprehensive regarding embracing all of the Chinese lead projects. According to Irrawaddy times, from China’s originally proposed 40 projects, only nine projects were tentatively agreed to implement from both sides under China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC).

AyungSyu Ki’s diplomatic shrewdness is evident in Myanmar’s China policy. The country despite using China as a shield to defend itself from international intervention, China has not completely able to unlock all economic leverages. China’s patience with Myanmar also relates to the fact of ensuring security in its border province. 

Yang Jiechi, the head of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party’s short September visit to Myanmar was an indication that China does not take Myanmar for granted to materialize the economic projects, it has started in the country under the banner of BRI, Especially after the 2017 launch of China Myanmar Economic Corridor. Before NLD came into power in 2015, the anti-Chinese sentiments in Myanmar were more prominent, as it has led to President Thein Sein to halt the Myitsone Dam in 2011. Scholars have argued that Myanmar’s skepticism over Chinese led projects between 2011-2012 could be seen as a reaction to its proximity with the West, as Western sanctions were slowly lifted for a brief period (Ganesan, 2017). Thus, as the Western sanctions grew after 2017, Myanmar hedged towards China. Even though, Myanmar is always dubious about China’s economic diplomacy in Myanmar.

However, Myanmar does return the favor to China diplomatically by recognizing the ‘one-China principle’. Myanmar’s President U Win Myint during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in January 2020, states Myanmar’s firm adherence to the One China principle, respects the “one country, two systems” policy China has implemented in Hong Kong and Macao and has always recognized Taiwan as an inalienable part of China’s territory. 

Myanmar is also one of the 53 countries that supported the Hong Kong National Security Law.

China’s multifaceted engagement in Myanmar

The question arises can Myanmar altogether keep China aside, especially from its peace process? As China’s border is at the stake, China is pretty much invested in Myanmar’s peace process. In the third Union Peace Conference, China played important role in pressurizing ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) to attend the peace conference. For China’s interest, the member of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FNPCC) includes the Northern Alliance EAOs, which are known for attacking commercial interests in northern Shan State and Kachin state that shares a border with China. China-funded the EAOs to attend the conference, which was the first time all the ethnic groups attended it with Chinese aid and diplomacy. Thus, Myanmar can’t shun Chinese help when it comes to the peace process. As of August 2020, the fourth Union peace conference marked the absence of many of the ethnic groups as due to COVID and other factors China was not seen pushing much for their inclusion. Yun Sun noted that the reason could be the absence of any specific request of the Myanmar government to China regarding the same. 

Apart from, engagement with the peace process and supporting Myanmar at the international front regarding the Rohingya crisis, and mediating between Bangladesh and Myanmar, China seem to have a resilient network approach towards Myanmar. This has led China to engage different actors in its diplomacy towards Myanmar. Chinese government NGOs (GONGO)’s such as the China International Poverty Alleviation Foundation (CIPAF), Blue Sky are becoming more present in Myanmar. These GONGO’s are not only providing humanitarian aid but also organizing skill development programs for locals. The Chinese government also sometimes organizes training programs for Myanmar’s diplomats and officials and businessman. Hence, China is more engaging at the grassroots level, a diplomatic style China has adopted from its experience of engagement in unstable states in Africa. 

Thus, as for now, it is both a win-win game for China and Myanmar, as both seem to seek leverages from each other. However, it would interesting to see if more international actors, especially the US lifts the ban on Myanmar and get engage with the country how Myanmar would design its policies towards China. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

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WEF Announces Global Technology Governance Summit and Flagship Report

The World Economic Forum today published its flagship Global Technology Governance Report in advance of its upcoming Global Technology Governance...

New Social Compact3 hours ago

Pandemic Threatens to Push 72 Million More Children into Learning Poverty

COVID-related school closures risk pushing an additional 72 million primary school aged children into learning poverty—meaning that they are unable...

Africa Today5 hours ago

Central African Republic: Diversifying the economy to build resilience and foster growth

According to the latest economic update for the Central African Republic (CAR), which was published today by the World Bank,...

Human Rights7 hours ago

World must not accept slavery in 21st century

Commemorating the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, the United Nations Secretary-General highlighted the impact of the contemporary forms...

Energy News9 hours ago

Covid crisis deepens energy efficiency slowdown, intensifying need for urgent action

The already sluggish pace of global progress on energy efficiency is set to slow further this year as a result...

Environment11 hours ago

In Latin America, farmers use microfinance to fight climate change

Sonia Gómez has spent her entire life around agriculture. She grew up on her parents’ plantation in the fertile mountains...

Reports13 hours ago

COVID-19 could see over 200 million more pushed into extreme poverty

An additional 207 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty by 2030, due to the severe longterm impact of the...

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