Public diplomacy key to countering nationalistic sentiment in Myanmar

By Fan Hongwei Source:Global Times Published: 2015-8-3 0:48:01

Late July witnessed a headline-grabbing dispute between China and Myanmar over the heavy sentence of 155 Chinese illegal loggers by a Myanmese court. However, things changed dramatically on Thursday.

Myanmese President U Thein Sein gave an abrupt and large amnesty to almost 7,000 prisoners, and these loggers are also included. The situation has raised concerns among many Myanmar observers.

We should pay close attention to what is behind the upheaval. The dispute has led to an obvious rise in Myanmar's nationalist sentiment against China, raising doubts about the historical Sino-Myanmar amity.

Since 2011, after the Myanmar leadership transition, China-Myanmar relations have gone through a series of twists and turns. With the old friendship fading, unfriendly voices against China are taking the upper hand, which is beyond the expectation of many people who still believe in a long-lasting amicable relationship between the two.

In fact, the anti-China climate in Myanmar started to come into being in the 1990s. It reached a tipping point after the new Myanmar government came into power in 2011. There are complicated reasons behind the development of such sentiment, and China is adjusting its policy accordingly.

From the historical perspective, the Sino-Myanmese relationship has surpassed the simple country-to-country ties. Chinese immigrants have been living in Myanmar for centuries, and both countries have established a rapport, especially around border areas. The Myanmese use "Swe Myo Paut Pao," meaning relatives and brothers, to address the Chinese. In 1960, the specific appellation was endorsed by both governments to praise the bilateral amity. Such usage lasts till today.

No matter how each side interprets the bilateral relations at present, they stick to one essential point, which is a full recognition of the past friendship and an expectation for the continuation of the friendship. The positive outlook for the bilateral ties has profound meanings for China to deal with the new changes with Myanmar as well to recalibrate its peripheral diplomacy.

Reestablishing the special amity and regaining the Myanmese' confidence in China will require time, honesty and effort. The key is to making the Myanmese people feel that they can benefit from China's development.

China has realized that the challenges will only grow severe if it doesn't do anything to counter the negative trend of the China threat theory.

Since the current Chinese leadership took office in 2012, they have proposed some new concepts and shifted some perspectives in the neighborhood diplomacy. China has declared its position quite a few times to Myanmar that the Myanmese should be the beneficiary of the Sino-Myanmese relations. Solidified people-to-people connections can offset the hostility against China in Myanmar.

China has brought forward several different visions, such as the Asia-Pacific dream, community of shared destiny and the "One Belt, One Road" initiative, and asked for cooperation from neighboring countries.

China and Myanmar have upgraded their diplomatic relationship to a comprehensive strategic one. No matter how the connotations of the bilateral ties might evolve, the foundation of an amicable relationship depends on whether the people of both sides have belief in each other.

From "Swe Myo Paut Pao" to "partnership" and "the community of shared destiny," the biggest legacy we can draw from the Sino-Myanmese relations is the real connectivity between both peoples.

As neighbors, China and Myanmar will see the consequences of any efforts of safeguarding peace or raising tensions can be amplified. The 2,000-kilometer long borderline facilitates the improvement of Sino-Myanmese ties, and causes latent challenges.

These illegal Chinese loggers only reveal part of the truth about how cross-border business works between China and Myanmar. Personnel flow, commodity trade and cultural exchanges, legal or illegal, have never been so dynamic. It is well-known that in China's Yunnan Province, Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta, there are a lot of illegal Myanmar immigrants. For instance, according to media reports, approximately 50,000 Myanmese are currently working in bordering Yunnan Province.

Therefore, how to control and manage the lengthy borderline is an issue that needs immediate actions of both sides. They should make sure that their normal exchanges are dynamic and their cooperation against illegal acts such as illegal immigration, drug dealing and human smuggling, are also effective. The efforts to deal with these maladies require wit and mutual trust. No one should hype them up for nationalist or political purposes.

The author is a professor of Southeast Asian studies at Xiamen University.

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