Myanmar military coup: India faces tightrope walk between expectations of Nay Pyi Taw, Western countries

Myanmar's new acting president Myint Swe is almost certain to seek to deepen the regime’s military ties with India

Praveen Swami February 03, 2021 11:46:27 IST
Myanmar military coup: India faces tightrope walk between expectations of Nay Pyi Taw, Western countries

India, Myanmar ties likely to deepen in coming days.

Late on the evening of March 1, 1962, General Ne Win sat quietly from his front-row seat in a Yangon theatre, watching a much-applauded Chinese opera troupe’s performance. The General seemed impressed, taking the time to compliment the lead dancer after the curtain call. Then, he went home. There wasn’t much, it seemed, to keep him from his bed. In his official residence, Windemere, prime minister U Nu was editing the fine print on a deal with Shan and Karen insurgents, which would bring an end to Myanmar’s endless civil wars, letting its soldiers to finally come home.

A few hours before dawn, though, Ne Win’s troops began fanning out across Yangon, arresting the prime minister, the chief justice, and a slew of political leaders. Less than a week later, when university students protested against the new military dictatorship, hundreds were shot dead. The historic students’ union building, a symbol of Myanmar’s nationalist movement, was dynamited.

Popular dance competitions, beauty contests, and horse-races, the scholar Bertil Lintner has recounted, were banned. There were People’s Councils, along with a People’s Police Force and People’s Justices. The beer came from the People’s Brewery, cakes from People’s Patisseries, and toothpaste came from the People’s Toilet Industry.

In the course of fifty years, the land of jade and rubies was painted monochrome.

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As New Delhi contemplates this week’s military coup in Myanmar, the case for quietly acquiescing to the new order is a compelling one. India has successfully worked with the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, to contain ethnic insurgencies in its own North East. The Tatmadaw has, moreover, pushed back against China’s influence, increasingly cultivated by Aung San Suu Kyi as she faced a hostile West. In 2019, India emerged, for the first time, as the Tatmadaw’s leading arms supplier, selling $100 million of equipment compared with China’s $47 million.

The past, however, should also give New Delhi to reflect on the consequences of its choices: Far from building a functional nation-state, General Ne’s despotism entrenched ethnic insurgencies, degraded society’s institutions and spawned multiple narco-empires that have destabilized the entire region.

In 1946, when Myanmar became independent, it was clear that it simply did not have the resources to sustain a modern state. The new country was immediately overwhelmed by insurgencies: communist parties seeking a revolution; the Mujahid movement, which sought to carve out an Islamic state in Arakan; the paramilitary People’s Volunteer Organisation; the Karen National Union.

The situation deteriorated further in 1950 when the People’s Liberation Army drove out the remnants of Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang from China’s Yunnan. Within a few years, the Guomindang emerged as informal occupation forces within northern Myanmar, taxing trade routes and amassing wealth from the production and trafficking of opium.

Like so many other militaries, the Tatmadaw sought to contain these challenges by combing coercion with corruption. The story is best illustrated by the bizarre story of Olive Yang, the convent-educated daughter of a Kokang-region notable who became a feared warlord, running a 1,000-strong militia which was funded by running opium into Thailand.

The story ended well for Yang. Emerging as a go-between with insurgent groups for Myanmar intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt, she lived a colourful life in Yangon, dating several film actors and actresses, before eventually becoming a nun. Her brother, Jimmy Yang, inherited the empire she built and went on to serve as a Member of Parliament.

Lo Hsing Han, whose Ka Kwe Ye militia was set up with General Ne Win’s help, followed a similar path, receiving the right to run opium convoys on major roads without hindrance in return for making his troops available to fight ethnic insurgents. His brother, Lo Hsing Ko, was, conveniently, appointed police chief for Kokang.

From the mid-1970s, Pheung Kya-shin emerged as a competitor — backing the Communist Party of Burma, instead of the government, in return for support for his heroin-running operations. In the 1980s, when the Communist Party of Burma split, its remnants signed a ceasefire deal with the government. In return, it was allowed a free run of the heroin trade. Pheung was forced out of the region in 2009—only to return.

The script has continued to play itself out. In 1994, breakaway Karen insurgents agreed to come under the Tatmadaw’s control, forming a militia called the Kayin Border Guards Force in return for continuing control of trade routes into Thailand through which hundreds of millions of dollars of both narcotics and legitimate trade transit each year. Then, in 2018, Kayin BGF commander Colonel Saw Chit Thu announced the group was partnering with controversial Thai magnate She Zheiiang transforming its base at Shwe Kokko into a $15-billion smart city.

Investigations, however, threw up evidence of multiple illegalities, among them evidence that the BGF was running a string of illegal casinos along the Thai-Myanmar border, with links to the narcotics trade and organised crime cartels. The controversy snowballed into a—still unresolved—standoff between the Tatmadaw and the BGF in December.

The General’s war for national unity, in practice, corrupted and hollowed-out the nation.

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Eternal crisis, though, had the great virtue of providing legitimacy for endless military rule. In 1988, large-scale pro-democracy protests led the Tatmadaw to commit to democratisation. There was, however, a significant gap between the promise and its realisation. As the scholar, Michael Charney wryly observed, “military control remains always temporary, always on the eve of transfer to civilian control, and continually vigilant about so-called technical problems in the drafting of the Constitution”. “The democracy issue has thus been lost in committee”.

The 2008 Constitution, which finally paved the way for the election of Aung’s National League for Democracy, gave the Tatmadaw an institutional stake in power. The Constitution reserved for it a quarter of seats in both houses of the Assembly of the Union, the country’s parliament, as well as the ministries of defence, home affairs and border affairs.

Little, however, was achieved towards ending Myanmar’s civil wars. Fighting still flares and ebbs in about a third of the country. Although ceasefire agreements were signed with some groups in 2015, the Tatmadaw limited the insurgent groups it invited to the table. Perhaps more important, it rejected structural reform on power-sharing.

The NLD, though, proved more successful than the Generals had bargained for, winning by the elections of 2015 handily. Su Kyi’s party cashed in on the rising ride of majoritarian nationalism. Following the genocidal anti-Rohingya violence in 2017, Su Kyi positioned herself as a defender of ethnic-Bamar identity and the Myanmar nation. The result was a head-on challenge to the Army’s legitimacy as the sole guardian of the country’s unity—yielding a landslide win for the NLD in the 2020 elections.

Su Kyi also proved successful in containing the fallout from Western sanctions after 2017—expanding the country’s economic relationship with China and using Beijing’s diplomatic heft to ward off international pressure. This, in turn, irked the Tatmadaw, which believed Beijing had failed to act against insurgent networks operating from China.

Former chief of the military’s southeastern command, new acting president Myint Swe, is thought to be a protégé of General Thein Sein—Myanmar’s president from 2011-2016, and still the godfather of the Tatmadaw. Myint Swe is almost certain to seek to deepen the regime’s military ties with India. For the Tatmadaw, India will now be a key counterweight against the West, as well as internal opponents. His rise, without a doubt, offers New Delhi opportunities to expand the relationship.

The case for New Delhi to do so is strong. In 1988, following the pro-democracy protests, New Delhi paid a heavy price for severing links with Myanmar’s military. India had staged cross-border operations against North East insurgents in 1995, targeting a column that was taking arms from Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh through the Mizoram forests. The Army’s 57 Division, working together with the Myanmar Army, killed 38 insurgents and arrested 118 in the course of Operation Golden Bird, named after a Grimm Brothers fairytale. But Myanmar’s Army withdrew cooperation after Suu Kyi was awarded a medal by the Indian government.

Then, in the late 1990s, India resumed cooperation with Myanmar, providing its military with badly-needed arms and equipment. In 2012, it was to emerge that India had resold 83-millimetre Carl Gustaff rocket launchers to the Myanmar military. In the years after, though, India provided a range of equipment to Myanmar’s armed forces, including four Islander maritime patrol aircraft, naval gunboats, 105 mm light artillery guns, mortars, and rifles.

From 2010, the payoff came in: Home Ministry’s joint secretary S Singh and Myanmar Army commander for Chin state, U Nay Wing, signed an agreement that Indian forces could pursue insurgents across the border, and, in 2014, the two countries signed an agreement on coordinated patrolling and intelligence sharing. The Tatmadaw’s support has helped India steadily degrade its North-East insurgencies.

Yet, suggests shows that the second sunrise of military rule could lead to a sharpening of internal tensions and violence. For New Delhi, that will be bad news. An escalation in violence will, inexorably, draw the energies of the Tatmadaw away from the borders with India’s North-East. A pro-military tilt, moreover, risks alienating democratic forces in Myanmar, pushing them closer to China, and giving that country greater popular legitimacy.

A pro-military tilt, moreover, risks alienating democratic forces in Myanmar, pushing them closer to China, and giving that country greater popular legitimacy.

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