South Asia

What Can India Do To Move Myanmar Away From Further Violence?

When a neighbour’s house is burning, inaction is not an option or solution. China is likely to capitalise on the anarchy, so India can hardly sit back and watch.

This is the second and final part of a series on conditions in Myanmar after the military coup. Read the first here.

For India to depend on the Tatmadaw to contain China is even more questionable. As an independent middle power throughout history until the advent of the British, Myanmar’s default reaction to big powers – China, India and the US – has been to keep them at a distance and pursue a neutral policy. This is understandable.

In addition, the Myanmar Army is and has every reason to be wary of the Chinese, which has pressed down on it militarily and demographically through history. But every time the Tatmadaw has acted against its own people since the 1980s – first against the pro-democracy agitation in 1988, then the Rohingya in 2017, and now against the country and its future as a whole – China has taken full advantage of Myanmar’s isolation and discomfiture to deepen its grip over the country. It has used Myanmar’s international isolation to extract controversial economic concessions such as mega-hydroelectric (Myitsone, which was suspended in 2010 on environmental grounds) and mining projects (the Letpadaungtaung copper mines); invest heavily in connectivity along the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor from Yunnan to Kyaukphyu south of Sittwe (in the Bay of Bengal) that includes oil and gas terminals and more recently rail, road and inland water connectivity from Kyaukphyu northeast to Yunnan as well as through Mandalay to Yangon; as also a Special Economic Zone and Deep Sea Port in Kyaukphyu. A Myanmar weakened by internal divisions that the Tatmadaw has brought upon itself and forced to give concessions to China can hardly guarantee its own security, let alone India’s.

China is also investing heavily in official, private and grey zone industrial and /or real estate projects in border areas with China and Thailand, Mandalay and Yangon amongst others, and now reportedly also looking at environmentally controversial mega hydro-electric projects down the so far un-dammed Thanlwin (Salween) river to its mouth in Mawlamyine (Moulmein). If it succeeds, China will have a presence in Myanmar all the way from Rakhine bordering Bangladesh on the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Martaban almost up to the Andamans Sea. 

On the other hand, when Myanmar has been more open and at relative peace with itself, as it was during the Thein Sein years, it has kept China off balance by its political and economic engagement with China’s Western and Asian rivals such as the US, Japan, Australia and India. In addition, the Myanmar people as a whole fear a perceived Chinese demographic intrusion and domination, and such latent anti-Chinese feeling has been stoked post-coup by a widespread belief that the Chinese are backing the Tatmadaw. It has also resulted in attacks on Chinese factories and interests in Yangon and elsewhere. A more open and democratic Myanmar in which people have a greater say, is therefore clearly more in India’s interests, although the political relationship cannot be taken for granted and will have to be earned.

As a next-door neighbour, India’s compulsion to have a pragmatic working relationship with the Tatmadaw on the border and other issues cannot be denied. But in doing so, India should not and cannot compete with China in Myanmar by being a pale imitation of the former. Post-coup, a perception has grown in political quarters in Myanmar and observers outside that, notwithstanding its pro-democracy rhetoric, India too is assisting and supporting the Tatmadaw including through military supplies. This would be self-defeating. Just as India benefited in the popular mind in Afghanistan by being the anti-thesis of Pakistan, in Myanmar, India should position itself as the anti-thesis of China. It can do this by playing to its own democratic and economic strengths which correspond with the needs of the people of Myanmar, not its repressive military. It should not be seen as close to or supporting the Tatmadaw and discreetly build up contacts with the National Unity Government (NUG) and major ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) to whom real power is shifting along its borders and beyond.

Tatmadaw out of ideas

The post-1990 Myanmar that defined Indian policy towards Myanmar and lasted through a period of co-habitation between the NLD government and the Tatmadaw until the coup, has now changed irrevocably. Yet, the military regime lacks the political reflexes or imagination to come up with anything beyond the hopelessly discredited 2008 constitution to preserve the dominant role of the military behind a façade of civilian rule by the USDP (as visualised by Than Shwe and as it succeeded in doing under President Thein Sein from 2010-15), trying to gerrymander fresh elections under a proportional representation system scheduled for August 2023 as a vehicle for General Min Aung Hlaing’s rumoured Presidential ambitions. Such an election would have no legitimacy, but that too seems to have floundered with election officials being targeted by the resistance and no certainty of its happening. 

In addition, despite frenetic efforts by the ASEAN – including its last initially sympathetic chair, Cambodia – the regime has no ideas or intention to enter into a dialogue with the opposition as required by key points of the ASEAN five-point consensus, or any prospects for the youth who constitute Myanmar’s single largest demography. Having tasted the relative freedom of the Thein Sein and NLD years from 2010-20 and the technological changes and social and economic opportunities that came with it after 50 years of inert military rule, the latter are ready to make sacrifices to regain those freedoms and opportunities. These youth include ethnic Indians who now are fully naturalised Myanmar citizens.

