Can Vietnam afford the reputational costs of friendship with Myanmar junta?
- Vietnam eyes a higher international standing but its response to Myanmar’s political unrest has undermined its global ambitions
- Vietnam’s leaders likely have domestic political, economic considerations that are holding them back from speaking against the junta
The 2016 political report of the CPV reaffirmed Vietnam’s commitment to be a responsible member of the international community. However, Hanoi has not responded to the political unrest in Myanmar in a way that befits its foreign policy aspirations.
On August 25, 2017, the same day of the signing of the comprehensive partnership, Myanmar’s military launched a ruthless campaign of massacres, rape, and arson against the Rohingya, in response to attacks on army and police posts by a militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Myanmar’s successive governments have implemented systematic discriminatory policies against Muslim Rohingya since the late 1970s. This has forced millions of Rohingya to flee their homes and take refuge in nearby countries, especially in the past several years.
Vietnam instead turned a blind eye to the Rohingya issue and the resulting humanitarian and refugee crisis outside Myanmar’s borders. In fact, Asean as an institution has been mostly silent on Myanmar’s mistreatment of the Rohingya and the refugee crisis, as its member states cleave to the principle of non-interference in internal affairs.
The Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son said that Vietnam would “keep an eye on Myanmar” but called for “a gradual approach … without haste” in January 2022 when he spoke with Dr Noeleen Heyzer, the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for Myanmar. Bui indirectly referred to Asean’s principle of non-interference by stressing the spirit of respecting Myanmar’s independence, sovereignty, and integrity.
Almost two years on, Vietnam has done nothing to help end the bloodshed in Myanmar. Instead, Hanoi has tried to dampen criticism of the junta at international and regional forums and worked against earlier Malaysian-led attempts to disinvite the military leadership from Asean meetings.
One reporter described as “jarring” the sight of Myanmar’s top general in his ceremonial whites at a lavish party held on the same night his troops had killed 114 civilians, including children, earlier that day.
Vietnam’s unwavering support for the Myanmar military can be partly explained by its domestic political and economic considerations. As a one-party state led by a communist party, Hanoi resolutely defends Asean’s principle of non-interference because the regime fears external criticism of its own political system and human rights record. Vietnam’s responses to the Myanmar issue have been seen by one commentator as “one authoritarian state sticking up for another”.
The Vietnamese military-industrial complex stands to lose if Myanmar’s economy takes a nosedive. For instance, Mytel, a mobile carrier related to the Myanmar military, is effectively half-owned by Viettel (a conglomerate owned by the Vietnamese Ministry of Defence) with a 49 per cent stake.
Hanoi wants to have its cake and eat it, too. It wishes to enhance its international image and reputation but refrains from defending universal norms and values to protect its economic interests and domestic regime.
At this juncture, Hanoi needs to reconcile its behaviour with its aspiration. It could either maintain the current approach towards Myanmar and undermine Vietnam’s ambition to elevate its international status, or work with other Asean members to ensure that the junta stops oppressing its people.