World Affairs: Myanmar

Myanmar's military leadership shows no sign of backing down as the first anniversary of its coup approaches

Print edition : January 28, 2022

Gen. Min Aung Hlaing presides at an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Nay Pyi Taw on March 27, 2021. Photo: REUTERS

Aung San Suu Kyi, a file photograph. Currently under house arrest, she remains incommunicado and is facing an uncertain political future. Photo: Peter Dejong/AP

A demonstration in front of the United Nations Development Programme office on February 11, 2021, in Yangon. Photo: Hkun Lat/Getty Images

A protester holds on to the shirt of a fallen comrade during a crackdown by security forces on demonstrations against the military coup, in Hlaing Tharyar township in Yangon on March 14, 2021. Photo: AFP

People who fled from Myanmar collect donated clothes at a temporary distribution centre at Farkawn village near the India-Myanmar border in Mizoram on November 20, 2021. Photo: Rupak De Chowdhuri/REUTERS

The army leadership appears unrelenting in its bid to remain the dominant player in Myanmar’s politics despite its alienation from the majority of the populace and a looming civil war.

With the anniversary of the February 1 military coup approaching, the army leadership in Myanmar shows no sign of bending to pressure, domestic or international. Despite its alienation from the majority of the people of the country, the military junta seems determined to implement the blueprint it had announced for the future, a future in which the army will continue to play the predominant role in the country’s politics. The widespread street protests that erupted in the weeks and months after the ouster of the civilian government were subdued violently and are now infrequent occurrences. But other forms of protests, such as strikes by doctors and government servants, continue. The economy is in free fall. The value of the currency has dropped by 60 per cent. Inflation is at an all-time high.

After the coup, many members of the former ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, decided to go underground and team up with the ethnic militias that have been fighting against the Myanmar Army for decades. A civil war seems to be looming. In May 2021, the opposition announced the formation of a “National Unity Government” (NUG) and a “National Defence Force” (NDF) to oppose the military regime. The formation of the NUG was announced after a secret meeting held by 20 elected legislators, most of them from the NLD. No foreign government has yet made a move to recognise the NUG. The international community has still not forgotten the stand of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi supporting the army’s genocidal actions against the Rohingya minority.

There is no representation for the Rohingya minority in the NUG, but it has backtracked a lot from the stand Aung San Suu Kyi took at the International Court of Justice on the Rohingya issue. The NUG announced in a policy statement that the Rohingya were “entitled to citizenship by laws that will accord with fundamental human rights norms and democratic federal principles”. The shadow government has also pledged to repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law, which derecognised the rights of the Rohingya.

The brutality of the army’s crackdown on peaceful protesters convinced the supporters of the former ruling party and the general opposition that armed rebellion is the only option left to defeat the junta. The NUG has called for the removal of the army from the political life of the country and said that it will only talk to the military government after all political prisoners have been freed. Ethnic militias such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Karen National Army (KNA) have either joined the NDF or have extended support to the civilian opposition. They have increased their attacks against the Myanmar Army in recent months. The Arakan Army, a relatively new anti-government militia based in Rakhine State, has also started staging frequent attacks against the regime’s forces. Defections, though not on a significant scale, are being reported from the armed forces and the police.

Also read: Rebels vs rulers after military coup in Myanmar

The military leadership, however, shows no sign of backing down. The Myanmar Armed Forces (known officially as the Tatmadaw), 350,000 strong, is a battle-hardened well-equipped army that has countries such as China, Russia and India competing with one another to supply arms to it. An opposition group even asked the United States to impose sanctions on Bharat Electronics Limited for continuing to do business with the military regime. On June 19, 2021, the United Nations General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution calling on all member states “to prevent the flow of arms” to Myanmar. India, China and Russia were among the 36 countries that abstained from voting.

The army’s recent offensives showed its strength and ruthlessness. On Christmas eve, 35 civilians were killed in Kayah State. The army as usual stated that it had acted in self-defence. Among those killed were two staffers of Save the Children Fund. The fighting in Kayah State has escalated since the coup. The NUG described the killings as a Christmas massacre and called on the international community “to act immediately and decisively to end the military junta’s escalating war crimes and crimes against humanity”.

Aung San Suu Kyi facing many charges

It is clear that a united opposition, under a younger leadership, is prepared to look beyond the charismatic leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. There is a growing realisation that she had compromised a lot on fundamental issues when her party was running the government in partnership with the military. The ethnic minorities felt that she only cared about the Bamar Buddhist majority.

Aung San Suu Kyi herself, under house arrest, remains incommunicado and is facing an uncertain political future. In the first week of December, a court in Myanmar held her guilty of charges of “incitement” and breaking COVID-19 regulations during the 2020 elections. The trial in Nay Pyi Taw, the capital, was closed to the media and the public. The military also barred her lawyers from communicating with the media. The 76-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to four years in prison. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the current military leader, reduced the sentence by a year. Win Myint, the deposed civilian President, was also given a four-year sentence. Other members of his Cabinet are facing long prison terms on trumped-up charges. More than 10,500 politicians and activists have been arrested since February 2021.