Today, it is difficult to visualise any scenario in which the military can restore full control or authority or regain the legitimacy to rule Myanmar. A new formula for Myanmar based on the idea of a federal, democratic union with a section of the Tatmadaw on board is the only way to prevent a Balkanisation of Myanmar, from which China will profit. It is therefore desirable that India re-calibrates its policy towards Myanmar based on a realistic assessment of where the conflict is heading, a more balanced understanding of whether power comes from the people or the barrel of a gun, a hard reckoning whether its interests are better served by the former or the Tatmadaw, and by holding true to values of freedom and democracy dear to India.

Indian army personnel walking along the India Myanmar border. Credit: PTI

Indian army personnel walking along the India Myanmar border. Photo: PTI

State of opposition

Yet, if the military is in a cul-de-sac, the opposition too lacks the means to force a solution to its advantage or the political organisation to effect it. First, it lacks the firepower or the international support to prevail over a Tatmadaw well-armed by Russia and China amongst others, although calls for humanitarian assistance, recognition of the NUG, and even military support from outside are building up. Second, despite a plethora of well-armed ethnic armed organisations opposed to the Tatmadaw over 75 years of Burma’s existence, the former has had no tradition of fighting a common enemy together, let alone with the new Bamar PDFs, each fighting their own separate wars instead. There are some signs that this too could change. Third, notwithstanding a growing solidarity between the Bamar mainstream and ethnic minorities against the Tatmadaw, and training of PDFs by some EAOs, there is still a psychological barrier stemming from a majoritarian Bamar mindset and ethnic suspicions of Bamar-Buddhist nationalism that is hard to fully overcome and easy to return. 

Fourth, partly as a result of this, rather than countenance a Bamar or one of their own as a ‘national’ leader, ethnic political parties and armed organizations would prefer a ‘collective leadership’ within a federal democratic union, pre-empting in the process a potential leader who can act as a rallying point for the opposition as Daw Suu did from the 1980s until now, and manage the inevitable rivalries and frictions amongst the opposition. With Daw Suu imprisoned and alienated from the ethnic parties on account of her perceived Bamar-centricity, there is such figure visible now. There are reports already of clashes and frictions between NUG and non-NUG PDFs in Sagaing over ‘donations/ extortion’ and issues of authority and justice that too need to be addressed.

Fifth, and most critically, with the Myanmar Army having dominated virtually every Burmese institution since 1962 and sabotaging the only civilian institution to emerge since 2010, the Myanmar Parliament, there is a vital need for transitional arrangements to ensure stability and governance in the aftermath of the current crisis. Nowhere is this more important than the Armed Forces itself. In their antipathy for the Tatmadaw, the opposition can ill afford a vacuum in place of the Tatmadaw as the US precipitated in Iraq. Nor can one Army be replaced by another overnight, leaving a wounded, disgraced, disbanded and unemployed Tatmadaw turning to brigandage or banditry or regrouping to avenge their defeat and return. It is imperative that the opposition work within to carry at least a potentially reformist section within the Armed Forces with them so that the institutions of governance, especially administration and police, can be ‘civilianised’. 

Lastly, unlike in the past when one of the other power would take the side of the oppressed for political if not principled reasons, today, the west itself seems to have distanced itself from democracy promotion outside its areas of core strategic interest largely in the western world, and most major powers (including western) are quite prepared to live with authoritarian regimes (and may indeed prefer them) provided they serve their needs. To some extent, together with ASEAN centrality in the search for solutions, this has cushioned geo-political rivalries and a new East-West Cold War in Myanmar. It also means that as a result, the political opposition and armed resistance in Myanmar are pretty much on their own. With the latest extension of the emergency and imposition of martial law in large swathes of Myanmar, fresh sanctions, and a more robust approach to humanitarian and possibly military assistance on the part of the US and west, this may however may change for the better or for worse.

Also Read | No End in Sight: The Continuing Conflict in Myanmar Two Years After Military Coup

Options for the future

With the five-point ASEAN consensus of April 2021 effectively still-born as a result of the regime’s obduracy, is there anything more that the ASEAN under Indonesia’s leadership, the international community, regional powers or even India can do to move Myanmar away from further violence and anarchy and towards a solution that can meet the aspirations of the Myanmar people? To some extent, that question may be premature. Oftentimes, it is necessary for internal forces, political and/or military, to find an equilibrium or tipping point for diplomacy to the fruitful. Yet the quest for a solution in the face of a humanitarian and human rights disaster, insecurity and instability in the region, and geo-political rivalries that could flare up suddenly cannot be given up. The suggestions proposed here are tentative and meant to stimulate discussion, not prescriptive.

