Complicated friendship

Myanmar's problems in transition

By Sanjay Pulipaka & Krishnan Srinivasan
  • Published 2.07.15


The recent developments on the India-Myanmar border would have come as a surprise to many. On that frontier, there are no gunfire exchanges or mutual allegations of transgressions as there are on the disputed India-Pakistan and India-China borders. Not only is there an absence of such friction, but local people can travel up to 16 kilometres across the India-Myanmar border without any visa formalities. In spite of this relaxed atmosphere, or possibly because of it, there are numbers of anti-Indian armed groups that use Myanmar as a base for their operations, and a few months ago, some of these insurgent groups, such as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang and elements of United Liberation Front of Asom have launched a common platform grandiosely called the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia.

Subsequent to this development, Indian security forces in Manipur were attacked on June 4 by militants that owe allegiance to this new grouping, resulting in the death of some 18 Indian personnel. It was in response to this attack that the Indian army conducted a cross-border raid into Myanmar on two locations along the Nagaland and Manipur border. In contrast to high-decibel rhetoric on the Indian side, Myanmar's position has been restrained about this incident. The Myanmar government stated that it would not allow foreign military operations or foreign rebels on its territory, but expressed willingness to "cooperate with the Indian government to handle the problem". The possibility that New Delhi might have informed our neighbour of an intention to conduct this raid, and more importantly, the involvement of Myanmar's own defence forces in similar counter-insurgency operations across its China border, are pointers towards understanding Myanmar's comparative reticence.

Unlike on its marches with India, the Myanmar government has to contend with many powerful insurgent groups on its border with China, such as the Kachin Independence Army and United Wa State Army. In March, during the clashes with a Chinese-armed Kokang ethnic group called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Myanmar air force bombed a Chinese village, killing around five civilians, causing the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, to term the incident "deeply distressing". Additional Chinese forces were deployed in the region and the Chinese defence forces later conducted a live-fire joint air-and-ground training exercise close to the Myanmar border in an obvious warning to its neighbour. Due reportedly to sustained pressure from China, this rebel group has now announced a unilateral ceasefire. In a further positive development, a draft ceasefire agreement between the Myanmar authorities and various insurgent groups was reached in March this year, and after eight days of confabulations in Law Khee Lar on the Myanmar-Thailand border, the ethnic groups constituted a special coordination team to negotiate a nationwide ceasefire accord. These discussions are to be assisted by special envoys from the United Nations and China. If a ceasefire is agreed to prior to the November elections, it will naturally increase the density of electoral participation.

On the other hand, disturbing sectarian violence involving the Buddhists in Rakhine/Arakan province and the Muslim minority population called 'Rohingyas' near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border has become a source of concern for all the nations in the neighbourhood. While Myanmar has often been accused of pursuing systematically discriminatory policies towards the Rohingyas, it claims that it has never harboured any Rohingya ethnic group and instead prefers to describe them as illegal Bengali immigrants originating in Bangladesh. This sectarian violence, coupled with severe economic distress, has resulted in the migration of thousands of Muslims in distress from the Myanmar-Bangladesh border regions to Southeast Asian countries on rickety boats. Most of these illegal migrants are the tragic victims of human trafficking networks, and are found adrift on the high seas or in appalling conditions in refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia. So far, at least, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has failed to address the problem, but it is likely to become a long-term transnational issue of considerable magnitude unless remedial steps are taken, which will involve the cooperation of several littoral countries.

Within Myanmar itself, the sectarian violence in Rakhine state has spread to other parts of the country including big cities such as Mandalay, and constitutes a continuing danger to Myanmar's political transition. As the election campaign picks up momentum, there is a strong possibility that shrill rhetoric along sectarian lines will gain greater momentum and with significant political consequences. The sectarian violence has distracted attention from the groundswell of anti-Chinese feeling on account of their economic activities, thereby lessening the prospect of this being expressed in any virulent form. Secondly, the Buddhist religious leadership has been pushed into the limelight on various political issues; and finally, Aung San Suu Kyi, widely considered to be the nation's conscience keeper, is now in an awkward dilemma. If she declares herself in favour of the Rohingyas, she would lose some of her support base among the majority Buddhists in the run-up to the elections. But if she remains silent, as is the case so far, she will lose her credibility with international, especially Western, opinion. This is already evident, with international news agencies questioning her silence on the issue. She has been quoted as countering this by saying that her silence is not because of political calculation, but due to concern that any statements may result in even greater violence inflicted on the Rohingyas.

On the constitutional front, a bill to amend the Constitution has been introduced in Parliament, and its modest reform proposal ensures the military's continued dominant role in the polity. An existing provision provides that a presidential candidate should not have any family members with foreign citizenship, but according to the proposed amendments, persons with a son-in-law or daughter-in-law as foreign citizens are eligible to contest for the office of president. This seems to be a compromise formula, but even such an amendment would bar Suu Kyi's candidature because her sons are British citizens. Currently, the consent of 75 per cent of members of parliament and 50 per cent of eligible voters in a referendum is required to amend the Constitution, and the amendment bill seeks to lower the barrier to 70 per cent of MPs. Significantly, it does not refer to any reduction in the Myanmar military's presence in legislatures from the current 25 per cent. Therefore, unless something dramatic takes place, like Suu Kyi launching a major agitation, the Myanmar military has stalled any attempts to reduce its role in the decision-making processes. The Parliament constituted after the November election this year will witness pressure for further democratization, and though Suu Kyi will not become president even if her party secures an electoral majority, she will continue to be a major political player. If the electoral verdict is fragmented, then ethnic parties will have greater say in determining the trajectory and the pace of the democratization process.

During her recent visit to China, Suu Kyi seems to have adopted more of a pragmatic than a normative approach. China is Myanmar's most important economic and political partner and, therefore, her meetings with both the president and premier of China have attracted attention. She did not call for the release of the Nobel peace prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, from detention, and her silence on human rights, which would have disappointed the West, is an indication that regardless of the outcome of the November elections, Myanmar will maintain the closest cooperation with China, and will be a very important factor in the Chinese Belt and Road initiatives. Certainly the Chinese leadership would have no interest in pushing the Myanmar military to expedite the process of any political reform. China enjoys a long-term and tested relationship with the Myanmar military, and Myanmar's ruling establishment has rarely allowed the outside world to set the pace of its domestic political evolution.

For India, the emergence of a stable and democratic Myanmar is as important as that of any other country in South Asia. After the suspension of sanctions, Myanmar has registered an impressive economic growth touching about 8.5 per cent in 2014-2015. Any sustained economic growth in Myanmar should have a positive spill-over in India's Northeast as well. However, the deterioration of the security situation on the Myanmar-China border or a full-scale humanitarian disaster on or from the Bangladesh-Myanmar border will worsen the security environment. India needs to study in detail the impact of the democratization process on Myanmar's states, regions and the self-administered zone proximate to our border. There are cognate ethnic groups on both sides of the border, and there is the possibility that anti-Indian insurgent factions from these ethnic groups might participate in the Myanmar elections or even gain control of the Naga SAZ.

S. Pulipaka is a fellow at ICRIER, New Delhi. K. Srinivasan is a former foreign secretary