On Wednesday, Myanmar’s military ruler, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, announced that his regime would hold “free and fair elections”. He didn’t say when, but is believed to have meant this year.
The general’s remarks came three weeks before the 75th anniversary of Myanmar’s independence from British rule and the second anniversary of a military coup in the country. The military takeover came hours before the opening day of parliament on February 1, 2021, after Myanmar’s largest and most popular political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won the 2020 elections.
Earlier this month, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a symbol of the country’s pro-democracy movement, was convicted on five more charges of alleged corruption and sentenced to seven years in prison, bringing her total prison sentence to 33. . All the cases against him have been described as a sham by opponents of the regime. Suu Kyi, 77, is reportedly being held in a military camp.
Including him, the junta has jailed more than 15,000 political opponents and pro-democracy activists in the past two years. On Wednesday, it released 7,000 prisoners, most of them convicted criminals, on Independence Day. According to news reports, some political prisoners including the NLD have been released.
The ‘Spring Revolution’ continues
Myanmar has remained in violent turmoil since the military takeover as fighting between pro-democracy forces and the military escalates. A few days after the coup, several new parliamentarians organized themselves into the National Unity Government (NUG) and launched what they called the “Spring Revolution”.
The NUG’s “armed wing”, the People’s Defense Group, made up of several civilian militias, has fought the military, preventing it from establishing absolute authority.
An International Crisis Group report last month said that “against the odds”, Myanmar’s anti-military forces had managed to raise “possibly hundreds of millions of dollars” from local and expatriate sources through February 2021. The NUG and its affiliated PDF, and a dozen or so ethnic armed militias that support the PDF, claim control over large areas of Myanmar.
With the situation still volatile, the NUG sees the election announcement as a ploy by the junta to sow confusion and divide the opposition. The junta has already claimed that some factions of the NLD are in talks with it. Even though NLD members are in the NUG, the party has officially stayed away because it wants to maintain its political identity. The military regime may hope that an election in a controlled setting will push its representatives into parliament and legitimize its rule.
The NUG called the junta a “terrorist organization” with “no authority” to hold elections.
eyes on india
India, which recently assumed the chairmanship of the G20, shares a 1,643 km long border with Myanmar, which extends from the India-Myanmar-China trijunction in Arunachal Pradesh to the India-Myanmar-Bangladesh trijunction in Mizoram.
The Modi government has presented the presidency as India’s opportunity to leave a legacy of peace in the world, perhaps hoping to play a role in ending the Russia-Ukraine war. But how India deals with conflicts closer to home also remains to be seen.
ASEAN’s chairmanship Indonesia is included in the G-20 this year. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has led ASEAN efforts to push the regional grouping toward a democratic transition, moving away from its earlier stance on “non-interference” in the internal affairs of its members. Indonesia may seek broad support in the G20 for its biggest challenge as ASEAN leader.
Delhi’s position was to walk a fine line between expressing “deep concern” over the “disruption” of democracy and some of the brutal steps taken by the junta and protecting its own “vital interests” – ensuring that Myanmar provides shelter. does not for northeast militant groups, and that the country does not become a Chinese playground.
Last year, when the then foreign secretary Harsh Shringla visited Naypyidaw, he not only discussed Delhi’s security and strategic issues, but also “emphasized India’s interest in seeing Myanmar return to democracy at the earliest; prisoners and the release of prisoners; and a complete cessation of all forms of violence”. He also met with some NLD leaders who were not in prison.
But now a change has come. During his visit last November, Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra made no mention of democracy or prisoners, and did not meet any political leaders.
Abstain from UNSC resolution
In December, India, along with Russia and China, abstained from the first resolution adopted by the UN Security Council on Myanmar. The resolution called for an end to the violence and the release of all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi.
In his New Year’s speech, General Min Aung thanked countries that stood by the regime. “We are working closely with neighboring countries such as China, India, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh. We will work together for stability and development on the border. India, along with China and Russia, also supplies arms to Myanmar.
Should India reconsider relations with military rulers?
Apart from bona fide issues, the chaos inside Myanmar casts doubt on the junta’s ability to address any concerns of India. An example is the Myawaddy job scam, in which hundreds of Tamil youths were lured to Kayin, Myanmar after being promised jobs in Thailand, and put to work in digital scamming centres. Controlled by an ethnic militia, Myawaddy is a no-go area for the junta, further complicating the defense effort for Delhi.
In addition, there are reports that junta-backed militias to fight the PDF are manned by northeast insurgent groups such as the Manipuri People’s Liberation Army. For infrastructure, the local PDF now controls the area where India is building a trilateral highway and the Kaladan multimodal transport project. One of the projects passes through the Sagaing region (opposite Manipur) and the other is in Chin State (opposite Mizoram). Most of the fighting between the military junta and the PDF is in these two areas. Any work in these areas requires a permit from the local PDF.
Meanwhile, the influx of refugees has made Myanmar’s turmoil a matter of concern for India in a more proximate sense. According to unofficial estimates, about 50,000 people are now taking refuge in four Indian states, mainly Mizoram (40,000), but also in Manipur (3,000), Arunachal (150) and Nagaland (250).
Delhi, which is not a signatory to the International Convention on Refugees, has not officially acknowledged their presence.
At least 40 members of the ousted parliament are said to be among the refugees. Of these, 30 are said to have taken shelter in Mizoram and at least two are in Delhi. Some of them are members of NUG. And they want Delhi to “invest” in the NUG, not the junta, in India’s own long-term interests.