“Unless something happens within the Myanmar military, we are in for a period of political instability”- Mr. Sanjay Pulipaka
Mr. Sanjay Pulipaka, Senior Fellow, Delhi Policy Group, spoke at length in a fireside chat with the Reformist on the implications of the coup in Myanmar on India’s regional interests at a time of increasing Chinese assertiveness.
In your view, what were the external and internal factors that acted as a catalyst for the coup in Myanmar?
The politics of Myanmar has been the centre of attention in international policy circles for the last few months. In the November 2020 General Elections, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, registered emphatic electoral victory. After the elections in November 2020, there were statements regarding the fairness of the elections from the Myanmar Military (Tatmadaw). However, very few expected the military coup. One may wonder why that was the case, as Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD did not undermine the military’s interest. She defended Myanmar’s military on various international platforms against allegations of genocide. Her economic policies focused substantially on opening up the economy, which did not go against the interest of the Myanmar military. It appears that the Myanmar military did not expect the landslide victory of NLD in the elections. They expected a fragmented verdict and believed that they would be in control of the future political trajectory. The NLD instead won a resounding victory with over 80% of the seats in the legislature. An important dimension of Myanmar’s constitution is that 25% of the seats in the legislature are reserved for the Myanmar Military. Therefore, any constitutional reform that goes against military interest will require the participation of at least some military members in the parliament, a problematic enterprise. The military may have feared that the landslide victory of Suu Kyi allows her to attempt a radical reform of the constitution. That could be one of the internal triggers. Myanmar military claimed large scale electoral malpractices in the November elections. But given the military’s track record with the allegation of electoral fraud, these claims were taken seriously by many domestic and international observers.
As far as external factors are concerned, some news reports hinted that Suu Kyi might have agreed to the repatriation of Rohingya refugees - the victims of sectarian violence who fled to Bangladesh due to violence in Rakhine State in Myanmar. However, one has to take this argument with a pinch of salt. The question one needs to ask is that if China is facilitating an agreement and Suu Kyi agreeing to it, will Myanmar Military casually reject such an agreement? If so, the Tatmadaw will have to offset Chinese disappointment by catering to China’s interest in the economy and in the region.
More than international causes, it is the domestic power-play that may have prompted the coup. The Myanmar military has received Chinese support since long, and it continues to receive it. But that support is a less significant variable in the Myanmar military’s decision to topple the civilian government. The causes of the Military coup in Myanmar are within the domestic politics of Myanmar.
Taking a cue from your points in the previous answer, although external support was not as important as the internal factors in the developments that unfolded in Myanmar. In the backdrop of increasing fissures between the US and China in several issues globally, is the west likely to look at and identify measures of punitively penalising the Myanmar military for the action that it has undertaken? Moreover, given that sanctions have increasingly proven to be ineffective as a form of punitive measure, what other form of actions will the US and its western allies take in this situation?
Tatmadaw must have factored in probable support from China while planning the coup. The coup has brought the Chinese role in Myanmar’s military, its polity, its economy increasingly under scrutiny. The large-scale protests in front of the Chinese embassy displayed an anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar. Some Chinese news outlets called the events in Myanmar a ‘cabinet reshuffle’ and ‘an internal matter’ instead of a ‘military coup’. In that context, Myanmar protesters, now called Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), have questioned Chinese authorities if they will deem violence on oil and natural gas pipelines as internal matters. Such questions pose an obvious threat to Chinese economic interest. In the recent past, approximately 37 Chinese factories/outlets/firms amounting to approximately $36.89 million were set ablaze. The CDM protesters, however, deny any role in the arson. They alleged that the Myanmar military was behind the arson to drag China in greater support of the Myanmar military. More recently, a few personnel manning the oil and gas pipeline were attacked. Overall, the Chinese role in Myanmar’s current political process is increasingly under scrutiny. As in the earlier coup Chinese have been defending the Myanmar military. However, at a larger regional level, there is a US-China growing rivalry or contestation. Some argue that it is a new cold war, which can be debated. So on a broader level, among the many elements of growing tension, the Myanmar issue may become an essential node of difference between China and the US. The US has already flagged issues of Xinjiang’s forced labour, which is an addition to the menu of difference of opinion on human rights.
With reference to Myanmar, the West has shown hesitancy in deploying full-spectrum sanctions. Probably, in their opinion, the earlier sanctions they imposed did not yield proportionate benefit. Sanctions have to be targeted and precise. But full-spectrum sanctions result in considerable misery to the common masses. Therefore, the West, including the US, have thus far refrained from deploying full-spectrum sanctions. So far, they have focused substantially on targeted sanctions. For instance, they have targeted the Tatmadaw military chief, his family members, other military officials and other entities. And I believe they will slowly scale up the targeted sanctions process. After the sustained violent incidents in the recent past, there is growing pressure on various governments to impose stringent sanctions.
How can India raise the military coup in Myanmar in a UN Security Council that is increasingly fragmented by the differing opinions of China and the United States of America on the coup?
Well, there are a couple of things. India shares a long border on its Eastern frontier with Myanmar. People rarely recognise this. We have Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram sharing the border with Myanmar. This will be one of the starting points that determine the course of India’s interaction with Myanmar. The border with Myanmar is porous, and there is free movement of people on both sides. Officially, people on both sides can enter the territories of each other’s countries for a few kilometres to carry out daily economic activities. Therefore, our position in the UN Security Council and other platforms will have to factor these realities as what happens in Myanmar has implications for India as well.
