Beijing’s Perspectives: Burma’s Referendum and International Discordances

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 8

Buddhist monks marched for democracy in September 2007

On February 9, 2008 the Burmese government announced a plan for an unprecedented referendum on a new constitution, which will be held in May, to be followed by a multi-party election in 2010 (Agence France-Presse, February 9). On February 19, the government declared that the final draft of the new constitution will be available on the referendum (, February 20). On February 26, the government enacted a law to govern the referendum, setting procedures for voting, announcing results, and imposing penalties on offenders for their violation of its provisions. It is reported that the 12-chaptered law provides for penalties of up to three years imprisonment and 100,000 kyat ($77) for offenders who distribute statements and posters or make speeches against the referendum. The government said it has also named the 45 members of the Referendum Convening Commission (RCC) set to oversee the process (International Herald Tribune, February 26). Myanma Alin said the commission includes representatives of the ethnic minorities and legal experts (The Irrawaddy, February 27). Finally, on March 27, while addressing a military parade in the new capital of Nay Pyi Taw celebrating the country’s 63rd anniversary of the Armed Forces Day, Burma’s Senior-General Than Shwe, the commander-in-chief of the Burma Defense Services (MDS) and the chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), announced that the military will hand over power to a civilian government after the general election in 2010—if the new constitution is approved by the people through the national referendum this year. He did not mention what would happen if the referendum failed, but local opinions believe that the government would make every effort to acquire legitimacy. Than Shwe claimed that the country is marching on a seven-step roadmap to democracy correctly and in a timely fashion, and had built as good an infrastructure for making the transition to a stable democracy as possible. He urged the people to cooperate with the government as well as the armed forces to undertake the historic task successfully, while warning that the army will crush any internal and external “destructive” elements attempting to disintegrate the present union. He further asserted that the current state of stability is the best possible given the government’s constraints and that people have generally led a peaceful life during the reign of the military government (, March 27). On April 6, Burmese Prime Minister General Thein Sein said “the referendum is not for one person, the Tatmadaw (the military), one party and one association, but for seeking unanimous approval for a constitution” (Agence France-Presse, April 6).

Nay Pyi Taw’s motives for setting the dates for referendum and election are comprehensive and arguable. One reason may be the generals’ consideration to yield to the global calling for democratic elections and the legitimacy of the civilian governments. Burma has been constantly under Western pressure and sanctions, which hindered its economic development. In comparison, Burma’s neighbors have achieved political transitions and economic prosperity. Especially in regard to Indonesia and Thailand, the evolution of the two military’s self-restraints and neutralization may have effects on the Burmese generals’ psyche. Yet their option is not unconditional. The military institution and the strong personnel could hardly abandon their privileges and interests over one night. Therefore, a conditioned and systematic handover is natural and realistic for the generals.

The ball is now in the court of the international community, however, with different countries having responded to Burma’s endeavors with a mix of praises and skepticisms. The varied expectations of different stakeholders may lead to conflicting policy responses that may jeopardize Burma’s fragile transition.

The official White House and State Department statements seem to imply that the U.S. government disagrees with any plan of conditioned handover of power in Burma and wants a completely open election at once [1]. That plan, however, leaves no “living space” for the generals, which would certainly be refused by the latter as has been seen. Even the leader of the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, admitted in 2007 when meeting with UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari that the military should play a major role in Burma’s future elected government.

Similar to the U.S. government, the Burmese opposition urged the country to vote “no” to the referendum, claiming it was undemocratic and written under the government’s direct control (Asia News, March 28).

In comparison, China and Southeast Asian countries seem to have different views than Washington. On February 26, China outright rejected criticism of its policy on Burma, accusing the relevant organizations of misinterpreting its policy. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao commented that “China’s policy toward Burma is conducive to the peace and democracy process in Burma, and the realization of peace and reconciliation of Burma … We hope relevant organizations can have a correct understanding of China’s Burma policy, which is helpful to Burma’s situation” (Xinhua News Agency, February 26). Mr. Shen Yongxiang, deputy head of China’s mission to UN Human Right Committee, said on March 13:

[The] Burma problem should be prone to the…efforts of the Burma government and the people…The Burma government has made positive progresses in implementing the 7-point roadmap for democratization which should be recognized and welcomed…[and] a politically stable, economically developing, socially harmonious and democratically improving Burma is in line with the interests of all the Southeast Asian countries as well as the entire international community (Xinhua News Agency, March 14).

