Myanmar is in dire straits. Even though the Myanmar Army is utilising its large firepower arsenal, it is gaining no ground. Nor are any worthwhile political initiatives being pursued to mitigate the situation and bring the rebel groups to the table. A ray of hope emerges with Myanmar’s leadership now opening up more to India, Bangladesh, and Japan. The author suggests a Bangladesh-led initiative.
Myanmar has resurfaced on the regional radar in several weeks despite international isolation following the military coup of 1st February 2021. The failure of the military to secure complete control over the country has resulted in a nationwide civil war of unprecedented proportions leading to heavy causalities, destruction of property and human rights abuses of the worst kind. Another anti-regime factor is its inability to bring forward any worthwhile political changes, reforms, or even general elections acceptable to the population or the international community. It has created power centres and guerrilla groups of diverse varieties.
The unbridled use of air power against civilians and anti-government forces has proved that the military cannot press home major victories or bring the situation under its control. This military regime has clearly painted itself into the corner and will have to face the consequences of its actions. Also, the current levels of violence will become unsustainable and unproductive for the military in the medium term. A “failed” regime is certainly not an option for Myanmar, India, its neighbours, ASEAN, or the international community and alarm bells are ringing.
Against this backdrop, the visit of the new Chinese Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, to Nay Pyi Daw (NPD) on 2nd May to meet the Myanmar junta leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, assumes importance. China is apprehensive about the ill effects of the actions of its protégé. Besides this interaction, senior Chinese officials have regularly contacted the current junta and former leaders, including Senior General Than Shwe and former president Thein Sein.
Earlier on 1st May, Minister Qin had met with Noleen Heyzer, Special Envoy of the United National Secretary-General on Myanmar, in Beijing to discuss the current situation in Myanmar. India’s External Affairs Minister, Jaishankar held discussions with Noleen Heyzer in New Delhi on 9th May on Myanmar.
Myanmar figured in Indonesia’s recently concluded ASEAN summit-2023 between 9-10 May and the ASEAN-US meeting hosted by President Biden in Washington on 12-13 May. Indonesia has publicly acknowledged its interaction with Myanmar on the evolving situation with calls for cessation of hostilities and discussions to resolve the impasse.
There is unanimity among all stakeholders in favour of the cessation of hostilities, creation of opportunities for the supply of humanitarian assistance and interaction with all involved parties in Myanmar. Further, a school of thought feels that the time is appropriate for the ASEAN to reengage with the military leadership in Yangon.
Both India and Thailand are concerned and affected by the civil war in Myanmar spreading towards their borders and, significantly, Myanmar’s repeated use of airpower, causing immense civilian casualties. Both sides find it hugely unsustainable to maintain large numbers of Myanmar refugees on their soil. The case of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh over the past several years is an instance in point. Myanmar’s Internal contradictions are directly affecting bilateral relations with its neighbours. Myanmar refugees have also become a national security headache for India, Bangladesh, and Thailand.
Therefore, an engagement with Myanmar junta has assumed urgency, and two significant developments are worth mentioning in this connection. The first is the Track 1.5 Roundtable Dialogue on Myanmar. Two meetings have been held so far. Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) hosted the second meeting on 25 April, with attendance of representatives from Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar Japan could not attend “due to paucity of time”. There were two think tanks: the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Singapore and a representative from John Hopkins University, USA.
Myanmar was represented by a member of the Advisory Group to the State Administrative Council, Myanmar, and the Myanmar Institute for Strategic and International Studies (MSIS). The meeting was spread over four sessions covering (a) Situation in Myanmar and Reduction of Violence, (b) National reconciliation process and strengthening of democratic transition, (c) Transnational crimes and threats to regional security and (d) Delivery of humanitarian assistance: Lessons and way forward. The presence of senior members of the Myanmar junta at the dialogue is noteworthy, and it has enabled the stakeholders to engage with them fruitfully and obtain their assessment of the situation and possible next steps.
The next roundtable is scheduled to be held in Laos in June-July 2023. The first dialogue was held in Bangkok on 13 March 2023. The message is that a resolution to the problem must emerge within Myanmar, including all stakeholders. There is a need to broaden the scope of consultations on Myanmar by including “all shades of opinions” existing inside and outside the country.
The ICWA hosted a roundtable dialogue on Myanmar, which may be a precursor to several steps New Delhi has in mind to strengthen its regional or neighbourhood policy. The inauguration of the Sittwe port, in South-western Rakhine state, on 9th May is a significant achievement for both India and Myanmar. The presence of Sarbananda Sonowal, India’s Port and Shipping Minister, at the ceremony is significant. He is the first senior Indian government leader to visit Myanmar since the military coup three years ago. Admiral Tin Aung San, Deputy Prime Minister, represented Myanmar.
It signals the conclusion of the first phase of the ambitious Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit and Transportation Project (KMMTTP). The second phase of KMMTTP will, inter-alia, give India access to large deposits of strategic minerals in this region and contiguous areas of Bangladesh. It has many takeaways. Since the strategic interests of both sides, for mutual benefit, are integral to the bilateral relationship and regional cooperation, India must look at a role in the expansion and development of the Dawei Special Economic Zone. Dawei is a deep-sea port in the Tanintharyi division of Myanmar and is a joint development project with Thailand. Given its strategic vision for the region, Japan would no doubt be interested in this venture.
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida’s visit to India in March 2023 has been a game changer from a politico-strategic perspective. There are significant points to consider. Firstly, Japan and India will jointly develop the Matarbari deep-sea port located in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. Secondly, Japan will utilise its good offices between Myanmar and Bangladesh concerning the Rohingya refugee issue and, thirdly, the creation of the Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Japan platform to realise its ambition to become an influential player in this region. Matarbari, Sittwe and Dawei deep-sea ports will potentially become a critical gateway to the Indian Ocean Region and Indo-Pacific.
A word on the role and extent of military diplomacy in strengthening and understanding traditional and non-traditional national security issues. India has excellent military-to-military relations with Myanmar and Bangladesh and must look at elevating it to the next level. The military’s influence on state power in Myanmar is immense, and in tandem with its intelligence services, the ruling dispensation in Yangon takes most of its decisions from a national security point of view. A word on the role and extent of military diplomacy in strengthening and understanding traditional and non-traditional national security issues. India has excellent military-to-military relations with Myanmar and Bangladesh and must look at elevating it to the next level. The military’s influence on state power in Myanmar is immense, and in tandem with its intelligence services, the ruling dispensation in Yangon takes most of its decisions from a national security point of view.
Strengthening military diplomacy between the two countries is very necessary in this regard. The present Bangladesh Army Chief, Gen Shafiuddin, is understood to have an excellent equation with the Myanmar military leadership. Military diplomacy should embrace the Track-II format and create opportunities for its stakeholders to participate, exchange views, and make suggestions. A beginning can be made with Bangladesh as Chair, Myanmar, Japan, and India as members with the provision to expand it to BIMSTEC.