Coup in Myanmar and its Geo Political Conflict
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 02 Jun , 2021

The experiment of democracy in Myanmar seems to be under threat with military Junta taking over control once again. It is an established precedence that once the military tastes the political power, they are unlikely to compromise on their overridingauthority, exceptions apart. One has to look across Indian western borders to see the skewed symphony between military and sham of civilian democratic polity. A Similar model seems to be emerging on the Eastern borders casting shadow on hopes of much awaited political transformation in Myanmar which began in 2016.

The Myanmar polity had agreed to share power as per the military drafted constitution of 2008 that guarantees the military(Tatmadaw) a role in politics with special powers. The experiment was found to be generally smooth initially for three  to four years. Subsequently, the State Counselor Aung San SuuKyi was seen to be taking decisions without consulting the relevant organizations and individuals over ruling the military point of view at times. Major differences cropped up in the methods to  tackle the pandemic and ethnic peace process which were considered as failures by  the military. The pragmatic relationship that evolved over five years between the civilian government and the military was seen to be becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.

The over whelming mandate  to Suu Kyi’s NLD party  in elections was expected to have strengthened  the democratic institutions of governance. However, it appears that the top military brass did not seem to be comfortable with the prospects of reduced role in the power play.  The inevitable happened sooner than it was expected in form of a coup orchestrated by the military on 01 Feb 2021. The aspirations of the masses to usher in a shift in power to people were simply dashed with this sudden change in the political situation.

It has been four months that people are on the streets in defianceagainst shift of power back to the military Junta. There are rampant violations of human rights with more than 800 civilians killed raising  prospects of a possible a civil war. It has happened in Myanmar earlier also in 1988 when thousands were killed in Yangon and Mandalay. There was similar (saffron )uprising in 2007 by the monks  against the military junta . So, apparently there is nothing new in that country which has been under military rule for sustained periods of time since its independence. However, there is a difference this time with signs of civil disobedience and political intransigence of the pro democracy protestors.

Quite a large number of students, lawyers, teachers and government employees who have been protesting. There is a civil disobedience by some of  the  employees who have refused to join the duties impacting on  public services. The private banks are also partially non functional in show of support to the cause of democracy. Even a section of Buddhist clergy hasjoined the protests putting their weight behind the agitators .Few of Myanmar’s diplomats and high ranking officials in international institutions have spoken against the military, an unprecedented phenomenon which puts the Junta in poor light.

The hardliners amongst the protesters are reported to have plans of armed action and they are believed to have formed an organization by name of ‘Federal Army’. It is also an opportunity for the ethnic separatists known to be active in the peripheral areas to exploit the situation to their calling. With such a significant opposition to the Military Junta, there is a making of a possible political implosion of Myanmar, a country of strategic import to India. The situation does not seem be getting anywhere near to some kind of normalcy prompting a possibility of continuation of nationwide unrest .

There are growing perceptions that China is a new colonialist conspiring to take away huge mineral resources, precious stones and oil and gas in connivance with the military. There are reports of acts of violence  against  Chinese factories and other establishments by the protesters to convey their ire against Chinese political intrusion.  Apropos, it is prudent to  discuss if the ongoing protests are fallout of purely an internal matter of Myanmar, or there are external linkages. There seems to be a mix of multiple reasons for the current situation impacting on domestic, regional and global turfs .

If we look at big picture, the geography Myanmar has strategicconnotations due to its larger geo political connect with the Indo-Pacific region with vested interests of China. The CPEC  through Pakistan permits China  to circumvent  the vulnerable  sea routes  through  SCS as well as  IOR altogether. China is also developing a similar north-south China Myanmar Economic Corridor across Myanmar to link with the Indian Ocean.  Chinais developing a port in  Akyab region in Bay of Bengal which is linked by  road to Yunan and further to industrial hub on Eastern coast. It by-passes the SCS as well as most the vulnerable Malacca strait. Hence,  deep Chinese interests to keep Myanmar under their folds.

The opponents to China would also like to keep Myanmar under their influence to deny China such a clear advantage. This contingency has a significant bearing on internal political dynamics due to its strategic connect, hence open to exploitation by the big powers. This is what seems to be happening as of now.  Apropos, the response of the countries are reflective of their national perspectives spanning from tactical to geo political turf. The schism lies in support to Military Junta by the China and empowering elected polity in Myanmar by democracies with western world in lead. However, there seems to be no united stand seen to be taken by the concerned nations.

The US and her allies have geo political stakes in the Indo-Pacific region and their immediate response has been to impose economic sanctions and ban on the arms sales to MyanmarMilitary Junta. It is their established pattern to use economy as a weapon to make the rebel political dispensations to fall in line. The issue  has been raised in the UN Security Council to garner international support against the human rights violations by the military Junta. China is known to have vetoed it, expressing their concern and hope to return of normalcy.

The EU has US $ 700 million worth investment in Myanmar in the year 2019 as against US $ 19 billion by China. China is also the biggest supplier of military hardware to Myanmar and enjoys an image of a benevolent patron. Therefore, Chinese connect in Myanmar is an important factor which needs to be considered before any politically aggressive move is contemplated. Moreover, in an agriculture predominant country such sanctions have little impact on the economy unlike industrial nations.

Therefore , the talk of sanctions by the western world and human rights issue is possibly more of a diplomatic exercise sans potential to create plausible impact on actual ground situation. Moreover, they have larger emerging geo political issues  to deal with in Ukraine, Iran, Taiwan, Palestine  and Philippines warranting their utmost attention as of now. 

Russia, who has been a supplier of arms and other military structures is also seen to be generally neutral in their approach. Politically China as well as Russia, while showing deep concern, seem to be treating the current situation as an internal matter of Myanmar. While they have expressed hopes for an early resolution of the political crisis, they are unlikely to support any new anti Myanmar motion by EU and US in the UN.

China already has substantial foot prints in Myanmar which cannot be undone by powers sitting thousands of miles away. Myanmar polity has not much of choice but to listen to China for their political well being. However, the possibility of a democratic set up going out of their folds is a contingency which is not of liking by China, and they do not believe in listening to NO. Hence, need to disfranchise and dilute the democratic forces from gaining ground to the extent possible. 

India is keen to increase her political turf through connectivity, military assistance, trade linkages and soft power. In that,  Indian policy of ‘Look East and Engage East’ is contingent on creating an economic corridor through Myanmar to the ASEAN partners. To facilitate that, India is already in the  process of developing road and rail infrastructure right upto Thailand for such an economic connectivity. India enjoys good equation with civilian government lead by Aung  San Suu Kyi  due to shared democratic values.  There is a political convergence in ASEAN centric regional development and larger world view by both by India and Myanmar.

From Indian national security perspective, the Stillwell road alignment of Second World War vintage is the shortest route from Chinese claimed Arunachal Pradesh to their Yunanprovince.  It has severe military connotations in varied contingencies, besides history of Chinese complicity in supporting Indian insurgent groups. India considers cooperation with the Myanmar army as an essential element   in controlling restive North East afflicted with numerous secessionist movements. It is in Indian interests to establish mechanism for military to military cooperation between both the nations. Accordingly, there is a need to engage civil as well as military top echelons through a balanced approach by India.

Japan is another country who is known to have reasonably high influence in Myanmar. There have been talks of India and Japan combine to take initiative to bring about reconciliation to ease out the current impasse. However, there are no such indications as yet, though back door channels may well be active looking at the strategic import of the issue. The ASEAN countries under leadership of Indonesia are also known to be making efforts to resolve the crisis.

The pro democracy protesters are looking for international community to get proactively involve in pressurizing the Military Junta to honour the Nov 2020 election mandate. Whereas, there seems to be no major initiative by anyone except high decibel diplomatic utterances. The apparent soft peddling by the world at large seems to be influenced ostensibly due to China factor in the current situation. Therefore, a discussion on vectors of possible Chinese connect in the present political situation in Myanmar is necessary.

Amongst the immediate issues, China is keen to revive $ 6 billion 6000MW Myitsone Dam project on Irrawaddy Riverwhich was rejected earlier by the civil government a decade ago.There seems to be little progress on this issue by the civil government. The Myanmar government under Suu Kyi is knownto have scaled down Chinese investment for Kyaukphyu deep sea port due to unsustainable debt burden. Myanmar seems to have taken a cue to steer away from Chinese ‘debt diplomacy’ asseen in case of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. It has impacted China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a project of utmost strategic import for China. It, obviously, is not of liking by the China. The coup in Myanmar seems to be a sequel to largerChinese geo political game with a purpose of establishing a firm base in Bay of Bengal.

The message is clear that China needs to be given way, or be prepared for the consequences, if political ante goes beyond Chinese acceptance. While it appears to be an internal political dynamics as the reasons of coup, it is not convincing enough as Tatmadaw have sufficient  constitutional powers irrespective o f electoral outcome. Whereas, there are subtle pointers indicatinga possible Chinese prompt in the political reset in Myanmar, though China is keeping a low profile.

India, on her part , needs to engage Myanmar in a manner that Chinese political influence  is reduced to the maximum extent possible.  Indian interests lie in ensuring positive political synergies with Myanmar irrespective of format of its political dispensation. To do that, India needs to shed her political ambivalence and seen as an assertive and decisive nation in the emerging scenario.

It also warrants India to reset her strategic boundaries beyond confines of regional span of Indian Ocean and develop power projection capabilities  compatible to emerging  geo political outreach. Myanmar with her military geography has the requisite geo political connect which needs to be harnessedbefore it is too late. India, therefore, needs to be proactive in reaching out to all sections of Myanmar fraternity in their time of need. It would increase Indian influence in the Indo-Pacific ,a necessity to  contain China from indulging in inimical afflictions on Indian periphery.

India is in a position to reunite the fractured polity in Myanmar on the strength of good rapport with all those who matter in that country. The current situation in Myanmar is an opportunity to forge deep and sustainable political bonds, a much needed vector in our national strategic matrix. If not done now then it may be too late to retrieve the political asymmetry being created by China in the region. Answer lies in creating pro active narratives with substance and strength. Let there be no hesitationin taking up this diplomatic challenge which has a potential to empower our geo political buoyancy.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Rameshwar Yadav

Former Director General Infantry, Indian Army.

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