China maintains a good political and economic relationship with Burma on the basis of equality, reciprocity and non-interference in the other’s domestic affairs. This relationship is not directed toward any third country like the United States, but is based on China’s own national interests and bilateral demands.

China’s policy on Burma has been in line with its general policy of ensuring a stable external environment with neighboring states so that Beijing can continue to implement its domestic modernization and development policy. China’s policy can be seen in the context of the continuation of maintaining the spirit of Bandung’s five principles of peaceful coexistence with developing countries in Asia and Africa since 1955.

Geo-economically, Burma is important for China as a “land bridge” for China to revive its southwest silk road from Yunnan province to Myanmar and westward to Bangladesh, India and the Middle East [2]. This link could help to develop the poor economies in the southwestern part of inland China to trade with the growing economies of Southeast Asia and India. With the realization of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (CAFTA) with a population of 1.7 billion, China could promote trade southward with ASEAN.

Burma is important for China in implementing its western development strategy [3]. With Burma, Laos and Thailand, China can form a sub-regional grouping for economic cooperation. Thus, China can export an abundance of cheaper goods to these countries. In particular, Yunnan province will benefit economically by linking up with Burma for trade and investments. Together with the five Southeast Asian countries in the Mekong sub-region—Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar—China could have a potential market of 200 million people, which would be the product outlets for China’s southwestern provinces.

ASEAN holds a positive attitude toward Burma’s referendum and election. In early March, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo “hailed” the planned referendum and election when he met with U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari, though he admitted that “for national reconciliation to be achieved, the referendum and election had to be credible and inclusive” (The Associated Press, February 25). Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej also expressed his consent with the plan. During his one-day visit to Burma on March 14, he met Senior General Than Shwe and agreed to build a maritime line linking deep seaports of both countries. The sea line reportedly is to connect Thailand’s Laem Chabang to Burma’s Tavoy seaport, which is under construction now and will facilitate ships on the international line (Vietnam News Agency, March 16). Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reaffirmed Indonesia’s support to the road map of Burma democratization on March 26, claiming: “We will give assistance to maintain the stability and integrity [of Burma] on its way to reach the road map.” Indonesia supports the referendum in May and the general election in 2010, though it asks for transparency of the election process (, March 26). All these countries seem to follow a policy of engagement with Burma and intend to apply moderate attitudes toward the referendum and election. They seem to pay more attention to the unity of the ASEAN bloc of 10 than democracy. Evidence of this is when ASEAN refused to impose sanctions on Burma after the 2007 demonstration in Burma.

China and ASEAN have several concerns right now about the current political transition in Burma and the different views of the international community.

First, Burma’s stability. Will there be another protest against the Burmese government during the referendum? If so, will it trigger turmoil and violence on an even larger scale than last year or, even worse, have a negative impact on the whole of East Asia? Many indications show that the opposition is mobilizing to “embarrass and annoy” the Burmese government. Burma’s state-controlled press warned April 5 that “terrorists may be planning bombings during the constitutional referendum next month.” A commentary published in the New Light of Burma and other newspapers implied that “attacks were being planned by allies of pro-democracy.” A column said a youth organization under the National League for Democracy could plot a terrorist bombing (The Associated Press, April 5). If true, the opposition may unintentionally damage itself. They would be putting national and regional stability at stake, imperiling East Asian peace; they would be viewed more as the provocateurs rather than peaceful protestors. They would also force the government to terminate the democratic process and render all democratization efforts since 1993 in vain, which would result in resentment from the Burmese people anxious for peace. Therefore, a better way for the Burmese opposition would be to respect the referendum.

