Within a few short weeks, the military junta in Myanmar has reversed the democratic progress the country had worked so hard to achieve over the past decade. Amid the chaotic scenes of troops chasing down and shooting civilians in the streets, the country’s immediate future resembles its troubled past. Time-worn images of confrontation between courageous protesters and a brutal military, convinced of their right to rule, highlight the need for transitioning to a modern era.
There’s a difference though. The Tatmadaw (military) now appears less invincible and the opposition seems much stronger and more convinced of its ability to prevail over those wielding the guns. Set against this backdrop, India’s cautious response to the violent repression, out of fear that China will reap benefits, will prove to be a shortsighted tactic that will come at a heavy long-term cost. Knowledgeable observers say that the Tatmadaw vastly underestimates the challenge it faces. The struggle may be long but when the Burmese people, backed by armed ethnic minority opponents of the regime, prevail India will lose – both morally and politically.
There’s no denying the Tatmadaw’s entrenched position in Myanmar’s society and economy, although it has lost some ground to the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD). But in the years since 2010 democratic support has grown exponentially. The country’s young are increasingly restless, unwilling to return to the dark days of the State Law and Order Restoration Council’s military rule. Behind the façade of Chinese-Tatmadaw brotherly ties, there have also been signs of tension with Beijing tilting towards a popular Suu Kyi. A renewed civil war would jeopardise China’s long-term plans for direct energy supply line and port facilities. Reports say the burning of Chinese factories near Yangon prompted a worried China to send troops to the border. Their mission: To protect a 770-km, $2.5 billion oil and gas pipeline built to serve as China’s answer to its ‘Malacca Dilemma’ – a hostile blockage of Chinese oil tankers transiting the Malacca Straits.
India’s options are not binary. New Delhi need not decide between embracing the regime to deny China advantage or lose out to Beijing by supporting the restoration of democracy. Other countries face the same dilemma. Japan, which has long cultivated good relations with Myanmar, is equally concerned by China’s stronghold in the country. The current turmoil has also begun hurting Japanese business interests. The maker of Kirin beer has abandoned its partnership with a part military-owned Myanmar brewery. Several Chinese factories have been torched by demonstrators. If China tires of being seen as coddling a violent, incompetent dictator it could pressure the junta. US and European sanctions against Myanmar aren’t expected to make too much difference to Tatmadaw, but any sign of China’s exasperation could well rock the boat. If India and Japan, two leading regional democracies who have some influence on Tatmadaw, could jointly offer their good offices a path to peaceful resolution may be found. After antagonising the NLD with its support for Tatmadaw, India has crawled back in its favour over the last five years. It might use its residual goodwill to seek a peaceful resolution rather than simply remain paralysed by ambivalence.
Mindful of the reality of its diminished influence and economic interests, Tatmadaw might eventually accept new constitutional arrangements for sharing power, albeit far less than it has ever had. Although Asean is likely to keep out of any such diplomatic initiative due to its policy of non-interference in members’ internal affairs and consensus decision making, individual member states such as Singapore and Malaysia may extend quiet support.
Tatmadaw’s recent military strikes against the bases of ethnic minority insurgents, that sent streams of refugees fleeing to Thailand, are ominous reminders of the instability that only recently plagued the region. Responsible nations must decide whether they will sit back and watch the bull-headed junta push Myanmar and the region back to its violent and stagnant past.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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