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Will Myanmar Unravel?

Dispelling all doubts and apprehensions, Myanmar junta Chief Gen. Than Shwe released opposition pro-democracy leader Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, from detention. She stepped out to freedom on November 13 without any conditionalities attached by the Junta. She was graceful in her release after 15 years of incernation. Suu Kyi appealed to her supporters for unison, and peacefully move towards their goal for democracy. At the same time, she declared that she held no animosity towards the military and bore no grudge.

In the last one year, many things have happened which may have chastised both sides, mostly the junta. Is it about to come a full circle?

The results of the November 7, Parliamentary elections were no surprise. Gen.Than Shwe’s military junta swept the polls with its front political party, the USDP covering 80 percent of the seats available for voting, while 25 percent of the seats were reserved for serving military officers selected by the junta. The USDP candidates were also military officers including former Foreign Minister Sien Win, who resigned from the official posts in the run up to the elections.

It was a set piece, preordained. The opposition National Democratic Force (NDF), a breakaway faction from the main democratic opposition, the NLD won only about 15 per cent of the seats. The NLD itself, led by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who has led the last 21 years of her life mainly in jail, was banned by this junta, as many other parties, for not fulfilling the junta’s criteria. So there were many other parties.

China was the only country which loudly congratulated the conduct of the elections. There is no surprise here. North Korea would have done so, too, being one of few countries which is involved in clandestine arms and military equipment supply to Myanmar.

The General in Naypidaw failed to get the 35 ethnic groups to work with them. The balloting in these areas was a force, with the junta forces entering into armed conflicts with some of them.

The junta’s ceasefire agreement with these ethnic groups have suffered due to many reason including the conduct of elections and Naypidaw’s insistence that these groups merge their fighting forces with Myanmar’s border guards. There is more trouble ahead for the junta.

The junta disregarded international appeals including from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to release Suu Kyi and the political prisoners numbering about 2,100 from detention before the elections. There was a fear that the release of Suu Kyi and the political prisoners could impact the junta’s plans adversely like in 1990.

There are troubling signs for the junta, however. Just before the elections, some of ASEAN members, especially Indonesia and Malaysia, expressed strong displeasure over the manner of the conduct of elections. Other ASEAN members were more circumspect because of their own national political conditions. The point, however, is that Myanmar is a member of the ASEAN, and the motto of the grouping is not to interfere in the internal affairs of a member country. That appears to be breaking and the Myanmar junta stands warned.

The main so-called driver of democracy worldwide, the USA, appears to be taking more interest in Myanmar’s politics. The position adopted by Indonesia especially appears to have been persuaded by the US and its return to Asian affairs after some absence. The US will have to consider how much it should force the Myanmar junta to change. Unless this is a measured effort it might force the junta to revert to its cocoon. It must be noted that over the years the junta has succeeded in enlisting the support of the young for a stable in the army. Those who join the army have a much better life and privileges. Deep in the rural area mostly people are unaware of the politics and dictatorship. They are simple farmer who are neither aware nor interested in what is happening in the cities. To remain in absolute power, the junta kept most of the population uninitiated, cut off from the world.

Than Shwe and his fellow travelers have learnt that in this fast globalizing world based on informatics, even the hermit Kingdom of North Korea is about to become porous.

The junta realized quite some time ago that their best friend, China, may not really be “the” best friends. China has been exploiting Myanmar in every way, looking its resources, planting Chinese citizens in Myanmar, and using it as a strategic projection into the Indian Ocean. Than Shwe dismissed and jailed Gen. Khin Nyut, to reduce Chinese influence in the inner coterie of the country’s decision making centre. Khin Nyut, whose mother was Chinese, and who headed the intelligence apparatus, was suspected as a Chinese mole. He was also instrumental in quiet facilitation of arms transfer from China’s Kunming province to  the Naga and the ULFA insurgents in North East India. He also pushed for the road-cum-water way route from Kunming to Myamar’s Indian Ocean sea board for Chinese containers to pass without Myanmar customs inspection. Than Shwe quashed the project. Obviously, the Chinese containers would have goods to hide. More importantly, however, if Chinese containers passed through Myanmar’s territory it would be tantamount technically to Myanmar as a dominion under Chinese control.

Myanmar’s dictators, on the other hand, compelled to rely on China as all dictatorial regimes have to find a support base. The inter dependability worked very well for some time, but the junta is looking to get out of China dependence.

The junta, which is basically a military force, has been almost totally dependent on China for its military support – from training to acquisition of arms and equipment. But it is looking elsewhere to reduce this dependence on China. They are already working with Russia in this area. To nudge the Myanmar junta forward, a very delicate strategy is the need of the moment. It cannot be expected of the junta to just surrender power to the democratic opposition. All dictatorial countries have learnt from the fate of their counterparts in Easter Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, especially Ceausescu couple of Rumania. What is required is a gradual change. The junta would not have gone for the elections, however controlled it may have been, unless they were trying to test things out. A small window was given to the opposition democrats to see how they behave in Parliament. If they become militant, the window can b e quickly shut.

The junta did not release Aung San Suu Kyi unconditionally for nothing, especially since her earlier brief relief was conditional. Even the “unconditional” release decision appears to have been taken at the last moment, Suu Kyi’s advice to her followers to remain peaceful, and her “forgiveness” of the junta were strategically thought out. This is part of the Asian culture which the western philosophy of using force to resolve issues contradict. Suu Kyi may have had made a mistake by not participating in the elections. Or, maybe she did the right thing and created a space for herself. Most important, Suu Kyi is trying to assure the junta there will be no retribution if democracy returns. Myanmar is now set in a matrix, which could spell out a new shift in strategic paradigm of the region. While the US and the West must keep up pressure, they may also seek a channel of communication with Naypidaw. Threats are likely to be counterproductive.

It is for India and countries like Indonesia and Malaysia to work with the Junta form the inside. US President Barack Obama urging India to take a hard line on Myanmar unfortunately lacks appreciation of the real politics of the region. India has to ensure its own security and plug this Myanmar route of Chinese arms transfers to Indian insurgents. There is even greater strategic issue of the stability of the Indian Ocean. Issues surrounding Myanmar are complex, and pregnant with implication for the immediate region.  

The best way is to keep one’s counsel, allow Aung San Suu Kyi to work her way through, and allow the new developments work out for some time. Vigil is important, but too much effort to immediate regime change is not.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New

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