Myanmar says western rights pressure may push it closer to China

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi (right) and China President Xi Jinping shake hands after MOU signing on Jan 18. (AP pic)

MYANMAR: Myanmar signalled that closer ties with China offer an economic buffer if human-rights concerns cause Western nations to curb trade privileges or investment.

The persecution of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority has sparked global condemnation and led to an International Court of Justice order last week for emergency steps to protect Rohingya from genocide.

The controversy imperils Myanmar’s European trade privileges and is spurring calls for sanctions.

“The more sanctions Western countries impose on us, the more likely that is to boost our ties with our Asian alliances,” Commerce Minister Than Myint said in an interview in the capital, Naypyidaw.

“We’ve opened the door to everyone.”

During President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar earlier in January – the first state visit by a Chinese leader in almost two decades – the two countries agreed to expedite several projects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Yet a tightening embrace of China risks leaving Myanmar over-reliant on its giant neighbour, a concern that has long vexed some officials.

‘No choice’

“When it comes to mega projects, we always want to see more options,” Than Myint said in the Jan 21 interview.

“So we usually encourage Western companies not to be worried about doing business here. If they decide not to come, then we will have no choice but to cooperate with Asian partners.”

In records going back to 1988, China accounts for a quarter of all foreign-direct investment into Myanmar, second only to Singapore, government data shows.

Than Myint said Myanmar is aware of risks that come with China-backed investments.

Such infrastructure projects have been criticised for debt terms that could leave China in control of critical infrastructure in developing nations.

“Being well-observed about the Chinese debt trap in other developing countries, we will make sure we don’t make the same mistake here,” he said.

Trade privileges

China is Myanmar’s most important trading partner, accounting for about US$11 billion in trade in 2018, almost double the next nearest nation, Thailand.

Asian countries occupied the top eight spots, data compiled by Bloomberg shows.

Even so, Than Myint said any loss of European trade privileges would be a blow for industries such as textile and garment production.

If the preferential treatment is revoked, “a lot of households in Myanmar would be in trouble due to potential job losses,” he said.

More than 740,000 Rohingya were forced to flee for their lives across the border to Bangladesh after Myanmar started so-called “clearance operations” in earnest in 2017.

The World Bank expects Myanmar’s economic expansion will climb toward 7% by 2022, even as domestic conflicts – including the one in Rakhine state that led to the exodus of Rohingya – remain downside risks.

About a third of the population lives in poverty, adding pressure on de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to accelerate reforms.