- In January, the Chinese government’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, met military chief Min Aung Hlaing during a visit to Myanmar. Min Aung Hlaing has now assumed power after overthrowing the civilian government.
- When western countries criticised the Suu Kyi government’s response to the Rohingya crisis, China chose to remain silent.
- Myanmar ministers had openly warned against falling into the Chinese “debt trap” and costs of many China funded projects were reduced drastically. China had proposed 38 projects under CMEC but Myanmar had approved only nine.
- Myanmar had also rejected China’s request to conduct joint naval exercises and an offer of a submarine from China. Instead, Myanmar chose to acquire its first ever submarine for the Myanmar Navy from India
- Observers believe that the growing closeness with India could have forced China to exercise power by influencing a section of Myanmar military which was close to it and take control.
- India has a great challenge in the neighborhood. It would be ideal for it and the subcontinent if Myanmar returns to democracy where people’s opinion is counted over dictates from Beijing.
India shares a long land border of over 1643 kms with Myanmar as well as a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. Four northeastern states, viz., Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, have a boundary with Myanmar. India shares religious, linguistic and ethnic ties with Myanmar. It is the only ASEAN country adjoining India and, therefore, is a gateway to South East Asia. India is seeking to enhance its cooperation with Myanmar in line with our ‘Act East’ and ‘Neighborhood First’ Policies. The relationship is natural and true as both the countries were democratic and believed in Rule of Law.
The democracy in Myanmar has been challenged again by the military which ruled the country till 2011. Military seized control under Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing because of “election fraud” or a disputed election as they claim. Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint were detained in the capital Naypyitaw. In fact, the military-backed party, the USDP, performed poorly in last November’s general election, whereas the Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) did even better than in 2015. In this election, 70% of voters defied the Covid-19 pandemic to vote overwhelmingly for Aung San Suu Kyi. This week the first session of parliament since the election was due to start, which would have enshrined the election result by approving the next government. That will no longer happen.
Soldiers are on the streets of the capital, Naypyitaw, and the main city, Yangon. Military has taken control of the country. Military TV said a state of emergency had been declared for one year and power transferred to the military rulers. Terror has been created on ground where Mobile internet data connections and phone services have been disrupted in major cities, while the state broadcaster MRTV says it is having technical issues and is off air. Communications with Naypyitaw are down and it is difficult to assess the situation there. In the country’s largest city and former capital Yangon, phone lines and internet connectivity appear to be limited, with many providers cutting their services. Few international broadcasters are blocked while local stations are off air. People have been seen lining up at ATM’s in Yangon amid expectations of a cash crunch in the coming days. Banks have temporarily halted all financial services, according to the Myanmar Banks Association.
Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, General Aung San who was assassinated just before Myanmar gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948. She spent nearly 15 years in detention between 1989 and 2010. Ms Suu Kyi is seen as a beacon for human rights. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, while still under house arrest, and hailed as “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless”. In November 2015 she led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a landslide victory in Myanmar’s first openly contested election for 25 years. The constitution forbids her from becoming president because she has children who are foreign nationals but the 75-year old is widely seen as de facto leader. At home, however, “the Lady”, as Ms Suu Kyi is known, remains wildly popular among the Buddhist majority.
Ms Suu Kyi’s party National League for Democracy (NLD) has issued a statement on her behalf saying “I urge people not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military.” Externally the United States has condemned the coup, saying Washington “opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition”. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the release of all government officials and civil society leaders and said the US “stands with the people of Burma in their aspirations for democracy, freedom, peace, and development. The military must reverse these actions immediately”.
Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, “strongly condemned” the detention of Myanmar’s civilian leaders on the eve of the opening session of the country’s new parliament. He also expressed “his grave concern regarding the declaration of the transfer of all legislative, executive and judicial powers to the military,” and added: “These developments represent a serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar.”Australia, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said “we call on the military to respect the rule of law, to resolve disputes through lawful mechanisms and to release immediately all civilian leaders and others who have been detained unlawfully.”
