In the summer of 2017, when India and China were locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation on the Doklam plateau in Bhutan, a mild-mannered, avuncular gentleman came visiting. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the chief of Myanmar’s armed forces – the Tatmadaw – was received by then Army chief General Bipin Rawat in Bodh Gaya, where the former paid his respects at the Buddha shrine. After this, General Min travelled to several military and non-military sites across the country. In Delhi, he called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then Defence Minister Arun Jaitley and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
On Monday, General Min confirmed swirling rumours of a military takeover in Naypyidaw and arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party, the National League of Democracy (NLD) had won a landslide victory over the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). A state of emergency has been imposed, expected to last one year after which, an army spokesman said, elections will be held again – certainly, though, no extensions can be ruled out.
The Land of Jade — as Myanmar, or Burma, is popularly known — was once again thrown into turmoil. It had tasted democracy briefly, only over the last decade, after emerging from 49 long years of military rule. On Monday morning, Suu Kyi’s party was to stand tall on the first day of Parliament; instead, many legislators like her were detained and held in unnamed guesthouses.
India said it had noted the developments with deep concern. The new US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the military must reverse its actions immediately. China noted the coup and said it hoped both sides would uphold stability and resolve their differences under the Myanmar Constitution. Suu Kyi’s party issued a statement in her name on its Facebook page, urging the people “not to accept” the coup by the military.
Overnight, the East seems aflame again.
Biden’s first test in Asia?
Some news outlets seemed to suggest this was the first foreign policy test for the new Joe Biden administration on whether it would be able to outwit China in its backyard – but for the time being, at least, New Delhi seems to have held its judgement.
It is clear that a new chapter in the Great Game of the East, a book by the same name by noted Burmese-watcher Bertil Lintner, is unfolding. What happens tomorrow? Delhi is carefully watching, of course, like the rest of the world.
Sensibly, India is likely to, once again, refuse to be drawn into either the pro-Aung San Suu Kyi camp – and, therefore, copycat the US school of thought – or go against her. Nothing symbolises this more than the joint visit last October of Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla along with Army chief General M. M. Naravane to Myanmar. It was an unusual visit, with unusual goals and consequences.
India sought out the visit. While the Indian Army, and therefore its chief, remain stubbornly apolitical, they also know that other key countries in the neighbourhood – UAE, Saudi Arabia and certainly, Myanmar – are ruled by other, more colourful coalitions.
As one political observer in Delhi succinctly put it, “In Myanmar’s democracy, conditions apply.” And Suu Kyi, in her second incarnation in power, understood that very well. So while her party ruled over the last five years, she was careful not to antagonise the Tatmadaw. The Generals continued to control the key security ministries – home, defence and border affairs. Even when the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya took place, the Nobel Peace Prize winner kept quiet. She refused to tread on the army’s toes.
Myanmarese Junta and the neighbours
Certainly, the Myanmarese junta is far more multi-layered than the one on India’s western frontier. For a start, the Generals in Naypyidaw are not as subservient to China – in Pakistan, the Generals want the country to remain a client state, of either Beijing or the Saudis or the UAE, or all three, and want to continue to earn their keep by doing their bidding.
But in Myanmar, things work differently. When Gen Min Aung Hlaing took charge in 2011, his first visit abroad was to Vietnam – and everyone knows that Vietnam and China are hardly best friends. Three years before, in April 2008, the Number Two man in the Myanmar army, Gen Maung Aye, was given a red carpet welcome to India, even before the military junta proposed a new Constitution, which gave 25 per cent of seats in Parliament to the military and which Myanmar continues to abide by even today.
New Delhi’s military-diplomatic outreach to Myanmar became a cornerstone of its Act East policy. On the eve of the joint Shringla-Naravane visit in October last year, Myanmar handed over 22 Indian insurgents that had been making trouble from across the border. But the relationship had begun to take off in 2015, in the wake of the bilateral joint commission, when India decided to ramp up the sale of military hardware to Myanmar, including 105 mm light artillery guns, rocket launchers, radars, mortars, naval gunboats and more recently, lightweight torpedoes.
New Delhi’s interest in Myanmar came with one eye on China – but it’s more than that.
The Modi government has been closely watching Beijing’s expansionist agenda, especially in the neighbourhood, which culminated eight months ago in the aggression in Ladakh. But New Delhi also realises that Suu Kyi can be a real partner — not just because she is the daughter of the much-loved General Aung San who fell to an assassin’s bullet, after which Suu Kyi and her mother spent many years in Delhi, but because she taps into a powerful pro-democracy vein back home.
Meanwhile, Myanmar has begun to vaccinate itself with the 1.5 million doses of Covid vaccine sent by India, while putting China’s 300,000 doses on hold.
Views are personal.