Return of jackboots in Myanmar: Major implications for region

The army is upset with the NLD government for agreeing to take back from Bangladesh the Rohingya Muslim refugees in phases after a Chinese-mediated dialogue. Nearly 40,000 Rohingyas are expected to return in the first phase, writes Subir Bhaumik for South Asia Monitor

Subir Bhaumik Feb 01, 2021
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Myanmar’s powerful military (Tatmadaw in Burmese) has forced a declaration of emergency and placed under house arrest pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and several NLD (National League for Democracy) leaders.  The action comes just a day before the newly-elected parliament was to convene on Monday (Feb 1) - so clearly, this attempt was to block the assuming of power by Suu Kyi and her NLD party. 

The military seems least bothered with the expected global criticism of the 'return of the jackboots' because much is at stake for it. The Tatmadaw has been upset with the huge mandate secured by Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD and has been apprehensive of fresh efforts to amend the 2008 military-drafted constitution. The military-backed USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party) has been completely marginalised in this election, winning only 33 seats as against the 396 won by the NLD. 

On January 25, the Burmese military spokesman, Major General Zaw Min Tun, resumed pressure on the National Election Commission to provide the final electoral roll for cross-checking. This was the first direct challenge against November 2020 polls that gave NLD a landslide (396 out of 476 seats) but has been strongly criticized by rights groups for alleged disenfranchisement of voters in regions affected by ethnic strife and separatist insurgencies.

Political crisis

The pro-military opposition USDP (only 33 seats), routed in the November polls, has disputed the election outcome and had joined the Tatmadaw in alleging widespread irregularities, claiming at least 8.6 million cases of fraud. Tatmadaw chief Min Aung Hlaing, due for retirement this year, seems to be behind the army’s tough action, having already claimed dishonesty and unfairness in the poll process. His spokesperson Tun had said not resolving the voter fraud issue "in line with the law means this is a political crisis".

Asked by journalists about the possibility of a coup, Tun said: “ We do not say the Tatmadaw will take power, but we do not also say it will not as well.” 

An upset army

The 2020 polls, only the second openly contested elections after 50 years of military junta rule, has upset the army and its chief for four reasons.

In the first place, General Hlaing is upset over the apparent failure to secure NLD backing for his presidential ambitions, as the NLD is keen to continue with the current incumbent Win Myint, a staunch party and family loyalist of Aung San Suu Kyi. That has led the army to suspect that Suu Kyi wants to keep the seat warm until constitutional changes make it possible for her to contest for the top job.  

According to Chapter 3, no 59 (f) of the 2008 constitution, the president must be someone who "he himself, one of the parents, the spouse, one of the legitimate children or their spouses do not owe allegiance to a foreign power." Suu Kyi’s late husband was British professor Michael Aris, and both her sons are British citizens.

Secondly, the army fears the NLD, emboldened by the landslide, may attempt to bring amendments to change the 2008 military-drafted constitution and challenge the military’s out-of-proportion role in running the country. The amendments may target the provisions that privilege the military-like holding 25 percent of the seats of the parliaments (Art. 14), reserving the nomination of ministers of defence, internal security, and border affairs (Art. 17 b), enjoying the right to take over power in a state of emergency (Art. 40 c) and the setting up of the National Defence and Security Council as the most powerful body during the crisis with military representatives enjoying an upper hand (Art. 201).

Thirdly, the army is upset with the NLD government for agreeing to take back from Bangladesh the Rohingya Muslim refugees in phases after a Chinese-mediated dialogue. Nearly 40,000 Rohingyas are expected to return in the first phase. The Tatmadaw, which was responsible for the alleged ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas in 2017, is said to be less than comfortable with the prospective resumption of the repatriation process. And with the declaration of the emergency, this repatriation process that was due to start this summer may now be put on hold.

Fourthly, Suu Kyi and the NLD seem to have concluded that any genuine change in the constitution concerning federalism would be incomplete without finding a political solution to the ethnic armed groups. In fact, the constitutional amendment was part of the Union Peace Conference-21st Century Panglong initiated by the NLD government in 2016 to take forward the peace process began by the previous USDP government. The army is not too keen on the Panglong process because a political settlement of the ethnic conflicts would not only reduce the need for an ever-expanding standing army and may lead to lesser budget allocations for military modernization (and expansion).

So Sunday’s declaration of emergency under military pressure and then the house arrest of Suu Kyi and NLD leaders comes as no surprise.

Dilemma for India

The action puts India in a huge dilemma. If India did not join the West in condemning the military coup, it stands discredited and its role in an evolving alliance of democracies in response to an increasingly assertive China would be open to question.

If India joins the tirade against the Tatmadaw, it risks major tactical losses and growing closeness between the Indian and Burmese militaries which would have implications on both Indian efforts to combat insurgencies in India's northeast and Burmese efforts to combat the Arakan Army armed militia.  

(The writer is a strategic analyst and editorial director at www.theeasternlink.com.  The views expressed are personal)

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