Myanmar in Throes of Change?

Pro-democratic forces in Myanmar have waged what they call a revolutionary war against the military junta since the 2021 military coup. However, the recent mass protests have led the generals to assure their legitimacy overseas through promoting a sham dialogue internally. Bikki Sharma tries to understand how the opposing forces are playing the jenga of statecraft in Myanmar……

Opinion

As mass protests have erupted into an armed uprising following the military’s seizure of power in February 2021, Myanmar’s (also known as Burma) military has used brutal force against those opposing its rule. It is estimated that thousands of civilians have joined the People’s Defence Forces (PDF), which was brought into existence by the National Unity Government (NUG), which consisted of elected legislators who were thrown out of office by the generals during the coup.

Some of these civilians worked alongside long-established ethnic armed groups. A military junta has ruled Myanmar for many of the years since it gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948. But representative democracy only lasted until 1962, when General Ne Win led a military coup and held power for the next twenty-six years.

The history of ethnic armed groups creating fissures in the fabric of democracy since 1962 led to the beginning of a massive crackdown in the democratic status of Myanmar. The military junta became ferociously characterised by an extensive dependence on the military might leading to human rights abuses that were alleged to have been committed by the Burmese military forces.

The history of ethnic armed groups creating fissures in the fabric of democracy since 1962 led to the beginning of a massive crackdown in the democratic status of Myanmar

Military rule in Myanmar lasted from 1962 to 2011 and resumed in 2021.  Today, human right activists within the state accuse military-run courts of failing to uphold international fair trial standards by trying dissidents behind closed doors. Moreover, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that torture and other forms of ill treatment often obtain confessions in order to obtain convictions.

The perils of military rule in Myanmar

Military rule, civil war, poor governance have plagued the country, accompanied with widespread poverty since it gained independence. Today, a well choreographed military rule leaves no hope for democratic reforms in the Southeast Asian nation, and only time will tell if Myanmar is willing to absolve itself of the title of a failing state.

However, the languid state of affairs still needs to grapple over the past decades’ modest progress in poverty reduction, which has been wiped out by the coup.

The situation in Myanmar has now taken a violent turn. Armed ethnic groups and ordinary citizens, known as militias, face widespread, fierce opposition from the Tatmadaw, the military.

Former lawmakers and activists who vowed to resist the military junta formed a shadow government. In response, the military has brutally cracked down on opposition forces and protesters. The United Nations, foreign governments, and rights organisations have condemned the military’s brutal crackdown on dissent and widespread abuses.

Today, a well choreographed military rule leaves no hope for democratic reforms in the Southeast Asian nation, and only time will tell if Myanmar is willing to absolve itself of the title of a failing state

It was reported in January 2022 that clashes between military and People’s Defence Force were occurring across the country. There was fighting in townships that haven’t seen fighting since Myanmar’s independence.

Myanmar’s violence is not limited to its ethnic minority border areas, but has also reached major cities such as Mandalay and Yangon, both of which are home to significant populations of ethnic minorities. Resultantly, the widespread violence has found itself creeping into neighbouring India, jeopardising connectivity issues and internal peace of India.

Fencing the borders by India

India’s Ministry of Home Affairs has announced plans to build a 100 km Smart Fencing System (SFS) along the India-Myanmar border as part of its 2022-23 annual report.

The purpose of an SFS is to enhance surveillance and control along sensitive border areas by implementing technologically advanced border security infrastructure. The word “smart” refers to the system’s ability to monitor and respond to border threats effectively by using technology. It typically consists of physical barriers, sensors, cameras, and communication systems.

Ostensibly, there has been a lot of ethnic violence in Manipur because of an unfenced border and unregulated migration from Myanmar. The result has been violence, extortion, and diverse demands from various Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) that maintain safe havens in neighbouring countries of Southeast Asia. A smart fencing system will prevent insurgents and illegal actors from infiltration in India, addressing a pressing security issue.

Additionally, India also has other varied interest in the country, including connectivity and infrastructure. The Indian government also seeks to counter Beijing’s “carrot and stick” policy in Myanmar, which maintains close ties with ethnic armed groups (EAOs) as well as with the military junta.

Thus the Kaladan multimodal project of India is a tool that will counterbalance China’s presence in Kyaukpyu port and boost India’s trade with Southeast Asia. It is important to note that the Indo-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway (IMT-TH) project, on the sidelines of the recently concluded 12th Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) meeting in Bangkok on July 16, also factors in and emphasises the need for peace and stability in the border areas.

Besides expressing concern about trafficking and the junta uprising, India still reiterates its support for Myanmar’s democratic transition, proposed people-centric initiatives to address pressing challenges, and aims to coordinate its Myanmar policy closely with ASEAN. In terms of connectivity and regional integration, the IMT-TH presents a significant opportunity.

Negotiating for Democratic principles

Nevertheless, in fissures created by the turmoil leading to Myanmar’s almost failing state machinery, the international community and India seeks to cool down Myanmar’s brutal internal conflict.

The Kaladan multimodal project of India is a tool that will counterbalance China’s presence in Kyaukpyu port and boost India’s trade with Southeast Asia. Additionally, the IMT-TH project, also factors in and emphasises the need for peace and stability in the border areas

The junta leadership is facilitating a meeting between Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese Nobel laureate convicted for her vocal protest for peace in the region, and the Thai foreign minister in order to ease the incarceration of National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders.

There has been speculation that the military may be opening the door to some form of political accommodation that would allow for elections to be held next year as a result of its feints.

Stabilisation is unlikely, however, as a countermeasure to recent military losses to ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and civilian Peoples’ Defence Forces (PDF), thus the regime is likely playing the NLD card.

There has been speculation that the military may be opening the door to some form of political accommodation that would allow for elections to be held next year as a result of its feints

As a result of the coup and its aftermath, junta leaders will not be able to negotiate political solutions until they recognise that fundamentally new political realities have emerged: Military leaders must withdraw from politics and agree to form a federal democratic government under civilian control with the armed forces under their firm control before negotiations can begin.

In the resistance movement, a new generation of empowered and diverse leaders is challenging the coup regime. On the one hand, the ethnic armies are collaborating with PDFs at the operational level and expanding their territorial control. On the other hand, the insurgents are collectively working to pressure the military on all fronts simultaneously.

Leaders of the resistance movement are committed to breaking with past social and political patterns and to creating a new future that honours diversity and embraces it. Hopefully that is the path, which the junta leaders of Myanmar should take.

The writer is a professional and experienced writer having worked with multiple organisations. He is a keen observer of global affairs, geopolitics and how it affects the world order. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda