It is not a common occurrence to have a Turkish Foreign Minister on official business in Naypyitaw, Myanmar’s capital. In fact, before this week’s visit by Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, it had happened only twice, first in 2012, when the then Foreign Minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoğlu, came to inaugurate the Turkish Embassy, and then in 2013, when Davutoğlu was back, this time with a delegation from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
At the level of the president or the prime minister, there have been no visits so far, in either direction.
Diplomatic traffic might be rather slow, but Turkey’s interest in Myanmar has been expanding fast, with a particular focus on the issue of the Rohingya, the Muslim minority living in the Rakhine State (also known as Arakan) of Myanmar.
The Rohingya are often said to be the most persecuted minority group in the world, they have been subjected to discrimination and oppression, and since 1982 they are not even officially citizens of Myanmar.
Since Myanmar’s democratic transition began in 2011, violence between the country’s Buddhist and Muslim communities escalated, and the 2012 Rakhine State riots led to several deaths and mass displacement among Muslim minorities.
Having opened its embassy in Myanmar in March the same year, Turkey adopted an active stance towards the Rohingya’s plight, taking the issue to the United Nations (UN), and leading the formation of the Rohingya Contact Group under the OIC.
In the meantime, Turkish aid organizations, such as the Turkish Red Crescent, Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, and the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority got actively involved in Myanmar for the support of the Rohingya.
Over the four years since 2012, the monetary value of the humanitarian aid, health and education support through these organizations from Turkey to Myanmar totaled $13 million. Not a huge sum, perhaps, but a clear indication of Turkey’s involvement in the issue.
From a political perspective, Turkey’s aims are two-fold. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan takes every opportunity to assert that Turkey “has become a hope for the oppressed” and is “extending a helping hand to those in need.”
Actively supporting a Muslim community, which is not only under oppression but also deeply impoverished, perfectly fits into this view, and it is also highly appreciated by the Turkish people and the electorate.
The image of a strong Turkey reaching out to Muslims in need anywhere in the world is a key pillar of the Turkish government’s foreign policy paradigm, and since the currently chaotic, violent and fragmented environment of the Middle East and Turkey’s place in it do little to nurture this view, linking in with the Muslims in faraway places such as Myanmar is now even more important for policy makers in Ankara.
According to data released by the Global Humanitarian Assistance Initiative, Myanmar is the seventh largest recipient of Turkey’s humanitarian assistance, after Syria, Somalia, West Bank and Gaza Strip, Iraq, Jordan, and Pakistan.
Second, Turkey wants to engage more efficiently with East Asia, and while stronger relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is deemed a stepping stone in this respect, Turkey considers the Muslim identity a major asset when reaching out to ASEAN.
Bilateral relations with Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia are of vital importance for reaching out to ASEAN, and Ankara aims to support these linkages through humanitarian aid and intermediation efforts aimed at the Muslim minority groups elsewhere in the region.
Turkey has an interest in being more active in Myanmar and offering greater support for the Rohingya serves not only those who are in need but also Turkey’s foreign policy objectives.
So far, Ankara has tried to extend this support through activism in multilateral institutions such as the UN and the OIC, and through humanitarian assistance. But now, after the first truly democratic elections held in Myanmar in November last year and with a new government in office, the Turkish government has the opportunity to complement its multilateral efforts and its unilateral aid activities with bilateral collaboration with its counterpart in Naypyitaw.
Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu’s visit this week precisely aimed at exploring how this collaboration can take shape.
In Naypyitaw, Çavuşoğlu met with State Counselor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Htin Kyaw and the Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing. He also travelled to Sittwe, capital of the Rakhine State, where he broke fast with the local Muslim community and visited the schools and orphanages renovated with Turkish assistance.
He praised the new government established by the National League of Democracy, which is, in his words, “taking steps to establish peace, calm and stability” and assured that “Turkey will provide [the new government] with all kinds of support.”
For her part, Aung San Suu Kyi thanked the Turkish side “for the efforts made and sensitivity towards finding a solution to the situation in Rakhine.”
Turkey feels that it can be more active in Myanmar now as there is a government that it can work with. As voiced during Çavuşoğlu’s visit, Turkey has two expectations from the new government in Naypyitaw.
First, Ankara hopes to expand the scope of humanitarian projects and expects the new government to be more cooperative in such issues. While Myanmar welcomes foreign funding for desperately needed infrastructure projects and the like, accepting greater Turkish involvement, particularly in places with Muslim populations such as the Rakhine State, will require greater trust between the two parties.
Çavuşoğlu was at pains to explain that while the Rohingya remain a priority, Turkey’s aim is actually to “assist all in the impoverished region of Rakhine, not just the area’s Muslims.”
As a symbolic gesture during Çavuşoğlu’s visit, food parcels were distributed to the needy in Sittwe, including 500 Buddhist families. Trust is needed for greater cooperation, and making efforts to help all those in need instead of only the Muslims will certainly help in this respect.
Turkey’s second expectation from the new government in Myanmar is related to the restoration of citizenship rights to the Rohingya people. As mentioned several times by Çavuşoğlu during his visit, Turkey wants this problem to be solved soon. In fact, if Turkey can help to generate international awareness on the issue through platforms such as the UN and the OIC, this can speed up the process by increasing the pressure on Naypyitaw.
Çavuşoğlu’s visit to Myanmar can herald a new era in Turkey’s engagement with this country, but a major question remains unanswered: How much of a clout can Ankara really have over Myanmar?
Turkey can and does bring aid and funding to Myanmar, and this is welcome. In addition, Naypyitaw can also see benefits in cooperating with Turkey in issues related to its Muslim minorities.
However, a crucial component is missing in the relationship and its absence will seriously limit Turkey’s effectiveness in Myanmar. The volume of business and trade between Turkey and Myanmar is currently at a minimum.
While all the major economies of the world have seen a new Asian El Dorado in Myanmar and are rushing in to get their share from the country’s business, Turks have been rather slow in discovering the commercial opportunities in this country.
In 2015, the two-way trade volume was a mere $38.8 million; according to the website of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, there are only two Turkish companies active in Myanmar; and Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board, which has bilateral business councils with seven of ASEAN’s ten member countries, does not have one with Myanmar (the other two that are missing are Brunei Darussalam and Laos).
With no Turkish business people setting up shops and factories on Myanmar’s soil and no container ships ferrying between Turkey and Myanmar, Turkey’s influence will be limited.
With a new government in office in Myanmar, Turkey will make greater efforts for more constructive dialogue with this country, and the Rohingya will remain the center of attention.
However, in order for Turkey to have greater influence, there has to be stronger economic ties between the two countries, which is currently not the case. It will be interesting to observe whether and to what extent Turkish businesses will be able to compete against Western (and Chinese) competitors in Myanmar’s newly opening markets.
Dr. Altay Atlı is a lecturer at the Asian Studies graduate program of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul and a senior research fellow at Turkey’s International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).