There are also armed groups operating in Myanmar. Ethnic Conflict in Myanmar has been going on for a few decades now. In that sense, there are many ungoverned spaces in Myanmar that impact India’s national security. India has been fighting to curb the flow of arms and narcotics substances into India. There have been instances when the Tatmadaw has supported our counter-insurgency operations. It looked away when we crossed over to deal with insurgents on the other side. So, in terms of security cooperation, our work with Tatmadaw has been decent. It could have been much better, but overall it is on a good footing. So this is another dimension which India will have to factor while engaging Myanmar.
And yet, India has been sharply critical this time on what is happening in Myanmar. India has expressed serious concerns about the developments that have unfolded in Myanmar. However, India will not adopt a full sanctions approach, as some are suggesting. There have been suggestions that India should engage more with ethnic armed groups. There is no doubt that India has to interact with all the stakeholders.
Given India’s federal structure, there is also diversity in response to happenings across the border. For instance, the Mizoram chief minister held an interaction with Zin Mar Aung, whom he dubbed the foreign minister of Myanmar. Mizoram has also been much more open in taking in refugees, unlike neighbouring Manipur, which seems taken a more modulated approach. All this has again has a lot to do with local ethnic dynamics. Mizos in Mizoram and ethnic Chin in Myanmar often refer to each other as ethnic kin. At the same time, in Manipur, there is an ethnic conflict going on, so refugees coming will affect the ethnic conflict in Manipur. So this dynamic also affects India’s interactions with Myanmar.
In the United Nations, we will be keen on a quick and just resolution of the Myanmar crisis. India wants a much more transparent and representative political process emerging in Myanmar. This is in India’s interests. It is in India’s interests to have diverse political and economic players in Myanmar. The more open Myanmar is, the more international players will come in and diversify the place. Otherwise, it will provide China more space to act. Over the past decade, there has been greater diversity in the number of players coming and investing in Myanmar, which is good for us.
So in the United Nations, we will pitch for quick restoration of participatory political processes. India should also act as a bridge between various international stakeholders because we are a neighbour, and we need to ensure that some coordinated international action occurs. There have been instances where the UN Security Council presidential statements were passed, and reportedly India played an important role in ensuring that concerns of various players were stitched together and a document of some sort came from the aegis of the United Nations Security Council. India may play a much more proactive role in the UNSC. It may not be very glitzy or visible, but something that India will constantly do.
How should the Indian Central Government manage Chin migration from Myanmar so that it does not comprise our security cooperation with Tatmadaw?
It is not just Chin migration that we will see in the coming months. Chin migration, of course, is the first influx. There could be other ethnic groups that move towards India, such as Kachins and Nagas from the other side, who could move towards Nagaland or Manipur because of the deteriorating security situation. These ethnic groups also have different relations with local groups. Some have friendly relations, such as the cordial relations between Chins & Mizos right now. However, there have been instances in history where Chins and Mizos did not get along well. On the other hand, we need to factor in the dynamics of Nagaland politics, the impact of the movement of Nagas from the other side and the relations between Nagas and other ethnic groups. So we should not take a simplistic view of the issue. A case in point is the differing view between Mizoram and Manipur governments on the migrant issue reveals the complexity. So the government has to factor in the concerns of various ethnic minorities.
The relations between the Tatmadaw and the various ethnic armed groups till recently have been very fluid. For instance, the shifts in the relationship between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw merits close attention.
Sir, you have previously stated that opaque forms of government are vulnerable to the workings of authoritarian powers. So in the medium to long term, how do you see the situation unfolding, and what should India do to prevent the Chinese government from influencing the Myanmar military in a manner that harms India’s interests?
The coup in Myanmar has unsettled a delicate balance between domestic and international relationships. Today, Myanmar’s military depends on Chinese support on various international platforms, and this dependence is only going to increase, as Tatmadaw is structurally rejigging the economy and polity in such a way that China plays an important role. The coup has pushed the political and military apparatus closer to China. It is an enormous challenge for India, as it has to deal with a Tatmadaw that structurally depends on China.
The second dimension that the Myanmar military may have underestimated is the ethnic armed groups and the scale of student protests. We need to see the impact of the developments on the Myanmar military internally. Recently, twelve army chiefs of various countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, issued a statement condemning the violent incidents in Myanmar. Similarly, India has multiple modes (military to military relations and diplomatic channels) to communicate our concerns and interests.
Indonesia has proactively sought to facilitate conversations on the crisis. The ASEAN Summit, on April 24, extensively deliberated on the Myanmar crisis and issued a Five-Point Consensus statement. While calling for an immediate cessation of violence, the ASEAN consensus statement suggested that a Special Envoy will soon visit Myanmar and interact with all the stakeholders. India, along with other Quad countries, should support ASEAN in its efforts.
However, the possibility of quick resolution look bleak. So unless something happens within the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw will not let the status quo ante that prevailed before the 1st of February to come back. Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the democratic forces have said that they no longer recognise the 2008 constitution. They want the Myanmar military to withdraw entirely from the political process and not be seated in the legislature, which the military may find challenging to accept.
This interview was conducted on 9th of May 2021