The Myanmar crisis and our options

Lt General L. Nishikanta (LN) Singh *

The coup in Myanmar on 01 February did not come to me as a surprise. It was quite expected I was surprised that it took so long. When NLD won the November 2020 elections with a thumping majority, perhaps they got carried away. There was an abrupt denial of space or rather authority of the military, which have tested blood for nearly six decades and relevancy reduced. The Army chief Min AungHlaing was retiring and he was scared that he could be put on trial.

In this article, I have synthesized the background, the likely future events, and options for us.

On 4th January 1948, Myanmar became independent. U Nu was the prime minister. ‘U’ meaning ‘Mr’ in Myanmarese. In 1958 there was a political pandemonium. The army was ready to intervene and compelled U Nu to ‘invite’ Army Chief of Staff, General Ne Win, to take over the country as a ‘caretaker government’. This was the first coup and the military-ruled the country for two years. The military was certainly more organized and efficient than the bureaucracy and successfully brought pandemonium under control. There was a general election in 1960. U Nu returned with a large majority.

However, on 2 March 1962, General Ne Win, staged a coup, arrested U Nu, Sao ShweThaik, and several others, and declared a socialist state to be run by a Union Revolutionary Council. The country was cut off from the rest of the world. The constitution was suspended, opposition political parties and student unions were banned, the press was muzzled.

The military established a one-party system through their sponsored ‘Burma Socialist Programme Party’. They imposed what they called the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’. Human rights abuses intensified and all dissent was crushed. Another incident during the Ne Win’s regime during this period is the expulsion of Indians from Myanmar.

Indians formed a significant part of its commercial and administrative backbone of Myanmar. Early in his career, Ne Win had failed in business due to competition from Myanmareses Indians. As revenge, he started targeting Indians, driving them out of the country. Many non-local businessmen and the population that we see in Imphal, Moreh, and elsewhere in Manipur & other border places of NE India are a result of this expulsion.

U Nu was released from prison in October 1966 and left Burma in April 1969. In Bangkok he formed the Parliamentary Democracy Party (PDP). The PDP launched an armed rebellion from 1972 till 1978. U Nu returned to Rangoon after an amnesty in 1980.

Like the purge of Indians, a major military operation was conducted against the Rohingya Muslims in Arakan in 1978. It was called the King Dragon operation. 250,000 refugees had to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.

By the late 1980s, there was an economic crisis. While commodity prices were falling, debt was rising. This led to reforms in 1987–1988 relaxing socialist controls and encouraging foreign investment. In September 1987, Ne Win suddenly demonetized certain currency notes, this robbed savings of the vast majority of people and also caused a great down-turn in the economy.

Eventually, during the summer of 1988, demonstrations broke out all over the country. On 8 August 1988, over 3,000 people were killed due to firing by the military. General Saw Maung took over the country on 18 September 1988 and formed State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC). Thousands of people were compelled to flee the country and many came to Manipur and the other North East States. The international community imposed several sanctions.

In 1989, SLORC declared martial law, arrested thousands of people, including advocates of democracy and human rights, renames Burma ‘Myanmar’, with the capital, Rangoon, becoming Yangon. NLD leader Aung San SuuKyi, the daughter of Aung San, is put under house arrest. As a populist measure, in 1989, the name of the country was changed from Burma to Myanmar.

Further, to appease the international community and get the sanctions removed, SawMaung held multi-party elections in May 1990. It is believed that the SLORC wanted to rig the elections and simultaneously intimidate the voters, consequently leading to a minor victory for the NLD which would ensure the SLORC remaining in charge of the governmental mechanism. But Aung San SuuKyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 400 of the 485 seats in the National Assembly. SLORC was rather shaken and the result is ignored by the military, refusing to hand overpower. Aung San SuuKyi was kept under house arrest.

In 1991, Aung San SuuKyi was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace. The following year General ThanShwe took over the power. Than Shwe relaxed some of the restrictions on imposed Aung San SuuKyi who was on house arrest. Than Shwe also finally allowed a National Convention to meet in January 1993, but made sure that a major role for the military is preserved in any future government and also retained the power to suspend the convention from time to time whenever required.

