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Immediate East
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Lt Gen Prakash Katoch | Date:12 May , 2014 2 Comments
Lt Gen Prakash Katoch
is a former Lt Gen Special Forces, Indian Army


The over 56 million population of Myanmar (68 percent Burman, 9 percent Shan, 7percent Karen, 4 percent Rakhine, 3 percent Chinese, 2 percent each Indian and Mon, and 5 percent others) has never really seen sustainable peace despite over 53.42 million people following Buddhism (2011 official figures), a religion that preaches non-violence. Refugee exodus has been a constant feature; 3,00,000 Burmese Indians to India in 1960s, some 2,00,000 Rohingya’s to Bangladesh 1n 1978 followed by another 2,50,000 in 1991.

More than 73,000 Myanmar refugees are settled in the US.

Ethnic strife and struggle for sub-national autonomy has been a constant feature in Myanmar. Recent years are witness to conflict between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Myanmar Military, internecine conflict between Shan, Karen and Lahu tribes, plus civil wars between Rohingya Muslims with government forces and non-government groups of Arakan State.

….China’s strong military and economic relations with Myanmar, establishment of USWA as China’s deadly proxy and Chinese vectoring on to Indian Ocean seaboard through Myanmar ports…

2012 saw major riots between the Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Buddhist Rakhines resulting in the displacement of some 60-80,000 people. Though the riots came after weeks of sectarian disputes, what caused the major clashes is not very clear. In a statement on 28 June 2012, the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK) stated that 650 Rohingyas had been killed, 1,200 missing, and more than 80,000 displaced. Myanmar official figures say violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims left 78 people dead, 87 injured, with 52,000 people displaced. While the Rohingya accused the military and police for targeting them, Buddhist organisations, especially those who played a vital role in Myanmar’s struggle blamed the Rohingyas for initiating the riots. Such ethnic strife is on-going. The tremors have also been felt outside Myanmar.

The July 2013 bombing of the Mahabodhi Temple complex in Bodh Gaya was perhaps reaction to the Buddhist-Muslim clashes in Myanmar. Significantly, while Myanmar has been hounding out Rohingyas to Bangladesh, unconfirmed reports indicate that India has about four million Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh spread in various states, 2,300 even in Jammu. How many of them were trained in terrorist camps in Bangladesh during erstwhile regimes is unknown. Bloodshed in Kachin State of Myanmar has uprooted tens of thousands of people and tempered optimism about sweeping political reforms, displacing some 100,000 people as per the UN. Last month, fighting between the military and KIA left 22 dead including one military officer, eight soldiers and 14 fighters of KIA, dimming hopes of a nationwide peace deal.

Then is the question of a Federal Union Army (FUA) of ethnic armed groups, initiated by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. Two conferences have been held and ethnic groups say that a nationwide ceasefire is possible if the government guarantees political dialogues. The FUA would include various ethnic groups including the Karen Army, Kachin Army and Bamar (Burmese) Army but it appears utopian because the ethnic groups want to retain their weapons. The prospects of nation-wide ceasefire look grim (though negotiations by the government are continuing) with on-going military operations since April 2014 against the KIA, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Shan State Army (North), termed as strategic offensive by the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) – a key alliance of ethnic groups headquartered in Chiang Mai in Thailand. Whether a FUA will fructify is yet to be seen but if it does, it certainly will be fully under the Chinese influence with China having armed to the teeth the Shan State Headquartered United State Wa Army (USWA) complete with armoured vehicles, shoulder fired AD weapons, missile fitted helicopters and the like.

Pros and cons of FUA, if formed, can be debated but its merger with the Myanmar Military appears impossible considering the problems in Nepal faced with merger of the Maoists into the Nepalese Army.

…foreign policies of both the US and EU towards Myanmar appear  influenced by Suu Kyi whose NLD is expected to be the winner in general elections next year,  should they participate and international support to Suu Kyi’s demand to amend Myanmar’s Constitution.

Following the 2010 election victory of the Union Solidarity and Development Party backed by the military, house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi was lifted and consequent to reforms by the government (Improvements in civil liberties and human rights, political freedom, easing restrictions on media censorship, setting up of the National Human Rights Commission, release of political prisoners, invitation to expatriates to return home to work for national development etc), Suu Kyi’s party, National League for Democracy (NLD) has decided to register as a political party and contest the 2014 by-elections. The next general elections in Myanmar are slated for end 2015 that will see voting in all constituencies excluding seats appointed by the Military. Under the Constitution, the military controls 25 percent of the seats in Parliament.

There were reports that Suu Kyi’s NLD party had confirmed that it will contest even as Article 59 (f) of the Constitution bars Suu Kyi from running for President having married foreign national is not amended. However, it was later reported that since Suu Kyi wants to run for President, her party will boycott the 2015 general elections in case the Constitution is not amended enabling her to contest. This issue has the potential to raise the political heat in Myanmar, upsetting Myanmar’s progress toward democracy. 75 percent of Parliament must agree for any amendment to the Constitution, implying military should agree. It is expected that ethnic political groups will contest in each state based on ethnic party strongholds, although some have indicated they would consider forming an alliance as the Federal Union Party. As of December 2013, 63 political parties are registered to take part in 2015 general elections.

In backdrop of unprecedented rise and aggressive posture of China, US-China competition in the Indo-Pacific region, China’s strong military and economic relations with Myanmar, establishment of USWA as China’s deadly proxy and Chinese vectoring on to Indian Ocean seaboard through Myanmar ports, US and western interests have rekindled considerably in Myanmar, as demonstrated by the visit by President Obama in 2012 and two visits by Hillary Clinton. President Thien San made his maiden visit to UK and Suu Kyi too has been visiting abroad garnering plenty goodwill from the EU and reportedly funds as well. Interestingly, foreign policies of both the US and EU towards Myanmar appear  influenced by Suu Kyi whose NLD is expected to be the winner in general elections next year,  should they participate and international support to Suu Kyi’s demand to amend Myanmar’s Constitution.

In the 2014 Corruption Perception Index, Transparency International has rated Myanmar 157 position out of 177 countries.  But what should be of concern to India is the strife in Myanmar with ethnic groups involved in one of the world’s longest running unresolved civil war, progress of democracy (will the military continue to hold 25 percent seats of Parliament), violence in the run up to the general elections, western power plays particularly by US and China and its consequential effects on India, Myanmar being to our immediate east.

Courtesy: CLAWS

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2 thoughts on “Immediate East

  1. Myanmar is still not completely democratic. The military is still in control. India should keep a close watch on Myanmar’s military. The military can still manipulate the elections and stop democratic forces from coming to power. India should also secure it border, so that ethnic and other conflicts does not spill over to India. Even though Myanmar’s military’s dependency on China has reduced, it still maintains close ties with China. India should use both carrot and stick approach to keep check on the military. It should also ensure that complete democracy prevails in Myanmar.

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