Also read: Myanmar junta adds new charges against Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in court again in the last week of December, in connection with different charges, including that of illegally importing communications equipment that her official security team used. The presiding judge found her guilty, but sentencing has been kept in abeyance for unspecified reasons. She faces many more charges, including those relating to alleged violations of the law on state secrets. She faces a lifetime in prison with the army leadership seemingly determined to ensure that she will no longer play any meaningful role in the politics of the country. Both Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint will not be sent to a regular prison but will serve out their terms “in their current detention places”.

India’s stand

Most governments around the world condemned the sentencing of Aung San Suu Kyi. Even the Indian government, which had adopted a cautious stance on Myanmar after the military takeover, issued a mildly critical statement. The External Affairs Ministry said that it was “disturbed” by the sentencing, asserted that India was “consistently supportive of the democratic transition in Myanmar”, and called for the rule of law and democratic processes to be upheld. “Any development that undermines these processes and accentuates differences is a matter of concern,” it said.

But weeks after the statement was issued, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Myanmar. It was the first high-profile visit by an Indian official since the overthrow of the civilian government. India, which shares a 1,700-kilometre border with Myanmar, needs to have good relations with the military junta. The two sides have cooperated on counter-insurgency operations in the past, and there have been signs in recent months of some rebel groups that operate on both sides of the border becoming more active.

New Delhi also fears that Beijing is gaining more influence with the military at the expense of India. China and Russia have both helped the military regime escape censure at the U.N. and other international forums. India too objected to sanctions being imposed on Myanmar during the meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council last year. The Indian government made it clear soon after the military took over that all the development projects it had initiated in the country would continue. The Indian military attaché, along with those from China, Pakistan, Thailand and Bangladesh, was among the representatives of eight countries that attended the Armed Forces Day parade on March 27, 2021. Russia was represented by its Deputy Defence Minister. On the day of the parade, the Myanmar Army killed around 90 anti-coup protesters.

Also read: Myanmar’s economy crippled by COVID-19 and military coup

The Indian government does not want be seen as being aligned with the West on Myanmar. The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden called for the international ostracism of the military government. For that matter, very few countries in the region are willing to back the U.S.’ efforts to totally isolate the military regime. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the regional grouping of which Myanmar is a member, continues to do business with the country. India has adopted a position similar to that of ASEAN.

In a meeting in Jakarta in the middle of last year, ASEAN agreed on five points to end the political impasse in Myanmar, including encouraging a constructive dialogue among all parties, ending the violence, appointing a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate dialogue and providing aid. The Indian government had welcomed the ASEAN initiative even though the military regime denied the ASEAN special envoy permission to visit the country. The military has refused permission for a visit by the U.N. emissary also. ASEAN delivered a gentle rap on the knuckles of the military government by not inviting Myanmar to the grouping’s annual summit, which Indonesia hosted virtually last October.

The Indian government has been sending humanitarian aid to Myanmar. During Shringla’s visit, India donated an additional one million doses of the COVID vaccine to the country. It also announced a grant of 10,000 tonnes of wheat and rice. The External Affairs Ministry stated that Shringla met with the senior officials of the junta. There was no mention of a meeting with the top military leadership. According to the External Affairs Ministry, Shringla also met with some leaders of the NLD and other parties. No names of the opposition leaders he met were given.

The last time the Foreign Secretary visited Myanmar was in October 2020. Gen. M.M. Naravane, the Indian Army chief, accompanied him. At the time the Indian delegation met with both Aung San Suu Kyi and Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. This time, Shringla was not permitted to meet her despite a request from the Indian side. No foreign dignitary has been allowed to meet her so far.

Also read: Will Aung San Suu Kyi imprisonment prompt E.U. to sanction Myanmar?

The External Affairs Ministry said that the visit provided both sides an opportunity to discuss matters relating to India’s security, especially in the light of an incident that occurred in November in Manipur, near the border with Myanmar. A commanding officer of the Assam Rifles was killed in an ambush along with his family and four soldiers. The People’s Liberation Army of Manipur and the Manipur Naga People’s Front took credit for the hit. Both groups are known to have clandestine bases inside Myanmar.

Thousands of people from Myanmar have crossed into India’s north-eastern region to escape the marauding Myanmar Army. Much of the fighting between the Tatmadaw and the rebel groups opposed to it is occurring in the areas bordering India, China and Thailand. Chin State, bordering Mizoram, has been witnessing a lot of fighting and atrocities by the Myanmar Army. The Chins and the Mizos share close ethnic ties.

Shringla conveyed to the Myanmar military that it was essential to maintain peace and stability in the border areas. The statement from the External Affairs Ministry said that “both countries had reiterated their commitment to ensure that their respective territories will not be allowed to be used for any activities inimical to the other”.

Myanmar’s official media, however, preferred to highlight the news that the talks with the Indian Foreign Secretary focussed on the “discharging of state responsibilities by the ‘Tatmadaw’ under the constitution due to voting fraud in the 2020 general elections, terror acts by terrorist groups in the country, efforts on counterterrorism, response to terror acts against education and health staff and efforts for ensuring peace and stability in the border regions of both countries”. Two different read-outs emerged after Shringla’s visit: one from the Indian perspective and the other from the military junta’s.