Myanmar Elections and Impact on the Region
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 20 Mar , 2016

The Karen National Union (KNU) was the largest single insurgent group that continued to fight against central government rule. In 1997, cease-fire talks between the KNU and State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) broke down and were followed by an SLORC offensive that pushed the KNU out of its last strongholds in Karen state. As a result, over 20,000 Karen civilians fled to Thailand. In conjunction with the military’s campaigns against the Karen, Karenni, and Shan insurgents, it was standard practice for the Government’s armed forces to coerce civilians into working as porters in rural areas in or near combat zones.

China has invested heavily in oil and gas pipelines in Myanmar…

Cease-fire agreements helped to curb armed conflict. Burma’s military government had reached cease-fire agreements with as many as 17 of the country’s rebel groups. Many of the agreements were reached in talks with officials led by Prime Minister Khin Nyunt. In 2009, the regime began pressuring ceasefire groups to join a Border Guard Force (BGF)-an integrated unit of Burma Army and ceasefire group soldiers, with Burma Army soldiers occupying the key positions; no major ceasefire group has agreed to these demands. In June 2009, the Army launched an attack against the Karen National Union. In August 2009, the Myanmar Army defeated the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. In this offensive thousands of people fled to China and the Army destroyed weapons and narcotics processing facility in the Kokang region.

In the wake of the November 2010 elections, the Myanmar Army launched a series of attacks against armed ethnic groups in Karen and Shan States. In June 2011, fighting broke out between the Army and the Kachin Independence Army in the Northern Kachin State.

President U Thein Sein’s peace offer was extended in August 2011. By early 2012, a total of 12 armed groups had respectively signed preliminary peace agreements with the government at state or central levels. At the end of 2012, the government had reached preliminary cease-fire agreements with all major armed ethnic groups except the KIA in Kachin State, where armed conflict continued and escalated in December 2012. A tentative peace agreement on May 31, 2013, between the Burmese government and Kachin rebels was hailed as a breakthrough after recent intense fighting along the border with China. The pact was one of the last to be reached with armed ethnic groups, raising hopes of a nation-wide peace.

An unfriendly Myanmar hosting foreign naval presence would be a grave threat to India’s security…

On December 02, 2014, twelve of Myanmar’s ethnic rebel groups announced the establishment of a Federal Army, a move likely to anger the national government. The new force, called the Federal Union Army (FUA), will be under the supervision of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an umbrella group that has been trying to negotiate a nationwide ceasefire between ethnic minorities and the national military. Among the country’s major ethnic rebel groups, only the Wa Army has refused to participate in the FUA.

The Chinese Angle

Myanmar’s political transition has spawned debates and deliberations in policymaking circles and strategic communities across the world. The economic and strategic spinoff of the political changes has generated immense attention and interest. Not least in China. As recently as 2011, prior to its “opening up,” Myanmar was not only considered cut off from international engagement, it was mostly seen as a Chinese vassal state. The decision by the military regime to open up Myanmar (albeit economically more than politically) has, by and large, been seen as a reaction to the country’s over-dependence on China and the latter’s allies. Proponents of this argument point to the Myitsone dam. The project has prompted protests against the Chinese developers so intense that President Thein Sein elected to cancel it. The issue of the controversial dam is presently uncertain, with China contesting the legality of the cancellation.

In reality, the likely motivation for China’s engagement with Myanmar is strategic. It wants to use Myanmar for the development of Southern and central China. Therefore, the changes taking place here are not as unfavourable for China as is generally perceived. China has invested heavily in oil and gas pipelines in Myanmar, as an alternate energy route that eases its heavy reliance on energy transport through the Malacca Straits. The recent opening of the China-Myanmar pipeline is a step in this direction.

The Kyaukphyu pipelines that run through Myanmar and into the hinterlands of Yunnan Province and the construction of the port at Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) are indicative of how China is using infrastructure development within Myanmar to promote its energy security. Myanmar also plays a crucial role in China’s One Belt One Road policy and is a significant partner in the Maritime Silk Road initiative being promoted by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The chances of a larger conflict spiralling out of fighting between the Myanmar Army and Koang rebels always persist…

In Myanmar there exists a conflict between its central and the peripheral regions. This coincides with geographical disposition. The ethnic minorities reside in the peripheral areas and the central region is controlled by the majoritarian Burmese group. Most resources such as jade, hydropower, and timber are situated in the periphery, while resources such a natural gas can be found in the centre. As rebel groups from the periphery launch attacks against the central forces, it not only takes a toll on national cohesion but creates problems for neighbours.

Myanmar’s internal churning clearly impacts how external players such as China engage with it, especially since they share a long 2,000km border. The implications are clearly reflected, for instance, in the spill-over of conflict as seen in the recent clashes between the Kokang rebels and the Myanmar army. The infighting has led to the loss of Chinese life. Apart from stray bombs landing within Chinese territory, reports have emerged suggesting Burmese warplanes have entered Chinese air-space and conducted air strikes.

