Myanmar: Strategic Hiatus
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Issue Vol. 36.2, Apr-Jun 2021 | Date : 24 Jun , 2021

One of reasons the Myanmar military elites (about 50 families), gave ground to limited democracy was that the economy was a disaster in the early 2000s. The same state will prevail for some time. The Tatmadaw have huge economic dealings and collections of ‘taxes’. They are vulnerable to even a breeze of sanctions. The Chinese helping hand may become suffocation. There is every indication that the future dispensation in Myanmar will actively look to India and the West for succour and lifelines. Are we up to the challenge? The precedent of Indian delivery has been lukewarm. What would be required are quick-footed initiatives, Public Private Partnerships, heavy infrastructure projects and institutional assistance. The future scenario would present an option of enfeeblement of China. If we really want to ‘Look East’, Myanmar will be the test.

The February 01 takeover by the military in Myanmar this year with the continued armed repression of protests resulting in over a thousand deaths has extinguished many hopes and convulsed many ambitions. As it was in Syria, this brings to the fore the appalling reality of a National Army brutalising its own citizenry. Anachronistic as this may seem, in authoritarian systems such violence is endemic. The intensity and tenacity of the protests are indicative of the deep despair over a lost democratic future. In the geo-strategic domain, the aggressive outreach of China and India’s ‘Look East’ initiatives are all in abeyance. To take a view of emerging imperatives, a perspective on the dynamics that have fashioned the region is significant.

The Great Himalayas reflect a geo-locational poetry. On both the extremities, separated by approximately 4,000 kilometres, run prodigious waterways that have defined history and informed strategy. On the West, we have the Indo-Gangetic outpourings and on the East, a succession of iconic rivers, commencing with the earth cleaving the Brahmaputra. The great Southeastern sweep of the Himalayas merges imperceptibly into the Patkai hills and connected systems. They are confronted on the East with the vast ranges and the glaciers of Southeastern Tibet and the Hengduan Region of Yunan, China. From these origins and prodigious river systems, the Chindwin in the West to the Yangtse in the East have tumbled down to the seas over millennia. The lands between the Brahmaputra and the Salween have always had great socio-cultural convergence and those between the Salween to the Yangtze have been home to a mélange of ethnicities. Between the Chindwin and the Irrawaddy valleys and the abutting areas, reside a syncretic people who term themselves ‘Burmans’.

Burma or modern Myanmar demographically can be visualised as an upturned spoon. The central rounded bowl is dominated by the Burman population, while the raised encircling rim is home to individualistic, unalloyed ethnic communities with fiercely independent dispositions. Throughout history, while the dominant and sometimes expansive kingdoms have been anchored in the centre, they have always had to contend with the independent ethnicities on the periphery, a struggle which has remained endemic till today. Historically, despite being wedged between the Indian and Chinese civilisational influences, it is the seduction and the persuasion of the former that has dominated and been pervasive over the centuries.

Contemporaries of the Buddha, two merchants of Burma, Tapussa and Bhallika became privy to his teachings, in his presence and brought Buddhism to Burma. The relics given by the Buddha were enshrined in a casket under what has become the great Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. Today about 86 percent of the population of Myanmar is Buddhist. The dominant school is the ultra conservative, Theravada Buddhism. Due to its connections to the Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms of ancient Assam and Bengal, Burma remained deeply coupled to the pervasive culture, education as well as a syncretic religious orientation. Later in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Ahoms (Asom), rolled across from Burma to establish, the famous kingdom centered in what is Assam today. Converting to Hinduism, they called themselves ‘Swargdeos’. It was their unyielding spirit and asymmetric manner of fighting that brought the great Mughal juggernaut to a painful and ignoble grinding halt. The battles of 1661 and 1667 are significant. The kingdom of Manipur at its zenith controlled vast areas of the Chindwin valley. Consequently, it would not be out of place to state that from the Brahmaputra to the Irrawaddy, there was a continuum of exchange and mélange of life based on culture and war.

