Sunday, Sep 25, 2022

An election,a release,an opportunity

China has managed the three players in Myanmar — military,democrats,insurgents — masterfully. Will India?

On March 27,1999,news came to us in the Indian Embassy in Yangon that Michael Aris,the well-known British scholar of Tibetan Buddhism,had succumbed to cancer and died in Oxford. I had never met Dr Aris,but his was a familiar name; he was the husband of Myanmar’s internationally respected political leader,Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK). My wife and I decided to pay a condolence call on his widow at her lakeside bungalow. At the security barrier leading to her residence,we had to run the gauntlet of plainclothes intelligence personnel who made no effort to be discreet as they videotaped our diplomatic car,its number plates,the national flag and,of course,its irritated occupants.

ASSK received us very graciously,bearing her tragic loss with rare composure and dignity. There was not much we could say,but she spoke fondly of the many happy days she and her husband had spent in India. Grief did overcome her when she spoke about how Michael’s effort to obtain visas for himself and their two sons to visit her in Yangon during his last days had been frustrated. She said she did have to wrestle with her conscience before finally deciding that it was more important to remain in Yangon and continue her struggle for democracy than to risk not being allowed to return if she travelled to Oxford to be with her dying husband. She did not express her disappointment over India’s shift in policy,which now favoured engagement with the country’s military regime even while discreetly urging upon it a policy of national reconciliation and restoration of democracy.

I confess that my encounter with her in her hour of profound grief left me with a twinge of guilt and regret. Here was an individual of extraordinary fortitude and strength of character. And yet,I had argued strongly with our government that our overriding national interests necessitated working together with the military regime . One cannot but rejoice in her regaining freedom after several years of isolation under house arrest.

What are the implications of ASSK’s release soon after the carefully-managed elections under Myanmar’s new constitution?

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Myanmar’s politics in best understood as a three-legged stool,the legs being,respectively,the country’s powerful military; the democratic,civilian opposition overwhelmingly of Burmese ethnicity; and the 17 major ethnic groups which are ranged all around the Burman heartland in a contiguous crescent,which have been in a state of insurgency against the Central government ever since the country’s independence in 1948. Several of them used to be grouped together under the Burmese Communist Policy (BCP),supported and manipulated by China. In any “three-legged” situation,if two legs ally,the third will inevitably be marginalised. For long-term political stability,though,all three legs need to cooperate on at least a minimally-agreed political platform. This is also true of Myanmar.

Let us assess the possibilities as well as pitfalls of the latest developments against the above backdrop. In 1990,the democratic,civilian opposition led by ASSK’s National League for Democracy,or NLD,won an overwhelming electoral victory in national elections. This became an elemental threat to a military elite that had ruled for over 30 years. To maintain its hold on power,the regime courted the hitherto hostile ethnic groups which the NLD unfortunately neglected. With China’s intermediation and support,“arms for peace” or “ceasefire agreements” were concluded with virtually all the ethnic groups except the Karens,based mainly in neighbouring Thailand. The concessions made to the groups included a high degree of autonomy,the right to keep their armed cadres and freely establish trade and economic links across the border with China. This enabled the military regime to repudiate the election results and ruthlessly crush the civilian political opposition. ASSK was incarcerated,but being the daughter of the legendary General Aung San,the founder of the Burmese Army and the leader of its independence movement,she was spared a harsher denouement. The country’s generals are acutely aware that the daughter carries her father’s aura in addition to her democratic credentials. These remain her best guarantee of safety.

Is the three-legged dynamic changing? ASSK’s release may reflect self-confidence among the generals that a carefully-orchestrated electoral process is likely to yield an outcome they are comfortable with. It is also a clever tactical manoeuvre to divert attention from the managed character of the elections. If this is all,then expect ASSK to go back into confinement as soon as the military again feels threatened by her political activities.


However,it may be worthwhile to look at what is happening with the ethnic groups. In April 2009,these groups were told to convert their armed cadres or militias into “border guards” which would be placed under the central control. This has been strongly resisted since this would severely limit and roll back the very real autonomy they have enjoyed for 20 years. In August 2009,there was a major Myanmar army offensive against the Kokang,ethnically close to the Chinese across the border in Yunnan,which resulted in 30,000 refugees streaming across the border into China and creating tensions between the two countries. More lately,there have been open clashes with the Kachin Independence Army,another major,well-armed group. The regime claims that the autonomy the ethnic groups enjoy,in particular,the right to keep armed militias,were temporary arrangements until a new constitution was proclaimed. Now they need to come back into the fold. A number of groups have rejected this and the government retaliated by cancelling voting in several of the districts in the ethnic zone.

If the military regime now believes that the most potent threat to its political pre-eminence are the ethnic groups,then a more accommodating posture towards the now weakened but still politically relevant civilian political parties should be expected. ASSK’s release may then portend more significant political changes in the months to come. She herself seems to have realised this by calling for a second Panglong Conference to facilitate reconciliation and political consensus between the Burman majority and the ethnic groups. The first Panglong Conference was convened by her father in 1947. It led to the historic agreement with Shan,Kachin and Chin ethnic group leaders to unite to seek independence for Myanmar from British rule. The agreement conceded a high degree of autonomy to peoples living in the country’s ethnic periphery.

Also expect China to play an active role to ensure that the political benefits it has gained by brokering peace between the ethnic groups and the Myanmar military are not eroded. China will put pressure on both the ethnic leaders as well as the Myanmar military using its significant leverage over both. Nevertheless,change is in the air and India may well have political opportunities it


can exploit to consolidate its presence in a strategically important neighbour.

The writer,a former foreign secretary,served as India’s ambassador to Yangon from 1997 to 2001. He is currently a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research

First published on: 26-11-2010 at 01:49:34 am
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