Finally, Aung San SuuKyi is released from house arrest after six years in 1995 but she was forbidden to leave Rangoon. The NLD, fed up with the interference, walked out in late 1995, and the assembly was finally dismissed in March 1996. After the failure of the National Convention to create a new constitution, tensions between the government and the NLD increased.

This resulted in two major crackdowns on the NLD in 1996 and 1997. In 1996 Aung San SuuKyi attended the first NLD Congress since her release but SLORC arrested more than 200 delegates on their way to the party congress. Continuing reports of human rights violations in Burma led the United States to intensify sanctions in 1997.

Possibly on the advice of Chinese, who are masters in propaganda, word selection, and perception management, on 15 November 1997, SLORC was abolished and reconstituted as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). It was a name change only, absolute power of the Military still remained. Most of the old members of the abolished SLORC were in the SPDC military regime. The same year Myanmar was admitted to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)

In 2000, the European Union also intensified its sanctions. Meanwhile, in September, SPDC lifted restrictions on movements of Aung San SuuKyi and senior NLD members. In 2001, approximately 200 pro-democracy activists are released reflecting some progress in talks. But Aung San SuuKyi remained under house arrest.

In May 2002, Aung San SuuKyi is released nearly after 20 months of house arrest, her travel restrictions outside of Rangoon were also lifted. Reconciliation talks commenced, but these came to a stalemate. Aung San SuuKyi was taken into “protective custody” after clashes between her supporters and those of the government. In August 2003,KhinNyunt became prime minister.

In October 2004, there is a power struggle, he is removed as prime minister and is placed under house arrest. Next month, thousands of prisoners including leading dissidents are released. In November 2005 the capital is changed to a new site near the central town of Pyinmana and is named Nay Pyi Taw.

Fuel price hikes led to a public agitations in August 2007. The Buddhist monks also held a series of anti-government protests and Aung San SuuKyi is allowed to leave her house to greet monks demonstrating in Rangoon. It is her first public appearance since 2003.

There was series of bomb blasts in January 2008. April the same year the Government publishes a proposed new constitution, which allocates a quarter of seats in parliament to the military and bans opposition leader Aung San SuuKyi from holding office.

In May 2008 Cyclone Nargis hits Myanmar. Some estimates put the death toll as high as 134,000. But a referendum on a new constitution proceeded amidst the humanitarian crisis following the cyclone. The government says 92% voted in favour of the draft constitution and insists it can cope with cyclone aftermath without foreign help. Meanwhile, the house arrest of Aung San SuuKyi is renewed. In November dozens of political activists are given sentences of up to 65 years in series of secretive trials.

In the beginning of 2009 UN envoy, Ibrahim Gambari met Aung San SuuKyi and in March 2009, Senior US State Department official Stephen Blake visited Myanmar. By April 2009 the National League for Democracy (NLD) agreed to take part in planned elections if the government frees all political prisoners, changes the constitution, and admits international observers. Meanwhile, the UN and various aid agencies declared that hundreds of thousands in the Irrawaddy Delta still needed assistance a year after Cyclone Nargis. Myanmar eventually allows the UN to bring in all the staff it needs.

In September 2009, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced plans for engagement with military rulers. Aung San SuuKyi began talks with Myanmar’s military leaders and is allowed to meet Western diplomats. The following year the NLD vice-chairman Tin Oo, Aung San SuuKyi’s deputy had is freed after more than a decade in prison or under house arrest.

In 2010 the country’s flag, national anthem, and official name is changed. In the elections, the same year, amidst allegations of widespread fraud, the military-backed party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), claims resounding victory in the first election for 20 years. A week after the election, Aung San SuuKyi, who had been prevented from taking part, is released from house arrest.

The following year, TheinSein is sworn in as President of a new, nominally civilian government and met Aung San SuuKyi. More political prisoners are freed as part of a general amnesty and labour unions are allowed.

In December 2011, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar andthe US offered to improve relations if democratic reforms continue. Eventually, peaceful demonstrations are allowed for the first time. The NLD sweep in the parliamentary by-elections held in April 2012. Aung San SuuKyi is elected.

