Deciphering Myanmar—A Challenge
BENGALURU: The February 1, 2021 military coup that overthrew the democratically elected parliament in Myanmar on unsubstantiated charges has exposed the limitations of regional and international diplomatic response to it. The Myanmar military has consistently resisted calls for change in political governance ever since 1962, when Ne Win illegally seized power and installed the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) into office. In the process he virtually demolished the country’s civil service and created a political vacuum from which the country has not fully recovered. Ne Win’s legacy is also blameworthy for dividing the country on ethnic and religious lines on perceived threats and notions. The Rohingya problem is one such manifestation of a myopic policy resulting in suffering for Myanmar and Bangladesh and consequently causing regional instability. The military’s unconstitutional assumption of state power is now beyond reproach. It continues Ne Win’s legacy on such issues and unfortunately none of his successors thought it otherwise to rectify these fault-lines during his lifetime or even after his demise. Even today, the military coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has offered no credible explanation for his unilateral action to seize power. Another aspect that requires attention is the lack of clarity on the so-called political road map offered by him soon after assuming control over the country when he spoke of fresh elections twelve months down the road. There is no guarantee that this timeline will be met.
Events of the past few months have proved beyond doubt that the Tatmadaw is averse to normal diplomatic transactions or adherence to internationally accepted standards of governance. According to analysts, Myanmar leadership displays considerable comfort in dealing with top echelons of the armed forces of friendly countries or those which have single party governments or where the military calls the shots. The bonhomie between the Thai military and its Myanmar counterpart is one example. The military to military relationship with Indonesia is another illustration particularly the “Guided Democracy” policy by which the Indonesian armed forces remained in power, controlled the political process before permitting a road map that “allowed democracy to grow and prosper”. Likewise, during the period of stress from 1990-2008, the Myanmar military junta ramped up its relationship with countries such as Pakistan and North Korea besides China. Vietnam too has been an important ally of Myanmar. In fact, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s proximity to the Vietnamese leadership is well-known. It will be worth recalling that in 2011, when he was appointed Commander-in-Chief by Than Shwe, he chose to visit Hanoi rather than Beijing.
Vietnam has stood by Min Aung Hlaing during the turbulent period following the February 2021 coup. Russia is not an exception and the recent developments in bilateral relations serves to underline the importance Myanmar attaches to its relationship with Moscow. In addition to developing and maintaining military to military relations with important countries, the Tatmadaw has relied on “back-channel” contacts or connection with other countries as well. Myanmar’s powerful intelligence agencies have played a critical role in furthering its national interests and kept open communications during troubled times. The military and the intelligence agencies are twin factors that have buttressed Myanmar’s political and diplomatic activities in bilateral relations.
Military to military relations is Win Aung Hlaing’s key foreign policy instrument. Russia is his preferred destination for shoring up support for his beleaguered administration. The honeymoon with Russia, possibly at the expense of China, and its significance was evident during Min Aung Hlaing’s recent trip (June 2021) to Russia. Even though it was shorn of the customary protocol reserved for visiting Heads of State or Government, Min Aung Hlaing achieved his objective of winning Russian support even though he did not meet any of the heavyweights. Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu stated, after interacting with the Myanmar military leader (June 22) that “we pay special attention to this meeting as we see Myanmar as a time-tested strategic partner and a reliable ally in Southeast Asia and Asia-Pacific region”. The Myanmar military leader met the Russian National Security Advisor Patrushev and reportedly briefed him on Myanmar related issues. Min Aung Hlaing has visited Russia in 2013 and 2016. The reference to “Asia-Pacific region” by the Russian defense minister, during the visit of Min Aung Hlaing, is noteworthy.
Min Aung Hlaing’s interview with a Moscow-based Russian television channel in July 2019 was interpreted as resetting the compass on China. It will be recalled that he had accused Beijing of interfering in internal affairs of Myanmar by arming the anti-government Arakan insurgents in the sensitive Rakhine state. This happened despite the NLD-led civilian government of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (DASSK), which was responsible for foreign affairs.
ASEAN’s role as interlocutor has received support from the power brokers which is unprecedented in recent times. Both China and Russia have underlined the role of ASEAN and pushed for giving effect to the five point proposal adopted at the regional body’s special summit in April 2021. The United States of America (USA) has made similar statements both at the level of the Secretary of State Blinken and Defense Secretary General Austin recently. There is a groundswell of support from regional countries to the ASEAN role, however both Myanmar and ASEAN have to step up to the plate and give momentum to international support. The nomination of ASEAN Special Envoy is still engaging attention of the regional body and it will be interesting to see its outcome. It is another thing that Myanmar is yet to give effect to its commitment to ASEAN. The visit of the ASEAN delegation to Myanmar in early June did not produce the desired results. Min Aung Hlaing prefers to wait for return to normalcy to return to contemplate action on various ASEAN proposals. This has to be done from a position of strength, which will further empower him to offer conditions for parleys with stakeholders. He cannot afford any short cuts which will pit him against his critics or detractors in his junta. It remains to be seen as to how the big two supporters of Myanmar will navigate the troubled waters. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated support to ASEAN in the Myanmar context during his last week’s visit to the region. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi highlighted Myanmar as one of a number of global hotspot issues during his address at the opening ceremony of the 9th World Peace Forum held at Beijing’s Tsinghua University on June 7, 2021. He underlined the need to promote internal dialogue and realise political reconciliation. He reiterated the role of ASEAN in this direction.
From a historical perspective, Myanmar has carefully choreographed its relations with ASEAN since its induction into the regional body in July 1997 and exploited the differing opinions and governance systems to its advantage. The Myanmar military leaders have belatedly realised that this card has lost its utility since the February 1 coup and some ASEAN members have been openly critical and hostile to the regime. Further, there is also the assessment that China too has compulsions in helping the military, given the differing perceptions in Nay Pyi Taw on several issues. China is and will remain committed to securing its interests in Myanmar and will calibrate its actions accordingly. Anti-Beijing mood is pronounced since the coup and has added to the anger and accusing China of doing nothing to avert the coup given its proximity to and influence on the military establishment. Moscow is the latest entrant to the Myanmar scene. It has other strategic interests that runs counter to that of China but will close ranks on larger issues such as the Quad, Indo-Pacific and supply of military hardware but bread and butter issues such as democracy, rule of law, human rights and allied subjects are not likely to find consensus between the big two. China has publicly spoken about political reconciliation in Myanmar but has offered no road map on this sensitive subject.
Deciphering the security threat perceptions of the military is critical for any effective resolution to the crisis in Myanmar. The Tatmadaw has an entrenched interest in political governance of the country and has a major bearing and influence on Myanmar’s bilateral relations with its immediate neighbors, ASEAN and regional partners. The military’s top brass has been and will be a major decision-maker on this subject. This is the writing on the wall for the EU and its allies. Japan, India and South Korea have rich experience of dealing with various stakeholders in Myanmar and are acceptable to them. The U.S. and its alliance will need to take cognisance of the need to directly engage with the military and bring about mutually acceptable changes.
(PM Heblikar is Managing Trustee, Institute of Contemporary Studies Bangalore (ICSB) and former Special Secretary, Government of India. Views expressed in this article are personal.)