Decoding the Myanmar crisis: domestic factors or external players?

Published on Dec 07, 2021 10:56 PM IST

The study has been conducted by Jelvin Jose, Researcher, Institute of Chinese Studies

Decoding the Myanmar crisis(Reuters)
Decoding the Myanmar crisis(Reuters)
ByInstitute of Chinese Studies

For Myanmar, which has been under authoritarian military rule for several decades, the restoration of partial democracy in 2011, in a power-sharing agreement with an elected civilian government, notwithstanding the military’s dominance, was a ray of hope. In spite of being under the shadow of a military-dominated constitution, Myanmar achieved considerable progress under such a "semi democratic” setup. Yet, due to the defective constitution, framed by the military with the intent to preserve its control over state power, the threat of subversion of its civilian institutions has always loomed over Myanmar's democracy. The military- Tatmadaw- seized power in a coup on February1 2021. The overthrow of the elected government shattered the democratic aspirations of Myanmar's millions and hampered the progress that the country had made during a decade of civilian governance. Analyzing the politics behind the coup, As the power-sharing arrangements between the Tatmadaw and the civilian government had been running relatively unstressed under the Suu Kyi, the exact motives behind the coup are yet unclear, and remain debated. To end the country's prolonged international political and economic isolation, Tatmadaw had itself initiated Myanmar's road to democracy in 2011, limiting its powers. For the army, the limited democratic experience of 2011 was an attempt to adapt to the changing socio-economic scenario, test a new administrative mechanism instead of the military governance which had abysmally failed to bring any development, and reverse the international sanctions against the country, without compromising its own control over state power. In addition, the 2008 constitution assigns critical defense, border management, and home affairs ministries to the Tatmadaw, which, in effect, renders to the military a crucial say over the country's foreign policy.

The coup, as of now, seems to be a combined outcome of a multitude of factors. The friction between the Suu Kyi-led civilian government and Tatmadaw leadership over the distribution of powers- the roots of which lies in the military-drafted constitution of 2008- has been one significant factor. The complex relationships between the civilian and military power centers were exacerbated when applied in relation to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi was never a comfortable partner for the Tatmadaw, given her decades-long fight against the military junta to bring in democracy and her 15 years of detention had complicated matters for the Tatmadaw leadership. Thus, in the constitution which it framed, the military had incorporated provisions that were clearly directed against Daw Suu Kyi assuming the Presidential office - which, according to the constitution, was supposed to head the executive branch of the civilian government.

As for now the global response to the coup varied according to each country's distinct interests. While countries such as the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom excoriated the military takeover and were quick to impose sanctions, others, including China, India, Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, and U.S. allies like Japan, having more direct interests in Myanmar, either limited their response to condemning the coup or in some case even hesitated to "condemn" it. Following the coup, all eyes have turned to Beijing, as it has been the largest external stakeholder in Myanmar, thus having most interests at stake and had been Tatmadaw's most significant source of backing, whenever it faced global outrage. Beijing was "unhappy" about the military takeover since the political instability, and the chaos resulting from the coup would hamper wide-ranging Chinese investments and the rollout of mega-Chinese infrastructure projects. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that Beijing would back the junta to minimise any damage to its own interests, through a policy that Elliott Prasse-Freeman- a Myanmar expert at the National University of Singapore- describes as "tacit support, if not emphatic endorsement."

On its part, New Delhi - wary of increased Chinese influence in its neighborhood - would continue to work with Myanmar's generals with the motive of keeping China under check and securing its own connectivity, economic, security, and strategic interests. The "Lower House" of the Japanese parliament passed a resolution against the military takeover, but refusing to bring in sanctions, Tokyo has signaled that it would continue engaging with Myanmar. Though Tokyo perceives the coup as disruptive, trade, investment, and fear of Beijing taking advantage of international isolation, makes Tokyo work with Myanmar's generals. As countries such as India and Japan, apprehensive of Chinese expansionism, fear that international isolation would only provide ground for increased China's strategic grip over Myanmar, the scope of collective actions against the coup, even from the like-minded democracies, has been constrained. Thus, it could be assessed that the conflicting interests of major powers on the issue, resulting in opposite and conflicting actions, in fact, complicate the crises. Since Beijing and Moscow back the Tatmadaw for economic and strategic purposes and are expected to "veto" any move against the junta at the UNSC, as in the past, which in turn would restrict the UNSC's capacity to act on this issue. Simon Denyer points out that the "extensive business interests, a genuine belief in engagement and a desire not to cede strategic ground to China" limit support for the US-led sanctions from even its own allies.

In fact, over the years, the threat of a military takeover was hanging over Myanmar's democracy like a sword of Damocles. With weak institutions, civil society, and a constitution that places the military above an elected government, Nay Pyi Taw's civilian government has always been susceptible to being undermined by the military generals. What had been going on in Myanmar was a "conditional democracy," where the "terms and conditions' 'were predominantly defined by the military generals. In spite of the limitations of a "semi-democracy," Myanmar's democracy had been making substantial progress under the elected government. The coup has inflicted a high cost on this process of democratic transition. Henceforth, at present, restoring democracy in Myanmar seems challenging as the generals will not accommodate Daw Suu Kyi and they are aware she would easily return to power if a “free and fair" re-election is conducted. Therefore, given the Tatmadaw's persisting influence in Myanmar's judicial system, analysts view the court trial initiated against Suu Kyi as an effort to impede her from future elections. The present sanctions are incapable of yielding a desired level of coercion as Myanmar’s Asian partners would work against it. Thus, to restore Myanmar’s democracy, reaching a consensus, at least among the U.S. allies and like-minded nations is vital.

The study can be accessed by clicking here 



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