Monday, January 14, 2019

Kerry B. Collison Asia News: Why The EU Is Not A Major Security Player In South...

Kerry B. Collison Asia News: Why The EU Is Not A Major Security Player In South...:   Over the last few years, China’s territorial revisionism in the South China Sea (SCS) has created the outstanding security problem ...

Why The EU Is Not A Major Security Player In Southeast Asia


Over the last few years, China’s territorial revisionism in the South China Sea (SCS) has created the outstanding security problem in Southeast Asia. Unlike its American ally, which seeks to counter China, the European Union (EU) defines its tie with China as one of complementarity, rather than rivalry. In fact, “countering China” — a “buzz phrase” of US defense and foreign policy — is not used by the EU to describe its strategy on Asia or China. And, divided on its stance on the SCS, the EU is not a significant security player in Southeast Asia.

The EU views China as a global player. Brussels is aware that “China may use its economic and financial prowess to pursue its unilateral political and security interests.” But the unparalleled mix of the EU’s wish to have a complementary relationship with China, the priority it gives to trade, as well as the divisions within the Union that interrupt its common foreign policy, explain why it contributes little to Southeast Asian security.

Many Southeast Asian countries have welcomed large Chinese investments in their infrastructure mainly because no other country has offered them as much as China. But they are challenged by neighboring China’s growing military and economic clout and its occupation and militarization of reefs and islands in the SCS. China’s activities in the SCS threaten their sovereignty as well as maritime freedom and security in its international waters.

The Strength of the EU

The EU has the world’s second-largest economy. Three of its member-states are among the world’s top ten defense spenders. Collectively the EU spends €200 billion on defense. Such facts suggest that the EU could help preserve the balance of power in Southeast Asia. But it does not appear to do that, and the question is why.

Several factors explain the EU’s strategy — or the absence of a “hard power” strategy — in the SCS and, more generally, in Southeast Asia. Since the creation of the EU-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2003, the EU and China have become highly interdependent. The EU sees them sharing responsibility for ensuring that their economies remain key drivers for global economic growth and prosperity for all. As important actors in a multipolar world, the EU and China plan to enhance dialogue and coordination at bilateral, regional and global levels, to meet regional and global challenges.

The EU’s Global Strategy (2016) makes clear that strengthening of trade and investment ties and increasing connectivity with China are intertwined. Enhanced connectivity with China is important for “future trade development.” China is singled out as “a key partner with the EU” wishing to deepen trade and investment relations. The EU wants to ensure that Chinese and EU initiatives work together, despite differences in approach and implementation: “Connectivity is not possible if systems and networks are not interoperable.”

What is noticeable is the inconsistency in the EU’s usage of “Asia.” The EU’s Global Strategy of 2016 referred to the “Indo-Pacific” several months before the Trump administration redefined America’s concept of Asia with that label. Then, under the heading “Asia”, the current European External Action Service (EEAS) website refers to China, India, Japan and ASEAN. Meanwhile, in the document on the EU and ASEAN, there is a sub-heading, “Enhance the ASEAN-EU cooperation in the ASEAN-led security architecture.” Under that, the EU reiterates its support for ASEAN centrality “in the evolving regional architecture in East Asia.” (The EEAS places Central Asia under the region labelled “Europe and Central Asia.”)

At another level, Asia is not EU’s biggest strategic priority. At the top of the EU’s strategic agenda are the areas comprising its strategic hinterland. They include Russia, the Mediterranean. North Africa and the Middle East.

Nevertheless, 40 percent of the EU’s trade passes through the SCS, which is therefore of vital importance to EU countries. And much of Europe’s trade goes through the Indian and Pacific Oceans. More than 35 percent of all European exports go to Asia, and four of its top 10 trading partners are China, Japan, South Korea and India.

Since maritime security is vital to safeguard the EU trading interests, it can be asked why the EU, which claims that it is the world’s second largest economy, with GDP worth €15.3 trillion, is not actively engaged in securing the SCS.

One explanation could be that the EU underlines the importance of preventive diplomacy in non-traditional security areas, such as maritime security, conflict prevention, mediation and reconciliation, crisis management, transnational crime, counter-terrorism, cyber security, and non-proliferation. How the EU’s “preventive diplomacy in non-traditional security areas”could help enhance security in the SCS after China has gained control over most of the Sea is a tough question.

