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Myanmar Crisis

Taiwan takes tougher line against Myanmar regime

First parliamentary motion in Chinese-speaking world to criticize February coup

Taiwan's national legislature has passed a motion urging the Myanmar junta to restore democracy and halt its violence against demonstrators opposing the coup. (Nikkei montage/Reuters)

YANGON/BANGKOK -- Taiwan's national legislature has passed a motion urging the Myanmar junta to restore democracy and halt its violence against demonstrators opposing the coup.

Supported by the ruling party and passed by a large majority on Friday, the resolution signals a policy shift that sets Taiwan further apart from such countries as China, Thailand and Vietnam, all of which have taken a softer approach toward the Myanmar military. While having no formal diplomatic ties, Taiwan is among the biggest investors in Myanmar.

The resolution noted that the military's "brutality has triggered shock, concerns and condemnations across the international community," calling the violence "unacceptable." It urged the regime to "restore democratic politics as soon as possible" and called on the Taiwanese government to protect Taiwanese citizens in Myanmar and to extend the stay of Burmese living in Taiwan.

However, the resolution made no mention of possible economic sanctions against the Myanmar regime. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and her government had previously been reluctant to explicitly condemn Myanmar's coup, but the resolution was backed by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as well as the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT).

"The motion had support from all major political parties, both DPP and KMT. That's significant in that it represents a consensus based on public opinion in Taiwan," said Hunter Marston, a Canberra-based political analyst who follows Myanmar.

The move highlights the differing approaches of Taipei and Beijing in their foreign policies, Marston said. "Even the way in which Taiwan's legislature arrived at this motion reflects the democratic process behind Taiwan's foreign policy decision-making."

He said the resolution is "promising in that it indicates a clearer consensus with other democracies in the region such as Japan and South Korea, which still need to take a firmer stance against the coup before the Myanmar military will feel truly isolated. But it's an important step in the right direction."

Even so, Wan Ying Weng, a Taipei-based expert on Myanmar who worked in Taiwan's parliament, said the resolution should have asked Taiwan authorities to investigate whether Taiwanese companies were doing business with the junta and requested investors to examine their operations.

"Taipei should also scrutinize if there are natural resources imports linked with the military regime, and report to parliament and answer parliamentary questions," she told Nikkei Asia.

In mid-March, Taiwan's de facto embassy in Myanmar advised Taiwanese companies operating in the country to fly the island's flag and hang signs stating they are from Taiwan to avoid being confused with China, following attacks and burning of Chinese-financed factories in Yangon's Hlaing Tharyar industrial area.

The resolution could add to tensions between Taiwan and China over Myanmar, which have recently intensified after Beijing last Friday issued new threats against the island. Beijing said Taiwan's military "won't stand a chance" if it chose to invade.

In February, Beijing mouthpiece Global Times accused the Milk Tea Alliance, which it called "a loose online coalition of people mostly from regions including Hong Kong and Taiwan who like to attack China on social media," for stirring up rumors against China in Myanmar.

And on April 3 the Global Times accused Taiwan of attempting "to seize the opportunity amid the chaos in Myanmar to undermine the interests of the Chinese mainland in surrounding areas and overseas."

China and Taiwan have a tangled history in Myanmar, with both sides contesting for control of border regions after remnants of the fleeing Kuomintang military occupied areas during the 1950s with U.S. logistical support, following their defeat by Chinese Communist forces. Even after the KMT shifted to Thailand, communities stayed behind, building Chinese schools and preserving links that have seen many people from Myanmar move to Taiwan for education and work.

Taiwan had little official access to Myanmar during the previous decades of military dictatorship. It opened its de facto embassy -- the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office -- in Yangon in early 2016 as Aung San Suu Kyi prepared to launch a government following her landslide election win in 2015.

Taiwan today is among the top investors in Myanmar, although the true extent is masked by official data which does not include Taiwanese companies registered through their regional subsidiaries. Major investors include shoemaker Pou Chen, Cathay United Bank, Mega International Commercial Bank, E. Sun Commercial Bank and agricultural food producer Dachan Great Wall.

Hundreds of people from Myanmar living in Taiwan rallied in Liberty Square, central Taipei, last month to denounce the coup in their homeland.

"The Burmese diaspora in Taiwan was initially a bit disappointed at Taiwan's government for not speaking out in support of the Myanmar people and its democracy movement," said Thomas Chen, a Burmese Chinese who joined the rally. "But we are now moved and encouraged by the resolution and by the Taiwan government making their position clear."

"More could be done by Taiwan, such as sanctioning the generals and companies associated with the Burmese army," said Chen, who teaches at Taipei's Soochow University.

Clauses in a draft proposed condemning the military's atrocities and calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratic leaders did not make it into the final resolution, according to Taiwan's Central News Agency.

Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Joanne Ou said the ministry respected the resolution and urged the Myanmar military to stop the crackdown. There are around 500 Taiwanese businesspeople still in Myanmar, she said.

The parliamentary resolution is the first of its kind in the Chinese-speaking world and stands in stark contrast with Beijing, which has refused to use the word "coup" and has blocked efforts by the UN Security Council to hold the junta accountable.

Singapore's foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, said last month that "there should be no foreign interference" on Myanmar. The Hong Kong government has not commented on the situation in Myanmar at all. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam paid an official visit to Myanmar and met Aung San Suu Kyi in 2017 to boost commercial ties, shortly after the military crackdown against the Rohingya Muslims. Since Hong Kong leaders usually only visit more developed economies, her visit was seen to reflect the special importance of Myanmar.

"Taiwan's willingness to voice support for the protests and a return to democracy signals its emphasis for values and human rights," Marston said.

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