Why India must not miss lessons from China's woes in Myanmar

Myanmar’s pro-democracy agitators have started attacking Chinese businesses, to force Beijing to apply pressure on the junta to stop repression and allow ousted leader, Aung San Suu Kyi to form a government. Some Burmese hardliners have formed groups like ‘Federal Army’ to carry out armed action against the military junta and their global patrons.

The looming threat for China’s business interests and its large infrastructure projects, all part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor within the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) framework, cannot be missed. And that provides both a lesson and an opportunity for neighbouring India.

It is time Delhi stops pandering to the Burmese military junta and push for a stronger mediatory role to restore democracy through backroom negotiations between Myanmar’s multiple stakeholders, including the Tatmadaw and the pro-democracy groups including the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD). India is best placed to achieve this – its military has sufficiently strong strategic ties with the Tatmadaw, and its democratic parties including the ruling NDA alliance have a strong connect with the NLD.

Also read: Myanmar faces uncertain future as ‘Junta’ rules with an iron fist

Though the Suu Kyi government had drawn closer to China after the strong Western condemnation on the Rohingya issue, China remained upset with them because the government had refused to resume the Myitsone Dam project and sharply cut down the size of the Kyaukphyu deep seaport project to avoid a debt trap. That the military junta cleared 15 projects, mostly Chinese, may justify Beijing’s backing of a Burmese military takeover.

But with protestors burning down 37 China-funded factories and even attacking an offtake station on the Kyaukphyu-Yunnan oil-gas pipeline after threatening to blow it up, Beijing is surely forced to rethink its priorities.

Scores of China-funded huge infrastructure projects have been cancelled or are on hold in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. In Pakistan, the Baloch separatists are attacking Chinese mining and infrastructure projects, driving up their costs. Bangladesh torpedoed the Chinese deep sea port project at Sonadia and handed over a similar project to Japan on its southern coast.

In Sri Lanka, the long leasing of the Hambantota port to China, after the government realised its inability to service the unsustainable debt, has created not only much angst against Beijing and its friends in the island nation, but sent out a global alarm on Chinese-funded projects, raising serious doubts about Beijing’s motives in driving up the project scale and then bargaining for outright long-term control over national assets, the ‘debt burden strategy for economic and political control’, as some western geo-strategists have described it.

Also read: Myanmar seeks international help against ‘China-backed’ rebel groups

The narrative promoted by Beijing’s detractors, that it is a ‘neo-colonial power’ hungry for resources and unmindful of local concerns, has gained ground especially after China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. For India, which seeks to provide a benign alternative to China in south-east Asia, the lesson from China’s growing woes in Myanmar are too obvious to be missed.

One, India has no reason to pursue a China-driven Myanmar policy, perpetually fearing of pushing Myanmar totally into China’s lap if one were critical of Burmese military repression. Not only will the growing attack on Chinese business interests by otherwise peaceful protestors force Beijing into a rethink to protect its huge investments in the China Myanmar Economic Corridor, but that would also provide India business and economic opportunities the country should not miss out on.

Two, if India wants to assert itself as a regional power, it will have to push for a proactive mediatory role in tandem with Japan, that leverages Delhi’s close relations with both the Tatmadaw and the democratic parties. In Zoramthamga, a former rebel leader and now Chief Minister of India’s north-eastern state of Mizoram, India has a potential mediator who has close links with all stakeholders in Myanmar, including Tatmadaw and Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD. Zoramthanga had negotiated the release of a NLD MP in the not-so-recent past, after negotiating his release with the Arakan Army leadership in the Chin state. He was in Myanmar to attend the signing of ceasefire agreement with some ethnic rebel groups.

By opposing New Delhi’s directives to keep out Myanmarese refugees and allowing them sanctuary in the last two months, Zoramthanga has endeared himself to the pro-democracy elements. But, he also knows a few Tatmadaw commanders from his underground days, one of whom had approached him for local-level negotiations with the Arakan Army rebels. He can head an Indian Peace Mission to the country in a possible first for Indian diplomacy.

Thirdly, Tatmadaw needs the Indian army to curb the Arakan Army rebels, as much as India needs the Burmese military to deny the Sagaing jungle bases to the north-east Indian rebel groups. So, there is no reason for Delhi to be carried away by a limited counter-insurgency imperative and miss the big picture.

Also read: In Myanmar, generals turn brutal as resistance intensifies

Since most India-financed infrastructure projects were cleared by the military, it is unlikely the Tatmadaw would cancel them out. India may not revert to the Indira-Rajiv policy of outright support for Burmese democracy in the 1980s, when it even provided funds for the exile government. But it stands to gain nothing by pursuing the tunnel vision ‘China driven Myanmar policy’.

India needs to position itself smartly as a key player, either with ASEAN or by itself, by offering its services to help the Tatmadaw and the democratic parties reach a solution to the present crisis. The challenge is to engage all Myanmarese stakeholders and work for a solution to end the crisis rather than wait for one whole year for the Tatmadaw to act.

India has rightly avoided jumping into the Western bandwagon pitching for strict sanctions but it cannot afford to let China step in as the sole mediator, a role Beijing has tried playing between the federal government and the ethnic rebel groups, especially the powerful Northern Alliance (KIA, UWSA, MNDAA).

The Tatmadaw has always been worried about becoming too dependent on China, as it looks back on Beijing’s support for Communist and ethnic insurgencies in the last century and its arming of the northern rebel groups like the United Wa State Army.

A 2004 classified 346-page document entitled – “A Study of Myanmar-US Relations” , compiled by Myanmar’s prestigious Defense Services Academy, had observed that Myanmar’s reliance on China as a diplomatic ally and economic patron had created a “national emergency” and that threatened the country’s independence. Therefore, the report concluded, Myanmar must normalise relations with the West after electing a government, so that the regime can deal with the outside world. That imperative remains unchanged for the Tatmadaw. And that is where there is a window of opportunity for India.

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal.)

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