By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, February 12: It’s a make or break situation for both the military junta and the opposing ethnic groups in Myanmar today. The country’s ethnic groups have combined to offer a united armed resistance to the junta, for the first time since the struggle against military rule began in the 1960s.
Looking at the latest developments in Myanmar, one wonders if the ruling junta is nearing the endgame. The junta is facing defeats in the troubled North with soldiers either surrendering or escaping to India.
Myanmar, which became independent in 1948, slipped into military rule in 1962. It got out of the clutches of the army junta in 2011, but only to get back into its vice grip in 2021.
Even when there was civilian rule (between 2011 and 2021), the army known as “Tatmadaw” was represented in parliament and had a veto on all policies.
Till recently, the majority Buddhist Bamar community supported army rule because it was unwilling to accept the demands for autonomy from the ethnic/religious minorities, namely, the Christian Kachins, Shans, the Buddhist Arakanese, and the Muslim Rohingyas.
But the Bamar changed over time, when the junta began oppressing them also. The military followed a pattern of controlling the government by changing its name but not its character. The Revolutionary Council of 1962 gave way to the Burma Socialist Programme Party government in 1974. This in turn gave way to the State Law and Order Restoration Council in 1988, followed by the State Peace and Development Committee in 1997, which in turn was replaced in 2010 by the Thein Sein interim government. This was all military rule under different names.
The 2008 constitution was put in place by the military as part of its intended strategy for a gradual and partial transfer of power to an elected civilian leadership. But the military still maintained enough power, through its veto power and control of 25% of parliamentary seats.
In the 2015 general election, the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi won a supermajority in both houses of the Assembly, paving the way for the country’s first non-military president in 54 years. The office of State Counsellor was created for Aung San Suu Kyi so that she could lead the government.
But when Suu Kyi became too big for her boots in 2021, the junta took over. This caused unrest among all communities, the ethnic minorities as well as the Bamar.
In October 2023, three ethnic armed organisations came under the “Three Brotherhood Alliance” banner to conduct a coordinated offensive against the junta. Codenamed “Operation 1027”, the campaign includes the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Arakan Army. The coordinated offensive has the support of other rebel forces such as the People’s Defence Force and the Communist Party of Burma’s People’s Liberation Army.
In the recent past, different rebel forces have overrun junta outposts and captured large swathes of land, including several towns on borders with India and China. There are reports of the junta forces surrendering without fighting or offering only feeble resistance before giving up. Groups of them have also escaped to India.
The junta’s aerial bombings have increased the alienation of the population across communities. An alienated population is not a good source of ground intelligence and the lack of it is showing. The junta tries to make up for this lacuna by resorting to aerial bombing.
Since the February 2021 coup, the junta has imprisoned nearly 20,000 people and caused nearly one million people to be internally displaced. And there are one million Rohingyas refugees living in camps in Bangladesh. Over 4,400 civilians have been killed, more than 25,000 people have been arrested and over 78,000 civilian houses have been burned down across the country. More than 18 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, and over 2.6 million have been and remain displaced from their homes. Over 86,000 civilian properties Including religious buildings have been burned down by the junta.
But the Tatmadaw appears overstretched. Besides engaging the rebels in the North, the junta has to contend with anti-junta forces in areas under its control in Central Myanmar.
The Arakan Army claims to have seized two Myanmar battalion headquarters in Mrauk U and Kyauktaw townships in Rakhine State. This has alarmed India.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has asked Indian citizens in Rakhine state to leave the troubled region immediately in view of the deteriorating security situation. “In view of the deteriorating security situation, disruption of means of telecommunications, including landlines, and severe scarcity of essential commodities, all Indian citizens are advised not to travel to the Rakhine State of Myanmar,” MEA said.
India fears ramifications as Myanmar shares a 1,640-kilometre border with a number of India’s North Eastern states, including militancy-hit Nagaland and Manipur.
On February 1, India called for a complete cessation of violence in the country and its transition towards inclusive federal democracy. “As a neighbouring country and friend of Myanmar, India has long been advocating for a complete cessation of violence and Myanmar’s transition towards inclusive federal democracy,” MEA said.
At the UNSC
Early this month, nine member states of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), including three permanent members, called on the Myanmar junta to cease its attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure and release all political prisoners including President U Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
UNSC members the US, the UK, France, Japan, South Korea, Slovenia, Switzerland, Ecuador and Malta issued a joint statement ahead of the council’s closed-door meeting on Myanmar. “We strongly condemn the ongoing violence harming civilians in Myanmar including the military’s continued use of indiscriminate air strikes,” the joint statement said.
But two permanent members of the UNSC, China and Russia, were not involved in the statement.
Both India and China are friendly with the junta for geopolitical and economic reasons. Both have infrastructure projects there. Both are keen that the government in Yangon exercises effective control over the minority ethnic groups in the North as their projects have to pass through that area.
India needs the junta to prevent any spill over of the conflict into the still fragile North Eastern States. China has links with some of the Mynamar tribes along the border which it uses to control the regime in Yangon.
China’s relations with Myanmar improved since the February 1, 2021 coup. There is a Chinese project to build a rail cum road link connecting Chengdu in Sichuan Province with Yunnan Province, the Northern Myanmar’s Shan State and Yangon port. The maritime route connects directly the Beibu Gulf port in China’s Guangxi province with Myanmar’s Yangon port. These connections will supplement projects like China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
With most Asian countries suspending their aid programs, China filled the gap with alacrity. Currently, China is Myanmar’s largest supplier of foreign investment after Singapore and the largest trade partner. The total budget of Chinese investment in Myanmar from 1988 to June 2019 is more than US$ 25 billion. Projects such as ‘China-Myanmar Irrawaddy River Economic Initiative’ or ‘China-Myanmar Silk Road’ are in the pipeline to send Chinese goods to its neighbouring countries.
But the unrest and fighting in North Myanmar could disrupt all this, unless the junta backs out.
India’s Kaladan Multimodal Project hopes to connect Kolkata port with Myanmar’s Sittwe Port by sea. Sittwe in turn will be connected to Paletwa via the river Kaladan, and Paletwa will be connected to the Myanmar-India border by road. A further road will connect with Lawngtlai in Mizoram. The project aims to give India’s North-Eastern state access to the Bay of Bengal.
But because of the unsettled conditions, the Kaladan project is held up. The project budget was INR 536 crore (US$ 64.5 million) in 2008 but has currently crossed INR 3,200 crore (US$ 385 million) owing to the delays and costs involved in land acquisition.
For any of these projects to see the light of day, peace has to return to Myanmar’s North and also the South. As of now, the junta is on the back foot. The million-dollar question is whether it can pull through or whether the ethnic fighting forces groups and their Bamar allies will maintain their unity and continue to fight in a coordinated manner and defeat the junta.