Myanmar saw another military coup on Monday, February 1, 2021, and a one-year state of emergency has been declared by its military, by arresting several civil leaders including Aung San Suki. The main reason for this military action has been cited the fraudulent elections which were held on 8th November last year where Aung San Suki had taken 83% of available seats. The army claims that it found around ‘8.6 million irregularities in 314 areas’, and ‘bringing stability in the country by adhering to 2008 constitution had become the immediate necessity’ (Indian Express). In 2008 constitution was framed by the military for the state of Myanmar and is usually referred to as the military’s ‘road to democracy’. Although it reserves 25 percent seats for military personals, this however allowed ‘partial democracy’ to flourish in the country, in which both military and civilian leaders share power. The recent elections were held under this constitution where Suki’s National League for Democracy (NLD), made a clean sweep and defeated also one of the military’s proxy, ‘Union Solidarity and Development Party’ (USDP). That did not go well in military corridors and the result has been the coup.
The military takeover will give rise to several debates verily about democratization; Suki’s failures even after maintaining a close relationship with the military over the years; about the fate of Rohingyas under the new direct military rule; the reaction of regional players like China and India for doing business with military leadership; and much more. Though all these questions are of serious interest but my focus here shall be on the last two.
Aung San Suki’s double standards over Rohingya issue.
Myanmar, Burma, witnessed military dominance over its politics, government and society from 1962 to 2011. The most popular leader that came out during this period was/is Aung San Suki, the daughter of Aung Suki, the independence hero of Myanmar. She received warm and direct support from the West for her struggle for democracy and restoration of human rights for which she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She spent around two decades under detention and was released in 2010. The elections in 2010 which were held by the Military junta, were declined by Suki as ‘not free and fair’. She got the chance to become MP only in 2012, in bi-elections. In 2015, she struck a land sliding victory and became the nation’s de-facto leader and states’ councilor for the first time. Her rule was looked at as the restoration of democracy in the country, and the West began to lift the sanctions which were imposed on Myanmar during the past military governments. The business started to flourish and FDI pour in. But the flaring of sectarian violence against Rohingya Muslims over the years question marked her leadership. This hapless human society on earth normally enjoys the secondary class citizenry and are labeled as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. They are the most persecuted community in the world as per UN. Myanmar army launched a mass crackdown against them in 2017, which forced around one million of them to take refuge in Bangladesh, UN referred to this incident as the ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing. This community is devoid of citizenship rights and are excluded even from the national census. Ang San Suki has tried to take a middle way between the military and contesting communities, however, her bias was quite clear. She supported and defended military’s policies and actions of the majority Buddhist community on several fronts. She also defended her military’s actions against these people in the International Court of Justice, at Hague in 2019. Many sane voices questioned her being a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. For this, she also was accused of ‘doing nothing to stop rape, murder, and possible genocide by refusing to condemn the still-powerful military or acknowledge accounts of atrocities’ (BBC, 01-02-2021). This gave a serious blow to her international reputation. Despite her double standards, she was not able to tie up with a strong institution of the military in her country. For Rohingya Muslims, the direct military rule will be disastrous.
Will China and India, do business with the military government in Myanmar?
To my understanding, both the states will continue their relationships, owing to new realities unfolded by the growing power rivalry in this part of the world over the period. China is closely looking at the USA’s ‘Asia Pacific rebalancing strategy’ where greater attention was paid to Myanmar by the Obama administration, and analysts in China believe that team Obama in Bidden administration will re-build relations with Myanmar to exert pressure on China. That is why we witnessed that while most of the western countries spoke in voice against a coup, China’s external ministry on the other hand asked for ‘compromise and negotiation’ for stable Myanmar and cautioned against external pressure. China sees Myanmar as the closest ally in the Asian region, as being her largest trading partner, the second-largest source of FDI, both share more than 2000 km, long boarder. Myanmar is referred to as a de-facto ‘Chinese client state or virtual Chinese satellite state’, for developing China’s western region. China has been deeply engaged with Myanmar in an economic and strategic relationship under past military and democratic regimes together. Suki government signed Belt and Road Initiative, and China Myanmar Economic Corridor, for developing their economic relationship. Both the states have signed around 33 agreements during President Xi’s visit to Myanmar last year. These agreements are part of China’s Road and Belt initiative. This came at the moment when Myanmar was facing isolation from the Muslim and some western countries on her actions and policies against Rohingyas. Besides both, the states support each other on Rohingya and Ugur issues. The china-Myanmar strategic relationship also looms high, where China is helping Myanmar for developing her military’s strength by supplying jet fighters, armored vehicles, naval vessels, etc., besides training her army, air, and navy personals. She has been also developing her infrastructure on borders and near coastal areas. She assists construction of the naval base in Sittwe closer to Kolkata, this is strategically important for her to keep eye on India. China through Myanmar is exerting its influence on the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Relative to any other nation, China enjoys the greatest privilege in her relations with Myanmar, and moving backward is no option for her.
India had a very pro-liberal or what is referred to as idealistic policy towards Myanmar up-to 1990. That, however, argue realists, gave the greatest leverage to China in building her influence there. However, from 1990, onwards there has been a policy shift. India needs Myanmar for meeting its energy needs; economic development in North Eastern Region; connecting with ASEAN, and checking growing Chinese influence. The richness in hydrocarbon and oil reserves of around 600 million barrels and gas reserves of 88 trillion cubic feet, of Burma, are of immense importance for meeting the energy needs of India. India shares around the 1,643-km-long land border with Myanmar bringing fore its strategic importance for India. Myanmar acts as the gateway for India in connecting with ASEAN and the success of India’s Act East Policy largely depends on her relations with Myanmar. Besides, several highway projects likeIndia–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit, are in progress. India, therefore, deals with Myanmar on calculated interests and has adopted a realistic pragmatic foreign policy since 1990. With any government in office in Myanmar, the given circumstances force India to go for a business with it, she has to praise good and condemn the bad, while not sacrificing her national interest at any cost.
Author is an Assistant Professor of Political Science, at HKM, GDC, Bandipora.