Executions in Myanmar
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The window of opportunity is narrow, but India must help bring stability

August 23, 2022 12:20 am | Updated 12:20 am IST

Protesters walk through a market with posters of ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo used for representation purpose only. File

Protesters walk through a market with posters of ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo used for representation purpose only. File | Photo Credit: AP

In the past few days, a Myanmar kangaroo court sentenced country’s Nobel Prize winner and civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to a further six years imprisonment in addition to the 11 already handed down. In July, the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) regime executed four democracy activists, including a former lawmaker. While the regime is known to deploy harsh measures, this was the first time since the 1980s that any democracy activist was executed. The executions followed repressions by Tatmadaw  that  include solitary confinement of Suu Kyi, prolonged detention of Australian economist Sean Turnell, and use of heavy weaponry and air power in civilian areas against resistance groups. 

In February last year, Tatmadaw arrested the entire civilian leadership, installed a State Administrative Council to govern the country, and hoped for smooth control, but the coup has met with fierce resistance. The current draconian measures imply that the regime is seriously concerned that it cannot define the future political process.

There is much diversity among the resistance; young adults, members of political parties, civil society, and even some government officials participate in the protests. There is a self-styled National Unity Government (NUG) of elected members of legislatures attempting to coordinate the resistance, and the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), its armed wing, are conducting sporadic strikes on military targets. 

Scaled up operations

Ethnic-based armed organisations (EAOs) have a long history of conflict with the military, and the ceasefire process has stalled after the coup. With public disillusion with military rule, many EAOs have scaled up operations against the regime and large parts of Myanmar are not under Tatmadaw’s control. The regime reportedly mobilised armed militias to contain the uprising but the opposition is not dispirited. Despite limited resources, the EAOs and PDFs demonstrate resilience in confronting the regime. A National Unity Consultative Council was set up to ensure they operate with a shared vision but ground level coordination is found wanting. While EAOs have relatively better command structures, the NUG fails to exercise adequate control of all PDFs. 

Nevertheless, increased activity is seen among resistance groups. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan recently predicted that “there is a real danger that the coup is sliding into a civil war,” a formulation that reflects growing concern among ASEAN countries over its fellow-member Myanmar. ASEAN has, to a yet-modest extent, been forced to dilute its policy of non-interference in the internal politics of member states, and last year drafted a five-point agenda to resolve the crisis, which included mediation by a Special Envoy.

The current holder of this office is the Cambodian foreign minister, who this year travelled twice to Myanmar. Unable to meet any opposition leaders in detention, little progress was achieved, and he expressed his frustration by stating “even Superman cannot solve the Myanmar problem”. . 

Support from China

There is now some agitation for ASEAN to deploy more punitive measures, including threat of expulsion, to spur Tatmadaw to initiate dialogue with opposition groups, but it appears the regime is not unduly perturbed by censure from ASEAN despite significant economic interactions, apparently confident that it can survive with support from China. While many countries have imposed targeted sanctions on Myanmar’s military and affiliated business circles, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi received Myanmar’s foreign minister in China last April.

China has never hinted that it could reconsider its economic interests in Myanmar; instead, it is inclined to enhance economic engagement. Yet it is doubtful that China’s support alone can enable Tatmadaw to overcome its domestic challenges, and Myanmar seems on a path towards civil strife, violence and a faltering economy.

Given these circumstances, the question is not whether New Delhi expressed sufficient concern about the executions, but what India could do to facilitate a stable, federal democratic polity in our neighbour. Political instability in Myanmar has domestic causes but inevitably spills over into India to our detriment. Though the window of opportunity is narrow, India could adopt a three-pronged strategy; collaborating with like-minded ASEAN countries; urging Tatmadaw to start a genuine reconciliation process; and preparing the political/administrative resources in Northeast India to provide humanitarian aid to affected people across the border.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former foreign secretary. Sanjay Pulipaka is an independent researcher.

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