Geopolitics

Myanmar Logjam
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 06 Apr , 2021

A coup d’état in Myanmar began on 1st February 2021, when democratically elected members of the ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), were deposed by the Tatmadaw—Myanmar’s military—which vested power in a stratocracy with year long state of emergency under Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services Min Aung Hlaing. It also declared the results invalid of the November 2020 general election and stated its intent to hold a new election at the end of the state of emergency however, majority of Myanmar’s people support the results of the election.President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi were detained, along with ministers, their deputies and members of Parliament.

On 3 February 2021, Win Myint was charged with breaching campaign guidelines and COVID-19 pandemic restrictions under section 25 of the Natural Disaster Management Law. Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with breaching emergency COVID-19 laws and for illegally importing and using radio and communication devices, specifically six ICOM devices from her security team and a walkie-talkie, which are restricted in Myanmar and need clearance from military-related agencies before acquisition.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group said on April 3 the security forces have killed 550 people, 46 of them children, since the military overthrew an elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1.  Despite the repression, opponents of the coup march every day in cities and towns across the country, often holding what they call “guerrilla rallies”, small, quick shows of defiance before security forces can respond. Authorities also issued warrants for 18 show business celebrities including social media influencers and journalists under a law against material intended to cause a member of the armed forces to mutiny or disregard their duty, state media reported late on April 2.

In the November 2020 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy pulled off a truly extraordinary victory, winning 85 per cent of the vote. That alone should have warned the army that it would face strong resistance to its February coup. Nearly two months on, the demonstrations show no signs of abating. The protesters have also attacked Chinese businesses because they believe China is backing the army.

The coup may have been driven by the military’s goal to preserve its central role in Burmese politics. The Defence Services Act imposes a mandatory retirement age of 65 for the Armed Forces’ Commander-in-Chief. Min Aung Hlaing, the incumbent, would have been forced to retire on his 65th birthday in July 2021. Further, the Constitution empowers solely the President, in consultation with the National Defence and Security Council, with the authority to appoint Min Aung Hlaing’s successor, which could have provided an opportunity for the civilian arm of the government to appoint a more reform-minded military officer as Commander-in-Chief. Hlaing’s lack of power would have exposed him to potential prosecution and accountability for alleged war crimes during the Rohingya conflict in various international courts. Min Aung Hlaing had also hinted a potential entry into politics as a civilian, after his retirement.

The activist group Justice for Myanmar has also noted the significant financial and business interests of Min Aung Hlaing and his family, as a potential motivating factor for the coup Min Aung Hlaing oversees two military conglomerates, the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), while his daughter, son, and daughter-in-law have substantial business holdings in the country.

A few days before the coup, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had released $350 million of cash to the Central Bank of Myanmar, as part of an emergency aid package, to address the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The funds came with no conditions, and without any precedent for refunds. In response to potential concerns regarding proper use of the funds by the military regime, an IMF spokesperson stated “It would be in the interests of the government, and certainly the people of Myanmar that those funds are indeed used accordingly.”

So far, the army has shown no sign of responding to international pressure. But the international community is watching closely. The US has slapped sanctions on the nation and in a recent Quad meeting it reiterated the importance of democratic values for the region.However, the Quad should have given full support to the democratically elected government of Myanmar.

Underlying developments is the fact Myanmar has become ever more geo-strategically important. The Chinese, keen to gain overland access to the Indian Ocean via Pakistan and Myanmar, have invested $17 billion in dams and other infrastructure.

India, all along, maintained good ties with the military and even gifted them a retired Indian Navy submarine. India has a tricky hand to play in seeking to counter China’s regional strategic ambitions. It is also facing an issue with Myanmar’s police and military crossing into Mizoram, which has close-border ethnic links. It is unlikely to extend any overt support to Myanmar’s democratic forces. However, India should confer with other heads-of-state in Myanmar to forge peace with its influence.

At a media briefing, Spokesperson in the Ministry of External Affairs Arindam Bagchi said India has urged for the release of political prisoners and supported any attempts to resolve the current situation, including through efforts of the 10-nation ASEAN.“We condemn any use of violence. We believe that the rule of law should prevail. We stand for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar,” he said.

On whether India will allow people from Myanmar to cross over to the Indian side along the Indo-Myanmar border, Bagchi said it is being dealt with as per law as well as on humanitarian considerations.”We remain engaged on this issue with our international interlocutors and at the UN Security Council in an effort to play a balanced and constructive role,” he said.

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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

Col (Dr) PK Vasudeva

is a Defence Analyst and Commentator.

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