The predominant view in the Indian strategic community is to wring hands, express concern, and confess that there is little that India can do alone or in concert with others to ameliorate the situation; that our only course for diplomacy is the ASEAN; that is better to stick with the known devil, the Tatmadaw, to safeguard our interests rather than gamble with democratic options that have often in the past, including during the tenure of the NLD in Myanmar, failed us; and that the best that we can do is to protect ourselves with some defensive and restrictive measures at our borders so that the conflict does not spill over into Indian territory. 

This is tempting but untenable. When a neighbour’s house is burning, inaction is not an option or solution. The conflict is already spilling over India’s borders in the form of refugees, increased insurgent activity, use of IIGs by the Myanmar army against anti-Tatmadaw ethnic militias, cross-border spill-overs of military operations, increased drug and attempted arms smuggling on the part of insurgent groups, and cross-border ethnic sympathies and loyalties. Second, it is contrary to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitions for India as a regional and globally influential power. Third, if the prospects of a total breakdown of authority and Balkanisation in Myanmar are real, and China is likely to capitalise on the anarchy and push its economic and strategic interests in Myanmar and towards the Bay of Bengal, Gulf of Martaban, and the Andaman Sea, India can hardly sit back and watch. 

Lastly, while it is no one’s case that India can find answers to the situation in Myanmar when no one else can or that it can undertake diplomacy alone, it also seriously underestimates what India can bring to the table in Myanmar. Its very presence offers diplomatic alternatives to the US and China in addition to the ASEAN. In addition, its support can range from accommodating temporary refugees, to placements for displaced scholars at risk, scholarships for displaced students, and medical and humanitarian assistance, all of which will build political capital for India during Myanmar’s period of instability, and support for transitional and constitutional arrangements when circumstances are more mature. This does not mean that India should displace ASEAN centrality in finding a lasting solution to Myanmar. As a major country bordering Myanmar with whom it has long historical and political ties, and affected by the crisis, India must however be part of the quest for solutions. It can play a complementary role.

Min Aung Hlaing. Photo: Mil.ru/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0

The current ASEAN five-point Consensus that Indonesia, its new chair has reaffirmed, is a good starting point, but it is not enough. With the third extension of the Emergency beyond the constitutional ‘normal’ and the expansion of martial law to 37 more townships in addition to 6 earlier amidst indications from the US and West that they are prepared to step up sanctions and push humanitarian and possibly some military assistance to the armed opposition, the stage seems set for an escalation of big power competition in Myanmar. This is highly avoidable. It would be prudent to find mechanisms to soften the competition through dialogue.

Second, while getting consensus within ASEAN on Myanmar is not going to be easy, ASEAN must reckon with the fact that the Myanmar regime has shown no indication that it is going to abide by the 5-point consensus and that it is an unsatisfactory formula for the opposition. The extension of the emergency and the expansion of martial law is also as blunt a message as possible that the junta has no intention to open a dialogue or compromise with the opposition that it has declared ‘terrorists’. Enhanced dialogue with the NUG, if not some calibrated steps towards treatment as an equal party or recognition of the NUG would be necessary if the ASEAN has to regain credibility with the people of Myanmar; although that would be next to impossible for the regime to countenance. 

Finally, a major weakness of the ASEAN five-point consensus is that while ASEAN neighbours of Myanmar are included, other neighbours with whom Myanmar shares borders and are affected by the conflict – India, Bangladesh and China – are not. While China exercises influence on both – the ASEAN, the Tatmadaw and internal political and ethnic forces through its various political and diplomatic channels, India has few mechanisms for influence other than its limited official-level dialogue with the SAC. An ASEAN Plus approach that includes India could give India that platform to engage all parties without appearing to go out of the way to court the NUG and EAOs.

One way for the ASEAN to address these weaknesses is to be more inclusive and include the NUG as well as Myanmar’s neighbours in the search for solutions, informally if it is not prudent or practical formally. It could, for example, set up an Expert or Eminent Persons Group from among this group and perhaps even other major powers such as Japan, the US and even Russia to test whether such a ‘soft’ or ‘once-removed’ process could open up some channels of communication with both the NUG and the SAC. That the UN has accepted a representative of the ousted NLD government as Myanmar’s representative in the UN and the UNSC adopted a Resolution on Myanmar with abstentions rather than a veto, suggests that there is at least some common ground to work on. 

None of these options may guarantee a breakthrough, but neither has the five-point consensus. The alternative is a war of attrition in Myanmar in which no side is the winner. Any durable solution must include not only the Tatmadaw, but also representatives of the NUG and mainstream political parties, ethnic leaders, both political and military, civil society organisations that have been at the vanguard of the peaceful opposition, and a vision for the youth and future of Myanmar. India could be a potential partner in such an effort.

Gautam Mukhopadhaya is a former Indian ambassador to Myanmar.

Edited by Amrit B.L.S.