Myanmar: Difficult Days Ahead
Myanmar is the only country to figure in the joint-statement issued at the end of the QUAD summit (Mar 12, 2021). It is an important development underlining the consensus on the need to finding a solution to the unjustified military coup of Feb 01, 2021 and return power to the to the parliament. It is also important to note that the each of the four-member QUAD has substantial strategic interests in the Bay of Bengal region and also that peace and stability is essential to meet their requirements. It is obvious that Myanmar had figured in the bilateral discussions as also on the collective platform of QUAD leaders prior to the summit. The other major take away is that the import of the joint statement is not lost on several countries that support the Myanmar military especially the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
As the world debates the worsening situation in Myanmar, the military leadership there continues resorting to unbridled use of force and unconventional means to impose its authority on the country. In the process, this is causing the death of scores of civilians in unprovoked police firing and other extra-judicial process. Graphic pictures of policemen targeting unarmed protestors, use of ruthless force against demonstrations and arbitrary arrests of citizens in countless numbers are aired regularly on social media. Myanmar is now close to becoming the second country, after Cambodia, in the ASEAN region that will have exclusive Chinese cyber security firewall to protect its critical information infrastructure.
Seven weeks down the road from the day it seized power, the military has not provided any justification for unilateral actions that saw the arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (DASSK) or President Win Myint or arbitrary arrests of several leading politicians, civil servants, media representatives and business men. It has not provided any evidence to prove its claims of a fraudulent general election of November 2020, if it does, it will be at risk to its already poor image. The military is at war with rest of the country to preserve its false narrative. It will have to think “out of the box” to preserve the shrinking space of authority is occupies.
Time has come to look at options to engage the military in Myanmar and restore civilian rule in the country. The two phases of 2010-2015 and 2016-2021 will be a study in contrast. While 2010-2015 was a period of comparative quiet with the military helming a quasi-democratic government, the 2016-2021 exposed the fault lines in political governance, personalities and programs. The onus was on the civilian government to prove its credentials in several areas, while the military which held four critical portfolios such as defense, internal/home, immigration and border areas owed no accountability to the parliament. There is a case for Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to account for the military’s lack of progress on the national cease-fire process or even in the case of the emotional Rohingyaa issue. Even so, the military which was in charge of the entire national security apparatus failed to assist the civilian government in the flawless conduct of the elections. The trust deficit is acute, the military is more feared than revered and there is nothing to prove it has the political savvy to expect a sullen country to give it a free pass at the “next general elections”.
Several countries have announced a range of sanctions on Myanmar but the text and tenor has changed since the target now are members of the ruling military regime. A treasure trove of information on the business interests of the military leaders, their family members and associated institutions is circulating on the social media. In addition, the Amnesty International has disseminated related information few days ago.
That Myanmar is mentioned in the joint statement of QUAD summit is a welcome development. Time is ripe for international intervention or mediation to get all Myanmar parties to discuss an agenda to end the civil war initiated by the military, restoration of status-quo as existing prior to Feb 01, 2021, create conditions for return to multi-party constitutional parliamentary democracy. The role of the international community is find the means to get the military to return to the barracks and address its predilections.
Myanmar does not face any external threats to its safety and territorial integrity, those days are far gone. Its internal worries pertains mainly to due to lack of progress on converting the cease-fire agreements with national ethnic organizations into formal ones and address the Rohingyaa issue from a political and constitutional angle. These two are emotive issues and have remained unresolved for decades and hold the key to Myanmar’s unity and prosperity. The Rohingyaa problem cannot be permitted to fester and longer it remains unresolved it will be a major source of anxiety or threat to India, Bangladesh and South-east Asia including Myanmar.
President Biden has made eloquent references to rebuilding US relations with countries of south-east Asia and ASEAN, his national security guidance directives issued last week sets out the way forward. Taken with the QUAD joint statement, there is every reason for a quick diplomatic initiative. The mood in ASEAN is divided as can be witnessed from statements emanating from its members, this time around there is strong sentiment in favor of early return to democratic process.
A visit to Yangon by the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command is one early option.
The other option is to use the presence Prime Minister Modi, when he is at Dhaka to take part in the 50th year celebrations of Bangladesh (March 26-27) to create an interlocutory group to discuss with the Myanmar authorities. Several heads of States and Government will gather there for the historic occasion at the invitation of Prime Minister Sheik Hasina.
PM Heblikar is Managing Trustee, Institute of Contemporary Studies Bangalore (ICSB) and former Special Secretary, Government of India.