For the first time since late 1980s, the military rulers of Myanmar executed four pro-democracy activists on 25 July, triggering outrage across the democratic world. Many wondered why the junta revived a practice thought to have been abandoned long ago. Zachary Abuza, Professor at the National War College in Washington D.C., and an expert on South East Asia, appears to have the answer.
In a piece published by the Indonesian website Benar News, Prof. Abuza says it was the junta’s way of announcing to the world that it is not cowed by the reverses it has been facing in its war against ethnicity-based resistance groups or by the deteriorating performance of the Myanmar economy under its tutelage. With the ground situation getting out of control, the junta needed to flex its muscles to show that it still has the chutzpah to do its worst and to challenge its opponents to do their worst.
The junta has been losing in the multi-front military operations against the Ethnic Resistance Organisations (EROs) such as the Karen Army, the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Liberation Army. The last two are allies of the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) led by the now incarcerated Aung San Suu Kyi. According to Abuza, about 3,000 government troops have joined the rebels and fresh recruitment has dwindled.
On the economic front, the South East Asia expert points out, there has been a net loss of foreign investment. China appears to be the sole investor. Exports have come down sharply. The banking system is teetering. The World Bank has said 40 per cent of the population is below the poverty line. The junta was feeling cornered.
While the executions have drawn widespread condemnation, many wonder if all the naming and shaming will have a salutary effect on the junta, given the fact that the major regional and global powers have been ambivalent about the junta. These powers have either been silent or have balked at punitive action, or have either openly or clandestinely supported the junta for economic, geopolitical, and security reasons. Despite the grave charges against it, the junta has remained unshaken. It has shown scant regard for calls for ceasefire and talks with the rebel groups or the NUG.
Michael F. Martin of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, advocates a comprehensive and binding international arms embargo to cripple the junta. But in the same breath, he says that chances of such an embargo are slim. He points out that the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) found that China, India, Pakistan, Russia, and Serbia had provided arms to Myanmar’s military in 2021. Martin quotes a report by Justice for Myanmar that an Indonesian company has also supplied arms to Myanmar’s military since February 2021, when the junta came back to power, overthrowing Aung San Suu Kyi.
Martin further points out that the UN General Assembly’s ‘non-binding’ resolution of 18 June 2021 ‘calling upon all Member States to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar,’ could not be made a ‘binding’ resolution in the Security Council because the permanent members, China and Russia, blocked it.
The US, a major advocate of democracy in the world, is not considering a hard option against the junta. Martin pleads for US arms assistance for pro-democracy forces and calls for harsher sanctions on junta personnel and military suppliers. He points out that the US prohibition of arms sales to Myanmar’s military has done little to stop the junta’s offensives. This is because China, Russia, and other nations have continued to sell arms to the junta, which more than offsets US sanctions. The US has a “poor track record in providing military assistance to opposition groups trying to topple oppressive regimes,” he contends.
In lieu of arms, the US could give ‘non-lethal assistance’ along with humanitarian relief to the three million refugees in Myanmar, Martin suggests. But the question is: will the junta allow the free flow of aid? Perhaps what the resistance groups really want are weapons.
In contrast to the US, which is pussyfooting, China is standing four-square behind the junta. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had said China would support Myanmar “no matter how the situation changes in the country over the coming months and years.”
Wang told his Myanmar counterpart, Wunna Maung Lwin, that Beijing has “always placed Myanmar in an important position in its neighbourly diplomacy” and that it wants to “deepen exchanges and cooperation.”
Writing in The Diplomat, its South Asia commentator Sebastian Strangio says Beijing’s assessment is that the military junta will eventually prevail against the anti-coup groups. China wants stability in Myanmar at any cost for the advancement of its key economic and strategic interests. China is keen on the creation of an overland transport and communications corridor from its Yunnan Province to Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal coast. This is the ‘China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC),’ a part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to Strangio, China fears the return of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is said to be “congenitally anti-China.”
To curry favour with the junta, China has given Myanmar a refurbished Ming-class submarine, renamed the UMS Minye Kyaw Htin.
India’s stand on Myanmar’s junta has been ambivalent, says former Indian Ambassador in Myanmar, Gautam Mukhopadhaya. He told The Wire in a video interview that New Delhi is “groping and unsure which way things are going to turn in Myanmar.”
But there are enough signs that New Delhi is on the side of the junta. It was silent on the execution of the four pro-democracy activists. Earlier, it had not condemned Yangon’s actions against the Rohingyas, suspecting that this Muslim community is in the grip of Islamic radicals. New Delhi had also discouraged the entry of Rohingya refugees into India. Mukhopadhaya would like India to have faith in the resistance movements in Myanmar on the plea that despite the armed power of the junta, the resistance movements will win, eventually. The Myanmarese have tasted democracy and had voted Aung San Suu Kyi to power convincingly. They will certainly prefer democracy over dictatorship, the diplomat says.
He challenges the argument that India’s security in the North East will be in jeopardy if India begins to oppose the junta. His view is that the junta is not reliable, being capable of blowing hot and cold.
Michael Martin points out that while China may appear to be fully backing the junta, it is ready to work with a democratic government to meet its goals. Wang Yi’s statement that China would support Myanmar “no matter how the situation changes in the country over the coming months and years” could be interpreted to mean that China will support Myanmar irrespective of the nature of the regime there. This could mean that China could support a democratic regime too. In fact, China started the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor project in 2017 when Aung San Suu Kyi was in power.
India could also have a flexible policy, well grounded in reality. India has high stakes in Myanmar. On the one hand, it has to stem Chinese influence there, and on the other, it has to grab a share of Myanmar’s natural wealth in a competitive geopolitical environment. It’s time India worked out a well-thought-out Myanmar policy.
By P.K. Balachandran