Today, the United States is deeply concerned over Myanmar and North Korea’s collaboration with China in the background, to develop nuclear power. Even Pakistani scientists have supposedly turned up in Myanmar, but that is not all; in July 2003, former US President George W Bush signed a Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act and imposed severe sanctions besides stopping Burmese imports to US and its allies.
In November 2005, the Military Junta shifted Myanmar’s capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw, 320 kilometers northwards at noticeably short notice, most likely due to fear of a US invasion, while Chinese premier Jiabao visited Myanmar in April-June 2010 and signed 15 agreements relating to establishment of gas and oil pipelines, hydropower stations and infrastructural development, and in July 2010, General Than Shwe, Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council of Union of Myanmar signed five agreements with India during his visit to New Delhi, such then are the activities taking place on our eastern flank like the ones in Pakistan occupied Kashmir by China and others on India’s western flank.
A question to ponder and cogitate upon is whether the Chinese invasion of India’s northeast in 1962 and the People’s Liberation Army’s unilateral withdrawal was planned and designed to enable the Military to takeover power in Burma (now Myanmar)? Thus, leaving India no option but to concentrate on defending itself and even to approach the US to save it? We should have no misgivings about it (Nehru’s letters to the US.’s President in November 1962 refer). But there are other questions. What has been or is India’s role now towards/in Myanmar or should be in the future? Or will we keep analyzing it and keep on waiting for events to take their course?
We have already lost nearly 20 years in interacting and articulating a policy for dealing with Myanmar. Is a democratic transition possible in Myanmar with army divisions and Beijing standing solidly behind the Junta? Why have we failed to measure' up to Sino-Myanmar politics? Has New Delhi the capacity to act as an interlocutor between Suu Kyi and the Junta? If so, why haven’t we done it so far? Is the US in a position to suggest a way out to the Generals to cede power gradually without thought of retribution? And what are the implications once Myanmar goes nuclear like Iran? But before that, the need to narrate and understand various facts as to what is happening before considering implications of remaining quiet from the point of view of:
The United States of America
"America has been telling the Junta since 2004, that the opposition parties must be given due voice in the constitution or it will be unconstitutional."
America has been telling the Junta since 2004, that the opposition parties must be given due voice in the constitution or it will be unconstitutional. It has been renewing sanctions every year and has termed the present elections held on November 7, 2010, a mockery. Thus, Junta faces hostility from Washington. Concurrently, the US is trying to reengage the Junta. Former US President Barack 0bama during his visit to New Delhi in November 2010 criticised India for remaining silent on democratic violation in Myanmar.
That India has often avoided speaking on these international issues, Obama’s policy towards Myanmar is pressure and engagement to seek changes is right, sanctions have failed to yield results while the US objective remains to spur democratisation. On the other hand, George Bush had isolated Myanmar through non engagement which helped the Junta to foster, while 0bama wants to talk and engage with them.
"It is often said that Myanmar’s foreign policy is drafted and made in Beijing."
China’s first premier, Chou En Lai visited Burma nine times between1954-65. Beijing has invested nearly eight billion dollars in Myanmar, mostly in gas, oil, and hydropower projects. In August 2010 Myanmar hosted two PLA (Navy) warships for the first tune at Thilawar, returning from the Gulf of Aden. It has a signal intelligence facility established at Coco Islands, north of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It has been laying and building roads inside Myanmar since 2004 and owns 90% of high-rise buildings in Mandalay. While Myanmar’s markets are flooded with Chinese goods. It is often said that Myanmar’s foreign policy is drafted and made in Beijing,
The Military Junta
"Now the armed forces can take part in politics if required and the constitution permits a big role for them in country’s governance."
The Military has ruled Myanmar since 1962. At one time there were strong differences of opinion about restoration of democracy. In October 2004, Gen Than Shwe sacked his Prime Minster Gen Khin Nyint who had prepared a seven-point road map for democracy and was considered to have liberal views towards Suu Kyi. Even in 2005 before the constitution was framed, Gen Than Shwe said, that there had to be a control role by a strong military, following this, a national convention was held in March 2005 to draft the constitution. It was attended by nearly 1,000 delegates.
