NEARLY two and half years after the historic victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in Burma’s (Myanmar’s) general election, the optimism regarding its long road to becoming a stable, effective and inclusive democracy is beginning to wither away.
On 28 March, 2018, Burma’s parliament elected U Win Myint as its second President. Like former-President Htin Kyaw, the new president is also a trusted partner of State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, which keeps her at the helm of decision-making.
However, despite the transition, Burma’s military – also known as the Tatmadaw – still holds more than a quarter of the seats in the parliament, allowing it to veto any decision. It also controls the ministries of Defence, Border and Home Affairs, giving it control over the peace process spearheaded by Suu Kyi with Myanmar’s Ethnic Armed Groups (EAG).
Moreover, the shape of Burma’s international engagements shows an increasing recognition of the Tatmadaw around the world – despite the bad press surrounding its crackdown on the Rohingya Muslims.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has been the international profile of Suu Kyi herself, more than Burma’s military, which has suffered the most from the Rohingya crisis. Beyond her reticence on the issue, Suu Kyi has been seen as trying to protect the military and blame the international media for its “misinformation campaign”.
Moreover, by steering the political transition in Burma, the Tatmadaw has been able to position Suu Kyi as the political and diplomatic face of the country – which translates to the NLD leader facing the brunt of global criticism.
The European nations which not so long ago shunned the country’s top generals laid out a red carpet for the Tatmadaw delegations several times in 2017. In contrast to the presidency of Barack Obama, Burma seems to be low among the foreign policy priorities of the Trump Administration. For instance, during then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Burma in November last year, he adopted a moderate tone by not condemning the government.
This US policy line could also be construed as wanting to avoid marginalising the Suu Kyi government at a time when the military has been increasingly gaining popularity among the Burmese public. Moreover, it could also be seen as a way to ensure that Burma does not tilt any further into China’s geopolitical orbit.
Shortly after the Tillerson visit, the Trump Administration made a reversal, calling the violence in Rakhine an act of ethnic cleansing. By late December, his government had imposed targeted sanctions on generals it holds responsible for the Rohingya crisis and limited certain forms of military cooperation.
However, this could be seen more as a reaction to the international media and to lobby groups in Washington who want stricter action against the Tatmadaw, rather than any serious attempt to de-legitimatise Burma’s military. According to some analysts, US policy towards Burma is still guided by its “emotional” attachment to seeing Suu Kyi in power rather an articulation of its interest in Burma.
Aside from the US-China dynamic, Burma has also been a theatre of contestation for influence between China and India.
India’s national security concerns in the country emanate out of the insurgency movements in its northeast region, which shares porous borders with Burma. These concerns have seen New Delhi adopting a more pragmatic approach in its ties with Naypidaw. When responding to a question on the Rohingya crisis last October, then-Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar also advised a more “locally sensitive approach.”
In recent years, India has strengthened its defence ties with Myanmar. While the West was criticising Naypidaw last September, Burma’s Chief of Navy, Admiral Tin Aung San, was in India discussing procurement of offshore patrol boats from New Delhi. In November the two countries kicked off the India-Myanmar Bilateral Military Exercise (IMBAX-2017).
India has so far supplied a huge array of weapons systems to Burma, increasing its naval, transportation and land combat capabilities. Earlier last year, the two countries also signed a deal worth US $37.9 million for supply of torpedoes. India hopes that close defence ties will motivate the Tatmadaw to curtail the operations of Indian EAGs who use militant group bases inside Burma to launch attacks on Indian security forces.
However, India might not necessarily receive the benefits it hopes for through these weapon sales. The Indian insurgent group NSCN (K) signed a ceasefire agreement with the Tatmadaw in 2012. Thus, it makes more sense for the Tatmadaw to use these weapons against the Kachin, Ta’ang, Kokang and Rakhine rebel groups, against whom the Tatmadaw has increased military operations since 2016.
More worrying for India, between 2013 and 2017, China has emerged as a major arms supplier to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
China has also further used the void provided by the Trump Administration’s lack of initiative to increase its political influence in Myanmar. The Suu Kyi government had kick-started a nationwide ceasefire negotiation with EAGs in Myanmar through the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference in 2016. However, since then the EAGs in northern Burma have allied under the banner of the Northern Alliance and now demand increased involvement from China in the peace negotiations with the government.
The main beneficiary of the evolving situation seems to be the Tatmadaw. It continues to mount its offensive on the EAGs while shifting the responsibility of carrying out ceasefire negotiations to China and the civilian government of Burma.
More than ever, the evolving political dynamic in Burma shows the deep inroads that its military has made into all sources of power. The Tatmadaw has used Suu Kyi’s aspirations and the international pressure for change to extract leverage from geopolitical rivalries in the region.
In doing so, it has bargained itself out of a position where it would be forced to compromise, to one in which it can not only increase its legitimacy internationally, but retain its primacy in Burma’s political future.
By Monish Tourangbam, Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), in Karnataka, India; and Pawan Amin, research scholar at the Chinese Studies Programme, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU (New Delhi). Originally published on PolicyForum.net.