Myanmar Uncertain Outcomes

Sub Title : Myanmar is in the midst of a crisis consequent to the military take over on 01 Feb

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2021

Author : Lt Gen Sanjiv Langer PVSM, AVSM (Retd)

Page No. : 48

Category : Geostrategy

: March 27, 2021

Myanmar is in the midst of a crisis consequent to the military take over on 01 Feb. Complex situations have uncertain outcomes. There is a possibility that if the NLD and Aung San return, their avoidance of the Chinese would be acute. In such an eventuality India is the only alternative. We will have to find the reflexes, resources and surge capability, to rise to Myanmar’s relief and fulfill their aspirations

The dawn on 01 Feb exploded on the world, with an unfortunate military takeover in Myanmar, which was on the verge of greater representative democracy. The accusations of the Military, that there had been election fraud (2020), by Aung San Suu Kyi, leading the ruling NLD party, barely provides a fig leaf, to the facts. Of the 644 member parliament, 396 of the 476 civilian seats contested, were won by the NLD.  What undoubtedly was central to the military takeover is that Suu Kyi had made it clear that she would strive for amendment of the 2008 constitution, curtailing the militaries mandatory 25%, seats as well as its control over key ministries. She had invited all minority parties to a Government of National Unity. At a personal level General Min Aung Hlang, the C in C, was nearing his 65 years retirement deadline and faced the inevitable drop into insignificance.

While protests erupted, what was unexpected was the intensity of civil agitation, its persistence, and the accompanying extensive civil disobedience that has brought Myanmar to a standstill. Equally reprehensible, is the attitude of the Myanmar Armed Forces, TATMADAW, and its lack of conscience and accountability, when imposing violent and lethal military measures on its own citizens. The flow of media coverage need not be restated here, what however merits a closer look is the “ingredients and strategic complexion” of this crisis.

After an initial period of democracy from 1948 to 1961, the years 1962 till 2011 saw military rule in Myanmar. Due to a range of diplomatic and economic measures (headed by the US and the UN), the military was forced to give ground and Suu Kyi came to the fore in 2011. But the governance was Quixotic. Quasi democratic, largely authoritarian with serving military officers as parliamentarians and perpetual control over ministries of Home, Defence, Border Areas and the Economy.  Significantly the Constitution carried a clause to permit the Commander in Chief to take over from civilians in an emergency. While Elections in 2015 confirmed Aung San Suu Kyi, but the results of 2020 were decisive and ominous for the Military.

As 700,000 Rohingyas were expelled from Myanmar from 2012 to 2017, the world recoiled and put pressure on the Aung San government. Many were taken aback when she backed the Army on the expulsion of Rohingyas. Media built up the narrative that Aung San was kowtowing to the Army and loosing popularity and credibility. The Rohingya albatross was hung around her neck. How fallacious. Suu Kyi was all along solidifying her electoral base with the majority Burman population, and her reference to the Army was a political statement. She understood very well the ultra conservative Theravada Buddhism of the majority 85%, which remembers being wedged between Islamic Bengal and Islamic Yunan. Buddhism in Myanmar never reconciled with Islam. Consequently, her solidarity with the Burmans has precipitated the electoral sweep of 2020 and imbued the populace with the courage to agitate so indefatigably.

Myanmar is where India and China converge but in very different ways. The overpowering socio-cultural linkages in Myanmar are to India. In Myanmar Buddhism is the center of life of the majority. It was through ancient Myanmar, transiting the independent kingdom of Yunan (now south western China), that one arrived in the Hindu Champa kingdoms in Viet Nam. In Myanmar, the first known kings of the Irrawaddy plains styled themselves Vickram and Varman. From the 8th to the 13th centuries significantly Yunan was an independent kingdom, named Gandhara. The rulers presented themselves as descendants of Ashoka the Great. During the colonial period, a firm linkage with India and Indians took place with large migrations of Indian for commerce, administration, education and religion. A complete reversal took place post separation of Burma, and the partition into India and Pakistan. This was also accompanied by the expulsion of the large Indian diaspora. Post independence the Indian State recessed and only revived its interests as a consequence of the Look East Policy of the 90’s. In the interim, flawed colonial heritage and the desultory engagement of the State with the NE region, encouraged a rash of insurgencies. The open and porous borders with Myanmar of 1643 km permitted large safe havens, and logistic avenues for these movements, in the adjoining areas of the Kachin’s, Saigang and Chin. Those legacy movements still defy conclusive resolution.

