Developments in Myanmar and the Security of North East

Myanmar: Developments in Myanmar and the Security of North East
Col R. Hariharan
Turbulence in Myanmar
Myanmar is going through throes of change after over 45 years of military rule. The first multiparty elections under the new constitution are to be conducted in 2010. The new constitution was confirmed through a referendum with barely three weeks notice even as Myanmar was being devastated by cyclone Nergis in 2008. Despite its long gestation It hardly represents the democratic aspirations of the people.
Originally, after the 1992 general election was held and the National League for Democracy (NLD) swept the polls, the ruling junta had announced that the newly elected members would draft the new constitution. But the elected members of parliament hardly had a hand in drafting the new constitution in the deliberations of the National Convention entrusted with the task. Although it met on and off for almost 15 years, less than two percent of the parliament members were involved in the final draft.
The members of the National Convention were handpicked by the military to push through the draft scripted by the army. To prevent active involvement of NLD in the process during the tortuous course of constitution making, the junta ensured Aung San Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest. The elected NLD members of parliament were never allowed to present their views in public; in fact they were hounded out and persecuted. The new constitution also does not meet the legitimate demands for autonomy of major ethnic communities that had been waging war for their rights for over four decades. There had been no public discourse on the draft.
So it comes as no surprise that the new constitution is more of a cosmetic exercise than a meaningful effort to transfer power to a democratic government. Its purpose appears to be two fold: to legitimise the role of the army as a power over and above the elected government and to appease growing international demand for restoration of democracy so that sanctions slapped on Myanmar are lifted.
The Tatmadaw (army) has a favoured position in the new constitution. The president has to be an army officer endowed with power to appoint Union ministers and chief ministers of states. He will also nominate judges of the Supreme Court. The Tatmadaw has the right to independently administer all affairs of the armed forces. And the highest court of the country will have no jurisdiction over them! The Commander in Chief of armed forces nominates the ministers of defence, security and home affairs, and border affairs. He shall also appoint armed forces officers as security and the border affair ministers in the governments at the level of state, region and in the self-administered division and zones. It is the C-in-C who nominates parliament members for 25 percent of the seats reserved for the armed forces in Union Assembly (upper and lower houses).
Problems of political democracy
The president has to be an army officer; and persons whose children and spouses owe “allegiance to a foreign power” are barrred from being elected president. Thus the junta has ensured that Aung San Suu Kyi is not allowed to occupy the highest office in the “democratic government” on both the counts as her husband and her children are British citizens. Without her active leadership it is doubtful whether the first step to democracy would ever go further to reach the final goal of making Myanmar a full fledged democracy.
The process of changeover to even limited democracy is not likely to be a smooth process. With the army continuing to wield unfettered power, the civilian government would be hampered from taking independent policy initiatives in three major areas that had been the bane of the country. These are people oriented development, restoring integrity of institutions of governance, and ensuring equitable rights to all citizens regardless of their ethnic origin.
Without Aung San Suu Kyi’s active participation in the run up to the elections, the NLD leadership might find it difficult to repeat its successful electoral performance of 1992. In any case, the army is likely to use strong arm tactics to ensure the NLD is edged out in the election. Coalition politics was never the strong point of Myanmar’s short lived democratic experiment from 1948 to 1962. The opportunistic coalition governments were notorious for infighting, floor crossings and corruption. Thus the chances of a coalition government successfully functioning appear remote. So a period of political instability may well be in the offing. This would only reinforce the army’s belief that it was fundamental to ensure national stability.
Ethnic insurgency
Ethnic insurgency had been the blight on Myanmar from 1948 onwards. The military regime had recently been trying to disarm members of ethnic insurgent groups that had signed ceasefire agreements (ceasefire groups) and enroll in border guards force. However, this process is not complete. Three major ceasefire groups in the northeast bordering China —the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the United Wa State Army (UNSWA) and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA)—all of have reportedly rejected its request to disarm and The Kachin Independence Organisation is still dragging its feet.
