(The original Burmese version was published on the Facebook page of ISP-Myanmar on March 18, 2021.)
Authoritarian regimes often seek powerful foreign allies as patrons. Patrons usually provide diplomatic protection, economic aid, and weapons to client autocratic regimes. In return, authoritarian clients typically offer natural resources concessions, economic monopolies, and permission to implement large-scale projects of strategic importance to their patrons. Therefore, when a pro-democracy movement takes place in a client state, its patron often faces the dilemma of whether to continue supporting the dictators or switching their support to the pro-democracy opposition. When faced with this situation, it becomes important for pro-democracy activists and supporters to study the factors influencing the decision of the patrons over whether to switch their allegiance or not.
∎ Executive Summary
When a pro-democracy movement challenges an authoritarian regime, its patron often considers the following:
- Whether the pro-democracy movement leaders can govern the country after the dictators leave and, if the new leadership cannot do so, will instability and a lack of law and order destroy the client state?
- Could a change of government or the existing political system disrupt the two countries’ relationship, leading to the patron’s loss of privileges?
- Will the advent of a democratic system allow for greater freedom of speech and public criticism about the previous inequality in bilateral relations?
Studies show that in many cases, instead of risking their interests by switching support to the challengers, foreign patrons try to maintain the status quo. On the other hand, patron states fear the prospects that if they continue supporting an incumbent autocratic regime and the pro-democracy movement prevails, bilateral relations will be completely destroyed. McKoy and Miller (2012) suggest that if the patron is a democracy and the democratic activists in the autocratic client state can convince the patron that they will maintain an alliance and protect the patron’s interests, the patron will switch to support the pro-democracy movement.
∎ Why does it matter?
In many successful pro-democracy movements, powerful patron states have switched their positions to support pro-democracy movements in their client states. Pro-democracy activists face the twin challenges of vanquishing an oppressive authoritarian regime and seeking cooperation from its powerful patron supporting the incumbent regime. Therefore, understanding the conditions under which powerful patrons switch sides and support pro-democracy movements is key for a pro-democracy movement to develop successful strategies and tactics.
∎ Is it relevant to Myanmar?
In Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, many see China as a powerful patron that has backed Myanmar’s earlier military regimes. Given that China is also a veto-wielding permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), China plays an important role in the body’s decisions. Thus, studying what considerations patrons take in their decision to continue to support a regime or switch support to a pro-democracy movement is relevant to Myanmar.
By default, Myanmar is China’s neighbor. China has extensive business interests in Myanmar and considers it as geo-strategically important. Among their interests are the oil and gas pipelines, which supply China with energy. Myanmar is also central to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI. Thus, Beijing is concerned about the deterioration in its relations with Myanmar, given the rising political instability and growing anti-China public sentiment. In fact, it is almost certain that if the junta-led State Administration Council (SAC) can withstand pressure from the anti-coup protest movement, the coup regime could assuage Beijing’s concerns. However, key considerations for China likely include, first, whether the leaders of the pro-democracy movement can offer the same guarantees as the coup regime about ensuring stability.
Second, if there is a change of government, China’s concerns will likely include whether bilateral relations and its interests in Myanmar will be severely affected. It is useful to consider that China backed Myanmar’s pro-democracy forces when Beijing believed that the democratic transition in Myanmar would not harm its interests. For instance, before Myanmar’s 2015 general elections, when the National League for Democracy, a key democratic party in Myanmar’s political change, stressed the importance of China-Myanmar relations, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi received the red-carpet treatment during her visit to Beijing.
Third, China seems to be taking recent developments in stride. The events include widespread public protests against the military coup and grave condemnation of China’s diplomatic responses to Myanmar affairs by the public. China is concerned about more criticism of the perceived previous injustice of China on Myanmar and imposition of consumer boycotts of China products and other sanctions when pro-democracy movement prevails. A statement issued by the UNSC on March 11 included the phrase “strongly condemned” in reference to the violence against peaceful protesters in Myanmar. Many people in Myanmar have called for the UNSC to speak out against the regime, and China did not reject the disapproving statement. Moreover, the Chinese Embassy in Yangon reissued the statement. Most importantly, China has not yet officially endorsed the SAC. This indecision may reflect Beijing’s caution over switching sides, given that the outcome of the coup remains uncertain.
China is a one-party, authoritarian state which receives criticism for its undemocratic practices and poor human rights record. Therefore, abandoning its traditional stance of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country and, like major superpower democracies, officially supporting the pro-democracy movement and imposing sanctions on the coup council remains unlikely. However, the changes of China’s foreign policies toward Myanmar has signaled an unprecedented “shift” which will be documented in the history of international relations on powerful patron states.
∎ Further Readings
McKoy, Michael K. & Miller, Michael K. 2012. “The Patron’s Dilemma: The Dynamics of Foreign-Supported Democratization.” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol.16, No.5, pp.904-932.