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December 1, 2009

Bringing Myanmar to a boil

The coming year will see Myanmar’s first multiparty elections under the new constitution, one that hardly represents the democratic aspirations of its people. Though this constitution took sixteen years to create, it was hurriedly confirmed by a referendum even as the country was being devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

The process of drafting the constitution began in 1992, after the National League for Democracy (NLD) swept the general elections. Though they were supposed to, the elected members of parliament hardly had any hand in the deliberations of the National Convention entrusted with drafting the new constitution. Less than two percent of the parliament’s members were actually involved in the final draft, which is the result of intermittent meetings over a decade-and-a-half.

The members of the National Convention were handpicked to push through the draft scripted by by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces. To prevent active involvement of the NLD, the junta kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. Elected NLD members were never allowed to present their views in public, and were persecuted instead.

The new constitution is more a cosmetic exercise than a meaningful effort towards democracy. It does not meet the legitimate demands for autonomy of major ethnic communities that have been waging wars of insurgency for over four decades. There has been no public discourse on the draft. Its purpose is two-fold: to legitimise the role of the army as a power over and above the elected government, and to appease growing international demand for restoration of democracy.

A skewed constitution

The Tatmadaw  is at the centre of the new constitution. The president has to be an army officer, who is endowed with the power to appoint Union ministers and chief ministers of states, and nominate judges of the supreme court. The Tatmadaw will have the right to independently administer all affairs of the armed forces while the highest court of the country has no jurisdiction over them. The commander-in-chief of the army will nominate the ministers of defence, security and home affairs, and border affairs. He also appoints military officers as the security and the border affairs ministers in the governments at the level of state, region and in the self-administered division and zones. Furthermore, he nominates members of parliament for 25 percent of the seats that are reserved for the armed forces in Union Assembly (in both the upper and lower houses).

Apart from having to be from the army, the president cannot be someone whose children and spouses owe “allegiance to a foreign power.” This ensures that Ms Suu Kyi cannot run for the highest office in the ‘democratic government’—her husband and children are British citizens. Without her active leadership it is doubtful whether the first steps to democracy would go very far.

The transition to democracy is not likely to be smooth. With the army continuing to wield unfettered power, the civilian government cannot freely take independent policy initiatives in the three key areas: people-oriented development, restoring the integrity of institutions of governance, and ensuring equal rights to all citizens regardless of their ethnic origin.

Without Ms Suu Kyi’s active participation, the NLD leadership will find it difficult to repeat its electoral success in 1992. not least because the army is likely to use force to ensure that the NLD is edged out in the election. During Myanmar’s short lived democratic experiment from 1948 to 1962, opportunistic coalition governments were notorious for infighting, floor crossings and corruption. The chances of a coalition government successfully functioning appear remote. A period of political instability might well be in the offing. This is likely to reinforce the army’s belief that it is fundamental to ensure stability.

Ethnic insurgency

In an attempt to deal with the ever-continuing conflict, the junta has recently tried to disarm members of ethnic insurgent groups that have signed ceasefire agreements and enrolled in the border guards.

There’s a long way to go, though. The three major ceasefire groups in the Northeast bordering China—the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the United Wa State Army (UNSWA) and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA)—have reportedly rejected the request to disarm. The MNDAA’s Kokang troops, of Chinese ethnicity, clashed with Tatmadaw troops recently, and a few thousand Kokang took refuge in Chinese territory across the border. Their ally, the UNSWA, is one of the biggest insurgent groups bordering both China and Thailand. The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), which has fought the Tatmadaw along the Thai border, has refused to sign the ceasefire agreement, while the Kachin Independence Organisation is still dragging its feet.

These ethnic insurgent groups have little incentive to lay down arms and join the mainstream until the question of their autonomy is not resolved. In the past, the junta has used ethnic unrest as a pretext for retaining political control. Under the new constitution, with the army controlling the defence, border affairs and home affairs ministries, a civilian government will have little chance of resolving the issue politically.

International power play

Once a semblance of democracy is restored, international sanctions are likely to be lifted. This will kick off a global scramble to gain access to Myanmar’s abundant natural resources, including oil and natural gas. Both India and China will and should watch the international power-play carefully.

China has increased its strategic influence by helping the junta weather international sanctions. As a veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council, China has repeatedly saved the regime from international collective action. Beijing has thus built strong links with the army while dominating the nation’s economic development.