With the onset of British colonial power, post the Anglo-Burmese wars, both Burma and Assam came under British control in 1852. By then, Calcutta was a megapolis, an entrepot of British commerce and governance for a vast region. The colonial period saw an even closer intertwining with India, facilitating move of population for commerce, education and governance. The colonial view was that Burma would provide a backdoor into China, circumventing the long haul by sea, through the Strait of Malacca. This, of course, proved unattainable due to the North-eastern borderlands of Burma and the ungovernable territory beyond the Salween River, what is Chinese Yunnan today. Throughout history, Yunnan was a largely independent kingdom with its capital at Dali. Enjoying great power status from the 8th to the 13th centuries, the rulers who termed this kingdom ‘Gandhara’, chose to ally themselves with the Tibetan kingdom to the West or the Tang and Song dynasties of China, as convenient. It was a region that defied external control till its subjugation by Communist China. During the British high colonial period, there was a swathe of connectivity from Calcutta to Hong Kong. Tibet was not a threat and its footprint was easily manageable by Britain. To the far Northwest, Russia was perceived as an expansive power. China, enervated by the opium trade post the Boxer Wars (1901), had been beaten into submission by the European powers.

While the geostrategic complexion of the region would change traumatically (1947-1952), the Second World War brought Burma into the centre space of competing powers. In the first wave, British power assailed by Japan, evaporated with the fall of Singapore in February 1942 and they beat a retreat through Burma into North Eastern India. The ascendant Japanese star, however, set conclusively on the battlefields of Kohima and Imphal in June 1944, paving the way for the re-capture of Burma. By this time, Nationalist China had come to be and General Chiang Kai Shek, joined the war against Japan. A second great push now materialised to link North East (NE) India with Yunnan, the Stillwell road, from Margarita in Assam to Kunming, across Burma. A historic meeting at the end of the Burma Road took place between General Stillwell and Chiang Kai Shek at Kunming. For the United States (US), Chiang’s China, apart from battling the Japanese, was an investment against the rise of Mao and the Communists. The Burma Road as well as the Air Bridge out of NE India was the logistic lifeline for Chiang.

Conceived for support in the war against Japan, post the Japanese surrender, the same connectivity was used by the US, in support of Chiang’s forces against the Communist onslaught in China. With the retreat of Nationalist Chinese forces to Taiwan in 1948-1949, this region together with NE India became central to the support of Chiang’s Army elements and Tibetan dissidents. The first partition was in 1947 which formally separated the region into India, East Pakistan and Burma. Burma, now Myanmar, became independent in 1948. The most traumatic event, however, was the Chinese Communist invasion of Tibet in 1950-1951. In one stroke, a largely socio-cultural, porous frontier came to be militarised under the control of an aggressive Communist China.

As Burma got independence, the initial democratic experience turned sour and the country was plunged into a civil war among its minorities, Shan, Wa, Karen and Kachin. Chinese Nationalist elements continued in the North Eastern Region till the joint operations by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Burma in 1960 eliminated them, leaving the remnants to form/join drug and smuggling cartels. In 1962, a military takeover of the government precipitated Chinese support to Burmese Communists. For almost 20 years, a war waged between the Burmese Army and Chinese-supported groups. Peace and trade with China was restored in the 1980s due to military gains by the Burmese Army and the policies of the Chinese Leader Deng Xiaoping. By the early 1990s, trade was flowing and about one to two million Chinese settled in Myanmar. Chinese business and infrastructure projects began to dominate the country. Within Myanmar, civil protests in 1988 almost overthrew the Military, but these were brutally crushed. General Ne Win who had been in power since 1962, faded away and in 1988, General Than Shwe took over. Protests germinated the creation of the National League for Democracy (NLD) with Aung San Suu Kyi, its iconic mentor.

Though belated in initiation, the Chinese dedicated push through Myanmar has been both pervasive and focused. The Chinese ‘Go West’ policy of 2000 is fired by earlier intellectual ruminations. The ‘Two Ocean’ policy, (Pacific and Indian), the Malacca dilemma, development of the ‘Chinese West’ have all converged in this policy. Hu Jintao pushed infrastructure assiduously commencing 2003. The 2006 condemnation by the US and the West, of Myanmar’s military and the former’s support to Aung San put China firmly in the front seat. China vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution in 2006 and was immediately awarded lucrative contracts. In the intra Asian world, there is no alternate to the Chinese ability to offer and deliver on a variety of initiatives. Ever since its fortuitous beginnings, China has developed tremendous momentum in Myanmar. The key elements of China’s focus are important for us to view.

