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Will India & the World Act Against Myanmar Junta’s Execution of Activists?

These are the first executions in over three decades and they pose a major challenge to the international community.

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The execution of four democracy activists in Myanmar, including a former Member of Parliament, is an atrocity, plain and simple. The first executions in more than three decades, reportedly carried out on Monday, pose a major challenge to the international community, especially the ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member, and to India, who is its neighbour. It is not known how the activists were executed, but the aim was to instil terror in the minds of those resisting military rule.

The four people – well-known peace activist Kyaw Min Yu (Ko Jimmy), ex-MP Phyo Zeya Thaw, and two other lesser-known activists Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw – had been convicted of terrorism in January through a closed-door trial. The charges were that they had been helping militias to fight the Army. The latter two activists were allegedly sentenced for killing a woman informer of the military.

Snapshot
  • The first executions in more than three decades, they pose a major challenge to the international community, especially the ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member. Cambodia has said that the ASEAN was “extremely troubled and deeply saddened” by the events.

  • Human rights organisations and leaders of several western countries, including the US, condemned the executions.

  • The reaction to the killings is bound to be intense and militias fighting the Army are likely to launch revenge attacks.

  • Myanmar is the land bridge that connects India to Southeast Asia. India is also conscious of the fact that Myanmar and the Andaman Islands share a 750 km maritime boundary.

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What Will Be ASEAN's Response?

Human rights organisations and leaders of several western countries, including the US, condemned the executions. Last month, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is the ASEAN chair currently, called on the military not to enforce the sentence. But a military spokesman rejected the appeal and defended the death penalty.

Following the executions, Cambodia has said that the ASEAN was “extremely troubled and deeply saddened” by the events. It called out the military junta for refusing to engage in ASEAN’s efforts to facilitate dialogue between them and their opponents.

In February 2021, the country’s military seized power again, leading to widespread protests and a crackdown on democracy activists and journalists. The move followed a landslide win for the National League for Democracy (NLD), which the Army claimed was marred by fraud. The leader of the party, Aung San Suu Kyi, was arrested and remains in detention along with thousands of other activists. More than a thousand activists were killed in the wake of the coup.

Reaction to the Killings Can Be Intense

Myanmar was ruled by armed forces for a long time, from 1962 to 2011. Its 21st-century tryst with democracy lasted just a decade. The failed student uprising of 1988 brought activists like Ko Jimmy into prominence, and for this, he spent years in and out of prison. Phyo Thaw was a hip-hop-artist-turned-MP who had a vast following among the country’s youth.

The reaction to the killings is bound to be intense and militias fighting the Army are likely to launch revenge attacks. In the wake of the February 2021 coup, even while widespread protests broke out in towns and cities, thousands of students, activists and office-goers took to the jungle to take up arms to fight the military. The repeated use of force by the military to maintain its authority has triggered a desperate response among activists who would have chosen the path of peaceful protest but have now taken to arms.

The success of this armed resistance depends on their ability to link up with several ethnic insurgencies that have always been at war with the military. Among these is the Kachin Independence Army of northern Myanmar, the Karen National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army, the Chin National Army, the Shan State Army, the United Wa State Army, the Zomi Revolutionary Army, and so on. Then, there are the Muslim Rohingya fighting the military as well as other insurgent groups. The 2012 and 2013 riots led to an exodus of the Rohingya to Bangladesh and all over South Asia.

China's Deep Influence

China has long sought to maintain stable ties with the military and Myanmar is an important element in Beijing's energy security. It has built an oil and gas pipeline connecting its landlocked Yunan province with the Indian Ocean and has helped develop the Kyaukpyu port in the Rakhine state. It also wants to build a railway line to link Kunming with the port. China is a major supplier of jet fighters, armoured vehicles and naval vessels to the Myanmar military.

Myanmar is one of those rare places where the Chinese have even got down to trying to resolve local problems, mainly those arising out of the ethnic mix of the country.

In 2017, it helped work out an agreement to repatriate Rohingya refugees back to the Rakhine state. It has also sought to play mediator between the military and the various ethnic armies. In March 2017, it set up meetings of the military with the United Wa State Army, the largest armed ethnic group, as well as with a confederation of a number of other ethnic groups in the north. That this effort has not quite borne fruit is more a result of the Myanmar Army’s belligerence and the tangled nature of Myanmar’s ethnic politics.

Myanmar is the land bridge that connects India to Southeast Asia, and India, along with Japan, has sought to develop the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral highway. India has been involved in developing the Sittwe port and also its own connectivity scheme called the Kaladan Multi-Modal project to link Kolkata with Mizoram.

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What Next for India-Myanmar Ties?

Myanmar’s ethnic armies have a free run of almost the entire region along the 1600-km-long India-Myanmar border. India is also conscious of the fact that Myanmar and the Andaman Islands share a 750 km maritime boundary. This has obvious implications for India’s security and the stability of the Indian border regions, where Naga and Manipuri separatists remain active.

Out of a desire to prevent its insurgents from sheltering in Myanmar, New Delhi has long given support to the Myanmar military in terms of training and equipment. In 2015, India announced that it had conducted a cross-border operation against the NSCN (K) insurgents in response to an ambush of an Indian Army convoy. The two sides have also participated in joint operations and have turned in each other’s militants on occasion.

In 2020, India announced that it was gifting one of its Kilo-class submarines to the Myanmar Navy as part of an effort to expand its defence engagement with the country. Earlier, India had supplied the Myanmar military with Indian-made torpedoes and other equipment.

In December 2021, Indian foreign secretary, HV Shringla, went to Myanmar to meet the military leader Min Aung Hlaing. It was his first visit after the coup. Differences in the approach of the two countries were apparent in the Myanmar and Indian statements following the visit. Where the Indians spoke of having discussed the restoration of democracy, the military spokesman said that the discussion was on the “voting fraud in 2020 elections” and described the civilian government as “terrorists”. It was also made known that the military rulers had refused to allow Shringla to meet Aung San Suu Kyi. As of now, the government of India’s response to the executions is not known.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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