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India needs to protect its strategic stakes in 'unstable' Myanmar

India needs to protect its strategic stakes in 'unstable' Myanmar

Nevertheless, India must now prepare for all eventualities and work with new players and face the realities, especially along its borders and in the heartland, but also further afield, and be more active diplomatically to preserve a united Burma that is in its interests.

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Last Updated : 21 April 2024, 05:09 IST
Last Updated : 21 April 2024, 05:09 IST
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Six months since the October 27, 2023, coordinated offensive launched by the Three Brotherhood Alliance (TBA), the Myanmar Army has lost more ground than at any time in its history, and the military government appears to be in a serious crisis that could signal its potential collapse.

Factors inhibiting a total defeat of the junta or even a balkanisation of Myanmar include a restraining Chinese hand; uneven progress of the armed opposition in ethnic areas and the Bamar heartland; lack of significant territorial control in the heartland that they could use to establish a seat for the National Unity Government (NUG); opposition restraint and military limitations; their own decision to preserve Burma’s unity and integrity through a federal democratic union, reflected in a Federal Democratic Union Charter; and the Myanmar Army’s willingness to use force to prevent the inevitable.

Nevertheless, India must now prepare for all eventualities and work with new players and face the realities, especially along its borders and in the heartland, but also further afield, and be more active diplomatically to preserve a united Burma that is in its interests. The opposition, embodied in the NUG, the National Union Consultative Committee (NUCC), and a host of Civil Society and professional organisations, is determined to press its advantage.

While an imminent breakdown of the army is unlikely, there has been a paradigmatic shift in the status quo since the last quarter of 2023. Till September 2023, the opposition did not control major towns or border trading posts. That changed with the '1027', a coordinated operation launched by the TBA on October 27, 2023, which has triggered similar offensives elsewhere. Since then, the junta has lost around 50 towns, including border trading posts on the Myanmar-China, India-Myanmar and Myanmar-Thailand borders. Most recently, Lejwe on the Kachin-Yunnan border and Myawaddy on the Thai border have also fallen.

As things stand now, the junta is facing attacks in ethnic tribal areas on all sides: the TBA in Shan state in the northeast; the Karenni and Karen armed organisations and Bago PDFs in the east from close to the Myanmar capital, Nay Pyi Taw, up to Myanmar’s borders with Thailand; the Chins in Chin state in the west close to Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur; the Arakan Army in Rakhine in the southwest along the Bay of Bengal; and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the north.

Of these, the Arakan Army, various Chin Defence Forces, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and the Sagaing Forum of Bamar People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) are of significant importance to India. These groups share ethnic and kinship ties with people living in border regions of India. Additionally, their influence and activities intersect with key Indian connectivity projects, such as the Kaladan project and the Trilateral Highway. New Delhi should reach out to them. Although some of them feel let down by India in the past and have established working relationships with the Chinese, they would welcome a greater Indian role and cooperation. Failure to do so could make them turn to forces unfriendly to India.

The Myanmar Army may be taking comfort from a two-track civil war, a fast track in the peripheral ethnic areas that it might be prepared to give up, and a slower one in the Bamar heartland that has not yet entered its core ‘fortresses’ of the Irrawaddy Basin and coasts that it would defend at all costs. But that may be changing. In the last two weeks, top military targets, including an air base in the capital and the Deputy Chief of the Armed Forces and the CDS Min Aung Hlaing himself faced drone and rocket attacks during a visit to a Regional Command in Malwamyine and the Defence Services Academy in Pyin Oo Lwin respectively.

There have also been purges of high military officials over alleged corruption. The arrest of a powerful former Army general and two others on mysterious grounds, as well as the occasional public demonstration by hard-line monks against Sr Gen Min Aung Hlaing, clearly suggest that all is not well within the normally monolithic and opaque junta high command. The most optimistic scenario to preserve the erstwhile Tatmadaw is for a significant section of it to split and join the opposition on the latter’s terms, along with all the national institutions it has monopolized since 1962. However, given the hermetic, almost Masonic character of the Myanmar Army, such a scenario seems imaginary. A dissolution of the Myanmar Army in toto (like that of Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq) would leave a vacuum that is in no one’s interest.

The crisis in the army is also down to its ranks. Desertions, low recruitment, surrenders, and loss of morale have severely depleted ground forces. Hundreds have crossed over to India, Bangladesh, Thailand and even China. The SAC’s attempt to contain this by introducing a conscription law seems to be floundering, with assassinations of administration officials, potential recruits attempting to flee the country, more youth crossing over to the armed opposition, and credible allegations of vulnerable populations (like the Rohingya in Rakhine state) being used as human shields against ethnic forces.

The strategic Indian community within and outside government has been slow to accept that the Myanmar military is in a cul-de-sac; that its only formula of keeping Myanmar united by force is having the opposite effect; that unlike 1988-90, it will not be able to suppress the popular revulsion against military rule in favour of democracy and federalism; and that the only way to keep Myanmar together is through the will of the Myanmar people for a federal, democratic union that most constituents (but not all) have already adopted. It has failed to realise that Myanmar is in the grip of ethnic-based revolutions as a result of which the country could disintegrate like the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia. Although India has tried to preserve an appearance of ‘balance’ between the military and the opposition, it has been perceived to be pro-junta and is believed to be supplying the regime with military hardware.

China has backed the junta but has been more nimble in playing all sides. Beijing has been successful in not only protecting but pursuing its economic and strategic interests in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. It has been remarkably tolerant of the ethnic offensives in Shan and Rakhine states so long as its concerns, including those of transnational criminal financial activities affecting them in Shan state, are addressed. It has also brokered a ceasefire, albeit an unstable one, with the Kokang MNDAA and Palaung TNLA in the northeast close to its borders that has virtually ceded control of the Kokang region and 70% of revenues from border trade to the Kokang while retaining 30% for the SAC, and a similar autonomy for the Palaung, in return for limiting their offensive to their areas and not pushing south towards Lashio, the largest and most important town and garrison in northern Shan. Thailand too has tried to balance its past support for the military by a more people-friendly approach using humanitarian aid as a vehicle. Even the US has limited its involvement to the bare necessary.

Though its credibility has taken a beating, India is one of the few countries, together with Japan and a few others, that still has the credentials and the stakes to play a proactive political and diplomatic and pre-emptive conflict prevention role to keep Myanmar united if it chooses to do so. But, given its intrinsic bias in favour of the status quo and faith in the use of force, in contrast to its instinctive support for freedom movements in the past, it's unlikely that New Delhi will take proactive measures. Additionally, New Delhi is becoming more susceptible to misleading narratives and analyses, like the justification for lifting the Free Movement Regime and the move towards border fencing, which risk destabilising and even compromising settled boundaries in the Northeast, potentially benefiting Chinese interests.

There are far bigger problems, such as the Arakan Army’s control over the Kaladan River and Rakhine state where Indian interests (in the Kaladan project) and Chinese strategic investments (in oil and gas pipelines and a deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu that are part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor begin, intersect, and end; or instability along the Trilateral Highway that need to be urgently addressed, rather than futile efforts to close or seal our borders against the bogey of "illegal immigration" for internal political advantage.

Under the circumstances, it appears that far from remaining helpless spectators complaining about Chinese and US conspiracies in Myanmar, we might, by our short-sightedness and intrigue, invite trouble for ourselves in sensitive India's Northeast. One can only hope better sense prevails.

*The writer was India’s ambassador to Myanmar from 2013 to 2016. The views are personal.

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