In making Myanmar captive, the Chinese have followed a three cornered strategy. Making the Myanmar armed forces – Tatmadaw, dependent on their inventories, development of dual-use infrastructure and capitalising on the oil, gas and trade potential as well as transit. Terminating in the Chinese-built port on Ramree Island are to be oil and gas pipelines, high speed rail and road communications via Rangoon, renamed as Yangon and Mandalay to Yunnan and Chongqing. They have offered to rebuild the Stillwell Road up to the Indian border. On the major waterways in the NE of Myanmar, the objective is to set up mega hydel projects on the scale of the Three Gorges Dam. Oil and gas flows to include the domestic (10 to 90 TC ft potential) and those from West Asia and Africa. There is also an ambitious plan for conversion of the Tavoy neighborhood (Tenasserim Coast) into an SEZ. This would tie in with the road rail projects visualised from Yunnan and also those to Laos and Kampuchea. Remaining prime is the overarching need to dominate Myanmar policy, business, trade and finance.

All along, China has had to suffer the ire and antipathy of the Myanmar civil populace. Seen as overbearing, exploitative and insensitive, there have been many agitations against the Chinese. This issue is in no way made easier due to the fact that many Chinese have settled in and married Myanmarese women. Consequently, the present wave of violence against the Chinese enterprises is no surprise. Seen as the mentors of the military, they have to drink the hemlock presented by this relationship. In acute contrast, the Indian approach to Myanmar has been spasmodic. Post 1948, huge numbers migrated back to India. Centuries of contact were broken. The Indian state’s flaccid approach to its own NE left no space for initiatives towards Myanmar. Championing democracy, India was completely on the wrong foot when the civil war commenced and when the military took over in 1962. In any case, there were no deliverables by India. As the NE Indian insurgencies boiled over, there was no ability to address the secure bases these movements had in Western Myanmar. As a consequence of India’s ‘Look East’ policy launched in 1991, by 1993, the government had warmed up to the military junta. By this time, Aung San and the NLD had won the 1990 elections in Myanmar alarming the military. In 1995, Indo-Myanmar joint operations against the insurgent groups were undertaken.

India’s policies were motivated by the security concerns stemming from the insurgencies in the NE as well as the connectivity to and through to Myanmar. The Kaladan Multi Modal Transport Transit Project, the Tri-lateral Eastern Highway and the project for Sittwe port in Rakhine region of Myanmar are some of the prime pursuits. Commencing in 2010, the Kaladan project and port were due for completion by 2021. This stands in sharp contrast with China, whose pipelines to Kyankhpyu commenced pumping in 2013, Key Hydel projects are completed, mines are delivering and trade is flourishing. The Tatmadaw is fully dependent on Chinese hardware and though India has shown some initiative here, they remain baby steps.

It is tempting to have a sense of déjà vu when viewing Myanmar today. After all, there is a history of protests, war and conflict in Myanmar and the Tatmadaw has always responded brutally. An objective view and a bit of precognition may, however, reveal unusual outcomes. In 1988 – 1989, the NLD came to prominence. In the electoral experience in 1990, Suu Kyi’s success surprises the military. In 1995, Suu Kyi is released despite Chinese backing. The junta is forced to put out a “Roadmap to Democracy” in 2009. Seeking to retain critical control a quasi-autocratic constitution is created by the Generals. The election in 2015 despite every form of military machination was conclusively won by Suu Kyi. The military was deeply concerned. The 2020 results combined with the outreach of Suu Kyi to the minorities and commitment of the NLD to amend the stigmatic constitution of 2008, had the Generals alarmed and on the run. With China as ‘Caesar’s advisor’ whispering, the military took control, in the only manner they know – by force. Commencing with protests and civil disobedience, the crisis has now unfolded into a civil war with the Tatmadaw using air power. The Karens (KNU), Kachin (KIA), a new Chinland Defence Force, are all fighting in concert with the protests. There are fractures in the Burman population also with many youth joining the ethnic fighting entities. A Government of National Unity has been set up in exile; there are no reliable figures of the amount of casualties now.

