Myanmar’s generals never really let go of the levers of power. Now, they have seized back the limited power they had handed over to the civilian government led by Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. But they’re fast discovering that Myanmar is not the same country it was under their previous dead-handed rule. Thousands of protesters have been marching in Yangon, while doctors and some teachers have joined a campaign of civil disobedience. The citizenry has become used to new freedoms and doesn’t want Myanmar returning to its former impoverished, isolated state under the military. Coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing, who reportedly hadn’t spoken with Suu Kyi for two years, had been hoping to take power constitutionally after the November elections. The army, which wrote Myanmar’s constitution, kept 25 per cent of the parliament seats for itself and Min Aung Hlaing believed he could ally with the opposition and become president. In the event, the plan fell apart because Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) swept 396 out of 476 seats, winning 83 per cent of the ballots. The military alleged widespread voter fraud but independent observers reported no irregularities. Significantly, Min Aung Hlaing had awarded himself a five-year extension, which ends on his 65th birthday on March 7.
India has a 1,643-km border with Myanmar, described by our Home Ministry as extremely porous. Therefore, stakes for India in Myanmar are high and it cannot afford to come down heavily against either side. India is in good terms with Myanmar’s military and recently it gifted it an old submarine which had been the Indian Navy’s INS Sindhuvir. By contrast, Myanmar’s military is unhappy with the Chinese because it believes they are supplying arms to Myanmarese rebels. Inevitably, India is in a tug-of-war with China for influence in the country where Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a brief visit in mid-January. The Chinese have also invested heavily in Myanmar’s oil-and-gas sector and are building pipelines back to their own country.
India has also been alarmed by the China-Myanmar pact to build a $1.3-billion deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu in the troubled Rakhine province that will be a deep intrusion, in India’s eyes, into the Bay of Bengal and which allows China to ship oil avoiding the Malacca Straits. India has also constructed a deep-water port at Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine province, which is expected to be functional later this year. Sittwe is 539 km from Kolkata. Besides that, India has given Myanmar $1.4 billion in assistance. Meanwhile, the West has denounced the military takeover. Aung Hlaing has promised elections in 12 months but that may not happen. The military cannot overlook Suu Kyi (now under house arrest), who despite her fall in global esteem over the Rohingyas, is the country’s most popular leader. She will be keenly watched by India, China and other global actors.
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