South Asia

On the First Anniversary of Myanmar's Military Coup, Some Sober Reflections

It is clear now that India needs to enlarge and expand its options in Myanmar towards a more comprehensive relationship rooted in support of the people, not the Tatmadaw alone.

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The first anniversary of the February 1 military ‘coup’ against the National League for Democracy party government in Myanmar is an occasion for sober reflection on the prospects for democracy or continued military rule in the country, the regional and international responses to it, and what it means to Asia and the world, including India.

Put simply and bluntly, the quest of the Myanmar people for a life of opportunity and freedom from military dictatorship briefly realised over the last 60 years for a period of 10 years from 2011 to 2020 over both Union Solidarity and Development Party
and NLD rule, has once again been rudely quelled by brute military force unleashed by the Tatmadaw against its own people.

The international community’s responses, both political and humanitarian, including that of fraternal ASEAN, have been wanting.

Myanmar’s iconic leader and daughter of Independence hero Aung San, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself has been sentenced to six years in jail on flimsy charges – with other charges that could cumulatively amount to 164 years in prison – pending rulings. Unlike her previous spells of arrest until 2011, this time, she has been dropped as the poster-child of democracy by the international community for her stance on the Rohingya issue, depriving Myanmar of a natural leader around which the international community could rally.

Internal situation

Widespread protests and a robust civil disobedience movement against the coup in the initial months have been brutally suppressed and have given way to an armed resistance and a variety of People’s Defence Forces in urban centres and the countryside in many parts of the country some hitherto peaceful. 

Also read: A Year After Myanmar’s Coup, Families of Detainees Search for Answers

These have been embraced and supported by the National Unity Government (NUG) under a National Unity Consultative Committee (NUCC) formed by ousted parliamentarians, activists and some Ethnic Armed Organisations that have proclaimed a new Democracy Charter for Myanmar as a Federal Democratic Union. The NUG has been functioning as a shadow government, but has not been able to establish any headquarters of its own inside Myanmar or been recognised internationally, and been handicapped by the absence of a strong leader like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or an alternative.

Myanmar’s National League for Democracy Party leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives at a news conference at her home in Yangon November 5, 2015. Photo: Jorge Silva via Reuters

According to the Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners, nearly 1,500 civilians have been killed by the military, and close to 12,000 interned, with many traumatised or tortured. Nearly 2,000 more are ‘wanted’. A military tribunal has also handed death sentences to two prominent opposition activists, Ko ‘Jimmy’ an 88 Generation student leader for incitement on social media, and an NLD legislator and hip-hop artist, Phyo Zayar Thaw on terrorist charges adding to more than 70 earlier.

Crackdowns on the internet and telecommunications continue.

Yet, while large scale protests have been subdued, daily ambushes, skirmishes, bomb blasts, IEDs, assassinations and attacks on military or government installations by rebels have risen, according to NUG tabulations, to nearly 1,000 incidents a month, while the Tatmadaw have resorted to punitive missions and, increasingly, aerial attacks, arson (including at least two gruesome cases of burning of civilians alive), and gross human rights violations in the Bamar heartland as well as ethnic areas.

Some of the worst affected areas are in Bamar-dominated Sagaing and Magwe Regions and the ethnic Chin state in western Myanmar towards the Indian border, where senior military officials from the State Administration Council admit losing control over several townships.

Air and artillery attacks have also been severe in Kayah and Kayin states. A growing number of Tatmadaw troops and officers have been killed, while others have fled or joined the rebels. Silent nationwide strikes, like one held after one such incident on December 10, reveal the depth of popular revulsion against the regime. Another is scheduled for February 1, today, to mark the one-year anniversary of the coup.

Clearly, the Myanmar Army has bitten more than it can chew. Meanwhile, hearings on charges of genocide against the Rohingya by the Myanmar Army filed by The Gambia on behalf of the OIC that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi defended at the International Criminal Court in 2019, are coming up for hearing in The Hague in February.

All this is already having an impact in India’s northeast. Some of the worst army offensives have been against rebel camps around Mt. Victoria and the Chin towns of Mindat, Tlantlang and Matupi sending waves of refugees into nearby Mizoram where their numbers are said to have reached ‘several thousands’ lodged in temporary camps sustained largely by the Mizoram government and Mizo civil society groups.

Taking advantage of the instability, there has been a perceptible increase in insurgent activity and drugs and arms smuggling, one of which resulted in an ambush killing an Assam Rifles commander in southern Manipur in November that has angered the government of India. Intelligence on insurgent movements was also likely behind the botched military operation in Oting in Mon district, Nagaland, that eventually resulted in the killing of over a dozen innocent Naga civilians.

Also read: Army Follows Amit Shah’s Line of Defence on Nagaland Killings, SIT Unconvinced

More recently, a large consignment of explosives and detonators was apprehended by the Assam Rifles in Mizoram, likely bound for Myanmar. There have been reports of PLA cadres being used by the Tatmadaw against Myanmar’s People’s Defence Force along the India-Myanmar border, and a fresh report in The Irrawaddy of an attack by a Chin National Army unit against a PLA ‘Headquarter’ south of Tamu, attributed by one report to the Indian Army, but denied, marking an intriguing twist to cross-border spillovers of military operations by both sides in Myanmar that could have wider repercussions.

Given the overwhelming military advantage of the Tatmadaw, their willingness to use lethal force, the lack of a charismatic national leader in the absence of the incarcerated Aung San Suu Kyi, a chronic mistrust between ethnic and Bamar-centric political parties including the NLD and NUG, and a poor tradition of unity and coordination amongst rebel forces and EAOs that have been fighting their separate wars over 70 years, it seems unlikely that the resistance, peaceful or armed, will be able to overthrow or replace the Tatmadaw in the short or medium term.

A slogan is written on a street as a protest after the coup in Yangon, Myanmar February 21, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

Having demolished national democratic institutions since the 1960s and staked it claim as the only institution capable of holding the country together, the NUG will also have to prove that it can hold the country together democratically. 

The effects of the coup, civil disobedience, food inflation, a 60% depreciation of the currency, kyat, refusal to pay electricity bills and taxes, boycott of military produced goods, and swelling import bills, together with COVID-19, have battered the economy which, according to some estimates, has shrunk 30% since the beginning of the coup. Public services, especially health but also education, have collapsed. A total collapse of the Tatmadaw, though unlikely, is also not desirable, as it could trigger anarchy and Chinese opportunism. 

At the same time, faced with a plucky and tenacious revolt against the hated Tatmadaw (a term of respect that ordinary Myanmar have dropped in favour of ‘terrorists’), the prospects of the Tatmadaw who consider democracy as a euphemism for anarchy and disintegration of the Union, being able to ‘stabilise’ and impose their version of ‘order’ in Myanmar too look dim. 

There has also been a marked improvement in coordination and cooperation among some ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and PDFs this time with serious clashes between the Tatmadaw and EAOs like the Karenni National Progressive Party and the Karen National Union or Karen National Liberation Army in the east near Thailand, and Chin PDFs along the Mizoram border while other long term insurgencies like that of the Kachin, Shan, Kokaing and Ta’ang National Liberation Army continue to fester, and a few still abide by the 2015 National Ceasefire Agreement or watch and wait.

In Rakhine State, close to borders of Bangladesh and India, the potent Arakan Army is seemingly using a tactical ceasefire with the Tatmadaw to consolidate themselves politically and administratively and go their own way. Internecine conflicts and fissiparous tendencies are also beginning to rear their heads at places. In the north-east of Myanmar in the Chinese sphere of influence in Shan State, there are reports of clashes involving rival EAOs like the Wa and Restoration Council of Shan State. 

Taken together, Myanmar seems set for a spell of prolonged instability. The cumulative effect of all this is a massive displacement and humanitarian crisis adding another estimated 320,000 to a similar number affected earlier. The possibility of the emergence of de facto independent ‘statelets’ along the periphery of Myanmar to the east and west, some covertly encouraged by China in its own interest, and a full-fledged insurgency in the Bamar heartland led by Bamar PDFs cannot be ruled out. The sheer multitude of PDFs all over the country too pose a problem for the unity of the armed resistance.

Also read | Timeline: Myanmar’s Year of Turmoil Since The Military Took Power in a Coup

Politically, with the emergency originally proclaimed for one year, since extended to two, and multi-party elections earlier scheduled for 2022, now pushed to August 2023, it is clear that the Tatmadaw realise that their original game plan is not going according to script. Yet it lacks the political imagination and flexibility to come up with anything other than failed tactics of outlawing the NLD, trying to cobble together a coalition of loyalist parties led by the Union Solidarity and Development Party
that can get the quorum necessary to form a ‘civilian’ government minus the NLD with the help of the 25% of military MPs nominated by the Tatmadaw under the 2008 Constitution, or negotiating some modus vivendi with hostile EAOs with the help of China in order to concentrate on restoring order in the heartland as it has done in the past. 

None of these are likely to work this time resulting in further prolongation of military rule or fresh crises in 2023 that could pose a challenge to the the leadership of Min Aung Hlaing within the Myanmar Army. The junta’s desperation for legitimacy may be seen in the latter’s strenuous efforts to court the Sangha (Buddhist monks) and even the Catholic Church, and Min Aung Hlaing’s efforts to project himself in civilian attire as ‘Prime Minister’.

FILE PHOTO: Myanmar’s junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who ousted the elected government in a coup on February 1, presides an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer


On the diplomatic plane, the international community has perhaps wisely left a resolution to the crisis to the ASEAN respecting its ‘centrality’ over an issue concerning a member, but the five-point ASEAN Consensus of April 2021 has not made any headway in the face the Tatmadaw’s insincerity, obduracy and refusal to end violence or let the ASEAN Special Envoy or anyone else meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Also read: Myanmar Says it’s Committed to ASEAN Peace Plan, Despite General’s Snub

Informal, behind the scenes efforts by China to make things easier for the military junta, and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s more formal but cavalier initiative to visit Myanmar and rehabilitate the junta earlier this year to ostensibly advance a process, as also more unofficial contacts by the US and Japan to engage the Tatmadaw for specific ends, may have conveyed a false impression it was a matter of time that the world would to do business with the Tatmadaw (as it has with the Taliban in Afghanistan).

But Hun Sen’s initiative has hit a reality check from the junta and opposition in Myanmar, and within the ASEAN. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing used the visit to project his own five-point initiative for Myanmar reiterating the Tatmadaw’s rationale for the coup during the former’s visit to Myanmar, virtually mocking that of the ASEAN, and prioritising a peace process with the EAOs, making it clear that the Tatmadaw is not ready for any kind of reconciliation with the chief democratic opposition inside Myanmar.

Within ASEAN, Indonesia and Malaysia amongst others, have pushed back, forcing Hun Sen to accept that a summit-level participation was not possible unless there was progress on the Five Point Consensus. These have been reinforced by a hardening of sanctions by the US, and a recent decision of oil majors Total, Chevron and most lately, Woodside, to pull out of their stakes in the oil and gas sector in Myanmar, following that of Telenor in the telecom sector.

It has also led to calls by the NUG as well as international human rights organisations to expand western sanctions so far targeted mainly at regime leaders, military businesses and the Ministries of Defence and Interior, to cover the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) also.

FILE PHOTO: People hold placards as they attend a protest against Myanmar’s military coup in Launglon, Myanmar April 23, 2021 in this picture obtained by Reuters. Photo: DAWEI WATCH via Reuters

Nor, despite possible appearances to the contrary, is China helping either a reconciliation process internally or Myanmar’s greater acceptability to the world at large so as to preserve its leverage over the Generals. It would limit Myanmar’s opening to its allies and the ASEAN at best (while dividing it in the process to its advantage elsewhere), and not want a return to the USDP opening to the world from 2011-15 when it was kept off balance by the re-entry of the US, Europe and East Asia into Myanmar.

As in the past, it has used the Tatmadaw (and Myanmar’s) discomfiture over its relations with the West over issues ranging from human rights, the Rohingyas and now the coup, to extract strategic and economic concessions from the government. 

China’s renewed push for its BRI projects in Myanmar towards the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, and its gift of a Ming class diesel submarine to Myanmar just two days after the Chinese Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to Myanmar in December 2021, effectively offsetting the gift of an Indian submarine to Myanmar in 2019 (with hindsight, probably the main reason for the timing of the visit), are clear signs that the regime is weaker than it looks under internal pressure, and willing to concede more to China than it has in the past.

Attacks against Chinese factories in Yangon in the early stages of the protests, and more recently against a Chinese owned nickel mine in Sagaing and an off-take station for its oil pipeline in Mandalay Region, are only likely to lead to Chinese demands to securitise their investments in Myanmar (such as laying mines in public lands around key oil and gas installations in Hsipaw in Shan state). Significantly, the Chinese have also turned to the NUG to ensure that Chinese projects and interests are not harmed.

Implications and options for India

These trends should give India cause for concern.

Ever since India’s overt support for the 1988 pro-democracy agitation in Myanmar backfired with the Tatmadaw suppressing the movement and reimposing its authority over Myanmar, India’s policy towards Myanmar has been predicated on dealing with the government in power in Myanmar for its most tangible security and strategic interests (embodied in its Look East and Act East policies) while continuing its support for democracy in principle. To some extent this is part of a secular trend in favour of greater reliance on the security state over democratic aspirations after its bitter experience with the LTTE in Sri Lanka and the suppression of the pro-democracy agitation in Myanmar in the late 1980s.

FILE PHOTO: A general view of a camp of the Myanmar ethnic rebel group Chin National Front is seen on the Myanmar side of the India-Myanmar border close to the Indian village of Farkawn in the northeastern state of Mizoram, India, March 13, 2021. Picture taken March 13, 2021. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri/File Photo

Nevertheless, although Myanmar’s cooperation with India on border security has been partial, episodic and far from consistent at the best of times – the Tatmadaw has, for example, never expelled Indian insurgent groups of IIGs from its territory as have Bhutan and Bangladesh in the past, and the latter have not been above using IIGs for its own interests when it has suited it including since the coup. This dual strategy worked well enough as long as the Tatmadaw and USDP were in control until 2015, and through the period of strained NLD-military ‘co-habitation’ from 2015-2020, when both sides largely functioned within the parameters of the 2008 military-drafted constitution. 

That contrived mutual arrangement has now totally broken down and is unlikely to be resurrected or restored. Whatever eventually emerges as a stable order out of the coup, it will not be the old order. India now faces challenges in Myanmar both from the point of view of its desire to consolidate Myanmar’s democratic opening to rebuild a full-fledged political, economic, security, people-to-people and strategic relationship commensurate with their past ties that requires a friendly Myanmar government at peace with itself; and its narrower security interests relating to the activities of IIGs based in Myanmar in the northeast, and China, that needs a friendly Tatmadaw capable of preserving Myanmar’s independence and keeping it together, and willing to cooperate with India on its borders. 

India will now have to question how far a Tatmadaw that is at war with its own people, plays ducks and drakes with IIGs at the India-Myanmar border or has little control over them, and is prone to Chinese blandishments, can be relied upon for its security.

Too narrow a focus on selfish security, strategic or economic interests at the expense of popular sentiment, as China is doing, would be counterproductive. This is not a moral argument to put values over interests though that too is valid; but simply a ‘realist’ recognition that there are times when ones interests are better guaranteed by a popular movement than an oppressive state, and that we may be stuck in a policy reflex that is just not valid any more in Myanmar.

So far, while India has paid lip service to democracy in Myanmar, it has not really taken any serious political initiatives.

Like the rest of the world, it too has left a resolution to the ASEAN. But ASEAN has its own limitations imposed by its consensus principle and the wariness of many of its members towards pro-democracy sentiments. With a live insurgency along its borders, thousands of refugees from the same Chin stock in nearby Mizoram where they enjoy public sympathy and solidarity, Indian insurgents groups getting more active, and the recent detection of a large consignment of explosives in Mizoram likely meant for Myanmar, it seems clear that India cannot stay aloof from developments in Myanmar for too long. 

Foreign secretary Harsh Shringla with Ambassadors in Myanmar. Photo: Twitter/@IndiainMyanmar

The Foreign Secretary’s December visit to Myanmar was perhaps a welcome first step in this direction. This should be built upon both bilaterally and within a regional framework. By itself, India does not have the clout to influence the Tatmadaw which will resist any change towards the people’s will tooth and nail. Yet there is no option for Myanmar but to reverse course and return to a more open, democratic framework where the youth of Myanmar has a future, the international community can play a rightful role and Myanmar has greater options.

It is therefore time to enlarge reach out to ousted parliamentarians, NUG and NUCC representatives, ethnic parties and EAOs, and civil society activists grouped under the CDMs etc. with a view to moving the Tatmadaw and the opposition to a dialogue to restore democracy however difficult it may seem at present.

India can also use the enormous soft power as a provider of education to Myanmar youth at this juncture that could constitute its political capital in a changing future as it has done in Afghanistan. 

Regionally, strategic rivalry, competing interests and lack of trust may preclude a close bilateral working relationship with China on Myanmar but India could work with China in a larger Asian framework. Despite its limitations, ASEAN remains the key player though there is a discrepancy between the extent to which India is directly affected by the situation as an immediate neighbour, and its status in ASEAN as a dialogue partner. India could however step up consultations with Thailand and Bangladesh as two most affected immediate neighbours. Within ASEAN, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam are natural interlocutors. 

In the wider region, Japan which has both historical and economic influence in Myanmar and we have a strategic relationship with, and Republic of Korea, a new economic player, can help shape outcomes. India could also work with the new UNSR, Noeleen Heyzer who has indicated that she would involve Myanmar’s neighbours and the wider region in a ‘Myanmar-led’ strategy reflecting ‘the will of the people’ with a ‘humanitarian plus’ approach leading towards an inclusive political solution and elections in the medium term, that has evoked the interest of the opposition but not the military regime that has traditionally been suspicious of the UN.

As a member of the Quad, India will also have to manage its relationship with Russia which has played its Indo-Pacific card with its open military support for the Tatmadaw. Whatever the approach, India would do well to steer clear of any approach that could fall into a new Cold War rivalry involving the US on the one side and China, Russia and the Tatmadaw on the other. That would be a recipe for a failure.

India has a vested interest in a united, strong, stable and prosperous Myanmar that can be a buffer and bridge between India and China, and a launching pad for India’s terrestrial outreach towards the Greater Mekong Sub-region of South East Asia and the Indo-Pacific that can enhance options for the region.

A security-first policy predicated on the Tatmadaw worked so long the Tatmadaw was in control of the country. That is no longer the case. The 2008 constitution has reached a dead end as has the Tatmadaw strategy of total war against its people.

India needs to enlarge and expand its options in Myanmar towards a more comprehensive relationship rooted in the support of the people, not the Tatmadaw alone. This requires a new approach that would wait or work for a reformed Tatmadaw under a new democratic-minded military leadership as an institution that can play its role in the unity and integrity of the country within a much more accommodating federal democratic union that the people of Myanmar are moving towards. India should help that process.

Gautam Mukhopadhaya is a former Indian ambassador to Myanmar.