The Chinese have conclusively allied with the junta. Civil protests and violence against the resident population and assets is widespread. Tatmadaw, with 40 to 50 Divisions of force level, cannot prevail in a civil war, against civil disobedience and guarantee Chinese safety, simultaneously. This is not Tiananmen Square and Myanmar is not China. Also, the calendar says, it is 2021. The Chinese have revealed their intentions by unstinted support to the junta in the UN and the UN Security Council. Unless they intervene with force, their calculations may run awry. The world is slowed down by the pandemic, but the US and some of its allies intentions related to China seem prescient. The UK (after the Falklands) and some NATO allies after decades have sent a carrier group up to the South China Sea and the Western Pacific. Aimed at the freedom of the seas, it is, however, unlikely that nations of consequence will reconcile to a surrogate Chinese military state in Myanmar.

The Indian response initially just about correct, became clearly enunciated post the Quad Conference (18 February 2021), with a firm admission for the need to return to democracy. Its footwork, however, still shows a desire to remain within the iron circle of the military. While this may be the demand of immediate diplomacy, this time around the civil populace and the ethnic minorities that border India are unlikely to forget the lack of convincing support. None of the earlier predilections of NE India are relevant and there is no reason to be captive to outdated security concerns. The Naga movement spearheaded by NSCN IM and Muhivas vision of Nagalim has to traverse the internal confabulations of the Nagas, the governments of Nagaland, Manipur and India.

The erstwhile influence of the Khaplang, NSCN K faction in Myanmar, post his demise, has lost its centre of gravity. Koniyak, the new leader, permits safe havens but the focus is drugs and smuggling, while Niki Sumi (breakaway faction), is in talks with India. The core issues are in India. At any rate, at the best of times, the Tatmadaw were unreliable partners. Now, they most definitely will not divert any attention to the Naga enclaves for the foreseeable future. The Manipuri insurgent groups, a veritable alphabet soup, do find safe havens across but face lack of oxygen in India. The Manipur-based groups are divisive; agendas are opaque and the deliverables, dismal. While the Manipuri population tenaciously clings to its separatism, generations are fed up with lack of economic progress. Indian projects in Myanmar are in any case in an indefinite freeze.

Both, China’s fevered grasping for the sea and India’s ambitions now take a distant backseat. The populace of Myanmar faces a painful future – that of being brutalised by its own armed forces. It seems, however, the ‘raging tiger’ of democratic demands finds an echo in many millions. While the Burman population presently lacks the ability for an armed struggle, the ethnicities on the rim of Myanmar are militarised. Several scenarios are possible. Whatever the outcomes, the military may have to accept a reduced role and be emasculated, at best. A return to status quo ante or a fig leaf election is unlikely to satisfy the populace. There is full legitimacy in the eyes of the populace, for Aung San Suu Kyi to assume her elected position. The junta’s trumped up charges and a kangaroo court are unlikely to fly. The Tatmadaw’s and Chinese calculations centre on military success. Given their journey since 1988, a resentful and recalcitrant population is unlikely to submit to military rule.

One of reasons the Myanmar military elites (about 50 families), gave ground to limited democracy was that the economy was a disaster in the early 2000s. The same state will prevail for some time. The Tatmadaw have huge economic dealings and collections of ‘taxes’. They are vulnerable to even a breeze of sanctions. The Chinese helping hand may become suffocation. There is every indication that the future dispensation in Myanmar will actively look to India and the West for succour and lifelines. Are we up to the challenge? The precedent of Indian delivery has been lukewarm. What would be required are quick-footed initiatives, Public Private Partnerships, heavy infrastructure projects and institutional assistance. The future scenario would present an option of enfeeblement of China. If we really want to ‘Look East’, Myanmar will be the test.

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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 Sanjiv Langer

is former Director General Defence Intelligence Agency and Honourable Member Armed Forces Tribunal.

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