China’s experience was quite different. A region inhabited by several ethnic minorities, firm linkages commenced with Mongol invasions of Yunan (late 17 and 18th centuries). It was during the 2nd WW however that Myanmar came into focus to evict the Japanese and extend support to the Chinese Nationalist Army. The historic Stillwell road from Margarita (Assam), to Ruili in Yunan became a reality. US firm commitment to Chiang Kai- Shek against, Communist forces of Mao continued, till the Nationalist Chinese established in Taiwan. As Communist China’s aggressive expansion into Tibet exploded, consolidation of Yunan became imperative. Yunan and the bordering areas of Kachin and the Shan regions of Myanmar comprise a mélange of minorities. It has defied clear domination of either country. Independent militias, drug barons, trafficking cartels all share space here with the tenuous instruments of the two states.

The preceding in no way captures the full complexity on both Myanmar’s borders. Significantly however what is central to the body language and momentum in Myanmar is the differing strategic view of India and China. For India, Myanmar is essential to its Look East Policy, as also the compelling security of the NE. For China, Myanmar represents an option, for a two ocean policy. With the Myanmar coast offering an avenue into the Indian Ocean without the need to transit through the Straits of Malacca; it liberates Chinese thought and action. Access to the Indian Ocean also offers an opportunity for China to address the steep decline in economic standards in its south western regions, directly.

China has consequently emerged as an all weather ally of Myanmar. Despite setbacks due to civil society resistance, its support to armed militias against the Tatmadaw, covert support to the Burmese Communist Party, and resentment of its overbearing agendas, it has prevailed. For the better part of Military rule, it was a committed supporter, and even the civil government has been won over to the reality of their ability to change economic outcomes in Myanmar. A staunch enthusiast and participant in the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, Suu Kyi concluded 33 Infrastructure and trade related agreements with Xi Xinping in Jan 2020, during the first visit of a Chinese head since 2001. A gas pipeline from China effective since 2013, and oil since 2017, have both been delivering to the deep water port of Kyankhpyu on the Bay of Bengal. Underway is the setup for the ambitious China- Myanmar economic corridor, with a high speed rail from Kunming to Kyankpyu via Muse and Mandalay, New Yangon city project, China – Myanmar border economic zone and other SEZs. China already operates several Hydel projects as well as Mines in Myanmar. On top of this is the near total dependence of the 40-50 Divisions of the Army, Navy and Air Force, on Chinese hardware.

The Indian engagement has in contrast been conscious of the democratic aspirations of the populace; rights based approach, largely averse to under the radar initiatives. It warmed up very late to the military leadership and has been undoubtedly close to Suu Kyi. The initiatives of its polices however lack the momentum, deep pockets and sure footedness of the Chinese, and are progressing sporadically. The Kaladan Multi –Modal Transport Transit Project commenced in 2010, has been rescheduled for completion by 2021. The project for the Sittwe deep water port was to become operational in early 2021. There are several other projects such as the Trilateral Highway, the India – Myanmar – Thailand motorway and an offer for a refinery in Yangon. A significant beginning has been made with the export of military hardware to Myanmar; it is a beginning but does not displace the Chinese inventories.