Coup backed by China?
Though China has said that it has ‘noted’ the developments in Myanmar and called for stability, it has not criticised the coup per se. It can be recalled that as recently as January, the Chinese government’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, met military chief Min Aung Hlaing during a visit to Myanmar. Min Aung Hlaing has now assumed power after overthrowing the civilian government. China played an important role and stood by the previous military dictatorship which ruled the country till 2011. But it also maintained warm relations with the Aung San Suu Kyi led civilian government.
When western countries criticised the Suu Kyi government’s response to the Rohingya crisis, China chose to remain silent. Many within Myanmar viewed that the civilian government was taking the country towards falling into the Chinese debt trap. On the other hand, it was the military junta which was seen as having a more independent perspective in its relations with China and sought to balance against the Communist country’s influence.
U Set Aung, the deputy minister of planning and finance, who is also chairman of the Kyaukphyu SEZ Management Committee, had openly warned against falling into the Chinese “debt trap”. He had stressed that Chinese projects must have commercial viability and benefit Myanmar. The minister then successfully negotiated a reduction in the size and cost of the Kyaukphyu project in Rakhine. The Chinese-funded port project in the western state of Rakhine reduced the initial price tag to $1.3 billion from $7.2 billion over concerns about excessive debt, reports Irrawaddy. Many experts opine that a further escalation could have hampered their projects in Myanmar and hence took the military route to establish control.
Further, senior commanders of the Myanmar army had expressed displeasure with China over several ethnic militant groups in the northern frontier receiving weapons and ammunition from China. These include the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and many others. Myanmar military leaders had confronted Beijing officials with photographs of Chinese-made weapons, which had been seized during clashes with the ethnic militant groups.
Myanmar had also rejected the Chinese request to conduct joint naval exercises and an offer of a submarine from China. Instead, Myanmar chose to acquire its first ever submarine for the Myanmar Navy from India and also get its crew trained by India. Observers believe that the growing closeness with India could have forced China to exercise power by influencing a section of Myanmar military which was close to it and take control.
An opinion piece in the Foreign Policy magazine by Azeem Ibrahim, director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, hints at the meeting between the two top leaders of China and Myanmar in January as the reason for the coup. “But the most significant player may prove to be China. A meeting last month between China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, and Min Aung Hlaing may have been the pivotal point in determining the coup. How both China and the United States handle the crisis may be a critical marker for their own relationship”, writes the author in the article titled “Is Beijing Backing the Myanmar Coup?”.
Describing the possible reasons for the coup and Chinese involvement, the FP piece says that the military leadership in Myanmar were sure of China’s backing before making the move. “…the leadership would have hesitated to take action unless they had confidence that they could rely on Beijing to shield them from the inevitable consequences in the United Nations from Western nations, and possibly also offset incoming sanctions by expanding economic ties between the two neighbors. Something about that meeting seems likely to have led the military leader to believe that China would be willing to step up for its neighbor”, it says.
Noting the reasons for the military to grow closer to China again, the article says that “…perhaps a commitment from Min Aung Hlaing to continue and deepen the economic ties between the two countries is what made the Chinese hesitate to draw a line in the sand in support of Aung San Suu Kyi. If the dam ($3.6 billion Myitsone Dam) project restarts, regardless of the cost to displaced locals, that will be a major sign of a shift toward China”, says the article.
The possible sanctions on Myanmar by the US and other countries could help China to increase its influence in the country, says the FP article. “The calculation here would be that China rarely misses an opportunity to expand its influence in Asia at the expense of the United States, so when Washington and its allies would come to impose consequences on Myanmar, Chinese officials would still find it in their own interest to intervene on behalf of the leadership there.”
