The Two Rivalries that Benefit the Junta in Myanmar

Photo Credits: PTI

Following the coup in Myanmar, different countries, in consonance with their own interests have reacted differently to the unfolding situation in Myanmar. Two rival competitions-- India-China and China-West have not only made isolation of the Tatmadaw impossible but actively benefit the junta in Myanmar

Haris Rashid

MYANMAR'S military, the Tatmadaw, carried out a Coup d'état in the country on 01 February 2021, preventing the formation of a democratically elected government whose members had been elected in the November 2020 elections. The coup was met with mass protests and armed resistance across the country. In the military’s crackdown on protests, more than 800 people have been killed so far. Different countries reacted differently to the unfolding situation in the country, based on their interests. Now that it has been more than four months since the military took over, there is very little change to expect in the type of government. Even though the junta has announced that it will rule only for one year, given its history of rule in Myanmar from 1962 to 2011, it is expected to hold power for a long time. This article examines the response of two rivalries in Myanmar-- India-China and the China-West rivalries and analyses how the conflict of interest between these actors not only provides legitimacy to the Tatmadaw’s rule but also benefits the junta.

India shares a land boundary of 1,643 km with Myanmar in four north-eastern states as well as a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. It is the only ASEAN country that shares a land boundary with India and hence is a bridge between India and ASEAN where India has strong regional aspirations. Immediately following the coup, India’s Ministry of External Affairs, while noting the developments in Myanmar with “deep concern”, expressed its support for “democratic transition” in the country. There was no direct condemnation of the coup. On 27 March this year, India was among the eight countries that attended the Armed Forces Day military parade in Naypyitaw. Russia, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand were the other seven attending the parade.

India has been cautious in its response to the Myanmar coup for two reasons- insurgency in the North East and its competition with China over regional influence. After the 1962 military coup in Myanmar in which Ne Win came to power, India-Myanmar relations remained mostly stagnant because India championed idealism that prioritized “commitment to democratic values” over anything else. However, the 1990s saw India shift its policy towards realism and it prioritized “security concerns” over “commitment to democratic values”. India has been facing insurgency-related problems in the northeast since its independence from the British. Due to their ethnic connections, the insurgent groups operate their bases in Myanmar. India, therefore, needs help from the Tatmadaw to fight these insurgent groups and hence has been careful not to upset the generals in Myanmar.

Myanmar is also perceived to be a buffer state between India and China and India has always been concerned about China’s relative gains in Myanmar. Starting in 1988, Myanmar has become a close ally of China and China today has a considerable presence in Myanmar which has serious implications for India’s security. China also happens to be the biggest investor in Myanmar and its chief supplier of arms. With Coco islands on lease from Myanmar since 1994, China can directly monitor the movement of the Indian Navy and observe India’s missile launching facilities on Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Therefore, India does not want to distance itself from the regime in Myanmar because that would provide space for China’s influence to grow further.

Regarding civilians and policemen from Myanmar fleeing into India to escape violence, the Union Home Ministry had earlier in its March 10 order asked the four north-eastern states to “take appropriate action as per law to check illegal influx from Myanmar into India.” The order was met with anger and protests by people in the northeast. The prevention of Myanmar nationals from entering and showing them they are not welcome in India is a desperate move by the Indian government to not offend the junta. India also joined China, Russia and Vietnam in opposing a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution drafted by the United Kingdom that would have condemned the military coup and threatened “possible measures” under the U.N. Charter should the situation deteriorate further.

China shares a border of 2,160 Km with Myanmar. Myanmar and China gained independence almost at the same time and Myanmar was one of the first non-Communist countries to recognize China. However, the relationship between the two countries drastically changed in the 1960s. In 1962, the military overthrew the civilian government in a coup in Myanmar. In China, the Cultural Revolution began in 1966 and it started exporting the Communist ideology to its neighbour Myanmar by funding its largest anti-government armed group Burma Communist Party, which deteriorated the relationship between the junta and China. The two started coming closer after the 1988 uprising and the subsequent “internal coup”. The US and the EU tightened sanctions on the junta in 1997 which made them entirely dependent on China. However, the overdependence on China worried the Tatmadaw who were now trying to distance themselves from China. In 2011, the civilian-led, military-backed government in Myanmar, while upholding the “wishes of the people” suspended the construction of Myitsone Dam which was being built by a state-owned Chinese company. The February 2021 coup and the accompanying sanctions from the West have once again forced Tatmadaw to turn to China. Given its own economic and strategic interests in Myanmar, China has always been ready to embrace every kind of government in Myanmar with open arms.

In its response to the recent coup, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency reported the coup as a “major cabinet reshuffle.” Further, China with its veto power in the UNSC has been successful in blocking the UN condemnation of the military coup. Also, in the recent ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting on 07 June chaired by China, it declared that they will jointly urge “all countries to abide by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and avoid unilateral sanctions and undue interference.” Further, in a separate meeting with his Myanmar counterpart Wunna Maung Lwin, following the ASEAN-China meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi assured him “China’s friendly policy toward Myanmar is not affected by changes in Myanmar’s internal and external situations and remains oriented toward the people of Myanmar,” adding that “in the past, present and future, China supports Myanmar to independently choose a development path that suits its national conditions.” With the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank temporarily suspending disbursements and new contracts in Myanmar following the coup, Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has left its lending doors open to the junta. AIIB recently clarified that it deals with “de facto governments” and does not base its decisions on ‘form of government.’

As far as the US response is concerned, it took quick and concrete action to hold all the involved people in the coup responsible. The Biden administration launched a new sanctions regime targeting the Tatmadaw, its leaders and their business interests. The sanctions were accompanied by the export restriction on sensitive goods to the Tatmadaw and blocking access to its US-based assets as well as a seizure of about $1 billion held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Similarly, European Union also sanctioned several individuals and companies related to the junta for undermining the rule of law in Myanmar.

The situation in Myanmar right now is concerning with several ethnic armed forces and dozens of new armed groups fighting the junta all across the country. If the burgeoning insurrection against the junta continues, there are chances that Myanmar might turn into a failed state. In order to save the poor and the vulnerable in Myanmar, an international consensus on the restoration of democracy in the country is required. The international community must leave its differences and interests aside and unequivocally demand that the elected government in Myanmar be restored at the earliest. This article considers two rivalries-- China-West and India-China in Myanmar, which are not only contributing to the inaction but further benefit the junta in Myanmar. While it can be understood that India for the above mentioned self-interests in Myanmar, cannot risk upsetting the Tatmadaw, West’s response does not seem to be effective. Given the fact that China will anyways help the Tatmadaw and fill the void created by the West, it raises the question- if sanctions are the best strategy?

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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