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Game-Changer: Myanmar polls can help India enhance foothold

November 23, 2020
tags:#election, #Rohingya, #Narendra Modi, #human rights violation
located:Myanmar, China, India
by:Jose Kalathil
The unthinkable happened in June 2020. A spokesman of Myanmar's military accused China of arming rebel groups adding the "insurgents" were getting sophisticated military weapons.

In Myanmar, intellectuals always believed that decades of over-reliance on one single country (China) has put the "Myanmar military in a constricted playing field". The upshot of the statement from Chinese military spokesman is that China has 'lost' the trust of Myanmar's military, virtually showing a crisis of mutual confidence after decades of close association.

India's eastern neighbour and a key Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) member was considered a trusted friend and acolyte of Beijing. By circa 2020, things were changing.

India, according to a senior Myanmarese journalist, who preferred to remain anonymous, will be a "new path to interdependence" between the two neighbours; it also reorients regional security and military cooperation. 

Struggling' democratic leader

Elections are around the corner in the conflict-hit nation. Of course, the trends so far in the polls would mean another five-year term for Aung San Suu Kyi. But she could still be a 'struggling' democratic leader in an unusually-uncomfortable Parliamentary relationship with the military junta which still does not want to come under complete civilian control.

What’s more, China's much-hyped The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), plays a massive role in China-Myanmar relations. Thus, when the military and civilian sectors both face a crisis of confidence, it is natural that a third country will figure in the deliberations. Hence India’s involvement.

However, there are issues. Myanmarese intellectuals and civil liberty activists share their views off-the-record. They point out both India and Myanmar also have their respective domestic priorities. The democratic civilian government in Myanmar welcomes India’s increased engagement, which is a big push for Myanmar’s transition.

"The Myanmar government would consider India’s military cooperation as the opportunity to gradually bring the once-dictatorial army back to the civilised world," one of them told this journalist.

Inching towards India

The National League of Democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi is now going ahead with the November 8 elections brushing aside the apprehensions expressed by opposition parties in Myanmar especially in view of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sensing troubles on the China front, Suu Kyi as a pro-democracy campaigner has decided to inch towards India, which cherishes parliamentary democracy.

On the other hand, Myanmar's national debt stands at $10 billion, and another $4 billion has to be paid to China.

Thus, it is not without reason that the Myanmar government has sought New Delhi's help to expedite infrastructure projects.

The NLD-led government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, believes the world’s largest democracy — that is India — has the obligation to help its "nascent democratic neighbour" — Myanmar — by creating opportunities and facing challenges ahead together.

Therefore, the mood among pro-democracy sections of people in Myanmar is: "It’s crucial the NLD not just win, but also win a majority, to keep the transition moving forward".

During the recent visit, Indian army chief Gen M M Naravane and Foreign Secretary Harsh V Shringla also met State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Commander in Chief of Defence Services Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Gen Naravane also met Vice Senior General Soe Win, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar Armed Services.

The military-civil wing (foreign ministry) diplomatic initiative was vital given certain sensitivity and strategic importance attached to the relations between two countries. "For long, China has been an hyper active nation in Myanmar but over the last few years, New Delhi's relations have improved a lot. During the visit, in yet another milestone, India announced a grant of US dollar 2 million for the construction of the border bridge at Byanyu/Sarsichauk in Chin State that will provide increased economic connectivity between Mizoram and Myanmar," wrote New Delhi-based journalist Nirendra Dev in the magazine 'Organiser'.

Putting it simply: the timing suited India. It kept a watch on the developing situation in Myanmar; the election in Myanmar is the best time for New Delhi to deal with it, as Myanmar has for long been ruled by military leaders.

Human rights violations against minorities

But the situation in Myanmar is too tricky to shun Chinese's influence. The UN human rights office in Myanmar has raised serious concerns about rights violations, particularly against minority groups including Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine. It also voiced concerns over the unrelenting proliferation of hateful speech against Muslims on Facebook.

But no 'election fever' can pass without showing glimpses of socio-political confrontations in this conflict-torn nation.

Officials say there are 90 parties contesting the elections but some ehnic groups such as Rohingyas are barred from voting. There are of course only two contenders: Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy and the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

On this backdrop, Dev, says, the military exercises immense powers controlling vital budget, defence and security matters.

Myanmar has a clear-cut pro-military '2008 Constitution' and here comes the role of Indian army chief when he visits that country alongside the foreign secretary.

In fact, the military has 25 percent of the seats in the national and the regional Parliaments and the army chief appoints three ministers — border, defence and interior.

Some ethnic areas, especially Rakhine, where armed conflict is still raging and most townships will not hold elections due to security reasons. But the people in most major cities are ready to cast their ballots and people over 60 years old have been given advance voting.

Strategically speaking, Myanmar’s 2.276 km long coastline in the Bay of Bengal can provide the ‘second coast’ to China to reach the Indian Ocean. New Delhi has understood the importance of Myanmar and its geo-strategic location. Since the time of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, foreign policy mandarins are working in coordination with other wings of the government including army and their respective counterpart wings/agencies in Myanmar to ensure 'a well-coordinated approach to secure the maritime and land neighbourhood of the Bay of Bengal and North East India. This also would include strengthening naval and coastal patrol assets in Andaman and Nicobar islands.

But as of 2020 and the November 8 election, the issue of debate is health facilities in the war-ravaged nation.

"The election this year is certainly a referendum on the National League for Democracy and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She has strong India-connect and faith in democracy whereas on the other hand, there is a gradual realisation in that country that Chinese influence should decline. The 'China connections' helped the military rulers but not the people of Myanmar," says a strategic expert and at present involved in policy making in Delhi. Thus, on the condition of anonymity, he says, India needs to cultivate its eastern neighbour.

But it is truly a challenging time as the Covid-19 infection numbers continue to increase rapidly. Myanmar is one of the worst hot-spots in the region, and to bail out Myanmar at this juncture will be a gigantic task for New Delhi.

Coming to issues of ethnic minorities, we ought to take note that ethnic groups like Rohingya in Rakhine State have been disenfranchised. This has led to international criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi herself even raised eyebrows about the election process. There are as many three Rohingya political parties registered with the election commission and this shows Rohingya voters have been important components in Myanmar's democracy story but these voters are barred from voting. So a question still being asked is: are the elections really genuine or just farce?

But as far as India-Myanmar bond is concerned, people of Myanmar believe the growing friendship and relations with neighbours are good things for Myanmar citizens, as long as they are mutually-beneficial and sincere.

From New Delhi's point of view, the onus will be on the Modi government to deliver.

Article written by:
Jose Kalathil
Myanmar China India
Embed from Getty Images
China 'lost' the trust of Myanmar's military, virtually showing a crisis of mutual confidence after decades of close association.
Embed from Getty Images
Now elections are around the corner in the conflict-hit nation.
Embed from Getty Images
The Myanmar government would consider India’s military cooperation as the opportunity to gradually bring the
once-dictatorial army back to the civilized world.
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