The MNDAA’s Kokang troops, who are of Chinese ethnicity, had clashed with the troops last month and a few thousand Kokang people had taken refuge in Chinese areas across the border. The UNSWA, an ally of MNDAA, is one of the biggest insurgent groups bordering both China and Thailand. Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) which refused to sign the ceasefire agreement had been in conflict with the government troops along Thai border. These ethnic insurgent groups have little incentive to lay down arms and join the mainstream even when the civilian government is sworn in. As long as the question of their autonomy is not resolved, they are likely to continue to be active. Historically, the army had used the ethnic unrest as the reason for legitimising its hold on power. With the army controlling the defence, border affairs and home affairs ministries, the civilian government has little chance of resolving the issue politically.
International power play
The international sanctions are likely to be lifted when a semblance of democracy is restored the election as part of the new U.S. initiative on Myanmar. Once that happens there is likely to be an international scramble to gain access to Myanmar’s abundant natural resources including oil and natural gas. Inevitably, this could turn Myanmar into a seat of global power play. Both India and China would be watching these developments with caution.
China had used the era of international sanctions to increase its strategic and economic influence in Myanmar and helped the junta to weather international sanctions. As a veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), China had baled out the military regime from international collective action on more than one occasion. This has enabled the Chinese to become well entrenched in the country, building strong linkages with the army. Chinese also dominate the nation’s economic development, trade and commerce. Their influence is likely to be transferred to the political arena also.
In short, China has created a client regime in the military junta. China is unlikely to loosen its hold on Myanmar as it provides strategic land and sea access from Chinese mainland to India and the Indian Ocean. Myanmar’s 1930 km long coastline dominates the eastern arch of the Bay of Bengal, leaning on to the Malacca Strait could help China’s mavy to widen its reach. Despite building closer economic links with the U.S. in recent times, China continues to be wary of the U.S. extending its strategic reach in this region. Its suspicions have already been kindled with the increasing Indo-US strategic convergence. So China is going to loom large in front of all nations, including India, aspiring play a bigger role in Myanmar on all fronts.
India’s security compulsions
Geostrategy dictates that India should keep Myanmar in its foreign policy horizon for strategic, economic and developmental reasons. Myanmar’s geographic location astride the India-ASEAN trade routes increases its value for India. It can also open up external land and sea communication links to landlocked north-eastern states. Myanmar’s ocean boundaries are barely 30 km from the Andaman Islands increasing its maritime security potential. Unfortunately, Myanmar’s strategic significance in India’s national security does not appear to have been given the recognition it deserves.
North East is connected to rest of India by “Siliguri Corridor” a tenuous 30-km wide link flanked by Bangladesh and Nepal. Thus strategically, northeast is vulnerable to the developments in its neighbourhood in both peace and war. Large scale illegal migration of Bengalis from Bangladesh into the region has created demographic imbalances resulting in social and economic unrest. The assertion of distinct ethnic identities has resulted in the rise of separatist insurgencies in this region. The assistance received from China and Pakistan at different times had been important for their survival. They also have safe havens in Bangladesh and Myanmar.
India had striven to improve relations with the military junta Myanmar from 1992 onwards as a part of its Look East Policy. This policy had limited success. Despite promises, Myanmar regime had shown little inclination to evict Indian insurgent groups from its soil. Its interest in joint operations against them had been equally poor.
The development of Northeast had been hobbled due to Bangladesh’s reluctance to permit transit of Indian goods through its territory. To overcome this problem India has been implementing a multi-modal scheme to open up road and sea access from the Northeast through Myanmar to other ASEAN countries as well as the Indian Ocean. However, India’s two major infrastructure projects including the Sittwe multi modal projects and the much heralded Myanmar – India pipeline have made only slow progress.
During the last two decades, trade and development links between the two countries have improved. However, due to inertia on both sides, growth of trade between the two countries had only been in fits and starts. There appear to be no vigour on either side’s attempts to improve mutual trade.
Keeping the hyper sensitivity of the military to the issue of restoration of democracy and freeing of Aung San Suu Kyi, India had soft pedalled them, broadly keeping a neutral stance on these issues. India’s attitude of ignoring the struggle for democracy, focusing only on building relations with the military regime has shocked civil society the world over. In this process India had ignored the democratic forces which would be coming to limelight in the coming years. Thus India will be starting with the baggage of poor credibility while engaging with Myanmar polity. Ushering in of democracy in Myanmar is likely to increase India competitive role with China. And already China enjoys a head start in the country with geo-political and economic advantages. Added to this is its international clout as a permanent member of the UNSC. And China is unlikely to make India’s task any easier. Thus India’s best long term bet would be to improve its relations with the political parties and the new government.
