Czech Republic bucks trend as V4 ignore Myanmar crisis

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Poland and the Czech Republic were quick to condemn the February 1 military coup in Myanmar. The following day, the Polish Foreign Ministry issued a statement: “The takeover of power by the military is a violation of the constitution and an attempt to undermine the will of the people of Myanmar expressed in the general election,” a reference to the ballot that the National League for Democracy (NLD) had won just months earlier, which the military spuriously claims was rigged (its justification for the coup.) The same day, the Czech Foreign Affairs Ministry stated: “The Czech Republic condemns the military coup in Myanmar.”

But with the exception of the Czech Republic, as we’ll see, the V4 states have largely played bit-parts in the Myanmar crisis. For instance, Robert Bociaga, a Polish freelance photojournalist, was arrested in Myanmar by military authorities in early March and later released. On July 1, Poland joined Austria, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands in agreeing to suspend Myanmar’s debt repayment worth around US$98 million, a way of helping the country manage the severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Neither Slovakia nor Hungary appear to have issued official statements following the coup. However, Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová, a former human rights lawyer, did briefly mention Myanmar during a speech in June in which she called for reforms to how the EU makes foreign policy. “Violation of international rules can harm everyone, not just those directly affected – whether in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, or Myanmar,” she said. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó is believed to have discussed the coup with his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi when he visited Jakarta in mid-February.

Nonetheless, none of the V4 states have bucked against EU policy on the Myanmar crisis. They have followed the EU’s decision to sanction military junta officials and aligned businesses, as well as Brussels’ long-standing arms embargo. When the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in mid-June to stop the flow of arms to Myanmar, as well as to urge the military to respect last November’s election results and release political detainees, all four Central European states voted in favor of the motion. The Czech ambassador in Myanmar, Hana Mottlová, has signed several joint statements with other European ambassadors, such as one on July 23 calling for the junta authorities to respond to the spread of COVID-19 in Yangon’s notorious Insein prison.

A minor deviation from the EU norm came in mid-March when the Hungarian Foreign Minister Szijjártó criticized Brussels’ recently-imposed sanctions on Myanmar and China as “pointless, grandstanding and harmful”. His words were picked up by international media, but it appears that Szijjártó was primarily referring to the sanctions on China, which has close relations with Budapest, rather than the sanctions on Myanmar. It may have also caught Budapest’s eye that the Myanmar junta has gone after organizations funded by George Soros, the bogeyman of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s propaganda.  In March, Phyu Pa Pa Thaw, finance director of Soros-funded Open Society Myanmar, was detained by the military authorities on trumped-up charges.

For the most part, the Myanmar crisis has not been a primary concern for the V4 states. Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, for instance, has spent recent months lobbying the EU and other European countries to focus on issues closer to home, namely renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine and the ongoing political crisis in Belarus. Myanmar does not appear to have been discussed at any great length during the various Visegrad Group meetings this year. It is probable that this lack of interest is also the result of the V4 states having very small communities of Burmese nationals and migrants. Again, the Czech Republic is an exception with NGO groups such as the Burma Center Prague and the Karen Community of the Czech Republic having engaged in some public advocacy. A small anti-coup protest was held in Prague and also in Bratislava on June 13. Speaking to me this month, David Frederic Camroux, an honorary senior research fellow at the Center for International Studies at Sciences Po in Paris, argued that the relatively small Burmese diaspora in continental Europe has diluted the overall EU response. “Myanmar [is] a casualty of Brexit,” he said, meaning that the large and noisy Burmese diaspora in the United Kingdom has been unable to influence the EU agenda because of Britain’s departure from the bloc.

In many ways, the lack of attention also reflects the highly complex nature of the Myanmar crisis. The V4 states lack diplomatic leverage in Naypyidaw and the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc, as does the EU as a whole. Moreover, the crisis risks becoming an area of proxy conflict for superpowers. Russia has gained increased leverage in Naypyidaw by supporting the military junta, particularly through shipments of arms and munitions. China has so far tip-toed on the issue, having previously developed strong ties with the ousted NLD civilian government and wary that the junta’s chaotic leadership risks major social and political instability in Southeast Asia. The United States, as well as China and the EU, has trusted the ASEAN bloc to mediate a solution to the Myanmar crisis, although this had resulted in almost no progress. Increased instability in Myanmar could lead to more direct intervention from Washington.

That said, relations between the V4 countries and Myanmar were progressing during the 2010s. Myanmar’s trade with the V4 states has increased considerably as the country opened up to the world and embraced limited reform, especially after political-icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD were allowed to form a civilian government in 2016.  Czech Republic’s imports from Myanmar rose from around US$790,000 in 2010 to US$109 million in 2019, a 13,710% increase, according to World Bank data. Myanmar’s exports to other Central European states also saw four or five-figure percentage growth, considerably faster than their expansion of trade with any other ASEAN state. Hungary exported US$176,000 worth of goods in 2010, but this rose to US$3.2 million by 2019.  Czech exports to Myanmar rose in value by 2,225% between 2010 and 2019.

