India should leverage its enormous goodwill to begin peace diplomacy in conflict-ridden Myanmar

In Zoramthamga, a former rebel leader and now chief minister of India's northeastern state of Mizoram, India has a potential mediator who has close links with all stakeholders in Myanmar, including the Tatmadaw and Aung Saan Suu Kyi's NLD, writes Subir Bhaumik for South Asia Monitor

Subir Bhaumik Jul 16, 2021

Attacks on Chinese business interests have been increasing in Myanmar. This did not happen during the 1988 movement (also called the 8888 uprising) against the then government and seems to be a new strategy to force Beijing into pressurizing the military junta to return power to elected lawmakers and restore parliamentary democracy.

Some resistance groups like the 'Federal Army' and the 'Peoples Defense Force' have emerged from the ranks of the hardliners among the Bamar (Sino-Tibetan ethnic group native to Myanmar) activists who want to avenge the indiscriminate killing of peaceful protestors by the Tatmadaw (Myanmarese army).

It is time Delhi stops pandering to Myanmar’s military junta, by pursuing a policy based less on conviction and more on fears that any harsh criticism may push the Tatmadaw totally towards China. Delhi’s inability to get over this 'policy paralysis' was evident when India abstained from voting on a United Nations General Assembly resolution lambasting Myanmar for the Feb 1 military takeover.

India, in a statement, argued that the "hastily-tabled resolution is not conducive to aiding our efforts towards strengthening the democratic process" in the country. But it did not specify what it meant by "our effort", though it seems to allude to ASEAN’s mediation endeavors.

India’s possible mediatory role

But the growing attacks on Chinese business interests and the burning of the ASEAN flags after its diplomats met junta leaders in Yangon while staying away from the 'National Unity Government' (NUG) functionaries, is something India should not miss.

India may be reluctant to jump into the Western bandwagon and push for more sanctions, but it is time Delhi pitches for a stronger mediatory role on its own, using its access to Myanmar’s multiple stakeholders - including the Tatmadaw, the NUG and the erstwhile ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) of Aung San Suu Kyi as well as the ethnic rebel groups - to kick start a dialogue for restoration of democracy.

India’s military has strong strategic ties with the Tatmadaw. India’s political parties including those in the BJP-led ruling NDA alliance have a strong connection to the NLD, the NUG and some ethnic rebel armies.

Though the now-deposed Aung San Suu Kyi government had drawn closer to China after the strong western condemnation of the military atrocities on the Rohingya Muslims, Beijing remained upset with the NLD regime for its refusal to resume the Myitsone Dam project and because it sharply cut down the investment size in the Kyaukphyu port-SEZ project.

Chinese interests under attack

China’s connection to the Tatmadaw has become evident with the military junta clearing 15 major investment proposals, mostly Chinese. And that is precisely why the militant protestors, who no longer want to die on the streets in Gandhian-style civil disobedience, are attacking Chinese interests.

At least 37 China-funded factories have been burnt down so far. Chinese businessmen are complaining of huge difficulties in doing business -- from sourcing jade in the Mandalay wholesale market to running the Lepetdaung copper project in Sagaing.

There is an undeclared boycott of Chinese goods implemented by the neighborhood committees, which remain the livewire of the democracy movement, despite the huge military crackdown. Threats to blow up the Kyaukphyu-Yunnan oil-gas pipeline have unnerved the Chinese but have not yet deterred them from backing the military junta.

If the military repression does not stop and the peaceful protestors turn more and more violent, armed urban insurgency in the Burmese heartland will become a reality and terror attacks on key China-funded infrastructure will become a distinct possibility.

It would seriously threaten the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a key Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government. China faces a similar predicament in many other countries. Attacks by Baloch separatists on projects linked to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor have already forced Beijing to push for stronger security measures with ally Pakistan.

The narrative about Beijing’s emergence as a ‘neo-colonial power’ hungry for resources and unmindful of local concerns has gained ground globally.

Opportunity for India

For India, which seeks to provide a benign alternative to China in South-East Asia, the lesson from China's growing woes in Myanmar is too obvious to be missed. It has no reason to pursue a China-driven Myanmar policy, perpetually fearful of pushing Myanmar totally into China's lap.

Some argue Myanmar's military junta is already in the Chinese lap, while others opine that the growing attacks on Chinese interests may soon force Beijing into a rethink.

There is no reason for India to miss out on the opportunity to connect strongly at the popular level, where a boycott of Chinese goods opens opportunities for Indian businesses.

If India wants to assert itself as a regional power, it will have to push for a proactive mediatory role, if necessary in tandem with Japan. Tokyo and Delhi have quietly worked on an Asian alternative to China’s BRI, much before US President Joe Biden unveiled his counter-BRI initiative Build Back Better World or B3W.

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 the Tatmadaw and Aung Saan Suu Kyi's NLD. Zoramthanga had negotiated the release of an NLD MP in the not-so-recent past after negotiating with the Arakan Army leadership in the Chin state in western Myanmar.

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.

Zoramthanga told this writer in a recent interview that he would readily volunteer to play a two-way mediatory role in Myanmar at the head of an Indian Peace Mission if Delhi was interested.  

The Burmese military needs the Indian Army to curb the Arakan Army (AA) rebels as much as India needs the Burmese military to deny the Sagaing jungle bases to northeast Indian rebel groups.

Tatmadaw rebellion

The AA’s current ceasefire with the Tatmadaw and the reported use of Northeast Indian rebels by the Burmese military to attack refugees and local resistance forces (like in the Chin Hills town of Mindat in Chin state) is all the reason for Delhi to look beyond a limited counter-insurgency imperative.

Many in Myanmar have believed Indian democracy and federalism, not the Western versions, constitute the best model for a future Myanmar. Bodh Gaya is to Burmese Buddhists what Mecca is for Muslims. A former Burmese military chief, Gen Maung Aye once told me:” For arms, we go to China, for the salvation of our soul, we go to India.”

So it is time Indian diplomacy gets out of its self-imposed limbo and uses the country’s enormous goodwill to play a strong, proactive role in conflict-ravaged Myanmar, rather than sink into a self-imposed limbo.

Global pressure is making the Tatmadaw commanders realize the impossibility of continuing the brutal repression. The Tatmadaw is also facing a rebellion from the ranks, with one report suggesting 800 soldiers, from privates to majors in the 20-35 age group, have already joined the pro-democracy movement.

Some senior generals are perhaps uncomfortable with the all-powerful chairman of the State Administration Council of Myanmar and commander-in-chief of Defense Services, Min Aung Hlaing's ambitions and feel the force should not pay for it. The junta has itself said it wants power for one year. So they are buying time to weaken the NLD to block possible constitutional changes that would weaken its grip on the country.

The challenge is to engage all Myanmarese stakeholders and work for a solution. It may not lead to immediate results but India's peace diplomacy will surely gain Delhi substantial political mileage, befitting an aspiring regional power.

(The writer, a former BBC and Reuters correspondent, has authored five books on Northeast India and its neighborhood)

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