Other potential triggers
There are other potential triggers that could destabilise the entire region either directly or indirectly. These issues are connected with the national security of India; and the northeast could become their epicentre of action.
Tibetan issue: As the Dalai Lama is aging and the Tibetan refugees, particularly the younger generation, are getting restive over China’s intransigence on Tibet. If the issue gets out of hand, it could impact followers of Tibetan Buddhism in Arunachal Pradesh. This could activate not only India-Tibet border but also India-Myanmar border. Of course there is the added possibility of a confrontation with the Chinese over the Arunachal border claims of China.
China’s subversive support: Although China-India have been trying to build cordial relations with India, China’s capability to support to insurgents from Manipur and Assam and use them as a pressure point in any political or military confrontation with India should not be ignored. Myanmar could play a vital role in denying sanctuaries and safe passage to insurgents on its soil.
Maoists in Nepal: The ascendancy of Maoists, who are pro-Chinese, to power in Nepal and the spread of their influence provides China a potential opportunity to increase, if not replace, Indian influence in Nepal. If China gains a strategic foothold in Nepal, it would result in manifold increase of northeast’s vulnerability. In such a situation any military confrontation in the region is likely to isolate northeast from the rest of India.
Myanmar’s nuclear ambition:
• The military regime in Myanmar confirmed plans to build a nuclear research reactor for “peaceful purposes” in early 2002 with the help of Russia. Selected students and army officers have undergone nuclear orientation and training in Moscow. Nuclear physics departments have been established in the universities of Rangoon and Mandalay with their enrolment controlled by the military regime. Uranium deposits have been found in several areas: Magwe, Taungdwingyi, Kyaukphygon and Paongpyin in Mogok, and Kyauksin and in southern Tenasserim Division and the Russians are said to be involved uranium mining.
• In this nuclear backdrop, recent reports about a secret deal on developing nuclear facilities between Myanmar and North Korea are significant. Both the U.S. and Thailand have voiced their concerns on these reports. Australian strategic studies analyst Desmond Ball and Thailand-based journalist Phil Thornton in 2007 have claimed that Myanmar had secretly constructed a nuclear reactor that would encompass reprocessing technology designed to extract weapons-grade plutonium. These reports were based on information given by defectors and need corroboration.
If true, it could introduce a new strategic nuclear paradigm in the region. That might lead to a situation not dissimilar to India’s western front where it is facing an unstable, nuclear Pakistan. Though, it seems unlikely that Myanmar would invest on such “nuclear game,” India will have to keep a careful watch for developments in this respect.
Avenues for action
The stability of Myanmaris directly related to the creation of a stable democracy. It is in the longterm interest of the region that Myanmar is turne into a stable democratic country. Their international community could become complacent after a civilian government comes to power after the 2010 elections. The experience of Myanmarese people’s struggle during the past four decades have shown that it would not be possible for them to gain a reasonable response from a brutal regime unless there is international support.
The two giant neighbours India and China along with the US hold the key to ensure stability in Myanmar. Only concerted action on their part could achieve any meaningful results. At present the perspectives of the three nations are based only on their national strategic interests in Myanmar. However, they need to join hands to evolve a new paradigm for change in Myanmar. Such a coordinated strategy could improve the chances of freeing democracy from the shackles of its military rulers.
India should have an action plan to help progressive democratisation of Myanmar. With its strong democratic credentials, India should be able to revive its relationship with political leaders and build a win-win relationship.
India should try and separate trade and developmental relations with Myanmar and ASEAN from the effects of regime change in Myanmar. It has to evolve strategies in collaboration with Thailand and other interested nations of ASEAN to make this a reality.
As there is a friendly Awami League regime in Bangladesh, India should strive to open up alternate land and sea routes through Bangladesh for widening the scope of trade and industry in northeast.
(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: Blog:

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