Second, concerns for U.S.-Burmese conflict. The two old foes are pressing and forcing each other into a deadlock that may eventually lead to a “show of hand”—even a duel by sword. Given that the U.S. military is already overextended, and the distaste in East Asia for tension, a military confrontation would not be ideal for either side. Yet the dilemma is that neither the United States nor Burma would dare to step back first, lest the other be viewed as a coward and suffer the consequences. So far, old habits die hard. That is why the United States and Burma both implement hard-line policies toward each other. From the third-person perspectives of China and ASEAN, compromises and tolerance are necessary for unlocking the deadlock. So far, the Burmese generals have made a “compromise,” promising the referendum and election—whether they are genuine or a sham—so the United States should at least give de facto recognition. In any event, a more flexible policy toward Burma is viable for the U.S. government as it lacks not the “stick,” but the “carrot.”

Third, concerns for political intervention in China’s 2008 Olympic Games over the Burmese issue. Beijing will hold the Summer Olympics in 2008 and the international community has expressed its support. President Bush confirmed his intentions several times to attend the Beijing Olympics. Meanwhile, some entities and personnel still call for a boycott against the Beijing Olympics due to political reasons. It is reported that some pro-democracy activists in Burma have been calling for a boycott on the Beijing Olympics over what they assert to be China’s continuing support for “Burma’s military dictatorship.” They also claim the date of the opening ceremony of the Olympics—August 8, 2008—to be a “reference” to the 20th anniversary of the military coup in Burma in 1988. For instance, a group of “The ‘88 Generation Students,” which was instrumental in last year’s pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma, even urged “citizens around the world…to boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics in response to China’s bankrolling of the military junta that rules our country of Burma with guns and threats” (The Associated Press, February 25). This call is likely to be in vain, as Burmese domestic affairs have little impact on China, and China is not the only country that engages Burma.

Finally, concerns for the UN’s role and future functions. The United Nations is the authoritative entity that mediates the Burma issue. As a “middle man,” Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari has been doing an important job and works well with China. In February, Beijing praised him for his work when he visited China, and due to China’s efforts, his visit to Myanmar prevailed in early March, which had been expected in April. Gambari, however, still faces some challenges. He should always remain neutral and hence play a constructive and fruitful role in reaching a compromise for the United States and the Burmese government—lest the UN’s authenticity be doubted. Gambari’s attitude, however, toward the Burmese referendum and election seems closely aligned to the U.S. government, urging the Burmese generals to revise the constitution and include the opposition. This undoubtedly complicated Gambari’s work and his visit “didn’t go favorably” [4]. In his own words, Gambari complained of “no immediate tangible outcome” and had no meeting with Than Shwe, though he did meet Suu Kyi twice [5]. This may not be the proper conduct for a UN envoy, as a mediator must be confident and learn to measure incremental improvements. Moreover, his complaint may give a negative impression on both sides—the United States may worry too much about the situation while the Burmese generals may misperceive Gambari’s complaint as a copy of the U.S. position and a break in his neutrality, which may in turn aggravate the misunderstandings between the two sides. In a larger sense, Gambari’s proper conduct is relevant to the UN’s prestige and its support from China and ASEAN. Gambari still needs to keep his neutral face in the future.


1. United States Denounces Burmese Constitution Referendum as Sham,, February 12, 2008; Sean McCormack, State Department Spokesman, Daily Press Briefing, February 11, 2008,

2. The Political Economy of China-Myanmar Relations: Strategic and Economic Dimensions, Poon Kim SHEE, Visting Professor, The International Studies Association of Ritsumeikan University:Ritsumeikan Annual Review of International Studies, Japan, 2002. ISSN 1347-8214. Vol.1, pp. 33-53

3. Tian Xiaowen, ‘China’s Drive to Develop Its Western Region (I): Why Turn To This Region Now?’ EAI Background Brief No.71, (Singapore: East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore), 28 September 2000.

4. Latest Visit to Myanmar Yielded No ‘Immediate Tangible Outcome’, UN Security Council, Department of Public Information ,News and Media Division, New York Security Council SC/9278, 5854th Meeting (PM), March, 18. 2008.

5. UN envoy holds talks on Myanmar’s referendum plans, Channel Asia, March 7, 2008.