Stuck between coup and disgraced Suu Kyi, democracy the loser in Myanmar

India has rarely criticised Myanmar’s military rulers. New Delhi’s rivalry with China in Myanmar and militancy in India’s North-East have ensured its silence.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San was possibly hedging her bets by not antagonising the military | File Photo: PTI

The 12-year-old half-hearted attempt at democratic rule in Myanmar has been rudely shattered by a military coup that yanks the nation back to authoritarian rule.

Unable to countenance the decimation of its political front, Union Solidarity and Development Party, in elections held in November last year, the military (termed Tatmadaw in Myanmar) on Monday detained Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the winning party, the National League for Democracy, along with senior leaders and declared a year-long state of emergency across the country.

With this, the uneasy six-year power-sharing arrangement between the NLD and the military has come to an end. The military-supervised democracy had seen a semblance of freedom returning to Mynamar (previously, Burma). The coup comes at a time when Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Llaing was on the verge of retirement.

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Min Aung Llaing was reportedly contemplating entering politics and the November 2020 election results may have come as a setback to his plans. Hence, the forcible eviction of the NLD from power. For the record, the Tatmadaw used “voter fraud” as the reason for the coup.

The Indian government, in a carefully worded statement, expressed “deep concern” over the coup and said, “We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld.” New Delhi’s cautious response is not a surprise as its relationship with Myanmar is not predicated on democracy but on “realpolitik.”

India has rarely criticised Myanmar’s military rulers. Successive governments in New Delhi have taken care not to irritate its far-eastern neighbour, for at least two reasons. One is  that India’s rivalry against China plays out in Myanmar as with others in the neighbourhood. Top Indian companies including the Adani group and Infosys, for example, do business in that country.

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Secondly, India shares a long border with Myanmar across the thick evergreen forests and needs Naypyitaw’s (capital and seat of government in Myanmar) cooperation to prevent Naga, Mizo and Assamese militants among others from the North-East to take refuge, organise, train, and plan attacks from the neighbouring country.

In the past, whenever India has attempted to harden its stance vis-a-vis Myanmar, the result has been an upswing in militant violence in the North-Eastern states as they have the tacit approval of the neighbouring government.

On the contrary, when ties between the two countries have been good, like now, the government has helped in arresting the militants and sending them to India. Last May,  according to reports, a plane carrying 12 Manipuri and 10 Assamese rebels were flown in to Guwahati by Myanmar security and handed over to Indian security.

Though nations around the world led by the United States have expressed outrage at the coup and threatened re-imposition of sanctions, the adulation and support for pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi that once existed is somewhat muted by the fact that she has been discredited for justifying the genocide of the minority Rohingyas in the country that is a work in progress since 2017.

After years of pro-democracy protests led by Aung San Suu Kyi, in 2010 she was released from prison and since then has been free, even if civilian powers are subservient to the military under the 2008 Constitution.

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Much was expected from Aung San Suu Kyi. When the NLD won elections in 2015, it was seen as a turning point for Myanmar which has seen military rule since 1962. Instead, Aung San Suu Kyi turned out to be a let-down with the result that democratic governance turned into a notional arrangement with real powers still with the military.

What left the world shocked was when the Nobel laureate appeared before the International Court of Justice in December 2019 and defended the Myanmar military’s reasoning for targeting the Rohingya Muslims.

For the Rohingyas, at least a million of whom have fled the country to escape genocide, the coup does not make much of a difference as Aung San Suu Kyi has not even attempted to counter the military from attacking the community.

India’s BJP-led government too has adopted a rather strident position against the Rohingyas and gone as far as preventing them from entering the country with the result that most of them are being housed in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Beijing too has never raised its voice against the internal issues in Myanmar with the result the military has always been more comfortable with China. Moreover, it is China and to an extent, India, that helped Myanmar cope with international sanctions.

Analysis | Ties with Myanmar: India looks east to tame Chinese dragon

The biggest setback following the coup is for democracy. Since coming to power, even if partially, of the National League for Democracy, following its win in the 2015 elections, there were signs that the country was gradually moving into democratic rule.

Aung San Suu Kyi was possibly hedging her bets by not antagonising the military and playing by their rules so as not to disturb the fledgling democracy. The November 2020 elections, where the NLD won a landslide by bagging 83 per cent of the votes, however, showed the military on whose side the people were on.

This was something that the military was unable to countenance. After stalling the implementation of the results for the last three months, the military appears to have calculated that it should move swiftly before any damage was done to its control.

The result is a coup and the tragedy is none in the neighbourhood will do much to counter it. Worse, there is no saying when civilian rule, if at all, will return to that beleaguered country.

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