A Divided EU

China’s claim to much of the SCS has highlighted the salience of “hard power” in Southeast Asia. A reason why the EU does not offer much hard power to most Asian countries is that it lacks a common defense policy — even for Europe. It was only as recently as December 14, 2018 that 25 EU countries signed a defense pact to fund, develop, and deploy armed forces together.

The wider problem, according to Frederica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, is that the EU needs a strategy based on a shared vision and unity of purpose between the EU’s member-states, and unity in action across the EU’s policies.

Divided the EU stands in Asia. The unprecedented tangle of arms sales, historical strategic interests, the South China Sea and trade reveal why.

First, the EU’s 28 member-states pursue their own bilateral Asia policies. Europe’s engagement with Asia is mostly the sum of the different activities of individual EU countries.

Secondly, six EU countries are among the world’s top ten arms exporters. But they are not the pre-eminent arms suppliers to Asian countries. Germany exports arms to South Korea — its biggest customer, and the UK and the Netherlands to Indonesia. But Indonesia is not the largest vendee of British or Dutch weapons. Nor are China and India the main buyers of French materiel. All told, these arms-exporting EU countries cannot contribute much, singly or collectively, to the maintenance of the balance of power in Asia.

Thirdly, of the EU countries, France and Britain have a historical security interest and presence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Since 2014, the French navy has regularly patrolled the South China Sea and will continue to step up operations in the area. Advertising Global Britain and its future outside the EU, the United Kingdom is primarily focused on forging new trade relationships. But it also aims to bolster its diplomatic and maritime presence in Southeast Asia. In September 2018, a British warship sailed past the Paracel Islands. The islands are controlled by China, whose claim to them is contested by Vietnam and Taiwan. China sharply riposted that Britain should refrain from being “Washington’s sharksucker.”

In the long run, any Anglo-French naval cooperation in the SCS will be bilateral — if only because other EU countries do not share their strategic interest in the Asia-Pacific.

Fourthly, the EU’s stance on the South China Sea also reflects the divisions between its member-states. The EU wants to uphold the Law of the Sea and encourage the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes. However, the vagueness of the EU’s stance on the SCS was obvious in July 2016, when a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled against China in its dispute with the Philippines over a part of the Sea. The EU responded that it was “committed to maintaining a legal order of the seas and oceans.” This bland statement pleased China. “Almost the whole of Europe takes a neutral position”, commented an editorial in the state-steered Global Times.

However, three EU member-states — Hungary, Greece, and Croatia — were not neutral and highlighted a divided EU foreign policy. Hungary, Greece and Croatia, who have welcomed Chinese investment, opposed condemnation of China. A day after the EU statement, Hungary published its own statement echoing China’s position that countries should settle disputes “through direct negotiations.”

Fifthly, the EU’s security priorities in Asia are domestic security, civil strife and economic development. But the main security problem for Southeast Asian countries is their international relations with China. More generally, the EU’s priority is trade. What impression its anodyne statements about regional security make on Southeast Asian countries — all economically and militarily weaker than China — merit debate.

Even when it comes to its top priority of trade, the EU is not the principal partner of Southeast Asian countries. At the regional level, the EU’s trade with ASEAN is less than China’s. In 2017 two-way ASEAN-EU trade reached USD 257.4 billion. China’s trade with ASEAN in 2017 totalled USD 514.8 billion. China’s strong trading ties with ASEAN also sharpen its edge over the EU.

On the bilateral plane, four ASEAN countries suffice to confirm that the EU is far from being their main trading partner. Sixty-five percent of the imports of Singapore, a free trade partner of the EU, come from Asia, and only 18 percent from Europe. Seventy-five percent of Singapore’s exports go to Asian countries, 10 percent to Europe.

Similar trends are visible in the EU’s trade ties with other Southeast Asian countries. For instance, Cambodia, with which the EU has been embroiled in a fracas about human rights, gets 93 percent of its imports from Asia, 4.7 percent from Europe. Fifty-seven percent of Cambodia’s exports are sent to the Americas and Asia, 41 percent to Europe.