Political relations were also progressing in the 2010s. Suu Kyi visited the Czech Republic in 2013 and again in early 2019 when she was State Counsellor. This was her first visit to Europe since August 2017 when Myanmar began the mass expulsion of its Muslim Rohingya minority that has been described as a “genocide”. Although Suu Kyi’s civilian government claimed that it had little power to stop the military-led human rights abuses, she was rebuked internationally for failing to stand up for the Muslim minority and also for exacerbating tensions, by referring to them as “Bengalis”, not Myanmar citizens. When Hungarian Prime Minister Orban met with Suu Kyi in Budapest in 2019, his office said their discussion was focused on how to manage “coexistence with continuously growing Muslim populations”, which received criticism from human rights groups.

Despite warming relations, diplomatic ties between Myanmar and the V4 were weak even before the February 1 coup. Poland doesn’t have an embassy in Yangon. (The German embassy provides consular services for Poles). Neither does Slovakia and Hungary, with their embassies in Thailand responsible for Myanmar. Of the V4 states, only the Czech Republic has full-time diplomats in Myanmar. However, current ambassador Hana Mottlová only took up the role in late 2019, giving her little time in Yangon before the coup. On June 23, the Czech embassy suspended parts of its official activity in Myanmar.

The Czech Republic is also the only V4 state in which Myanmar has opened an embassy, in 2019. (This was the reason for Suu Kyi’s visit to Prague that year.) Days after the coup, the Myanmar ambassador to Prague, Kay Thi Soe, was recalled for apparently revealing that she had voted for the NLD at the previous general election. She also reportedly took to Facebook to condemn the military takeover. On February 9, then-Czech Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček received her for a meeting before her departure and a ministry statement noted: “The Czech Republic will use all available diplomatic instruments in order to restore democracy in Myanmar and will coordinate its effort with partners in the European Union and global democratic community.”

Since Kay Thi Soe was recalled, the Myanmar embassy in Prague appears to have been headed by Phone Lin Kyaing, the chargé d’affaires. It is unclear if he represents the interests of the junta. A new (and little-followed) Twitter account “Myanmar Embassy Prague” was created in April, which has retweeted documents from the junta’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as a tweet from the also recently-created “Myanmar Embassy Belgrade” account that described anti-coup protesters in Kin Ma village as “terrorists”. (The military authorities reportedly set the village ablaze in June after these protests.) On May 25,  Phone Lin Kyaing met with Jan Horník, vice-president of the Czech Senate. The same day, he also visited Barbora Loudová, head of the Department of Protocol and Foreign Relations of the Office of the Czech government. No statements have been released as to what they discussed.

However, the Czech Republic also has relations with the National Unity Government (NUG), which was formed in mid-April by ousted politicians from the NLD and other pro-democracy activists as an alternative government to the military junta. The NUG asserts itself as the legitimate government of Myanmar. Almost every country in the world has so far delayed stating which of the two they consider the legitimate government, while most international organizations, including the World Health Organization, have also avoided making this decision. Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar’s currently-recognized UN ambassador, vehemently protested the coup and has managed to retain his position in New York despite the Myanmar junta no longer recognizing him as their representative. The decision of whether the junta or the NUG is the legitimate government of Myanmar is likely to be decided at the UN General Assembly in September when the Credentials Committee is expected to vote on the matter.

For relations with the NUG, again the Czech Republic has been most active of the V4 states, as well as among most European states. On May 24, Martin Tlapa, a Czech Deputy Foreign Minister, sent a letter of congratulations to Linn Thant, an activist who has lived in Prague since 2014 and who was appointed the NUG’s liaison officer for the Czech Republic.  Tlapa said that the Czech government welcomed the formation of the NUG, adding: “Our position is clear: not to recognize the new regime as the government of Myanmar…We stand with the people of Myanmar and remain ready to participate with all means in international efforts to return Myanmar to the path of democracy.” (In an interview with Czech media months earlier in March, Tlapa had compared Suu Kyi to Vaclav Havel, the famed Czech anti-communist icon and later president.) On May 13, the NUG’s Linn Thant also met with Pavel Fisher, the Czech Senate chairman of the International Relations, Defence, and Security Committee.

Importantly, on May 24  Czech Foreign Minister Kulhanek held virtual talks with Zin Mar Aung, the NUG’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. This makes Kulhanek one of the few foreign ministers who has publicly disclosed conversations with the NUG hierarchy. In fact, a Czech Foreign Ministry statement after this talk quotes Kulhanek saying that “I telephoned Burmese Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung and expressed support for the National Unity Government,” a comment that would appear to suggest the Czech government has decided to recognize the NUG as the legitimate authority in Myanmar, although this has not been explicitly stated by Prague.

It is believed that other senior European officials have engaged in backchannel talks with the alternative government. But a search through the NUG Foreign Ministry’s official website finds that it has conducted more talks with Czech officials than with politicians from any other European country. It is most probable that Czech officials will lobby in favor of the NUG being recognized as the legitimate government, however, it does not have a seat on the UN Credentials Committee.

  • David Hutt is a journalist based in the Czech Republic focusing on Europe-Asia relations. He previously reported from Southeast Asia. He is the Southeast Asia Columnist at the Diplomat and a correspondent for Asia Times. He also writes the newsletter Watching Europe In Southeast Asia, which provides analysis and forecasts on EU-ASEAN relations.