The 39th ASEAN summit that met on October 26 had a notable absentee—Gen Min Aung Hlaing, head of Myanmar’s ruling junta. The ASEAN, which had Myanmar’s internal situation on its agenda, decided not to invite him after he refused to allow the group’s special envoy to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, who is imprisoned along with other leaders. Meeting political leaders was an important item on ASEAN’s five-point proposal for mediation. After taking the unprecedented action, the group offered a sop. It invited Chan Aye, permanent secretary at the Myanmar junta’s foreign ministry, to attend the summit. Rejecting the offer, the Myanmar military spokesman said, “For us, attending a meeting that doesn’t place Myanmar at the same level as others is like an assault on the sovereignty of our nation.” Neither the ASEAN chair nor the secretary general chose to refer to Myanmar’s absence at the summit, sending a clear message that the group was prepared to deal with the Myanmar junta chief on its own terms. It was a huge loss of face for Gen Hlaing, as his presence would have partly fulfilled his quest for legitimacy of the junta government.
The junta chief has also missed attending the 16th East Asia Summit (EAS) held virtually after the ASEAN summit, with the participation of leaders from Australia, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US in addition to ASEAN leaders. American President Joe Biden in his address at the EAS was unequivocal in condemning the military takeover. He said, “In Myanmar, we must address the tragedy caused by the military coup, which is increasingly undermining regional stability.” He added, “The US stands for the people of Myanmar and calls for the military regime to end the violence ... and return to the path of democracy.”
On the other hand, the brief statement issued by the PMO and MEA said the important regional and global issues discussed at the EAS included Indo-Pacific, South China Sea and Myanmar. Pointedly, it said the “PM reaffirmed ‘ASEAN centrality’ in the Indo-Pacific and highlighted the synergies between ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOUIP) and India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI)”. The reaffirmation of ASEAN centrality indicates that India is probably not thinking beyond facilitating the group’s efforts at mediation in Myanmar. The same approach was likely adopted when the issue was discussed at the 18th ASEAN-India meeting on October 28.
The UN, which had been preoccupied with the turbulence in Afghanistan, had also banked upon ASEAN’s five-point proposal for resolving the Myanmar issue. However, after ASEAN’s refusal to invite the military junta chief to the summit, the mediatory process could be indefinitely delayed.
The moot point is, can India and the international community wait for ASEAN to take action while Myanmar burns? Thomas H Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur in Myanmar, has warned that the nation was heading for full-blown civil war in his report presented to the UN human rights body last month. Andrews said the crisis in Myanmar had become grave, with the army continuing to commit mass atrocity crimes. According to pro-democracy sources, as on October 23, under the military regime, 1,196 people had been killed and 9,175 arrested. These largely conform to the findings of international agencies.
The newly elected members of the NLD and ethnic political parties have formed the National Unity Government (NUG) to visibly reinforce their legitimacy. Though its presence on the ground is shadowy, its official website and interactive social media sites keep the people informed of its activities. The NUG has demonstrated its multi-ethnic character by making the 1st Vice President Duwa Lashi La, a Kachin, the acting President and Mahn Win Khaing Than, a Christian Karen, the PM. The NUG has decided to repeal the 1962 Citizenship Law and replace it with a new law based on “proper” citizenship criteria. These actions meet the demand of not only Rohingyas but also “stateless” people of Indian origin in Myanmar.
The NUG’s call for a civil disobedience movement against the junta has kept up the spirit of protestors. Many soldiers have deserted their posts. In August, the NUG formed the Peoples’ Defence Force (PDF), laying down a code of conduct for its fighters. It is carrying out attacks on Myanmar troops. It is significant that these attacks are taking place in regions like Sagaing and Magwe, Mandalay and Tanintharyi (bordering Thailand), and Chin State (bordering Mizoram), which had not seen such protests in the recent past. The coup has almost killed the ceasefire that was in force with nearly 14 ethnic insurgent groups. Such ethnic groups in Northern Shan and Kayah states are regrouping to fight the Tatmadaw. In Rakhine state, the Arakan Army has consolidated its presence.
According to Myanmar media, the ruling junta has deployed thousands of troops to carry out operations in Chin State bordering Mizoram. A few days ago, Radio Free Asia reported the torching of a whole village by Tatmadaw troops after the Chin defence militia attacked a military convoy. Ethnic affinity of tribes living on both sides of India’s border with Myanmar makes it porous, as free movement for 16 km across the border is allowed. Mizoram is already facing the spillover of the conflict in Chin State, with nearly 13,000 people taking refuge with their ethnic kinsmen. It has become a political issue in the state after the Centre refused to treat them as refugees. Last week, the Nagaland government said an unknown number of Nagas from Myanmar have sought refuge in Mon district following military operations in the Sagaing region.
Destabilisation along the border is a threat to the security of both India and Myanmar. Realising this, the armed forces of the two countries have been cooperating to maintain security and stability in their border areas and not to allow sanctuaries for insurgent groups in their territories. This has helped India curb insurgency in the Northeast.
Myanmar is India’s gateway to the East and vital for India’s Act East Policy. India is involved in executing two strategically important projects in Myanmar: the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project and the Trilateral that connects the Northeast with Myanmar and Thailand. During the last decade, India has built multifaceted, robust relations with Myanmar and its development assistance portfolio there is now over $1.75 billion.
India’s efforts to build a win-win relation with Myanmar will go to nought if civil war continues. The writing on the wall is clear: The military cannot crush the fight for democracy and the international community is in no hurry to recognise the junta regime, which is running out of cash. The NUG has taken a number of affirmative actions, which need to be encouraged.
As early as last April, a MEA spokesman said: “We condemn any use of violence. ... We stand for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar.” Words alone are not enough. It is time India used its good offices with the Tatmadaw to make it rethink its strategy and get ready for peace parleys as suggested in the ASEAN mediation process.
Col R Hariharan (Retd)
Former military intelligence specialist on South Asia and terrorism