The Myanmar Conundrum
Since the general elections in Myanmar in November 2020, the Myanmar military, known as Tatmadaw, has been refuting the results, alleging large scale rigging. Their appeal, against the election verdict was turned down by the Election Commission, much to their annoyance. In January 2021 top military commanders of Tatmadaw visited Beijing and on 01 February 2021, in a military coup dismissed the legally elected government of National League for Democracy (NLD). The military coup caught the world by surprise.
A country neighbouring India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, having a population of 57 million, a GDP of $ 56billion and a per capita GDP of $ 1408, Myanmar has a chequered history of governance. It gained independence from the British in 1948 and till 1962 enjoyed democratic rule. In 1962, Gen U Ne Win toppled the democratic government and then ruled Myanmar till next 26 years. By 1988, corruption was widespread, the value of Myanmar Kyat (its official currency) had nosedived and food was scarce. Students across Myanmar rebelled and the military crackdown on the protestors resulted in over 3000 dead. International condemnation and sanctions forced Gen U Ne Win to retire.
The new military junta, in 1989, change the nation’s name from Republic of Burma to Republic of Myanmar, to shed colonial baggage. It renamed the capital city Rangoon as Yangon and in 2005, shifted the capital to Nay PyiTaw, a city built in Central Myanmar.
Fuel prices hike in 2007 saw protests across the nation. Known as the Saffron Revolution due to participation of the Buddhist monks, it attracted strong condemnation from international community. Tatmadaw, to attract international investments, to reduce its dependence on China and to establish relations with global order then adopted a new constitution in 2008 which is currently invogue. It gave military widespread powers even in parliamentary form of governance. In 2011, the military junta handed over power and put in place a civilian parliament to rule under President Thein Sein.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of hero of Burmese independence movement, Aung San, came into prominence in 1988 protests which saw her imprisoned for the next 15 years and thereafter under house arrest till 2010. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace prize.
2011 was a watershed year for Myanmar as the President executed a series of reforms releasing political prisoners, encouraging free media and implementing economic reforms to attract foreign investment. Elections were held in 2015 and Aung San Suu Kyi led NLD swept into power. She served as State Counsellor of Myanmar (equivalent of Prime Minister) and minister of Foreign Affairs from 2016 till 2021.
Despite civilian rule since 2011, Tatmadaw had a major say in governance by the virtue of 2008 Constitution which reserved 25 percent seats in Parliament for the military. The constitution allowed any amendment to the Constitution, if only it had over 75 percent support, making it impossible for an elected civilian government to amend it on its own strength. Aung San Suu Kyi was a whiff of fresh air for the people of Myanmar, though marred with allegations of atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims, who took refuge in large numbers in neighbouring Bangladesh. It invited large scale condemnation from international community and Canada revoked the honorary citizenship of Aung San Suu Kyi.
In a country which is 68 % Burman, nine percent Shan, seven percent Karen, four percent Rakhine, three percent Chinese, two percent Indian and Mon respectively and fiver percent others, Mynamar has been a hotbed of ethnic strife since 1948. During Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership, the State was in conflict mainly with the Buddhist and pro-Rakhine (not Rohingya) Arakan Army in Rakhine State; the Karen National Liberation Army in Kayin State; the Kachin Independence Army in Kachin State, the Shan State Army and the United Wa State Army in Shan State. The ethnic strife has displaced millions and killed many. Efforts have been on since 2011 to stop ethnic strife but till date only eight major rebel groups had agreed for ceasefire, which they have now revoked, after this February coup and thrown their lot behind the anti-coupprotestors.
One of the poorest nations in South East Asia, economic reforms since 2011 have made modest gains. Since 2011, Myanmar has averaged a seven percent GDP growth per annum and its per capita GDP has doubled to over $ 1400 in 2017 in comparison to 2008. Poverty too has declined rapidly from 48 % in 2015 to 25 % in 2020. Opening up of economy saw foreign investments grow from $900 million in 2009 to $ 4 billion in 2017. EU, Japan, US and World Bank have been its major donor nations in recent years.
Primarily an agricultural nation, the country is rich in minerals and in natural gas deposits. China is the largest foreign investor in the nation followed by Japan and India. The Rohingya crisis dented Myanmar’s economic credibility and COVID pandemic has further worsened it. The on-going civil strife is a recipe for its disaster.
China is not only Myanmar’s largest trading partner but also its longstanding ally. It also is the second largest exporter of arms to Myanmar, after Russia. Since the civil protest began, not only Tatmadaw has been targeted but anti-China sentiments are running high, fuelling the protests. Anti-China sentiments amongst common people were high even before the coup due to tough working conditions and poor wages in Chinese factories, amongst many other reasons.
China, as a nation is known to work with any government in power, in any nation, provided its interests are safeguarded and furthered. It’s lack of intervention to restore democracy in Myanmar has been interpreted by the protestors as a tacit support to the coup. For the protesters, the Chinese inaction is a form of action and its non-interference is a form of interference.
China however cannot be very satisfied by the sudden turn of events in Myanmar. It has found Tatmadaw to be a difficult customer to deal with. Former military dictator Thein Sein had suspended the controversial Myitsone mega-dam project in 2011 over national pride and self-determination. Tatmadaw has also felt threatened by the Chinese support to ethnic armed militias in north east Myanmar.
