WORLD AFFAIRS: Myanmar

Rebels vs rulers after military coup in Myanmar

Print edition : May 07, 2021

Protesters hold up the three-finger salute and placards with the image of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi while using their mobile torches during a demonstration against the military coup, in Yangon on March 12. Photo: AFP

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, a file photo. She was detained following the February 1 coup. Photo: Soe Zeya Tun/REUTERS

A demonstration against the coup in Yangon on April 12. Protesters carry signs and wear headbands in support of the principle of “R2P” (the responsibility to protect) that holds the international community justified in taking action against a state that is deemed to have failed to protect its population from atrocities. Photo: AFP

The spectre of civil war looms large in Myanmar as opposition parties persist in a nationwide civil unrest even as 10 of the country’s major rebel groups line up behind them against the military coup of February 1.

THE SITUATION IN BURMA IS THREATENING to spiral out of control. In the second week of April, the military junta ordered security forces to use live ammunition once again to quell protests. The latest incident occurred in Bago, a city near Yangon. According to reports, more than 70 protesters were killed and hundreds arrested. By the end of the second week of April, the civilian death toll crossed 700. United Nations human rights monitors have said that the army is increasingly using heavy weapons, including rocket-propelled and fragmentation grenades, in order to suppress the nationwide civilian unrest. In the last two months, more than 40 children have died in the unrest, according to local human rights groups.

But there is a silver lining. The civilian opposition parties led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) have found new allies among the powerful ethnic militias. Far from being cowed down, the opposition seems to be gaining strength. Ten of Myanmar’s major rebel groups have openly lined up behind a united civilian opposition. Among them are the armies representing the Karen and the Shan, who have been battling the Burmese army for most of the country’s post-independence history. In late March, the air force launched a bombing raid in Karen State. The army said that the action was in retaliation to the killing of 10 army officers.

The Karen National Union (KNU) says that it has provided shelter to thousands of opposition activists. The 2015 ceasefire agreement that most of the rebel groups had signed with the central government is now defunct for all practical purposes. Leaders of the KNU and the Restoration Council of the Shan State (RCSS) have said that the Burmese military broke the deal by launching new attacks on the rebel armies following the military coup.

For the first time in Myanmar’s history, there now seems to be broad unity between the dominant Bamar ethnic group and the smaller minority groups. Suu Kyi, when she was in a position of power in the last five years, was viewed with a degree of suspicion by minority groups as she was supportive of the army’s majoritarian policies. She is also the daughter of General Aung San, who was the founder of the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s army is called. But since the military coup, things have changed dramatically on the ground. The majority of the people, it is now obvious, are fed up of the oppressive military rule that has dominated public life for long periods since the country became independent in 1948. Protesters against the military in big towns like Yangon and Mandalay wave not only the banners of the NLD and its leader Suu Kyi but also the banners of the hitherto marginalised ethnic groups.
Also read: Myanmar returns to military rule

A parallel civilian government which was established after the February 1 military coup has agreed to annul the military-drafted 2008 Constitution and replace it with a Constitution that recognises Myanmar’s multi-ethnic character. Many experts of the region say that if all the rebel groups unite and support the NLD-led protests, it will be difficult for the junta to hold on to power. The 350,000-strong Myanmar army will be forced to fight on multiple fronts.

There are reports that some of the protesters have now started arming themselves and attacking army outposts. The spectre of a civil war looms large.

At this juncture, there is little the international community can do to rein in the junta as it ruthlessly suppresses the civilian protesters. The U.N. Security Council has issued strong statements and has dispatched its special envoy, Christine Schraner Burgener, to the region on a fact-finding mission. The military rulers were quick to announce that she was not welcome in Yangon under the current circumstances. The first country she will visit is neighbouring Thailand.

In that country, too, years of protests have not been successful in loosening the Thai military’s tight grip over politics. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) bloc, of which Myanmar is a member, is also not united on Myanmar. Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia are against outside interference in the internal affairs of a member country. The U.N. has emphasised that a robust international response to the crisis in Myanmar requires a unified regional effort “involving neighbouring countries who can leverage influence towards stability”.

U.S. sanctions

The U.N. special envoy will also be visiting China, one of Myanmar’s biggest economic partners, to explore ways of bringing back normalcy to the country. The West wants the U.N. Security Council to introduce wide-ranging sanctions on Myanmar. But Russia and China, both permanent members of the Security Council, are opposed to such a move. The United States, as usual, has gone ahead and imposed more unilateral sanctions targeting top individuals and businesses associated with the junta. Russia, which is the second biggest arms suppliers to Myanmar’s military after China, has warned that imposing sanctions on the country would be counterproductive. “In fact, such a line contributes to the pitting of the sides against each other, and ultimately pushes the people of Myanmar towards a full-scale civil conflict,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Alexander Fomin, Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister, attended Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day on March 27; he was one of the most prominent foreign dignitaries present on the occasion. Representatives from seven Asian countries, including India and China, were also present. An NLD spokesman said that the foreign diplomats who attended the function were “a disgrace to their own people, their governments and the international community”. Speaking at the parade held on the occasion, the head of the military junta, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, reiterated that the army had intervened to “protect” democracy and that elections would be held soon, but he did not specify a time frame. In the second week of April, an army spokesman suggested that it could take at least two more years more for elections to be held again. Immediately after seizing power, the junta had promised elections within a year.

