By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, July 12: Since Myanmar came under direct military rule again on February 1, the Junta has killed 800 civilians and detained 6000 in the crackdowns targeting pro-democracy agitators. Military action is continuing against non-Bamar communities and non-Buddhist religious minorities in the North East and North West of the country. Insurgents in the North like the Peoples’ Defense Forces have killed 40 government troops this month. Myanmar continues to be in turmoil.
The United Nations and the Western powers led by the United States continue to condemn the military takeover of the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The US has imposed a series of new sanctions against the Junta, including freezing US$ 1 billion in reserves that Myanmar’s Central Bank was holding at the New York Fed.
Under pressure, the Junta had recently released 2200 out of the 6421 political detainees. But there is no sign of remorse about seizing power illegally and unleashing violence on protesters.
The military’s stubbornness is based on three support planks: (1) its direct or indirect dominance over Myanmar politics since 1962; (2)the full backing it gives to the majority Bamar community’s dominance over ethnic and religious minorities; and (3) the support it gets from China, Russia, and other regional powers such as ASEAN and India.
The military, called the “Tatmadaw”, has been the most powerful institution in Myanmar since independence in 1948. Myanmar’s first national leader was a military man, Gen. Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi. After a brief period of democracy, Gen. Ne Win when he staged a military coup in 1962. But miIitary-rule proved to be economically disastrous and in 1988, there was a student revolt which was suppressed by killing an estimated 5,000 civilians.
The agitation, however, led to the founding of the National League for Democracy (NLD) by Aung San Suu Kyi. Under international pressure, elections were held. The NLD swept it. But the Junta refused to recognize the result and Suu Kyi was put under house arrest. No elections were held for the next 18 years.
Again, under Western pressure, the Tatmadaw drafted a new constitution in 2008, but without consulting the NLD. The Tatmadaw followed this up with a “fraudulent” referendum. The new constitution preserved the military’s control over the government by reserving 25% of all seats in national and local parliaments for serving military officials. This gave the Tatmadaw de facto power to veto any constitutional reforms.
The military retained control over the country’s mining, oil and gas industries. The constitution also gave the Tatmadaw complete financial independence. According to Amnesty International the Tatmadaw-run Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) had made US$ 18 billion between 1990 and 2010.
With support from the Buddhist Bamar majority, the Tatmadaw ruthlessly went after the ethnic religious minorities like the Muslim Rohingyas, and the Christian tribes in the North. Since the Tatmadaw was resisting Western pressure firmly, it got, and still gets, plaudits from hardcore nationalists among the majority Bamar community. The power of the Bamar’s ideology is so great that even an avowed democrat Aung San Suu Kyi continued repressing the minorities, especially the Muslim Rohingyas, when she was in power as State Counselor till April 1.
Tolerance of Other Countries
To resist Western pressure, the Junta turned to Russia which is the second-largest arms supplier to Myanmar after China. Recently, during a vist to Moscow, the head of the Junta Senior Gen.Min Aung Hlaing was made a Professor in the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Eying Myanmar’s rich natural resources, and needing access to the Bay of Bengal, China has been cozying up to the Junta. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar just weeks before the coup and after meeting Gen. Aung Hlaing, declared that “China will continue to back Myanmar in safeguarding its sovereignty, national dignity and legitimate rights and interests.”
Myanmar was completely under military rule from 1962 to 2010, and experienced another coup in February this year. But Beijing has never condemned the coups. Instead it has backed the repressive military regimes whenever they were threatened at the United Nations. “Xi seems to ignore the fact that supporting repressive regimes in Myanmar amounts to indirectly bullying its people,” said that the Myanmar daily Irrawaddy.
India turns a blind eye to the doings of the powers-that-be in Myanmar (no matter who they are) as it needs Myanmar to control rebel groups in its North-Eastern region. India supported the crackdown against the Muslim Rohingyas fearing influx of Islamic radicals in the guise of refugees. India also needs the Junta’s blessings to secure a share of Myanmar’s resources.
New Delhi did not vote on a resolution in the UN General Assembly in June condemning the military coup and calling for a ban on arms sales to Myanmar. India sought a “consultative and constructive approach involving the neighboring countries” and pointed out that such support was lacking. The ASEAN countries had also abstained from voting.
ASEAN was trying to get the Junta to restore democracy by sending a mission to Myanmar. But its envoys enjoyed the hospitality of the Junta and returned empty handed. ASEAN as an economic body, does not interfere in the internal affairs of its members.
This leads us to the primary consideration of the world – how to access Myanmar’s natural resources. In 2016, the US Department of State estimated a total export value of mined resources at US$ 15.7 billion. Myanmar is the largest producer of jade in the world and it produces jadeite, the highest quality of jade. The jade industry is worth US$ 30 billion.
Rubies, sapphires, and diamonds are also found in significant quantities in Myanmar. US$ 975 million worth of gem sales were conducted at the country’s emporiums in the 2017-18 financial year. Mineable metals, such as gold, silver, copper, tin, tungsten, zinc, and nickel are abundant in Myanmar. Coal, oil, and natural gas all feature prominently in Myanmar’s natural wealth. Natural gas accounts for 40% of Myanmar’s exports. It exported around US$ 6 billion of petroleum in 2016. A pipeline that connects Myanmar and China delivers gas from the Bay of Bengal to China. Five countries, including China, Myanmar, South Korea and India have invested in this project.
In 2013, another natural gas pipeline that connected the Shwe field complex, on the Bay of Bengal, to Yunnan province, southwest China was completed at a cost of US$ 2 billion. In 2013, there were 560 coal mines in Myanmar, and the annual yield of coal was about 700,000 metric tonnes. In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, FDI peaked at nearly US$ 9.5 billion.
Democracy for Whom?
All in all, the prospect of the world doing something concrete to restore democracy in Myanmar is dim. The other worrying issue is: Will restoration of democracy in Myanmar ensure the rights of the ethnic and religious minorities there?
Past experience shows that democracy in Myanmar will be meant only for the majority Buddhist Bamar community and not the minorities. When there was some kind of democracy between 1948 and 1962 and also under the rule of the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi, democracy was not extended to the Muslim Rohingyas and the tribal communities. Military action did not cease under her. Suu Kyi went to the International Court of Justice at The Hague to defend the war against the Rohingyas, although lakhs of them had to flee to Bangladesh to live in refugee camps. No “friendly country” has helped Bangladesh repatriate the Rohingyas to their homes in Myanmar.