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Burma Defense and Foreign Policy

Foreign policy and defense

Myanmar's relations with China have long been central, but during the gradual democratization in the 2010s, power holders have tried to strike more balance in their foreign policy. Relations with the Western world, not least the United States, have been strengthened, but it received a severe thunderstorm from the military offensive in Rakhine from the fall of 2017, when hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya were expelled from the country.

During the 1950s, Myanmar (then called Burma) was one of the more prominent third world countries and one of the initiators of the Alliance Free States movement. After the 1962 military coup, the generals chose to completely shield the country from all foreign influence for 26 years. Officially, however, the government in Rangoon maintained "friendly relations" with both east and west.

  • Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in Burma for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.

The military coup in 1988 and the failed election two years later (see Modern history) dramatically changed this. Most of the aid donors, including the countries in the West, were severely interrupted by the military's gross violations of human rights.

Tight relations with the West and the UN

In 1996, EU countries banned arms exports to Myanmar and military junta representatives were barred from entering the Union. The penalties were then sharply tightened with restrictive investment and trade rules.

Defense and Foreign Policy of BurmaIn 1997, American companies were banned from making new investments in Myanmar. Following the attacks against the 2003 opposition, the US tightened the sanctions with a total import ban and blockade of Myanmar assets in the US. Further sanctions were introduced since the junta injured mass demonstrations in 2007.

The relative democratization that began in 2011 was welcomed by the Western world, and since Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD politicians could be elected to Parliament in 2012, the Western countries abolished most financial sanctions against Myanmar. Among other things, however, arms embargo remained.

The military offensive and the mass escape from Rakhine, as well as the stagnated peace process with the ethnic resistance groups in the north and east (read more here) have again weakened Myanmar's relations with the West and the UN (see Current Politics and Calendar). As a result, in the spring of 2018, the EU decided to extend the remaining sanctions and tighten the arms embargo to include exports of certain goods and technologies, military training and cooperation with Myanmar's defense forces, as well as exports of equipment for monitoring and intercepting the Internet and telecommunications. In the spring of 2019, the EU extended the sanctions for one year.

In the fall of 2016, the United States lifted all economic and financial sanctions against Myanmar. In December 2017, Washington imposed new sanctions on the general who led the Rakhine offensive that fall. The United States has also imposed sanctions on Myanmar's army chief as ultimately responsible for the military's actions.

China's closest ally

Myanmar has received both material and political support from China ever since the diplomatic relations between the two countries were resumed in 1978. China is Myanmar's most important arms supplier and expanded aid, trade and investment in the 21st century. China also saved Myanmar from sharp statements by the UN Security Council. It was not until autumn 2007 that the Council agreed for the first time to condemn the junta's actions against peaceful protesters.

When Suu Kyi was invited to China in June 2015, despite the fact that she and the NLD were still in opposition, it was interpreted by observers as the beginning of a course change in Beijing. China is likely to secure access to Myanmar's natural resources and will also end up following a possible shift in power later that year. When the NLD government took office in April 2016, Suu Kyi's first trip as a new foreign minister went to China. This underlined China's continued importance for Myanmar.

However, the ethnic conflicts in the border region with China (read more here) have periodically made the relations between the two countries strained. In the summer of 2011, thousands of people in northern Myanmar fled into China from rioting fighting between Kachin guerrillas and government soldiers, partly caused by Kachin resistance to a Chinese-funded dam construction in the Kachin area. The dam construction was interrupted in September 2011 by Myanmar's new government, which further annoyed China. The following summer, Human Rights Watch accused China of forcing cachin refugees back to Myanmar. In February 2015, tens of thousands of civilian Myanmar flew to China escaping fighting between the military and rebels in the Kokang region of Shan State (see further Calendar). The scenario repeated in March 2017.

Other neighboring countries

Otherwise, Myanmar's isolation first began to be broken by India and Thailand after 1992. The reasons were mainly the countries' common interests: to crush separatist groups in the border regions, to control drug trafficking and to improve roads and other communications. In addition, the neighboring countries' desire to balance China's increasingly close contacts with Myanmar.

India also cooperates with Myanmar in oil and gas extraction, defense and trade. The two countries are jointly patrolling the waters of the Bay of Bengal and Lake Andaman. In August 2016, newly elected President Htin Kyaw's first trip to India went to India, where he and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed to increase security along the land border and speed up construction of a highway connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand.

Thailand is the country within the Southeast Asian cooperation organization Asean that has closest contacts with Myanmar, although relations during the 1990s and 2000s were at times tense when the Myanmarian army violated the border in the pursuit of guerrillas or drug dealers. The flow of illegal labor and drugs from Myanmar are other problems, as are Myanmar's who are fleeing the border. At the beginning of 2017, more than 50,300 registered refugees lived and just over 52,200 were registered in nine temporary camps along the border. Virtually all of them were Myanmarians belonging to some ethnic minority, mainly Kayin. However, in parallel with the border and refugee problems, both countries have cooperated in the economy and trade as well as on road and bridge construction.

In 1997, Asean broke the isolation of Myanmar by giving the country membership. Some of the member states considered that so-called constructive commitment and "silent diplomacy" were the best way to get democratic development started. Democratization in the 2010s has strengthened Myanmar's position within the organization. In 2014, Myanmar was considered for the first time to be able to hold the presidency of Asean.

The relationship with Bangladesh has long been poor because of Myanmar's persecution of the Muslim Rohingya, whom they consider to be "Bengali" (ie Bangladeshi). The severe discrimination against the Rakhine people group has caused refugee waves to flush in Bangladesh from time to time, which also does not recognize them as citizens. When around 750,000 refugees in the autumn of 2017 crossed the border and gathered in huge camps in the neighboring country, the situation became almost untenable. An agreement to return the refugees to Myanmar was signed in November 2017 between the two countries, but it soon stalled as security situation in Rakhine was poor with continued military presence.

Defense

The Myanmar defense force, called Tatmadaw, is one of the largest and most combatable in Southeast Asia. In addition, there are special militia forces and border troops. The size of the armed forces, including the police, increased sharply during the 1990s. Much of the arms imports, especially from China, are believed to have been financed by drug incomes.

The military service is compulsory for men between 18 years and 45 years and for women between 18 and 35. The military service is usually two or three years long, but can be extended to five years in a national crisis.

In the mid-2010s, 3.5 percent of GDP went to defense, but military spending is expected to be much greater than the budget allocation. This is because the army owns many industries and uses billion-dollar revenue from it for arms purchases.

For more information on the military offensive and the refugee crisis in Rakhine, as well as the reactions of the outside world to the events, read here, here and here.

FACTS - DEFENSE

army

375 000 men (2017)

The air Force

15,000 men (2017)

The fleet

16,000 men (2017)

Military expenditure's share of GDP

2.5 percent (2017)

Military spending's share of the state budget

12.4 percent (2017)


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