The situation in Myanmar continues to deteriorate as the military raises the level of violence unleashed against peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators. According to the UN Human Rights Office in South-East Asia, to date over 500 lives have been lost in security forces firing on protesting crowds in Myanmar, and 2,600 others have been detained since 1 February when the coup took place. There are reasons to believe that this time round, the Myanmar military may have miscalculated on its ability to frighten ordinary citizens into abject submission.
This playbook of unmitigated violence against its own citizens has worked in the past, whether the protesters were political party workers and civilians or Buddhist monks who enjoy deep respect in a devout Buddhist country. It is now two months since the coup took place but large-scale demonstrations have continued on the streets in several cities, including the capital city of Naypyidaw. The barbaric violence indulged in by the security forces has led to greater outrage and anger and a determination not to submit to such repression.
Furthermore, the very constituencies that the Myanmar regime depends upon to run the State, its agencies and the economy, are also joining the protests, impairing the administration in many areas. The impact on the economy, which has already been badly damaged by the pandemic, is severe. It could well descend into a free-fall if the political unrest continues and, worse, if it escalates.
Coming together of ethnic groups
There is another important difference from the past similar instances. Politics in Myanmar works through a “three-legged” dynamic — the military, the mainly Burman civilian political constituency, and the 17-odd ethnic groups, some of which are heavily armed. If two legs come together, the remaining leg will come under intense pressure. In the early 1990s, when the military overturned the results of elections, which were also won by the National League of Democracy (NLD), it managed to neutralise the various ethnic groups by concluding ceasefire or arms for peace agreements with them, conceding a high degree of autonomy to them in their respective regions. The Chinese, who had maintained strong links with some of these groups located in the China-Myanmar border, such as the Wa and the Kokang, helped the Myanmar military in negotiating such agreements.
This time several of the ethnic groups have shed their reservations about the NLD and the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi and are joining in the popular protests against the military. Clashes between the ethnic armed forces and the Myanmar military are growing. It is estimated that these ethnic armed forces may number at least 1,00,000. If two legs of the stool come together, the military will find itself under great pressure. Of course, thanks to their close connections with China, the Wa and the Kokangs have maintained a studious silence so far. But other groups are not only joining in the condemnation of the military, they are also providing shelter to Burman activists in areas controlled by them. The aerial strikes against the Karen National Union in areas along the Myanmar-Thailand border appears to be an act of desperation and a warning to other ethnic groups.
Currently, there are two opposition groups that are active, one being the Committee Representing the Parliament (CRP), which is composed mainly of the NLD members of the elected body, and the General Strike Committee of Nationalities (GSCN), made up largely of the various ethnic groups. While the CRP is pressing for the convening of the newly elected parliament and release of Suu Kyi, the GSCN has a more ambitious political agenda. The latter wants the abrogation of the current military-inspired constitution of 2008 and the adoption of a new federal polity with significant local autonomy for Myanmar’s numerous ethnic groups. Even the CRP is talking about the need for a federal, democratic, civilian political dispensation.
This would be an anathema to the military. While in the past the military could tap into the majority Burman anxiety about national unity being undermined by powerful ethnic groups seeking autonomy, what we are witnessing is the coming together of these two key constituencies in the face of indiscriminate violence perpetrated on the both.
What about the external environment?
Since its takeover in 1991, the Myanmar military has been relatively insulated from external pressures by the tacit support of China and key ASEAN countries. Since the late 1990s, India, too, has decided to engage with the military government. As long as its borders to the east (India), west (Thailand) and north (China) remained open and trade could continue despite Western sanctions, it could afford to ignore external pressures. That situation continues to prevail as of now. But prolonged unrest and growing violence is already affecting the substantial economic assets which China, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand have come to acquire in Myanmar.
Chinese projects in particular are the target of attacks by demonstrators, leading to Chinese demands on the military government to protect these assets. Anti-Chinese popular sentiment is growing and this cannot be a good augury for the future of the ambitious China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. Myanmar is key to resolving China’s “Malacca dilemma” enabling direct access to the Bay of Bengal.
Would China play a more active role in resolving the current political crisis? This is unlikely because even in the military, the suspicion about Chinese intentions runs fairly deep. This is reinforced by Chinese links with some of the important ethnic groups on the border. Could India have a role to play? While expressing concern over the growing violence in Myanmar and conveying support to the democratic transition, the Indian position has been cautious and in the nature of ‘wait and watch’.
India has one advantage. It has maintained a good relationship with Myanmar’s military leaders and has also earned a degree of trust with the NLD. India has assisted the NLD in nurturing the nuts and bolts of democratic functioning and contributed significantly to capacity building. This is goodwill, which could be useful if deployed together with ASEAN countries and perhaps Japan as well. Maybe the military is ready to consider walking back from the brink and these efforts could offer a way out.
Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and a former ambassador to Myanmar (1997-2001). He is Senior Fellow, CPR. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)