India Must Note — Road to South East Asian Economy is Via Myanmar

The Northeast, figuratively, is a bridgehead to SE Asia. The first section of the bridge passes over Myanmar.

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
Myanmarese refugees in India participate in a protest against the ousting of Myanmar’s elected government and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in New Delhi, Friday, 5 Feb 2021. 
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About 100 Myanmarese, fleeing the current violence and security crackdown in their country, including several policemen, have taken refuge in Mizoram which has a long border with Myanmar’s Chin State. This may be a minuscule number given the extraordinary scale of public protests by hundreds of thousands of unarmed demonstrators in cities and towns despite brutal crackdowns.

The demonstrations have called for the restoration of democracy, the abdication of power by the military and the release of political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi. Equally extraordinary has been the arbitrary use of State force that has killed more than 50 persons including teenagers, after armed forces fired live ammunition into crowds.

However, Mizoram is familiar territory for Myanmar’s dissidents, some of whom lived there after 1988 when the military crushed a pro-democracy, student-led movement and sent Suu Kyi to her first of several terms of house arrest. They included politicians and student activists, business-folk and professionals, including teachers and doctors.

At one point, no less than 30,000 economic migrants were there including over 100 political workers. That's a large proportion of the tiny state's estimated population of 1.2 million. The Mizoram-Myanmar border has many crossing points and in recent years has also seen a growth in the influx of smuggled small arms and drugs.

Mizoram’s Traumatic Past

Mizoram itself suffered a traumatic insurgency between 1966 and 1986 before a peace accord ended decades of fighting and brought the Mizo National Front (MNF) to power. The current Chief Minister Zoramthanga, now in his third term, was the MNF’s Finance Secretary or minister during its rebel days. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval had a key role as a young intelligence officer in bringing about the peace process.

But what is more interesting is that, informally, Mizoram had enabled the earlier Myanmar political refugees to stay quietly, giving India a unique window into events in its neighbourhood, while keeping a close eye on their activities.

Indeed, before the Government of India announces a public position on the tragedy unfolding in Myanmar, Zoramthanga has already declared his views: “Our brothers and sisters in Myanmar are currently facing problems because of the coup and we welcome those who are forced to flee into Mizoram for their physical safety. The government is mindful that they could face hunger and has sanctioned funds accordingly.”

This is a most diplomatic statement, taking not so much a political position as a humanitarian one.

India’s ‘Silence’ on Myanmar Isn’t Apathy

India’s silence on the situation in Myanmar is not studied indifference but born out of a deep, long engagement with the country and its past and present rulers including Suu Kyi. It must be reviewing the developments with both unease and caution.

For in the policy mix is the consideration of how this could affect the security situation in the northeast, which has stabilised over the past decade, with diminished insurgencies as a result of political, public and military pressure. 

These rebel movements are in a state of suspended animation, and in occasional peace talks with irregular eruptions by groups such as the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom.

In recent years, India has carried out counter strikes on rebel camps along the border, while the Myanmar army has also occasionally actively attacked such insurgent groups.

The current situation in Myanmar is far more complex than what is being widely reported.

This complexity is but expected in a large nation of many ethnicities, some of which have fought 50-to-60 year bloody conflicts against Yangon, for separation and independence. However, under the peace process pushed by Suu Kyi, now stalled, several key rebel groups had come to the negotiating table and were part of the National Ceasefire Agreement that accepted autonomy and not independence.

Significantly, India and China, both of whom have long borders with Myanmar, have been present at these ceasefire agreement events.

The ongoing internal disruption could potentially endanger these negotiations.

Myanmar Coup is More Than Just a Military Takeover by Outraged Generals

If the peace processes are to be restored, they cannot happen without a return to democratic rule. It is important to note that the armed confrontations between the Myanmar state and the ethnic groups were sharpest during tough military rule between 1962 till 2012, and began to abate when quasi-civilian rule was installed, the precursor to Suu Kyi’s first term in office.

Suu Kyi’s international image of a Nobel Prize-winning peace maker and reconciler was dented by the killings of the Rohingyas in 2017 and their flight into Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where nearly a million live in the world’s largest refugee camp.

Her defence of the military’s actions in Rakhine state, of the very force that had once imprisoned her, drew opprobrium worldwide, with fellow Nobel laureates like South Africa’s Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai condemning her position.

But to see the coup as a military takeover by generals who were outraged by her stunning second successive landslide victory (she won a massive two third majority much against the predictions of political pundits), and their own pathetic electoral showing is too simplistic.

