The Transition of Myanmar in the Chinese and U.S. News Media
When opposition leader and activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National Democratic League swept parliamentary elections in Myanmar early last month, it sent a message abroad: Myanmar is changing. The American and Chinese media, like their governments, appear to agree that those changes are for the good — but with different national frames.
Only days before the landmark election, the Association of Southeast Nations applauded reforms in the country and urged Western nations to lift sanctions “immediately.” China, too, supported immediate action on the part of Western nations.
The U.S. has responded by easing some sanctions, and leaving the rest alone for now. The administration is waiting for Myanmar to release more political prisoners and quell ethnic disputes in the north and south in hopes that the gradual lifting of remaining sanctions on trade will create incentives for the country to enact more democratic reforms. With a parliament dominated by the NDL, that day may not be far off.
“The results of the April 1 parliamentary by-elections represent a dramatic demonstration of popular will that brings a new generation of reformers into government,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters at the State Department. “This is an important step in the country’s transformation.”
In response to the reform measures taken by Myanmar’s president, former military leader U Thein Sein, the U.S. has raised its travel ban on senior leaders and lightened certain economic sanctions from the 1980s.
An Obama administration official characterized the move as “taking the bluntness out of” sanctions, according to the New York Times. Some administration officials support lifting sanctions immediately, arguing that the introduction of foreign credit could open up the country to broader economic reforms and accelerate development.
But just as the Association of Southeast Nations was issuing its statement, activists in Myanmar and other Asian nations were urging caution. New York Times reporters Thomas Fuller and Steven Lee Myers quoted one of them in a story titled “U.S. Moves Toward Normalizing Relations with Myanmar.”
“We know that they need to do something, some kind of positive gestures,” Aung Din, a former political prisoner and now the head of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told the New York Times. “But if they do it very quickly, and make it too generous, it will only undermine the democratic forces in the country.”
Din is not the only advocate recommending caution, and not the only one attracting media attention for her stance. The Wall Street Journal came out with a very different story shortly after Clinton’s appraisal of the early reforms.
The Wall Street Journal’s story, titled “Myanmar’s Karen Union Urges Caution on Lifting Sanctions,” focused on the same concern. The article characterized the Karen National Union as one of the “key ethnic insurgent groups embroiled in a long-running conflict with the country’s military.”
The group’s general secretary, Zipporah Sein, cautioned countries against lifting trade curbs before Myanmar can prove itself to be serious about political reform. She also said the countries should wait for there to be a lasting national cease-fire.
“The international community should not rush too fast,” she told The Wall Street Journal. “They should wait a little bit.”
In a piece on National Public Radio titled “Myanmar Holds Landmark Election,” Anthony Kuhn reported that experts say that Myanmar’s military is not inclined to give leeway to rebels. The Kachin opposition, according to one expert, is in no position to fight back just yet.
But Sein’s incentives for opening up the country have more to do with the economic gains that could be won. “A defeat at the polls for Suu Kyi could actually have been a setback for the government, which knows her cooperation is essential to getting foreign sanctions lifted,” reported NPR. “Besides Suu Kyi’s victory, the NLD also embarrassed the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party by winning seats representing parts of the capital, Naypitaw, where most residents work for the government.”
There are several marked differences in the way that the American and Chinese media have reported Suu Kyi’s success and its implications for foreign policy. China has long benefitted from Myanmar’s military rule. As its chief investor, the proposed lifting of economic sanctions bodes well for the country: It means that China will get to reap some of those benefits. But China does not want the U.S. to become a major player in the resource-rich country. Rather than hand over some of the market to American, British and Australian investors, China wants to remain the power most influential in the region. It is not yet clear if the Chinese will be able to retain control in that regard.
A story by Hu Yinan that ran in China Daily characterized Suu Kyi as a “West-favored” politician. Yang Baoyun, a professor at Peking University, told the newspaper that Suu Kyi had changed from a dissident to an “opposition in the system.” He contended that sanctions would benefit ASEAN as a whole.
“Economic aid for a backward nation like Myanmar will be more and more a joint global endeavor,” Yang told China Daily. “It’d be wrong to say that the [developments] won’t positively affect China.”
Marianna Nash is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter @mariannanash