Carrie Lam’s visit to Myanmar was bad timing, to say the least
Alice Wu says the Hong Kong chief executive’s trip to talk business while the Rohingya crisis escalated in the background displayed gross insensitivity to an issue that even Beijing recognises and the UN has labelled textbook ethnic cleansing
As in many things in life, timing is everything in politics. Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s official visit to Myanmar, the first ever by a Hong Kong chief executive, could not have been timed worse. This is her first mistake as chief executive.
In Myanmar to promote bilateral trade and the Belt and Road Initiative to Asean countries, Lam met State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, First Vice-President Myint Swe, Commerce Minister Than Myint and Minister for Planning and Finance Kyaw Win. This was done as the world watched in horror the growing Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.
Talking about bilateral trade and the belt and road while the Rohingya humanitarian crisis continues and escalates is a show of, at the very least, gross insensitivity; no matter how complex and long-standing the Rohingya issue, talking business at this time is deliberately ignoring the plight of people being dislocated, harmed or killed, and at risk of hunger and disease.
Who are the Rohingya?
The international community has been speaking out against the military’s violent response in Rakhine. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has branded the actions of Myanmar authorities “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
We can appreciate the tight spot Lam found herself in. After all, China has not joined the chorus of condemnation against the Myanmar government. For Hong Kong, foreign affairs and defence are matters of sovereignty, and hence fall solely under Beijing’s responsibilities. That is the reality of “one country, two systems”.
But that reality need not translate into Lam going to Myanmar at the worst possible time.
She said during the trip that “Hong Kong attaches great importance in promoting its external affairs”.
Carrie Lam marks a first as Hong Kong’s chief executive
If Lam truly attached great importance to Hong Kong’s, albeit limited, external affairs, she would not have been in Myanmar promoting business. What better way to affirm Hong Kong’s unofficial tag as Asia’s soulless money-obsessed hub than to ignore what has happened in Myanmar since late August and talk about the “stability and certainty” needed by Hong Kong businesses investing there?
Lam told the Myanmar Times that our investors “don’t want to be put in a situation where there’s always a lot of disruption to their business”. That is true for investors in general, but Lam failed to see that this humanitarian crisis, which China does in fact recognise, is the sort of disruption that should have definitely disrupted her trip.
As Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on the sidelines of a UN meeting in New York last week: “The urgent task is to ease the tense situation [quickly], avoid innocent people being harmed, prevent the humanitarian crisis from spreading, and encouraging and supporting Myanmar and Bangladesh to seek a fundamental resolution.” The urgent task, even from Beijing’s point of view, isn’t to talk about the belt and road.
There is no reason why the trip couldn’t have been postponed, or Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah sent in Lam’s place to attend and speak at the 14th World Chinese Entrepreneurs Convention.
Perhaps the administration should read what Yau’s predecessor, Gregory So Kam-leung, said in an interview for the Oxford Business Group’s 2015 Myanmar report: “Hong Kong looks forward to the formation of the [Asean] single market and production base in good time.”
The business side of things will happen, “in good time”. The first official visit by a Hong Kong chief executive to Myanmar, for a photo-op with Suu Kyi, should also have taken place “in good time”.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA