G Parthasarathy

The complexities of dealing with Myanmar

G Parthasarathy | Updated on March 15, 2021

As global economic sanctions aren’t likely to work, India should look to promote trade and tourism with the eastern neighbour

People across Myanmar were celebrating the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy on February 1, when the Myanmar Army, led by its Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing, struck, with the announcement of a military takeover. This brought to an end, an all-too-short five-year experiment with democratic governance in the country.

Myanmar had been ruled by military-led governments from 1962 to 2016. The army announced a one-year State of Emergency as soon as it took over. All rallies and gatherings of more than five people were banned. Martial law was imposed in key urban centres across the country. The army plays a dominant role in Myanmar’s national life. The army led by General Bajwa, likewise, has the final say in determining national policies, in Imran Khan’s “democratic” Pakistan. Myanmar has been torn apart by ethnic insurgencies, ever since it became independent in 1948.

There are 130 recognised ethnic groups in Myanmar, with scores of them having taken to arms to challenge the Central Authority. A group of 10 such ethnic organisations has announced they would help protesters across the country. The army is dominated by the majority Burmans, who constitute 68 per cent of the population of the country. While Aung San Suu tried her best to bring together the people of different ethnic groups, she could not succeed in her efforts, largely because some of the major ethnic groups are backed by China. A group like the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which operates across the China-Myanmar and Thailand-Myanmar borders, has an estimated strength of 25,000-30,000 soldiers. It has been equipped by China since the 1940s. China recently provided the UWSA with helicopters, together with anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry.

India has been fighting armed separatist insurgencies in the north-eastern States of Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Tripura and Manipur for decades now. While our emphasis has been on reaching political settlements in such situations, we have extensively used the army and paramilitary forces to deal with separatist challenges in the North-East. This strategy has been successful, as most groups, like the ULFA in Assam, NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K) in Nagaland and MNF in Mizoram, have joined the national democratic mainstream.

People in the North-East now relish the benefits of a democratic rule. However, small pockets of armed resistance still remin across the Myanmar-India border. India and Myanmar have cooperated extensively and effectively over the past three decades in closing infiltration routes and logistic for arms supplies to these separatist groups, which enter into China’s Yunnan Province from Myanmar.

They receive arms, communications equipment and even finances in China. The Myanmar government has cooperated steadfastly with India in dealing with these separatist threats. India, in turn, has helped Myanmar by cooperating with its security forces when its armed separatist groups, like the Arakan Army, crossed-over into Indian territory. This is particularly important now, as India is close to completing a strategic road, which will link its landlocked north-eastern States to the Bay of Bengal Port of Sittwe, in Myanmar.

Road link

This road will be an important route for products from the North-East to be transported across the country, and for international trade. While there has been international outrage at the brutal military action by the Myanmar army against its own people, the country appears set for a long period of popular resistance to the ruthless suppression. The resistance to the Myanmar army is, in fact, bringing together the 130 ethnic communities in firmly opposing military rule.

While the UN Security Council has passed resolutions calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, history has demonstrated that backed by China and Russia, the Myanmar military is assured that any resolution against it in the UN Security Council will be vetoed. India also holds the view that, as in the past, democratic change in Myanmar can come only by reconciliation, and not suppression. Myanmar’s people have invariably found that even their Asean neighbours have not been able to forge the unity required to voice support for the people of Myanmar. Most Asean members are, in fact, averse to interfering in the internal affairs of each other.

Moreover, threats of global economic sanctions by the West will have little impact, as these moves will be vetoed by China and Russia in the Security Council. Thus, the most that the UN Security Council can and will do is to call for an early restoration of democracy and for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi. General Min Aung Hlaing is hardly likely to pay heed to such a resolution. And, Myanmar knows that not only Russia and China but many of its neighbouring Asean countries do not favour any interference in its internal affairs. In these circumstances, very little is achieved by joining calls for sanctions by the West led by the US and the EU. The current situation in Myanmar only provides more strategic space for China to assume a domineering role and influence in Myanmar, while also meddling in the internal affairs of our north-eastern States. China is set to build a port in Kyaukphyu, near the Indian built port of Sittwe. Kyaukphyu will be linked by road to China’s landlocked Yunnan province. Armed separatist groups in in the North-East cross our borders into Myanmar and then enter China’s Yunnan Province. They are well received in Yunnan and provided with weapons, to be used in India when they return.

There is close cooperation between the armies of Myanmar and India to deal with armed insurgents crossing the border. Like devout Buddhists elsewhere, the majority Buddhist population in Myanmar would welcome facilities to visit Bodh Gaya and other Buddhist sites in India There is, however, very little by way of travel of Buddhist pilgrims from Myanmar to Bodh Gaya.

The relationship with Myanmar will benefit greatly if India can imaginatively build rail and road corridors through Manipur to Bodh Gaya, for Buddhist pilgrims. Moreover, there are an estimated 460 million Buddhists living across our eastern neighbourhood, who would be keen to visit Buddhist shrines in India as their brethren in Myanmar. India has not been able to do as well as China, Japan and Myanmar’s ASEAN neighbours in promoting tourism, business, and economic cooperation with Yangon.

 

The writer is a former

High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on March 15, 2021

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