But its deliberations were terminated, and everyone went home. Nevertheless, the Junta is keen to promote its democratic image. According to the new constitution unveiled in February 2008 and which was put for referendum but rejected by Suu and elections were held on November 7, 2010. These were won by military backed candidates of the Junta’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party.
Now the armed forces can take part in politics if required and the constitution permits a big role for them in country’s governance. Nearly, 37 political parties took part in the elections for 1,100 seats in two houses of parliament and 14 local legislative assemblies. The military backed party won 80% of the seats. The junta considers Suu Kyi a tool in the hands of western countries to bring a regime change. She and her party National League of Democracy were banned from taking part in November 7,2010 elections.
Aung San Suu Kyi
"Her challenge now lies in expanding her political space, to unite Myanmar but without provoking Junta."
This 64-year-old Nobel Laureate, and daughter of Burma’s Founding Father Gen Aung San who spent 15 of the past 21 years in detention, was released on November 13, 2010 after the elections. Her NLD (no longer a legal entity) which had won 30% of the seats in elections held in 1990 was not allowed to form the government.
She disapproves plundering of Myanmar’s resources by China and had boycotted the November 2010 elections as she did not want to overlook election results of 1990. Her challenge now lies in expanding her political space, to unite Myanmar but without provoking Junta. Also, to get in touch with people to expand NLD besides discussing international sanctions as these are hurting ordinary citizens. She says that She bore no grudge against the Generals.
"As India’s national interests lay in signing agreements for Myanmar’s oil, gas, and other resources rather than standing up for democracy...policy changed as India also wanted to tackle insurgency on the Indo-Myanmar border with the Junta’s help."
In 1988 when the Junta took over Myanmar India was the was the first country to condemn it. But over the years it was felt that following a foreign policy based on high ground was too high. As India’s national interests lay in signing agreements for Myanmar’s oil, gas, and other resources rather than standing up for democracy. And therefore, the policy changed as India also wanted to tackle insurgency on the Indo-Myanmar border with the Junta’s help.
Conversely, the New Delhi bureaucracy has been good at drafting resounding speeches but rarely delivering its promises. In July 2004, there was a move for an Indo-Myanmar rail link. Besides, it was thought that Myanmar could be a link between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and India, and India and South Asia and to build an Indo-Myanmar-Thailand tripartite highway. But these ideas fizzled out. Again, on October 15, 2004 former Defence Minister George Fernandes opened a convention on return of democracy to Myanmar to Delhi in which 14 countries participated.
The then PM said that the Burmese Government in exile relents insufficient support by countries bordering Myanmar, particularly India. It was even proposed that January 4, 2005 be observed as international day as solidarity day for return of democracy and to form an ASEAN and South Asian group to pressurize Junta. But these ideas are dead.
In March 2006, former Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam paid a 4-day visit to Myanmar and some agreements were signed. In Jun 2006, India desired to develop Sittwe port and to link it with Mizoram through Kaladan River. But there was no progress. Though approximately 570 crores were sanctioned in April 2008 for the Kaladan project, besides a project for linking road Kalewa-Moreh, and then in July 2010 India signed a Mutual Legal Assistance agreement with, Myanmar to check insurgency along with four other agreements during the visit of Gen Than Shwe.
Implications & Inferences
"India cannot fight insurgency successfully in the northeast without Myanmar’s active or passive support."
Even from the above brief scenario it can be inferred that the implications for India are challenging. First, with the ethnic unrest in northeastern states, particularly those bordering Myanmar, a second proxy war can be in the making for which a well-planned infrastructure was laid by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence a couple of years ago.
Thus, with China and Myanmar in a position to play a crucial role by supporting these movements with arms and other aid should they choose to do so; the situation for India can become exceedingly difficult. As it is the National Socialist Council Nagaland (Khaplang) has been asking for an independent Nagaland. It has many training camps inside Myanmar. Besides, Paresh Barua of the United Liberation Front of Assam keeps on shuttling between his Myanmar base and Beijing.
Second, the US can step in directly or indirectly to provide support for the democratic process in Myanmar specially when it is deeply concerned about Myanmar going nuclear. Thus, making it an ideal ground for gaining an upper hand in a struggle between the US, China and the Junta with India sitting on the fence. Thirdly, the development of naval bases by China in southern Myanmar which are just 40 kilometers or so north of Andaman and Nicobar Islands would give unhindered access to the Chinese Navy in the Bay of Bengal in the future.
