Relationship with Other Nation States

Tensions between Myanmar and Bangladesh center in large part upon the vast number of Muslim Rohingya who have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh since the 1970s. Some 300,000 Rohingya are presently living in Bangladesh, which has not granted them refugee status and objects to doing so on legalistic grounds, pointing out that they have signed no international agreements obligating them to accept refugees. More recently, Buddhists from Bangladesh have been allowed to settle in Myanmar, further destabilizing life for the Rohingya inside of Myanmar and increasing the threat of communal tension and violence.1

China has provided substantial military and economic support for Myanmar over the past two decades, especially during the period when Myanmar faced economic sanctions by western nations. In recent years, China has provided billions of dollars (USD) in military aid and hundreds of millions of dollars (USD) in economic development annually. In addition, the Chinese have begun to push the central Burmese government to negotiate cease-fire agreements with ethnic minorities. In 2012, they hosted peace talks between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Army in an effort to bring hostilities near the Chinese border to a close.2 In addition to geographic proximity, China has a vested interest in a stable Myanmar; China is a major buyer of Burmese oil and natural gas.3

However, China’s investments and negotiations are not always seen positively by the Burmese people, as was made clear during the nationwide protests against China’s Myitsone Dam project in northern Myanmar, a project which the Burmese government eventually cancelled. As international sanctions lift and Myanmar explores partnerships with India, Japan, the US, and ASEAN countries, the Burmese government has actively taken steps to become less reliant on China. In fact, despite their still significant economic influence, China’s investments in the country have rapidly declined, including a 90% drop in a single fiscal year from $8.27 billion (USD) in 2011/2012 to $407 million (USD) in 2012/2013. Myanmar is considered to be one of the few major setbacks for Chinese foreign policy in recent years.4

India has a long and complex relationship with Myanmar. Burma was once a part of British India, a colonial possession within a colonial possession. For the Burmese, then, independence meant freedom from both Britain and India. The British had brought in Indian laborers to perform many lower-level functions in the colonial government; they imported such large numbers of low-skilled workers that Rangoon was a majority Indian city in the 1920s and 1930s. Large numbers of Indians fled the country as Japan invaded in the early 1940s, and the Burmese army later expelled some 200,000 Indians after the 1962 military coup.5

Recently, India has become concerned with the growing Chinese presence in Myanmar and its nearby bodies of water, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Seeking to stem China’s influence, in 2012 the Indian government announced a range of programs to benefit Myanmar, including a $500 million line of credit for the government, fellowships for Myanmar researchers to study in India, and investment in Burmese infrastructure. India’s investments in Myanmar serve them financially as well as politically, helping to facilitate trade between the nations as India seeks to access Myanmar’s natural resources and stem China’s influence in Southeast Asia.6

For much of the twentieth century, Japan was Burma’s most important ally. Burmese nationalists looked to Japan—another Asian Buddhist nation—as a partner in resisting British colonialism. Beginning in the late 1930s, the Japanese military helped train a small group of soldiers (including Aung San and Ne Win) who comprised and later led the Burma Independence Army. During WWII, the invading Japanese forces were welcomed by many in Burma, especially from the majority Burman ethnic group. The Japanese controlled Burma from 1942-1945 and supported the nationalist aspirations of the people there. However, as Japanese power began to decline in 1945, Aung San shifted the Burma Independence Army’s allegiance to the British.7

Even so, Burmese and Japanese relations remained close, especially during the rule of General Ne Win. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, Japanese aid comprised over half of all foreign assistance to Burma. Imports from Japan compromised about 40% of all imported goods, and during this period Myanmar received only modest imports from China. When the SLORC took over, those percentages largely reversed, with the majority of imports in Myanmar coming from China while Japan’s influence waned.8 However, in the years since the democratic reforms in 2011, Japanese economic ties with Myanmar have begun to increase again as sanctions have been lifted and China’s influence has been challenged by the people and government of Myanmar.

The relationship between Laos and Myanmar must be understood in relation to the vast— and growing—power of China in Southeast Asia. China has sought to build a rail network linking Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar in order to provide itself with another access point for oil from the Middle East. Myanmar and Laos have cooperated recently on infrastructure projects of their own in an effort to ease travel between the two countries, although the scale of this work pales in comparison to the Chinese projects.9 Myanmar and Laos also share a border that is part of the so-called Golden Triangle, one of the largest areas of heroin poppy cultivation in the world.10

Historically, Myanmar has considered Thailand to be its rival. Expansionist and aggressive Burmese kingdoms invaded parts of Thailand, most famously in 1767 when they destroyed the Thai capital of Ayutthaya. This historical event is still symbolically significant in both Thailand and Myanmar. During WWII, the Japanese gave Thailand sections of Myanmar’s Shan State, though they were relinquished after the war. The military junta regards the annual Thai-American military exercise known as Cobra Gold with deep suspicion, and generally sees Thailand as an American proxy in the region. Though relations have improved overall, there remain instances of tension and violence, as was displayed in their heated border disputes in 2002 and again in 2016.11

←Religion and Political and Legal Structures

  1. Dan Morrison, “Bangladesh’s Right of Refusal,” IHT Global Opinion, accessed July 14, 2013, http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/19/bangladeshs-refusal-to-take... Syeda Naushin Parnini, Mohammad Redzuan Othman and Amer Saifude Ghazali, “The Rohingya Refugee Crisis and Myanmar-Bangladesh Relations,” Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 22 (2013); Shaikh Azizur Rahman, “Buddhists from Bangladesh resettle in Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims cry foul, The Christian Science Monitor, accessed July 14, 2013, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-South-Central/2013/0524/Buddhists-fr....
  2. Thomas Fuller, “Ethnic Rifts Strain Myanmar as It Moves Toward Democracy,” The New York Times, April 4, 2013; Nirmal Ghosh, “Anti-China Sentiment a Challenge for Myanmar,” The Straits Times, January 14, 2013; Ramya P S, “China’s Myanmar Conundrum,” The Diplomat, April 22, 2015.
  3. Jacob Gronholt-Pederson, “Myanmar Pipelines to Benefit China,” The Wall Street Journal, May 12, 2013.
  4. Yun Sun, “China and Myanmar: Moving Beyond Mutual Dependence,” in Myanmar: The Dynamics of an Evolving Polity, ed. David I. Steinberg. (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2015), 279, 267-68.
  5. Michael Charney, A History of Modern Burma (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  6. “India Reaches out to Myanmar,” The New York Times Global Edition, accessed July 14, 2013, http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/29/india-reaches-out-to-myanmar/
  7. Michael Charney, A History of Modern Burma (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  8. David Steinberg, Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 124-125, 121.
  9. Jane Perlez and Bree Feng, “Laos Could Bear Cost of Chinese Railroad,” The New York Times, January 1, 2013, accessed July 14, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/02/world/asia/china-builds-a-railroad-and....
  10. David Steinberg, Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 104.
  11. David Steinberg, Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 5, 21; Pratch Rujivanarom and Supalak Ganjanakhundee, “Myanmar’s Objection may Block Thai Heritage Claim,” The Nation, July 21, 2016, accessed August 1, 2016, http://www.nationmultimedia.com/national/Myanmars-objection-may-block-Thai-heritage-claim-30291043.html.
See also: Myanmar