India must extend cautious support to democratic forces in Myanmar due to its strategic importance
The possibility of tribal militancy resurfacing in north-east India with the encouragement and support of the Chinese and the rebels taking shelter in neighbouring Myanmar cannot be ruled out
Myanmar’s decade-old dalliance with democracy has ended. The army has seized power again and a national emergency has been declared for one year. This can be further extended if the army so wishes. The army had ruled for fifty years till 2011, when the first elections were held, which were neither free nor fair. The National League for Democracy (NLD) emerged victorious, with its leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues still behind the bars. It again swept to power in the third general elections held in November last year.
The last ten years had seen an uneasy partnership between the elected government and the army, with the long and ominous shadow of the military always looming large behind the civil government.
In defence of its seizure of power, the army alleged that malpractices were adopted in the November elections. It also alleged, without any evidence and three long months after the elections, that the polls had been rigged.
The army ensured that in the new democratic set-up it always had the whip hand. The army-drafted Constitution gave 25 per cent seats in parliament to be reserved for the army. Also, there was the provision that permanently debarred anyone who has a foreign spouse from contesting for presidentship. Suu Kyi’s late husband, Michael Aris, was an Englishman. This provision of the Constitution was meant specifically to keep Suu Kyi from contesting for the post of head of State.
Amendment of the Constitution was well-nigh impossible because two-thirds majority were required for any constitutional amendment. With the army controlling 25 per cent seats, even one vote against amendment would make it impossible to bring any change in the Constitution. For all practical purposes, it was an “army-controlled democracy.”
Even so, it was a relief for the people of Myanmar who had groaned under the iron heels of the army for half a century. Suu Kyi’s anti-Rohingya stand was also believed to have been at the behest of the army which has been accused of genocide of the Rohingyas. It was the brass hats who always wielded the whip hand.
There were many straws in the wind before the November elections that the army was not going to accept the result of the elections. Just days before the polls, the army chief, Min Aung Hlaing had hinted the army might not accept the verdict of the people. The elected government was accused of committing “unacceptable mistakes”. The army chief told a local news agency just days before the elections that in the situation prevailing in the country, there was a need to be “cautious” about the poll results.
As it turned out, the NLD scored a landslide victory, polling 80 per cent of votes and increasing its support base substantially from the 2015 elections. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the political wing of the army, refused to accept the results. It claimed that its own investigations had found 10.5 million “suspect” votes. The stage was set for another coup d’etat.
On Monday, 2nd February, the army took over and Suu Kyi and other leaders of the NLD were “detained” – a euphemism for arrest.
While the whole world including India condemned the coup and US president Joe Biden even threatened to impose sanctions on Myanmar if democracy was not immediately restored, China’s was a tongue in the cheek reaction. It neither condemned the seizure of power by the army nor expressed any concern about the murder of democracy in Myanmar. It wished that the civil and military authorities would “take the path of reconciliation.” How it was possible when the NLD leaders were under detention, Beijing did not explain.
The Chinese reaction has led to the rumour that Beijing was behind the Myanmar army and the brass hats embarked on this misadventure only after being assured of Chinese support.
Myanmar has become extremely important for India strategically after the latest Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh and the Chinese military’s “probing” operations from Naku La in Sikkim to Upper Subansiri district in Arunachal Pradesh. The possibility of tribal militancy resurfacing in north-east India with the encouragement and support of the Chinese and the rebels taking shelter in neighbouring Myanmar cannot be ruled out. Under the NLD Government, Myanmar denied any shelter to the Indian rebels who have practically been wiped out. But the latest change in Myanmar has created new doubts and anxieties for India.
Suu Kyi is a former student of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. She knows India well and has nothing but friendship and goodwill for India. Quite likely, Beijing did not like it. It was in Beijing’s interest to remove her from power. The fact that a top Chinese diplomat, Wang Yi, met the Myanmar army chief Aung Hlaing shortly before the coup might not have been entirely fortuitous.
China’s stake in Myanmar can be easily understood when it is borne in mind that out of Myanmar’s total foreign debt of $10 billion, China alone accounts for $4 billion, compared to India’s $1.4 billion. New Delhi would have to monitor closely the developments in Myanmar and help all it can within its limitations the democratic forces in Myanmar.
(Views expressed are personal)