Presently with close to a 100 killed and in excess of 1800 detained by the Military, China is the dedicated guarantor of the military regime. Apart from the unclear facts of China having been taken on board prior to the takeover, and presence of their advisors, let’s see what is visible. China supported by Russia, has blocked any coercive measures or condemnation by the UN Security Council. It has not even allowed the terminology of a Coup to be used by the UN. Its own statement has said that it is a “cabinet reshuffle” that is underway. Apart from disingenuity the Chinese international persona is on show. Self serving, with its own version of law, and reality, it cannot accept any imperatives that are unfavorable to its ends. Of course, democracy, human rights and aspirations of populace are completely irrelevant. India while following a line of diplomatic correctness, has in its Govt Statement voiced deep concern expressed its support to the process of democratic transition. It has also placed itself with the Quad Statement that has asked for a return to democracy and rejected any unilateral attempts to change status quo by force in Myanmar.

What has developed is a complex, unpredictable and explosive situation in Myanmar, and it is tempting to continue this article with generalizations and little commitment on the future. I will contest that temptation and attempt to draw some lines, they may albeit turn out to be in sand.

♦             Firstly: the military lack legitimacy and are resented by the populace, this will not be a situation like 1962 when they displaced civilian rule.

♦             Secondly: Chinese shadow seems carry a gift of dismal consequences for the protected. Cases in point are Pakistan, North Korea, and the recent affair with Nepal which is internally in tumult.

♦             Thirdly: The NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi and international support for her return is unlikely to die out, especially in light of the Chinese hand.

♦             Fourthly: there are two contrary calculations at work; the Military feel brutality will beat down people, but what of the civil disobedience? The people feel at some stage either the military will give way or external support will coerce them to do so.

♦             Fifthly: the military leadership in Myanmar has shown itself to be stubborn, insular, impervious to compromise and independent minded; but definitely seeks longevity.

Whatever the outcomes the population of Myanmar face a turbulent future. It is easy to deploy the military from its barracks, but if they have been engaged in brutalizing their own populace, each passing day reinforces their need to go on. With dedicated Chinese support, the Military will continue on their path, and no doubt be guided by the Chinese outcomes in Hong Kong. Unless the civil agitations draw meaningful support from the international community to the exclusion of China, they will either cease or sputter on insignificantly. The international economies ravaged by Covid, lack the will for punitive measures unless they are economic outcomes.

We need to make an exception here. With the Change in US Administration, as China’s encouragement becomes more visible in Myanmar, a whip crack response cannot be ruled out. This may just be the match that will light a conflagration of support for the NLD. Alternately large move of refugees can set off international response.

The outcomes of military continuance if they persist will need the Tatmadaw to focus on internal security, running the infrastructure, as well as extensive policing. The military will have to take over and run the institutions of the State. This will undoubtedly give rise to the inherent fissiparous tendencies of the minorities, significantly those on the borders.

For India it is a challenge not only to its Look East, but more significantly the security of the NE States, related to the insurgent movements. Given the Indian predisposition, dealing with a military Junta to the exclusion of the NLD, will be very complex. Its projects now face uncertain timelines and outcomes.

The Chinese influence in the eventuality of continued military rule will be pervasive but it is unlikely to give long term benefit either to the Junta or Myanmar. To further its projects, it will need to deal with enhanced threats on the Yunan-Myanmar border, as well as intense people based resistance to its projects, especially in the Karen and Shan areas. In addition, the Burman population will now be completely hostile to the Chinese presence. This to some extent explains their desperate backing of the Military, since it is their only ticket for realization of Chinese ambitions. Its long term association with a military regime to the exclusion of the elected politicians is however unlikely to enhance its stature, something China desperately seeks.

Complex situations have uncertain outcomes. There is a possibility that if the NLD and Aung San return, their avoidance of the Chinese would be acute. In such an eventuality India is the only alternative. We will have to find the reflexes, resources and surge capability, to rise to Myanmar’s relief and fulfill their aspirations. It would be a windfall for India, but not if we move incrementally. The nature of our response and its speed will be critical and directly instrumental in endearing ourselves to Myanmar.