Here again, the US would like to neutralise this by seeking logistic or other naval facilities from Bangladesh-Sri Lanka and even India. In addition, having failed to establish a relationship with Myanmar’s Military in the past, India has erred in not assessing the security challenges which can be posed from bases from inside Myanmar in support of insurgency and secessionist movements. Just as the US is supporting Pakistan for their role Afghanistan or China is establishing itself in PoK in support of Pakistan, it is really China with whom India is dealing in Myanmar.
Although India was critical of Military rule initially and even permitted radio broadcasts from the Indian soil by those Burmese students who had fled and sought refuge in India, today New Delhi has just a functional relationship with Junta. India’s concern for maintaining a peaceful border is logical. Even Suu Kyi supported this. She was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru award for Peace and International Understanding for 1995.
She, in return, made a gesture by promising to construct a road on both sides of the border if she came to power. But as stated by her at various intervals, there are so many other ways by which India can support the democratic movement in Myanmar. India failed to do so. Further, it has been forgotten that India cannot fight insurgency successfully in the northeast without Myanmar’s active or passive support.
Conclusions & Options in Brief
"We should engage Junta much more positively. The Indian Navy and Army should conduct more joint exercise with Myanmar’s armed forces."
The Junta will not let Suu Kyi come back to power and establish herself. It will continue taking all those measures including rearrest no sooner She makes a mistake or provokes Junta, China will ensure that Myanmar remains its satellite, use its markets ports, dilute Indian and US influence and put pressure on India through Myanmar by supporting secessionist movements in the northeast besides keeping the border dispute alive and its claim on Arunachal Pradesh. It will be able to put India in a tough spot as soon as it completes the dams and storage tanks on its side of Brahmaputra River by controlling its flow to India.
As regards India, we remained strangers with Myanmar for nearly 20-30 years, we have not delivered on the projects agreed to by us. There is an urgent need to complete these. US policy remains to bring in a regime change from dictatorship to democracy. In this New Delhi can only support the US and that too verbally and does not have the power to collaborate with it. Otherwise, all India can do now is to offer aid and sign agreements for small projects and let the Junta carry on.
But the 79-year-old Gen than Shwe now Chairman State Development and peace is in failing health. After his departure there can be many changes. What these changes could be, besides China and the US who would be working on these, our national security apparatus should also analyze and advise the PM Narendra Modi as to what contingencies could arise?
Finally, in a nutshell, India can only show good will towards Suu Kyi and nothing else. We should engage Junta much more positively. The Indian Navy and Army should conduct more joint exercise with Myanmar’s armed forces. It is time we arrived at a solution with various secessionist outfits. The Parliament must debate its policy should Myanmar go nuclear and be prepared when China plays the Brahmaputra card.
The Last Word
"We need a proactive, articulate national policy to engage Myanmar to match Chinese and US strategic designs."
Myanmar, a Buddhist country dominated by its Military is possibly the future battle ground between US and China. Former US President Obama visited it in November 2014 after lifting various sanctions and met President Theln Sien. His broad agenda was democratisation but otherwise, to counter Chinese influence, but will the Generals accede to it, is an important question, Indian troops fought under British and Indian leadership to save Burma (Myanmar) from the Japanese who were knocking at the doors of Manipur. Besides, insurgents in India’s North East are being effectively supported from bases in Myanmar.
More important, Chinese influence has been increasing and Beijing is all set to utilise the untapped rich resources of Myanmar, its gas, oil, and markets. New Delhi has remained a passive observer all these years of events in Myanmar. We need a proactive, articulate national policy to engage Myanmar to match Chinese and US strategic designs. As a first step, our army, and air force officers from 3,4 and 33 corps deployed in the North East, need not only to study the campaigns fought in Myanmar but encouraged to visit their neighbor.
About the Author
Maj Gen. VK Madhok is a product of the 1st Course JSW/NDA and was commissioned into the 3 GR. He was the BGS HQ Southern Command and the COS at HQ 4 Corps. He retired as the ADG (TA). He lives in Pune. The author can be reached on Email:[email protected]