Importantly, the Kokang rebels are ethnically Chinese. According to the provisional results of the 2014 census, the Kokang region has a population of around 95,000 who are predominantly ethnic Han Chinese. The rising hostilities between the rebels and the Tatmadaw could stoke Han Chinese nationalism. Thus the chances of a larger conflict spiralling out of fighting between the Myanmar Army and Koang rebels always persist.

India’s Interests

Myanmar is of great strategic importance to India. It is the second-largest of India’s neighbours and the largest on our Eastern flank. It provides the Eastern littoral of the Bay of Bengal. An unfriendly Myanmar hosting foreign naval presence would be a grave threat to India’s security. Myanmar shares a long border with China in the North. Strategic complications can be severe in a Sino-India conflict scenario in case Myanmar is under unfriendly influence. Furthermore, Myanmar bridges South Asia and India with South-East Asia. It also acts as a buffer between India’s North Eastern States and the Southern provinces of China. Myanmar’s importance to India’s conflict ridden North-East cannot be underscored better, when they facilitated Indian Army to conduct raids on terrorist hide out, on their territory, post Manipur’s ambush last year, in 2015.

The November 08 election in Myanmar produced a stunning victory for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD)…

Geo-politically, a friendly Myanmar is essential for India’s ‘Act East’ policies of building up relationships with South East Asia. Geo-economically, Myanmar is rich in natural resources and has appreciable production of crude oil, and natural gas. It has sizeable deposits of copper, lead, tin, tungsten, steel and gold. Some of these especially crude oil and natural gas could be an attraction for India, being next door.

General Election of 2015

The November 08 election in Myanmar produced a stunning victory for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who trounced the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. However, a clause in the constitution will prevent Suu Kyi from becoming President, and the military is not likely to relinquish its dominance any time soon. Specifically, the 11-member National Defence and Security Council is the highest body in the government, and is dominated by unelected military personnel who have the authority to declare a state of emergency at any time. Significantly, the military is also constitutionally guaranteed one quarter of the seats in parliament plus the ministries of defence, home affairs and border affairs.

Suu Kyi is unlikely to want to ruffle military feathers and indeed has adopted a conciliatory approach, reaching out to incumbent President Thein Sein. Past experience in Asia suggests that this is sensible – leaders who adopt a belligerent approach towards the military before they have consolidated power often stumble, with democracy usually the major casualty. Suu Kyi clearly has her work cut out, needing to respond to the very high expectations of not just her domestic constituents, but also the international community, which will anticipate an acceleration of economic reforms.

Suu Kyi is unlikely to want to ruffle military feathers and indeed has adopted a conciliatory approach…

Regional Impact

One interesting question is the impact of the election outcome on Myanmar’s ties with other parts of the world, especially its neighbours China, Thailand and India. After a long period of cold relations, things have started to change for better. In 2012, Manmohan Singh became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Myanmar in 25 years, and he also met with Aung San Suu Kyi. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi also visited Myanmar in 2014 and met not just with Thein Sein, but also with Suu Kyi.

Simultaneously, China has also reached out to the NLD leader. In fact, Suu Kyi visited China and met with President Xi Jinping earlier this year. During an interview with an Indian media channel, she made the very important point that Myanmar can play an important role in improving ties between India and China, and should not be looked at as a theatre of conflict. This is a significant point because analysts in India and China, together with sections of the establishment, have long perceived Myanmar as a battleground.


A peaceful stable Myanmar is in the interest of all the countries in the region. This is going to be the priority of the new democratically elected government of National League for Democracy (NLD). As the Associated Press reported, Suu Kyi declared that she would push for a complete peace accord, one that includes the insurgent groups that did not sign an initial peace framework last autumn. The NLD leader’s participation in the peace negotiations has raised hopes that the government can reach a final, permanent resolution with the holdout militias. Some of the holdout insurgent groups may trust Suu Kyi and the NLD more than the previous government, which was dominated by former military men, including some who had led firefights against the ethnic armies.

A peaceful stable Myanmar is in the interest of all the countries in the region…

The ethnically and religiously diverse country can only be governed successfully under some form of federalism, as politicians from nearly every Myanmar party now recognise. As Kachin leader Tu Ja told the Irrawaddy last week, “We are heading towards a federal union. The president [Thein Sein] said it in his Independence Day speech recently. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has also mentioned this. The only question is what kind of federalism this is going to be.”

The economic development of Myanmar is going to be the litmus test for this new born democracy. Pakistan’s experience has shown that it is not easy for military generals to let the power slip so easily in the hands of civilians. National reconciliation, economic development and confining the military to the barracks are the three fundamental challenges faced by Aung San Suu Kyi. India and China can actually play a major and positive role in addressing these challenges and cooperate if Aung San Suu Kyi pushes for it.

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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

Danvir Singh

Associate Editor, Indian Defence Review, former Commanding Officer, 9 Sikh LI and author of  book "Kashmir's Death Trap: Tales of Perfidy and Valour".

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