China will strive hard to retain the client regime that it has in the military junta. Myanmar’s 1930 km long coastline dominates the eastern arch of the Bay of Bengal, and could help China’s navy to expand its reach. Despite strengthening economic ties in recent times, China continues to be wary of the United States extending its strategic reach in this region. Especially in the context of the increasing India-US strategic convergence, China is likely to be at the forefront of the Myanmar situation.

India’s security compulsions

Geo-strategy dictates that India keep Myanmar in its foreign policy horizon for strategic, economic and developmental reasons. Myanmar’s geographic location astride the India-Southeast Asia trade routes increases its value. It can open up external land and sea communication links to the landlocked North-eastern states. Myanmar’s ocean boundaries are barely 30 km from the Andaman islands. Unfortunately, Myanmar’s strategic significance in India’s national security has not been given the recognition it deserves.

The North-eastern states are connected to the rest of India by the Siliguri corridor, a tenuous 30-km wide link between Bangladesh and Nepal. The region is vulnerable to developments in the neighbourhood. The large-scale illegal migration of Bangladeshis into the region has created demographic imbalances, leading to social and economic unrest. The assertion of distinct ethnic identities has resulted in the rise of separatist insurgencies. Assisted, at different times, by China and Pakistan, these groups also have safe havens in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

India has strived, with limited success, to improve relations with the military junta since 1992 as a part of the Look East policy. Despite promises, Myanmar has shown little inclination to evict Indian insurgent groups from its soil. Its interest in joint operations against them has been equally poor.

Economic development of the region has suffered from Bangladesh’s reluctance to permit transit to Indian goods. To overcome this, India has been working on a multi-modal scheme to open up road and sea access from the North-east through Myanmar to other ASEAN countries. However, India’s two major infrastructure projects, the Sittwe project and the much heralded Myanmar-India gas pipeline, have made slow progress. Trade and development links between the two countries have improved only very slowly, in fits and starts, amidst significant inertia.

India has always soft-pedalled the Aung San Suu Kyi issue, choosing neutrality over direct conflict with the junta. India’s attitude of ignoring the struggle for democracy, while building relations with the military regime has shocked civil society globally. So India starts with the baggage of poor credibility while engaging with future Myanmar democratic governments. Ushering in a democratic Myanmar is in India’s interests. Between its political and economic head-start and its international clout as a permanent member of the UNSC, China is unlikely to make this task any easier. Thus India’s best long term bet would be to improve its relations with the political parties and the new government.

There are other triggers that could potentially destabilise the entire region. The aging of the Dalai Lama, unrest among refugees and border disputes with China might trigger and aggravate border conflicts. Myanmar is in a position to play a vital role in Chinese political and military pressure on India. Further, the ascent of pro-Chinese Maoists power in Nepal provides China a potential opportunity to increase, if not replace, Indian influence in Nepal. If China gains a strategic foothold in Nepal, it would result in manifold increase of the Northeast’s vulnerability.

There is also the added issue of Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions. In early 2002, the military regime in Myanmar confirmed plans to build a nuclear research reactor for ‘peaceful purposes’ with Russian support. Selected students and army officers have undergone nuclear orientation and training in Moscow. Nuclear physics departments have been established in the universities of Yangon and Mandalay with their enrolment controlled by the military regime. Uranium deposits have been found in several areas and the Russians are said to be involved in the mining.

Given this history, recent reports about a secret deal between Myanmar and North Korea to develop nuclear facilities are significant. In 2007, Australian strategic studies analyst Desmond Ball and Thailand-based journalist Phil Thornton claimed that Myanmar had secretly constructed a nuclear reactor that would encompass reprocessing technology designed to extract weapons-grade plutonium. These reports were based on information given by defectors and are uncorroborated. But if true, they could transform the security paradigm in the wider region. It might lead to a situation not dissimilar to India’s western front where it is facing an unstable, nuclear Pakistan. Though it seems unlikely that Myanmar would invest in such a nuclear game, India must remain alert to such developments.

The long running saga of human tragedy in Myanmar can come to an end if India, China and the United States take a concerted approach towards the country. Given the divergence of their interests, this remains unlikely. In this context, India would do well to engage with Bangladesh and ASEAN countries who have common interests, to work towards a democratic transformation in Myanmar.


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