Asia is the destination of 84 percent of the exports of Myanmar — another ASEAN country condemned by the EU for its human rights record. Eleven percent are sent to Europe. Eighty-eight percent of its imports come from Asia, 5.7 percent from Europe.

Located at the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Indonesia sees itself as a Global Maritime Fulcrum. Asian countries receive 70 percent of its exports, Europe 12 percent. Seventy-two percent of Indonesia’s imports come from Asia, 10 percent from Europe.

China’s economic and military influence is growing in Asia — and beyond. A prosperous but disunited EU has yet to agree on foreign policy and to frame a common defense strategy. And, giving priority to complementarity and trade with China, the EU will not play a prominent security role in Southeast Asia in the foreseeable future.

This article was published at IPP Review.


Anita Inder Singh

Anita Inder Singh, a Swedish citizen, is Visiting Professor at the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi. Her books include Democracy, Ethnic Diversity and Security in Post-Communist Europe (Praeger, USA, 2001) ; her Oxford doctoral thesis, The Origins of the Partition of India, 1936-1947 (Oxford University Press [OUP], several editions since 1987, published in a special omnibus comprising the four classic works on the Partition by OUP (2002, paperback: 2004) The Limits of British Influence: South Asia and the Anglo-American Relationship 1947-56 (Macmillan, London, and St Martin’s Press, New York, 1993), and The United States, South Asia and the Global Anti-Terrorist Coalition (2006). Her articles have been published in The World Today, (many on nationalism, security and democracy were published in this magazine) International Affairs, (both Chatham House, London) the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Asian Wall Street Journal,   the Nikkei Asian Review and The Diplomat.


Saturday, January 12, 2019

Kerry B. Collison Asia News: New British Military Base In Southeast Asia Could ...

Kerry B. Collison Asia News: New British Military Base In Southeast Asia Could ...:   UK Defense Minister Gavin Williamson haS been widely quoted as declaring that the U.K. will establish a permanent naval base in Sou...

New British Military Base In Southeast Asia Could Have Unintended Consequences


UK Defense Minister Gavin Williamson haS been widely quoted as declaring that the U.K. will establish a permanent naval base in Southeast Asia – perhaps in Singapore or Brunei.  This would be the first new British military base in the region since the withdrawal of most of its military forces more than half a century ago. Such a move would have unintended consequences for the region—and for Britain itself—many of them negative.

The idea has been stimulated in part by Brexit – the imminent across the board withdrawal of the U.K. from the European Union. The possible effects of Brexit on Britain’s future are an increasingly divisive issue for U.K. citizens.  Many despair. Some members of Prime Minister Theresa May’s government want to use the separation to launch Britain on a path to a successful and independent future.   It is clear that at least initially, the U.K. will be weakened.  They reckon that to “survive and thrive” after the traumatic separation, the nation must boost its economic relations with Asia. To ensure the latter it must be able to protect the sea lanes and its investments there.  Because it cannot do this alone, it must enhance its military relations with the U.S.  The U.S. needs help in its quest to constrain China’s behavior in the South China Sea. So the move could be a quid pro quo. Perhaps as a harbinger of this calculus, then British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the Royal Navy would be sending HMS Queen Elizabeth and its under-construction sister ship HMS Prince of Wales, into the South China Sea in 2020. 

That is an explanation of the initiative from the British perspective.

 But China would likely see it in a negative light.    Indeed it would likely be perceived as a declaration by one of its former colonial masters to become part of the current US strategic cabal to confront, constrain and contain it. The U.S. has officially made clear that it considers China a potential enemy and China must presume that it is constructing and planning for worst case scenarios — including war– and actively integrating its allies into its strategy.  Indeed, China also sees the new US Indo-Pacific Strategy and the revival of the Quad—a potential loose security coordination mechanism between India, Japan, Australia and the U.S.—as further evidence of this Western response to its rise.   The dialectic is simple and stark. America wants to remain the leading strategic power in Asia and China wants to replace it.