The FP article argues that China could settle for a bargain with the west where the US could recognize Beijing’s commercial interests in its Belt and Road Initiative developments in Myanmar, in exchange for China’s support for forcing Myanmar into resolving the Rohingya crisis, and returning the control to a civilian government which is friendly to Beijing. Given the fast changing dynamics of the region, it would be difficult to guess the outcome of the events as it also depends on how the common citizens of Myanmar respond to the military takeover. If the citizens themselves accept the change in power politics and do not demand external intervention, any arbitration by any other country will be interfering in another country’s internal affairs.
Effect on India and the Subcontinent
Myanmar’s relationship with China and other countries including India is very complex. Myanmar deals with other countries at three different levels: Bilateral level, domestic political level and at the economic level. Given the recent developments, it is pertinent to understand its relations to China specifically and its impact on the subcontinent.
Likewise at the bilateral level, the government and the military establishment of Myanmar receives diplomatic dividends for maintaining good ties with China. At the domestic political level, China’s relations with the country’s ethnic organizations makes it an important stakeholder in the ongoing reconciliation process. Thirdly, at the economic level, a lack of alternatives makes Naypyitawreliant on Chinese investments, thereby ensuring favorable policies towards China over the longer term, notwithstanding regime changes. Lastly for Myanmar China is the most important supplier of military aid and maintains extensive strategic and military cooperation.
Since 1989, China has supplied Myanmar with jet fighters, armored vehicles and naval vessels and has trained Burmese army, air force and naval personnel. Access to Myanmar’s ports and naval installations provide China with strategic influence in the Bay of Bengal, in the wider Indian Ocean region and in Southeast Asia. China has developed a deep-water port on Kyaukpyu in Rakhine State, in western Myanmar which adjoins the Bay of Bengal. Its presence is also seen in the Great Coco Island, located 18 kilometres from India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. China assists Myanmar in constructing a naval base in Sittwe, a strategically important sea port close to eastern India’s largest city and port, Kolkata. Beijing also funds road construction linking Yangon and Sittwe, providing the shortest route to the Indian Ocean from southern China. China always wants a military controlled Government in Myanmar where it can have a grip on the administration. It has also rolled Myanmar into Debt Trap.
Myanmar’s armed forces continue to purchase arms and hardware from China, but the military has also diversified its sources. Today, Myanmar buys arms and ammunition from Russia, India, Israel, Ukraine and several other countries in Central Asia and Europe, according to The Irrawaddy report.
It will be hard to guess the emerging scenario in the Asian nation given the new dynamics between China and its military rulers. Surprisingly, it was the military leadership of Myanmar which led the pushback against China funded projects through the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). China had proposed 38 projects under CMEC but Myanmar had approved only nine. Since last year Myanmar has decided that it will only implement the projects that will be mutually beneficial. Myanmar has so far suspended the construction of Myitsone Dam.
For India, a democratic Myanmar is expected where there is rule of law and respect for Human Rights. India said developments in Myanmar are “deep concern” and has called for the democratic process to be upheld. “We have noted the developments in Myanmar with deep concern. India has always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar. We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld. We are monitoring the situation closely,” said the Ministry of external affairs in a statement.
At last one can conclude that as former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee had said “You can change our friends but not neighbours.” Whether it is China or Pakistan, India talks peace, love and healing but they go against it. If Myanmar falls into China’s Debt Trap and Land Grabbing, a pro-China Government in Myanmar can be a checkmate for India. India has a great challenge in the neighborhood. It would be ideal for it and the subcontinent if Myanmar returns to democracy where people’s opinion is counted over dictates from Beijing. But it is for Myanmar Military Leaders who have to come forward and respect public opinion and release all the leaders and politicians to restore democracy rather than be branded as “dictators.”
When the world is moving for Democracy, development and Globalization, Myanmar should follow this path rather than emulate North Korea, Pakistan or China. For now it is the leaders of Myanmar who have to decide and become torch bearers of democracy instead of getting trapped by authoritarian China.