Their declarations that the win was fraudulent has been sharply denounced and denied by the country’s election commission.

The truth is that her popularity was not just as strong as ever — it had even expanded to those areas which were seen as strongholds of former insurgent and ethnic groups and those which were opposed to her National League for democracy (NLD) even as they bargained for power at the peace table.

This was an exceptional performance for those who felt she deserved a second chance including these opposition bastions where her candidates won against fierce odds. The NLD won 396 of 498 contested races. Under the Constitution, one-third of the seats in the national parliament are reserved for the military, which won less than 30 seats of the elections it entered.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, congratulating Suu Kyi then on her stunning win, had said that “the successful conduct of polls is another step in the ongoing democratic transition in Myanmar”.

No One Issue Had Brought Together Various Stakeholders as Myanmar Coup Has

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and his team of seasoned diplomats may find the following analysis by one of Myanmar’s most courageous and thoughtful political commentators helpful:

In a clear-sighted commentary, Khin Zaw Win, the Director of Tampadipa Institute in Yangon, urged governments, civil society groups and media as well as political pundits, to understand that “dramatic though the coup may have been, it is the aftermath that is seismic for the people of Myanmar”.

I found his comments illuminating as one reviewed the current crisis, for he pointed out a major political development, which few seem to have understood — that the military takeover brought the NLD, its opponents (barring the military) and the ethnic groups, as well as the Rohingya together politically, as no one issue had.

Khin Zaw Win knows what he is talking about. A widely respected independent scholar, analyst and writer, he was also a prisoner of conscience in Myanmar for ‘seditious writings’ and human rights work from 1994-2005 and works on policy advocacy on communal issues, land and nationalism.

Protests in Myanmar: A Revolution in the Making

Khin Zaw Win asserts that even if Suu Kyi is returned to office, she may find it difficult to manage the movement, which has been marked by unique street protests despite the violence let loose by the security forces: music and songs, silent marches, slow moving traffic and demonstrators stopping their cars on busy roads to block traffic. The scholar says:

“What is happening all over the country is more than just ‘massive protests’ — it is a revolution in the making. This has taken shape in the space of less than a month, as if the elements were lying in wait. Members of Gen Z, those born between the late 1990s and 2010, are at the forefront and this alone is heartening to witness. Resistance to the coup is also doing away with long-standing divisions of ethnicity, religion, domicile and occupation. At one stroke, understanding and unity of thought and purpose has appeared; this must be maintained at all costs... What is certain is that the changes afoot in Myanmar are radical. The term ‘political transition’ needs to be ditched. Even if Aung San Suu Kyi, the deposed State counsellor, were to return to power tomorrow, it’s questionable whether she would be able to manage the movement... The Myanmar military, which has triggered all this, is now staring at a deep-seated convulsion. Road maps, constitutions and elections are not going to help very much. An opportunity has opened up to the people of Myanmar, and they are taking it.”

Road to Economies of SE Asia is Through Myanmar — Not Bangladesh

Both the Neighbourhood First and the evocative Act East Policy are national policies, not regional ones, although many in the Northeast may think that the latter is girded by their region. However, as S Jaishankar underlined with precision during a recent visit to Assam, the Northeast must be at the heart of such a policy. Yet, we must remember that the road to the economies of South East Asia, recovering from the pandemic as is the rest of the world, is through Myanmar. Not Bangladesh. Both countries have two of the best deep sea ports in the region, Chittagong and Sittwe, and China has been assiduously wooing both neighbours.

The Northeast, figuratively, is a bridgehead to SE Asia. The first section of the bridge passes over Myanmar. This is a route that India has patiently built for decades — slowly, steadily, at times irregularly, depending on the disposition of the Myanmar regime.

Right now, because of Myanmar’s internal turmoil, the building of that granular, ground-level, economic and political route just got slower.

Letter to MEA Jaishankar From Eminent Personalities On Myanmar Crisis

In a recent letter to External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, 30 scholars, commentators, lawyers and cultural figures, including the award winning film maker Jahnu Barua from Assam and Sahitya Akademi Award winner Mamang Dai of Arunachal Pradesh, called on India to urge “Indian companies, including State-owned ones, to immediately suspend all commercial ties and proposed deals/joint ventures with the Myanmar military and all affiliated entities”, and encourage regional efforts for the restoration of democracy in that unfortunate land.

(Author and commentator, Sanjoy Hazarika specialises in issues of the Northeast and its neighbourhood. He is currently Director, CHRI. He tweets @SanjoyHazarika3. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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