China would also likely see the move as compounding a strategic existential threat.  China has built a new submarine base at Yulin on Hainan in the South China Sea for its nuclear powered, nuclear armed submarines. These are its deterrent to a first nuclear strike against it. To be effective, they need to hide in the South China Sea. The presence of a major British naval and air base and concomitant British patrols and intelligence probes –in addition to those of the U.S.—could inhibit their ability to hide, thus diminishing its deterrent and exposing China to defeat in a nuclear exchange. Already, much to China’s angst and chagrin, a British warship has challenged China’s claimed baselines around the Paracel Islands.

To China it must seem that just as it is regaining its dignity from a ‘century of humiliation’, it is now faced with a possible 21st century high tech repeat of history. Indeed, these developments may be seen by China as evidence of a grand coalition of Western civilization plotting against it –an Armaggedon–like clash of civilizations as predicted by Huntington. If so, it will oppose this gambit with all it can muster. This is the strategic context that Britain needs to consider in proceeding with building a new military base in Southeast Asia.

An initial concern for Britain should be ‘is it worth it’ economically and politically? The answer is that in its lonely and difficult transitional period, probably not. But if the U.S. considers a British base as part of its grand strategy vis a vis China then perhaps it will support its construction both economically and politically. After all, as an ally the U.S. would presumably have access to the base for its own assets as well.

Perhaps  a more important consideration for Britain is how would such a move be viewed politically in its former colonial sphere of influence?   Singapore already hosts a British naval repair facility and Brunei hosts a battalion of British soldiers—some 500-800 strong. Moreover Britain is a member of the Five Powers Defense Arrangements that includes Commonwealth members Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand and which undertakes military exercises in the region. But a new base would be different in kind, scale and geopolitical significance.

Moreover, it is not only China that would likely view such a development as a resurgence of neocolonialism—both ideationally and strategically. It would likely be opposed by nationalists in both the host and the region. At the least it would raise strong suspicions among neighbors as to the host’s long term intentions towards both themselves and China.  More specifically, the base and the host would immediately become a target for China in a conflict and the host would have difficult political and economic relations with China for the foreseeable future.

Singapore might calculate that it is worth it to host a British base because having it is a form of insurance against bullying by Malaysia and Indonesia as well as a hedge in case the U.S. – which has ‘rotational’ military privileges there– pulls back from the region. But Singapore would then have to live with the long-term consequences as China’s power and influence grow in the region- – and beyond.  As for Brunei, it is difficult to imagine a strict Islamic society welcoming a large contingent of foreign military troops. To do so could eventually undermine the very legitimacy of the Sultan and his government.

The added stress on ASEAN could be fatal.  It is already riven by pro-China and pro-U.S. factions and increasing pressure to choose between the two powers. A new base in the region for a US ally could be the strategic straw that breaks the back of ASEAN unity. It would also accelerate the arms race in the region as China expands outward and the U.S.—aided by its allies—including Britain –  rushes to upgrade their friends and allies’ military capabilities.

In sum a new British base in Southeast Asia could have significant negative unintended consequences for all concerned except perhaps for the U.S.

A version of this piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post.

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China


Friday, January 11, 2019

Kerry B. Collison Asia News: Myanmar’s Peace Process on Life Support

Kerry B. Collison Asia News: Myanmar’s Peace Process on Life Support:   When Aung San Suu Kyi was propelled to high office via a landslide election victory in November 2015, she vowed to make ending Myan...

Myanmar’s Peace Process on Life Support


When Aung San Suu Kyi was propelled to high office via a landslide election victory in November 2015, she vowed to make ending Myanmar’s decades-old internal strife a top priority of her government. Yet three years on, the initial outpouring of hope and optimism around the world after the ascent to power of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has been replaced with rising condemnation of the brutal Rohingya crackdown and alleged army abuses in the northern states of Kachin and Shan.

While the quasi-civilian administration led by Suu Kyi has failed to condemn the actions of Myanmar’s still-dominant armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, the former global human rights icon has pushed forward with a government peace initiative designed to end a myriad of long-running ethnic conflicts which have blighted the country’s remote borderlands for seventy years. And though talks first began under the former military regime, Suu Kyi attended the latest rounds of dialogue held in July and October 2018.

Yet despite repeated sets of negotiations, the peace process has stalled amid escalating violence on the ground. Suu Kyi’s strategy is centred on persuading more rebel groups to join the existing Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), originally signed by eight groups the month before her election in 2015. A further two signed in February, yet the country’s most powerful militias are refusing to join the accord while talks remain deadlocked over key security matters and the central issue of devolving political powers.

