James W.Y. Wang
In 2015, Myanmar held its general election, which was considered a milestone for democratic transition after the 8888 Uprising in 1988. Even though this election could not immediately change the reality of Myanmar’s authoritarian politics set under the military rules, the global community of democracy has great optimism for Myanmar. Taiwan, represented by the Taiwan Democracy Foundation, also organized an observation mission to monitor the general election. A prestigious member of the observation mission later expressed his thoughts and said, ‘The coup d’état that reversed the course of democratization in Thailand is just like something happened yesterday. I cannot help to imagine a scene of tanks surrounding the National Assembly in Naypyidaw. I hope this scene will never happen.’ Unfortunately, this prophetic observation manifested itself on February 1 as the junta launched a coup d’état before the third Pyidaungsu Hluttaw session. In the following two months, the initial soft coup d’état turned into a bloody crackdown. To this point, more than 700 citizens have sacrificed their lives to defend democracy.
The relationship between Taiwan and Myanmar is more profound than most Taiwanese could understand. In the 1950s, the 237th Division of the 8th Army and the 93rd Division of the 26th Army of the Republic of China, which withdrew from Yunnan during the Kuomintang-Communist Civil War retreated to northern Burma. After a series of diplomatic mediations, these troops, also known as the ‘Lost Army,’ were relocated to northern Thailand. Later, the descendants of the troops immigrated to Taiwan, the Republic of China, and lived in the Zhonghe District of New Taipei City. The area where they gathered is still called ‘Burma Street’ to commemorate the heroic history of the Lost Army.
In March 2016, Taiwan established the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Yangon, and Myanmar established the Myanmar Trade Office in Taipei, marking the rapid development of bilateral economic and trade relations. Currently, more than 250 Taiwanese companies have invested in Myanmar, covering garment processing, manufacturing, agriculture, forestry, fishery and animal husbandry, catering, jewelry, and finance. Taiwan has become a significant investor in Myanmar.
Since the coup d’état, the Taiwan government has condemned the Myanmar junta for using excessive lethal force against peaceful demonstrators. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also suggested Taiwanese companies in Yangon to hang the Taiwan national flag to avoid attacks. Yet, the Taiwan government remains cautious regarding the rapidly changing political situation in Myanmar. In contrast, the Taiwanese society showed strong support for the Myanmar democracy. In February, the Myanmar community organized a demonstration in Zhonghe Burma Street to protest against the coup d’état. The speakers rejected the junta’s seizure of the democratic government, showing the three-fingered ‘Hunger Games’ salute in solidarity, and demanded the release of state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. In March, many large-scale rallies supporting the democracy movement in Myanmar were organized at Liberty Square in Taipei.
In addition to the Burmese in Taiwan, support groups from Thailand, Hong Kong, and democratic allies’ representatives of Taiwanese political parties and human rights groups all participated in these rallies to support Myanmar’s democracy. On social media, Taiwan Alliance for Thai Democracy and the Asian Democracy Activist Group with ties in Taiwan have actively carried out online initiatives through the Milk Tea Alliance to support the civilian disobedience movement in Myanmar. This popular support for Myanmar democracy eventually prompted the Legislative Yuan to reach a resolution on April 9 with unanimous backing from across parties, calling on the Myanmar government to stop attacking the people. It supported the international community’s actions to restore democracy in Myanmar and relaxed the duration period for Burmese people to stay in Taiwan.
Despite consistent and robust support from the society and the legislature for Myanmar’s democracy, the Taiwan government is still reluctant to take further action against the Myanmar junta. Diplomatically, China is the key ally to Myanmar, whereas Taiwan’s ties to Myanmar are mainly economic and trade-oriented. Taiwan’s leverage over the Myanmar junta is limited. Strategically, the relationship between Taiwan and China has been tense since February 2020. China has repeatedly threatened to seek reunification with Taiwan by using force. The Chinese state media Global Times accused Taiwan of using the Milk Tea Alliance to fan out comments against China to undermine China’s interests in the surrounding areas. The Taiwan government is concerned that economic sanctions against the Myanmar junta could further complicate the relationship between Taiwan and China and exacerbate the current feud.
In general, Taiwan sincerely supports the development of democracy in Myanmar. However, the international community currently lacks consensus on how to deal with the bloody crackdown in Myanmar. The ASEAN member states are hesitant to take action to encourage dialogue for concrete solutions. The competition between the U.S. and China also prevented the United Nations Security Council from taking firm measures against the Myanmar junta. Not to complicate its own security situation, Taiwan’s response to the Myanmar coup d’état could only be reluctant prudence.
James W.Y. Wang is the Assistant Professor at Department of Southeast Asia, National Chi Nan University, Taiwan.