As Myanmar turns violent, India can adopt a two-track approach
The first month of the coup in Myanmar ended in a bloody disaster as security forces executed a violent crackdown on peaceful protesters. On February 28, at least 25 people were killed and many more injured in various towns. This is certain to harden positions on all sides — the anti-coup movement, their external supporters, and the Tatmadaw (military) that is signalling its steely resolve.
On February 1, Myanmar’s generals suddenly suspended the country’s experiment with partial democracy, taking full charge of the reins of government and arresting President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. An illegal and unconstitutional action, it put the military in direct confrontation with pro-democracy forces. The peaceful Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), comprising massive protests and processions, gained traction. It reached its zenith on February 22 when, marking “the Five Twos” (22-2-2021), hundreds of thousands of people assembled in Yangon and other towns to demand the restoration of democracy and release of their leaders.
The military government, using emergency powers and displaying its expertise to suppress people, used diverse tools — from water cannons and rubber bullets to live ammunition. The number of fatalities, people injured and detained is increasing by the day. Strong statements emanated from deliberations on Myanmar at the United Nations (UN), Human Rights Council and G7, besides a few targeted sanctions. A dramatic moment came at the UN General Assembly’s informal meeting when Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar’s pro-democracy ambassador, made an emotional plea to the UN “to take action against the Myanmar military”. Since sacked, he was backed by the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy on Myanmar, who advocated “a clear signal in support of democracy”.
What next? Burmese historian Thant Myint-U, noting that he knew all key actors in the present drama, observed: “I can say honestly I don’t know what the coming months will bring.” But his preference was for a radical break from the past dominated by military rule. Will Myanmar free itself from the Tatmadaw’s clutches? Experts appear to be divided. A section thinks that the army’s defeat is possible, even likely, considering the widespread popular support for protests, enthusiasm of the young, and impact of mobile phones, the internet and Facebook. Others maintain that the military is too powerful, intensely motivated and driven by a sense of entitlement and destiny. Besides, Buddhist monks, a vital constituency, are still staying aloof. While a few discontented ethnic groups have joined CDM, they are holding back their armed attacks on Tatmadaw units. Thus, dislodging the military from its overarching political role may be extremely difficult.
What should India do? Calm reflection suggests that a distinction needs to be made between action by the Indian government and by non-governmental segments. The government, in principle, supports democracy everywhere, but is also committed to non-interference in the internal affairs of others. It strives to ensure that instability in Myanmar does not trigger support for insurgency in the Northeast. India’s development cooperation projects in Myanmar should not be delayed.
Other priorities are to stem China’s growing influence and facilitate conditions congenial for the return of the Rohingyas to the Rakhine State. However, political parties, civil society, media, universities and citizens are free to support the pro-democracy movement. The real challenge, though, is faced by Indian firms that have investments and operations in Myanmar. Reconciliation in Myanmar is a desirable objective. No stakeholder can handle this task better than the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), of which Myanmar is a member. Fortunately, Indonesia has launched a diplomatic initiative. Foreign minister Retno Marsudi met with her Myanmar and Thai counterparts in Bangkok. A special meeting of Asean foreign ministers is planned. New Delhi should consider supporting Indonesia’s efforts. But it will be a long and arduous journey.
Rajiv Bhatia is distinguished fellow, Gateway House and former ambassador to MyanmarThe views expressed are personal