Can Aung San Suu Kyi break the impasse in Myanmar’s fractured peace process? Or will the continued dominance of the military and mistrust of the army among ethnic leaders stand in the way of peace?

Myanmar’s decades-old internal ethnic conflicts

Myanmar’s raging civil conflicts date back to before the country’s independence from Britain in 1948.  Prior to independence, in February 1947 ethnic leaders from Chin, Kachin and Shan states signed the Panglong Agreement with Myanmar’s leader at the time, General Aung San – Suu Kyi’s father. The deal promised autonomy and self-determination for ethnic groups after the creation of Burma. Aung San was assassinated by political opponents later that year and his commitment was not honored by the nation’s post-independence rulers, sparking the formation of ethnic armies set on securing autonomy.

Insurgencies have persisted for much of the past seven decades in the states of Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayin and Mon. Various armed insurgent groups have fought government troops, driven by core grievances centered on the political control of territory, rights for ethnic minorities and access to natural resource revenues. Most fighting has occurred in isolated and inaccessible border areas far from the center of state power in Naypyidaw. The uprisings have proven resistant to resolution, having persisted through the 26-year dictatorship of Ne Win and successive military regimes which followed. Previous ceasefires have been negotiated with individual armed groups, yet all have been broken and peace has rarely held for long. The most enduring was in Kachin state, where a 1994 ceasefire quelled fighting with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) for 17 years until hostilities resumed six years ago.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s attempt to reboot the peace process

The government’s approach to conflict resolution widened in 2011 when reformist military ruler Thein Sein initiated a national-level peace dialogue for the first time under army rule. Negotiations led to a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signed in October 2015, just a month before Suu Kyi’s historic election win. Yet only eight of 15 groups involved in discussions put pen to paper. Some of Myanmar’s largest and most influential insurgent groups – including the 10,000-strong KIA and the 25,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) – refused to sign the deal due to the Tatmadaw’s exclusion of smaller allied rebel organizations, such as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), from the peace process.

A month later, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD swept to power having secured a high proportion of the ethnic minority vote. Despite being barred from the presidency by a constitutional clause, Suu Kyi, with the title of State Counsellor and as the nation’s de-facto ruler, vowed to pursue a lasting peace settlement.

Under the weight of high expectations, Suu Kyi has since sought to foster continual dialogue, reviving the spirit of her father’s peace drive of the 1940s via the holding a series of 21st Century Panglong Peace Conferences. Yet the military – which retains decision-making control over internal security matters and for which one-third of parliamentary seats are reserved – has maintained its central role in the talks, which are designed to build upon the 2015 NCA deal. Despite two more insurgent groups signing up in February, progress has been slower than hoped and delays have occurred. Suu Kyi planned to hold Panglong conferences every six months, yet to-date only three have taken place since she took power. Loose agreements have been reached on principles covering politics, economics, the environment, and social issues, but the agenda has been vague and core drivers of the conflict have yet to be discussed.

A stalling peace process amid escalating violence on the ground

The three rounds of talks hosted by Suu Kyi so far, in August 2016, May 2017 and July 2018, have been held against a backdrop of rising violence on the ground and unchecked abuses by the Tatmadaw. In Rakhine state, the army has responded to attacks on border posts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants by launching a wide-ranging crackdown on Rohingya villages. The UN and a multitude of human rights organizations have accused troops of burning villages, raping women and deliberately killing civilians. Some have even gone so far as to label the military’s campaign as ‘genocide’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’, while Suu Kyi has faced strong criticism from Western leaders for her failure to speak out. Suu Kyi insists the army have only targeted ‘terrorists’ in clearing operations. Over 700,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh since violence erupted in 2017.

Meanwhile in 2018, fighting has intensified in the northeastern states of Kachin and Shan, along the border with China. In Kachin, clashes between the government and ethnic rebels have centered on the townships of Hpakant, Injangyang, Sumprabum, Tanaing and Waingmaw, while in excess of 100,000 people have been displaced in the state since 2011. Human rights groups have accused the Tatmadaw of adopting heavy-handed tactics and employing a ‘scorched earth’ policy in conflict-affected regions.

A UN report in March documented ‘credible reports of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence’ at the hands of the army in Kachin. Human Rights Watch has warned of a ‘dire humanitarian situation’ in the state. The Tatmadaw denies all allegations of abuses, and maintains it only targets armed insurgents.

Why is the peace process failing, and can it be revived?

Amid rising violence, the third round of the Panglong initiative in July made little meaningful progress. A group of four powerful non-signatory rebel groups from the north, including the KIA and TNLA, met with Suu Kyi on the sidelines of the summit, yet there is still little sign they are willing to join the NCA. The peace process, in its current form, appears to be stalling: talks have reached an impasse with NCA signatories, while the non-participation of other groups is blocking the path to a nationwide peace.

It will be hard for Suu Kyi to revive the fortunes of the faltering peace process in the current climate. Rebel demands for genuine autonomy and self-determination appear unlikely to be met, despite the government’s stated desire to turn Myanmar into a federal union. With the Tatmadaw still dominant and primarily concerned with preserving the territorial integrity of the state, any attempt by the NLD to cede too much ground to ethnic rebels would not go down well with the generals, and would risk the removal of Suu Kyi from power. Military leaders effectively hold a veto over all decisions made by democratically-elected politicians. The rhetoric of the generals suggests the rebels’ demands will not be met in full. Despite Tatmadaw chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing calling for a ‘brotherly spirit’ to drive the peace process forward, he has also warned against giving too much away to ethnic minorities or local political parties. In July, Hlaing said ‘armed ethnic groups in some regions cannot represent the entire national people of 52 million, and political parties only represent a particular walk of life’. In contrast, he said ‘the people’s Tatmadaw, born of ethnic people, is an organization representing the state and the people’. In this context, Suu Kyi’s vision for a federal union with devolved powers is restricted. The army sees itself as the unifying force in Myanmar, and is averse to giving up control over defense and security matters. It is hard to imagine the Tatmadaw agreeing to withdraw its troops from ethnic areas.

A second barrier to peace is the long-standing lack of trust between the communities represented by insurgent groups and the Tatmadaw. A history of alleged army abuses in the form of disappearances, extrajudicial killings, sexual abuse and the use of slave labor will be hard to forget for deeply scarred populations, even in the event of a peace deal. Seven decades of conflict has fermented anger on both sides, with each viewing the other as the enemy. This factor serves to make the peace process fragile, and may rear its head if or when more contentious issues are discussed at a later stage of negotiations.

Future forecast: looking beyond Myanmar’s current political climate

Withstanding international criticism over her handling of the Rohingya situation, away from the global media spotlight Aung San Suu Kyi has made considerable efforts to resolve conflicts outside Rakhine state, making internal peace-making elsewhere a political priority. Yet it appears on the battlefield, the army has different ideas, and things have continued much the same as before. In fact, violence on several fronts has worsened since the NLD’s victory, mainly due to conflict dynamics at the local level.

While Suu Kyi’s personal view on the Rohingya is shrouded in mystery, it is clear that her government is not able to act independently of the Tatmadaw, which still maintains a stranglehold over Myanmar’s politics and security. To what extent Suu Kyi is willingly allowing the army’s abuses to go unchecked, or not opting to speak out for fear of losing power, is unclear. In the domestic political context, it may suit Suu Kyi to remain silent, as many in the Bamar ethnic majority support the crackdown in Rakhine.

Yet in other areas where conflicts are raging, the story is different. Suu Kyi rode to power in 2015 with widespread support from ethnic minority voters, hopeful the NLD-led government would be able to reduce violence in their communities. If the stalling peace process cannot be revived, Suu Kyi risks losing a proportion of this vote at the ballot box in 2020, risking the military once again firming up its grip on power. These complex electoral dynamics and the increasingly volatile events of recent years demonstrate how the situation in Myanmar is far more nuanced than outside interpretations suggest.

Even beyond the present political era of quasi-civilian part-democratic governance, Myanmar’s ethnic insurgencies will remain highly resistant to resolution. Rather than vague ceasefires and half-hearted peace initiatives, it will take generational shifts and years of trust-building to lend dialogue a chance.

This article was published by Geopolitical