India running out of options in Myanmar as a civil war rages and China backs the junta
India was caught unawares by events in Myanmar within a month of its election for the seventh time as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council
The military junta in Myanmar, which seized power in a coup in February last year, have had luck and China on their side, making them far less vulnerable to external pressure than the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Generals got lucky because soon after they overthrew the election mandate in favour of Aung San Suu Kyi, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan gathered pace and global attention shifted to Afghanistan. The world was riveted by the rapid march of the Taliban through Afghanistan, the messy withdrawal of US troops and the fall of Kabul in August.
Even as civil war rages in Myanmar, the junta has largely succeeded in stifling dissent ruthlessly and away from the eyes of the world. China, meanwhile, provides the generals with the arms and the heft in international fora to carry on nonchalantly, with barely token international censure.
India was caught unawares by events in Myanmar within a month of its election for the seventh time as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. India shares with Myanmar a land border of over 1600 km and a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. But New Delhi was also grappling to regain a toehold in Kabul, leaving it too preoccupied to take events in Myanmar seriously, until refugees from Myanmar came streaming into North-eastern states.
Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s visit to Myanmar on Dec 22 and 23 was New Delhi’s first outreach to the isolated junta since the February coup. Shringla urged a “return of democracy”, resolution of all issues through dialogue and a “complete cessation of all violence” in his meetings with Senior General Min Aung Hliang and other military representatives. Despite being allowed to meet other diplomats, members of civil society and political parties, Shringla was however denied access to Suu Kyi.
India earlier had turned back many Rohingyas trying to enter India. Since the February coup, Myanmar’s police and armed forces personnel joined thousands of civilians who fled the country and took shelter in Mizoram and Manipur.
UN Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener described the situation in Myanmar as “very worrisome”. The UN had estimated that some 175,000 people in Myanmar have been displaced while approximately 10,000 refugees fled to India and Thailand by June 2021. The conflict since then has intensified.
New Delhi’s Neighbourhood First and Act East policies received a fillip after Suu Kyi’s release from detention in 2010 and the subsequent 10-year period of democratic government in Myanmar. This period also saw insurgency on the wane and peace prevailing in India’s north-eastern states. Peace and stability in Myanmar remain of utmost importance to India.
While the State Administration Council (SAC), effectively the government, assured Shringla that Myanmar’s soil would not be used for anti-India activities, India offered its support for developmental projects and reiterated its commitment for implementation of ongoing initiatives like the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project and the Trilateral Highway to improve connectivity.
India’s inability to deliver on these decadesold commitments, though not entirely its fault, has allowed China to consolidate its presence by hastening its finance for the deep seaport of Kyaukphyu in the Bay of Bengal, barely 100 kms from Sittwe port, where the Indiaconceived Kaladan multimodal project culminates, thereby hugely aggravating its security concerns. China also provided the junta a submarine in December on the 74th anniversary of the raising of Myanmar’s army and remains the key supplier of military hardware to its armed forces.
While India struggles to cope with the changed dynamics, Beijing is also busy nibbling away at sites along the Line of Actual Control, from Arunachal Pradesh to Ladakh.
Shortly after Shringla’s visit, the Myanmar Army was accused of burning 35 villagers alive on Christmas Eve, including women and children. While the military leadership denied any wrongdoing, it ordered government staff not to receive any notification issued by international courts seeking to prosecute junta leaders. There is little sign that international condemnation and outrage have tempered the military’s behaviour. Resorting to a scorched earth tactic, the military has been burning villages and massacring suspected rivals, report Western media.
While China and Russia continue to bail out the junta in international fora, the UN Security Council has not even adopted a resolution condemning the Myanmar violence, because of the Chinese veto.
The ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member, has tried to get the errant member to restore the elected government and release political prisoners including most of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, the current chair of ASEAN, plans to visit Myanmar this month but is unlikely to agree to calls to isolate the military junta.
The SAC led by Aung Hlaing, now prime minister, plans to consolidate power by reworking the Constitution and undermine democratic forces like the NLD and undermine its leaders, particularly Suu Kyi, trying them for charges as outrageous as possessing illegally imported walkie-talkies.
She has already been sentenced to four years imprisonment for charges like inciting violence and not observing COVID-19 restrictions. Suu Kyi, 75, may have fallen in global estimation because of her stand on the Rohingyas, but is highly regarded by the country’s majority Buddhist population, making her a formidable opponent to the junta, which does not have popular support and has faced significant losses. She leads over 50 elected leaders and top officials who face charges and are likely to be awarded lengthy terms of imprisonment in 2022.
The combined effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the military takeover have pushed nearly half of the country’s more than 54 million people below the poverty line.
Major obstacles remain for any peace process to succeed. There is a virtual collapse of state institutions due to targeted attacks by a civil disobedience movement followed by armed attacks by people’s defence forces organised across the country. As foreign investors pull out and western nations impose sanctions, prospects for people in Myanmar look bleak.
As for India, it has few options and even less space to manoeuvre.
(The writer is a senior journalist and analyst based in New Delhi)
(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)