The Indian and Myanmarese military establishments have close ties, having cooperated in counter-insurgency warfare. Both India and China have been guarded in their public responses to the military coup. Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, had cultivated a special relationship with President Xi Jinping in the last five years. Chinese sources have strongly denied that the Myanmarese military had forewarned China about the coup. However, a perception continues to persist in Myanmar that the junta has the Chinese government’s unalloyed support. Protesters targeted Chinese-run factories in March.
Also read: A struggling democracy

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that Beijing was in touch “with all the parties” as part of its efforts to restore stability in the country. At the same time, the Chinese Foreign Minister and state counsellor, Wang Yi, cautioned the governments of South-East Asia against the meddling of external forces in the internal affairs of Myanmar after a meeting with his counterparts from Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia in Fujian. “We are aware that we have to be alert to some forces infiltrating Myanmar with ulterior motives, provoking trouble and intensifying divisions, which make the situation more complicated,” Wang told the Chinese state media after the meeting.

The hyper-nationalistic Tatmadaw is nobody’s puppet. In fact, historically, the two countries that the Tatmadaw has been most wary of are its two biggest neighbours, India and China. For a long time, Suu Kyi was taunted as a “chapatti lover” because of her closeness with the Indian political establishment and the formative years of her life that she spent in India. China under Mao Zedong had backed the Burmese Communist Party in its long guerilla war against the Tatmadaw. Even today, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Army (MNDA), offshoots of the Communist rebellion, are known to be close to Beijing. The UWSA, reputed to be the strongest ethnic militia with 30,000 well-trained and well-armed fighters, rules the autonomous Wa state, bordering China. Chinese currency is used there and the administrative language there is Mandarin. The UWSA never even bothered to sign the 2015 national ceasefire agreement with the Tatmadaw.

A United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution passed after the military coup criticised the actions of the Myanmar junta in the strongest terms. It condemned “the disproportionate use of force, including the indiscriminate use of lethal force, by the Myanmar armed forces and police”. Both India and China, along with Bangladesh and Pakistan, are members of the 47-member UNHRC. India and China have taken a tough line on granting asylum to people fleeing from the violence and terror in Myanmar. India’s discriminatory policies towards the Rohingya have anyway been well documented. It is evident that the international community, while united in condemning the action taken by the Tatmadaw, is divided on the ways to be adopted in tackling the crisis.

Ambivalent Asean

Asean ministers are scheduled to hold a meeting in the third week of April. Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia want the influential grouping to play a more active role in trying to resolve the crisis that has once again engulfed Myanmar. Indonesia has led the Asean efforts to find a lasting solution to the crisis from the outset. Non-interference in the internal affairs of member countries is a long-standing unwritten rule that Asean member states scrupulously adhere to. There was pressure from Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia to act against the Myanmar government, then led by Suu Kyi, after it cracked down brutally against the Rohingya. But Asean refused to openly intervene.
Also read: Escape from terror

The Chinese Foreign Minister said that China was willing to coordinate with Asean countries in their efforts. Singapore is the biggest investor in Myanmar. “We urge all the parties in Myanmar to seek political understanding through dialogue within the Constitution and legal framework as soon as possible.” Beijing has considerable influence over Laos and Cambodia, two Asean members who are currently tilting towards the Tatmadaw. China, like Singapore, is worried about the fate of its ambitious infrastructure projects in Myanmar, particularly the so-called China-Myanmar economic corridor, given the ambivalent stand of the Tatmadaw towards it. In 2011, the military cancelled a multi-billion China-financed dam project at Myitsone in Kachin State at the eleventh hour. The army leadership was not particularly happy with the close relationship that NLD leader Suu Kyi had developed with the Chinese leadership.

The West, however, insists that China and Russia are tacitly supporting the Tatmadaw. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josef Borrell, said in the second week of April that the two countries were hampering a united international response to the military coup. “It is no surprise that Russia and China are blocking the attempts of the U.N. Security Council, for example, to impose an arms embargo,” Borrell said in Brussels. He conveniently glossed over the fact that most of Myanmar’s neighbours and even the Asean grouping are yet to take a strong stand against the Tatmadaw.

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