Eventually, the European Union suspended all non-military sanctions against Burma for a year and offers Myanmar more than $100m in development aid. Our PM Manmohan Singh also visited in May becoming the since 1987. As part of the opening up, Myanmar abolished the pre-publication media censorship. Further in the cabinet, some hardliners are replaced by moderates. Moe Thee Zun, the leader of student protests in 1988, is allowed to return from exile after 2,082 people are removed from its blacklist.President TheinSeindeclared that he would accept opposition leader Aung San SuuKyi as President if she were elected.

The US President Barack Obama visited Myanmar offering “the hand of friendship” in return for more reforms also urged reconciliation with the Rohingya minority. In April 2013 publication of 4 private daily newspapers began for the first time in almost 50 years ending the state monopoly. In May 2013 May President Thein Sein visited the US and President Obama praised Myanmar for political and economic progress but criticized violence against Rohingya Muslims. 3,000 prisoners are released but most are petty criminals.

In the Parliamentary elections held in November 2015, NLD led by Aung San SuuKyi emerges as the majority to form a government. Subsequently, HtinKyaw sworn in as President, ushering in a new era as Aung San SuuKyi’s democracy movement takes power after 50 years of military domination.

In August 2018, the UN declared that Myanmar’s military leaders are carrying out genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity against Rohingya Muslims, ask six generals to face trial at the International Criminal Court. It also accused Aung San SuuKyi of failing to prevent the violence. This led to the sentencing of two journalists to seven years in prison for violating state secrecy laws.

The current situation is that the demonstration in Myanmar continues as the younger people do not want to go back to the black days of some 15 -20 years back. But the mindset of the military has not changed and remains the same as was before using similar methods of cracking down on the agitators.

As far as the outside reaction is concerned, the international community has called for sanctions. But China and ASEAN countries are not likely to support. ASEAN countries are not speaking with one voice, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and initially even the Philippines, the most liberal member state on human rights and democracy, have not criticised the coup, describing it as an internal matter.

The authorities in Thailand are already making preparations for the possibility of large numbers of people fleeing across the border. Singapore which has a large investment in Myanmar is condemning the coup. China which was more comfortable dealing with the National League for Democracy (NLD) government is also presently the only veto power country willing to engage with the new regime and keep supplying it with weapons.

The military in Myanmar does not trust China especially over Chinese help to some Myanmar insurgent groups. China has yet to reveal its hand in this fiendishly complex diplomatic game. However, ASEAN could be only the forum where senior Burmese officials will be welcomed, and where channels of communication will remain open. The sanctions applied by western countries are not likely to deter the military much at this stage.

For India, the coup also raises the possibility of longer-term instability in Myanmar, which threatens our substantial economic and strategic interests like ‘Act East Policy’. For all these reasons we have to tread very carefully. Even if the coup leader, General Min AungHlaing, is ready to discuss giving up the power he has seized, some of his subordinates may disagree.

Do we wait to see if the military crushes the protest movement, and then resume business as usual, or will it join the search for a negotiated way out? The present situation is particularly significant because the stakes that India has in the region are pretty high. In an environment of trust deficit that exists in our neighbouhood, Bhutan and Myanmar are the only two countries which have confidence in our country.

We have stepped up our strategic engagement with Myanmar. Our ‘Act East policy’ can be facing turbulence due to the present crisis. Our Kaladan project including the building of a deep-sea project at Sittwe in the Rakhine province, which is aimed at connecting the Northeast region to the sea could also be affected.

During the earlier isolation of Mynamar, when we went along with the international community, the Chinese, following string of pearls policy, was able to build the IrrawadyCorridor, have bases in Coco Island, etc. This time we must first consider our national interest which is to maintain good and cordial relations with whosoever is in power in Myanmar.

Further, it is also in our national interest to maintain peace and stability in the North-Eastern states which are now recovering from a long spell of insurgency and terrorism-related uncertainties. Myanmar could on its own or at the behest of the Chinese could recommence providing support to the insurgents for using it as leverage against us.

* Lt General L. Nishikanta (LN) Singh wrote this article for Imphal Times
The writer is Veteran President, Manipur Thinkers Forum
This article was posted on March 21, 2021.

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