Also, since transition of Myanmar into democracy in 2011, China has emerged as its largest trading partner, its biggest lender and one of the major source of foreign direct investment. It is funding the development of the stalled multimillion Myitsone mega dam on Irrawaddy, is investing $ 10 billion to develop a deep-sea port and a SEZ at Kyaukphyu, which is a vital link in its Belt Road Initiative and is linked to the Chinese southern province of Yunnan by two vital pipelines, transporting oil and gas from Kyaukphyu. China also had a very good working relationship with the NLD government. In January 2021, just before the coup, NLD and China had signed the China Myanmar Economic Corridor project worth $ 100 billion.
In turn NLD aligned with China on issues where international community had targeted Beijing such as Tibet, exploitation of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and repeal of democracy in Hong Kong. Support for Chinese action in Hong Kong highlights the closeness of NLD to Beijing as it can be recollected that Suu Kyi came into power fighting for restoration of democracy in Myanmar.
Nevertheless, on 11 February the supporters of democratic rule, protesting against the coup staged a demonstration at the Chinese embassy in Yangon, for its support to the coup. Since then, on the social media, under hashtag “# Boycott China”, the call for boycotting Chinese goods is growing stronger. The social media in Myanmar seems to be aided by the pan Asian Milk Tea Alliance pro democracy forces of Hong Kong, Thailand and Taiwan.
Social media is rife with calls to attack the oil and gas pipeline running from the Kyaukphyu port to Yunnan and sooner or later it is bound to happen, inviting harsh reprisals from Tatmadaw, which already has shot dead over 565 protestors including small children.
China’s lack of popularity amongst common masses is deep rooted as they blame their prolonged suffering and isolation under the military rule till 2011, to the support China gave to the military rule. They also suspect that China will colonise them by indebting the nation withoans which Myanmar can ill afford to repay. The anti-China sentiments erupted on 14 March when a number of Chinese factories in Hlaingthaya were burnt down. Tatmadaw mowed down over 100 protesters on that day, proving to the people that they will protect Chinese interest over the welfare of the Myanmar people. This has led to sharp escalation of anti-China sentiments in Myanmar.
Unconfirmed reports suggest an increased air traffic between Kunming and Yangon. It is reported that besides arms for Tatmadaw, China is sending military personnel to help Tatmadaw and electronic equipment to blackout Facebook and other major social media platforms and international dailies.
Restoration of normalcy in Myanmar is a priority for Beijing as it has major investments in this nation. In case Tatmadaw’s cruelty on the protestors invite stronger international sanctions, the Chinese companies and financial institutions dealing with Myanmar too will then invite similar sanctions. Nonetheless, at present the Chinese seems to be aiding Tatmadaw with the hope that they will quell the civil unrest. It will only be fair to remind the reader of Chinese abhorrence of democracy, Hong Kong being its latest casualty. The commoners fighting for the restoration of democracy very well understand this.
One often wonders as to how a country which started as a parliamentary democracy has time and again seen military rule. Possibly it is due to a deeply ingrained feeling in Myanmar military that civilians are incapable of wielding power responsibly. During basic training of a soldier, this feeling is nurtured which makes the soldier, a son of a commoner, to start believing in his superiority. This makes the Myanmar Army extremely insensitive to the plight of the citizens of the nation as they being well cared for, hold the citizens in contempt.
The military too is fond of power as power begets wealth. The military has its fingers in profitable commercial enterprises, akin to Pakistan Army and therefore reluctant to relinquish power. The senior ranking officers have stashed their personal gains from the military rule, abroad. In the recent discussion on Myanmar in UN, many nations called for tough sanctions on the Tatmadaw Generals but this proposal was vetoed by China. In the ongoing demonstrations, the news of torching of a shopping mall owned by Tatmadaw therefore hardly created any ripples, though reprisals were inhuman.
The international community, though appalled by the coup, have not reacted very strongly against it. Amongst ASEAN, it is Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia that have asked ASEAN to get directly involved in restoration of democracy. Laos and Cambodia have towed the Chinese line. Thailand is non-committal due to its own internal strife. Myanmar is today an acid test for ASEAN and its success will show its strength as a group of like-minded nations who believe in a rule based orderly world.
India, Japan and South Korea are other nations with substantial investments and influence in Myanmar. They have supported the UN resolution asking for early restoration of democracy in Myanmar. Japan and South Korea have stopped trade with Myanmar, post-coup. India and Japan are members of the QUAD and as Myanmar falls in the Indo Pacific region, restoration of democracy is possibly then the first serious challenge QUAD faces.
The growing civil unrest in Myanmar and the resumption of hostilities by armed ethnic minorities have displaced many. Thailand, India and Bangladesh are seeing a steady stream of refugees trickling in. The ongoing civil unrest in Myanmar has resulted in a steady rise in Covid pandemic also. The incoming refugees then not only create a humanitarian challenge for its neighbours but also a serious medical one. It is projected that in days to come the number of refugees is likely to increase and this drives these three nations to make efforts to ramp up international pressure for early restoration of normalcy in Myanmar.
In postscript it must be said that in recent history in South and South East Asia, the fight of a nation’s citizens to restore democracy causing over 565 deaths and counting, has been unheard of. The inaction by the its neighbours to unequivocally condemn it and to advice Tatmadaw to restore democracy is either due to fear of China or due to each country’s own interests in Myanmar. However, it is strongly felt that nations of South and South East Asia must stand by the citizens of Myanmar and force Tatmadaw to restore power to democratically elected government. Such a support will not only earn goodwill of the citizens of this beleaguered nation but it is also certain that such friendly and well-meaning nation’s interests in Myanmar will be protected by the democratically elected government, on assuming power.