The long-lingering power struggle in Naypyitaw has finally ended, and the Myanmar junta, led by General Min Aung Hlaing, has won the struggle, dashing decade-long hopes for a truly democratic Myanmar. The future of Myanmar’s democracy is uncertain, but the country, sandwiched between two powerful states competing for power and influence, is certain to be a key piece in the region’s geopolitics. Given its high-stakes in Myanmar, New Delhi would need to be nimble-footed and creative in its responses with well-thought-out strategic choices taking precedence over knee-jerk reactions.
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Coup, politics and geopolitics
If Myanmar’s democracy prior to the February 2021 coup was inadequate and intolerant towards minorities, its political future will be a lot more complicated, making the choices of outside powers far more constrained. Strong reactions and the threat of sanctions from the United States and the West in the wake of the recent coup could lead to unique political realignments in Myanmar. As a result, even though the democratic credentials of the former State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, remain deeply diminished today, thanks to her shocking justification of the ill-treatment meted out to the Rohingya, the international community may not have any alternatives when it comes to pursuing the restoration of democracy in the country. Ms. Suu Kyi no doubt made a Faustian bargain to cling on to power, certainly since the bloody crackdown against the minority Muslim community in 2017, and yet the recent events have brought her right back into the centre of the international community’s political calculations in Myanmar.
Sometimes, good intentions have deeply compromised outcomes. To rebuild the charisma of the fallen messiah, those batting for Ms. Suu Kyi in the international community may have to condone her government’s past actions against the Rohingya in order to highlight her suitability to be the saviour of democracy in Myanmar once again.
She will now be the poster girl for the international campaign to restore democracy in Myanmar and the case against Myanmar’s conduct during her government’s tenure at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) will most likely be put on the backburner. In this process, the plight of the hapless Rohingya will take a backseat or be conveniently forgotten. Put differently, increasing global support for Ms. Suu Kyi could potentially spell doom for the persecuted Rohingya.
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The China factor
This is a coup that seems to suit no one except the Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar. In the short run, the coup stands to hurt the interests of China, India and even the rest of the international community, all of whom were able to do business with Myanmar in their own unique ways.
However, the international community’s sharp reactions will likely force the Tatmadaw to turn to China. Even though international sanctions are unlikely to have a major impact on the country’s largely inward-looking junta and its Generals with little external interests, it would still expect Beijing to give them political and diplomatic support both within the region and globally.
For China, the coup has complicated its larger regional economic plans in Myanmar, at least for the time being. Beijing has recently been cultivating Ms. Suu Kyi, who was keen on a strong relationship with China given the growing criticism she was facing from the West. But the junta’s jailing her could complicate Beijing’s plans for the country.
On the positive side for Beijing, decisive western sanctions will force the military to get closer to China. For Beijing, given that it does not come with the ‘baggage’ of democratic norms, it may simply be a matter of rejigging its schedule in Myanmar and getting used to the new scheme of things there. To that extent, China will be its biggest beneficiary of the February coup by default.
China, therefore, has every reason to go easy on the junta and offer them support in return for increasing the Chinese footprint in the country. On its part, the Tatmadaw, which has traditionally not been an ardent fan of Beijing, would have to change its tune.
While China’s choices are straightforward, it is far more complicated for others, especially India.
New Delhi’s quandary
New Delhi faces the most challenging dilemma on how to respond to the military coup in Myanmar. The dual power centres of the military and the civilian government that existed in Naypyitaw until recently, suited New Delhi quite well as it did not have to worry about hurting the international community’s normative concerns or sacrificing its national interests while engaging them both. More so, until recently, New Delhi’s Myanmar policy was not shaped by a difficult choice between norms and interests: neither was Ms. Suu Kyi’s political experiment without its faults nor were India’s national interests hurt by the Tatmadaw.
The February coup has undone that comfortable space New Delhi’s Myanmar policy occupied for close to a decade. While India’s national interests, under the new circumstances, would clearly lie in dealing with whoever is in power in Myanmar, India would find it difficult to openly support the junta given the strong western and American stance.
On the other hand, it can ill-afford to offend the junta by actively seeking a restoration of democracy there. Being a close neighbour with clear strategic interests in Myanmar, offending the junta would be counter-productive. While Ms. Suu Kyi was getting cozy with Beijing, it was the Myanmar military that had been more circumspect, to Delhi’s delight of course. With Ms. Suu Kyi in detention, Beijing will focus its energies on wooing the Generals.
Although the Ministry of External Affairs statement — “We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld. We are monitoring the situation closely” — is definitely in favour of restoring democracy, its past support for the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar is unlikely to return; this is particularly because the nature of the regional geopolitics has changed thanks to the arrival of China on the scene. New Delhi’s new Myanmar policy will therefore be a function of interests rather than norms.
Cooperation, Rohingya issue
While a friendless Myanmar junta getting closer to China is a real worry for New Delhi, there are other concerns too. For one, Myanmar’s military played a helpful role in helping New Delhi contain the north-eastern insurgencies by allowing Indian military to pursue insurgents across the border into Myanmar. Coordinated action and intelligence sharing between the two forces have in the recent past been instrumental in beating back the insurgent groups in the northeast.
Equally important is the issue of providing succour to the Rohingya in the wake of the military coup in Myanmar. Unless the military decides to engage in a peace process to gain some brownie points for itself, the Rohingya question is likely to be pushed aside with the campaign against them continuing relentlessly, perhaps with even more ferocity. The inability of the states in the region to address the legitimate concerns of the Rohingya or increased violations of their rights could potentially lead to a rise of extremism within the community, which in the longer run would not be in India’s interests.
New Delhi then is left with very few clear policy options. And yet, it must continue to maintain relations with the government in power in Myanmar while discreetly pushing for political reconciliation in the country. In the meantime, the focus must be on improving trade, connectivity, and security links between the two sides.
Happymon Jacob teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and recently founded the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, a New Delhi-based think tank . Link: https://csdronline.org/