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Posted at: Oct 22, 2015, 12:35 AM; last updated: Oct 21, 2015, 11:11 PM (IST)

Myanmar in political churn

November elections will throw up new challenges
Myanmar in political churn
Myanmar’s army recognises Suu Kyi’s popularity, but is averse to let her call the shots.

WHILE national attention in India is focused on the fragility of representative democracy in Nepal, another neighbour, Myanmar, with which it shares a 1,640-km, sensitive, insurgency-prone border, appears to be heading for uncharted political waters. The political cauldron in Myanmar was churned when the iconic and strong-willed Aung San Suu Kyi told an Indian television network: “If the National League for Democracy (NLD) wins the elections and we form the government, I am going to be the leader of that government, whether or not I am President.” This assertion has raised eyebrows politically and within Myanmar’s powerful army establishment, which recognises her popularity, but remains averse to allowing her to call the shots nationally, in the manner she aspires to. The army constitutionally nominates 25 per cent of the members in both Houses of Parliament.

If Suu Kyi is to fulfil her stated ambitions, her NLD will have to win 67 per cent of the seats, for which elections are being held and get her nominees to head both Houses of Parliament. She herself may opt to become Speaker of the Lower House. There appears little doubt that she would succeed in wining over two-thirds the seats in both Houses of Parliament in Bamar-dominated (Burmese) areas, which constitute 44 per cent of the country’s electorate. But the situation is different in insurgency-affected states, dominated by ethnic minorities. The NLD had done well even in these states in the elections in which it participated in 1990 and 2012, primarily because of Suu Kyi’s image. There are, however, doubts about her current popularity and standing amongst ethnic minorities. 

Political maneuvering for plum posts will follow the parliamentary elections, scheduled on November 8. While it is expected that the elections will be free and fair, the army will not be a disinterested spectator. It intervened recently to oust one of its own former chiefs, the Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, when suspected of cutting a deal with Suu Kyi. While she could conceivably be elected Speaker of the Lower House — a prospect the army will not exactly relish but accept — she is debarred constitutionally from being elected President. Presidential elections are likely to be held only around March 2016. Much will depend on the credibility of this process and on whether the new incumbent can show the same acumen that President Thein Sein has displayed. 

Myanmar is not easy to govern, as it even now faces multiple insurgency-like situations, with over 40 armed groups operating across vast tracts of the country. A major challenge Myanmar continues to face is to negotiate a countrywide ceasefire, bringing in all the armed ethnic groups into the national mainstream. These problems have not been made any easier, with China reverting to its earlier role of providing arms, haven and training to major insurgent groups located along the Sino-Myanmar border, in the Shan and Kachin states. A top negotiator involved in Myanmar’s talks with ethnic rebels, Min Zaw Oo, recently accused Chinese envoy Sun Goxiang of inciting the leadership of groups like the United Wa State Army, with a strength of over 25,000 armed cadres and the 10,000-strong Kachin Independence Army, which also provides support to Indian separatist armed groups like the ULFA. China has been accused of trying to deliberately undermine efforts for peace and reconciliation in Myanmar, while objecting to the role of Japan and others, in facilitating this effort.

In her interview with the Indian channel, Suu Kyi was clearly critical of what is seen even within India as crude chest-thumping over recent trans-border Indian operations within Myanmar. These operations disregarded Myanmar’s legitimate sensitivities on its sovereignty. Referring to India’s military operations across the border in June, on camps of the NSCN (Khaplang) well within Myanmar, Suu Kyi said it was important to have transparency when it comes to “trans-border” hot pursuits. She added that the lack of transparency “erodes the very foundations of friendship”.  

Unhappy with the crude manner his former junior colleague, Lt Col Rathore (retd) had publicly boasted about what was merely a platoon-sized operation within Myanmar, Minister of State for External Affairs Gen VK Singh (retd) denied there had been any cross-border operation. He also criticised his erstwhile junior colleague’s “uncalled exuberance”.  For good measure, General Singh went on to say: “Myanmar is taking our concerns seriously and if everything goes well, the close relationship between the two countries will open new opportunities of trade and connectivity.”

Myanmar has helped India in the past more effectively in dealing with cross-border terrorism and separatism, than most of our other neighbours, with the exception of Bhutan. In 1995, Indian and Myanmar forces mounted a 45-day joint operation on Myanmar soil, code named  “Operation Golden Bird”, to intercept and eliminate a large group of well-armed insurgents from Manipur, Nagaland and Assam. The insurgents had obtained their weapons from Thailand through Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, with the help of the Khaleda Zia government. These operations, involving an entire brigade of the 38th Mountain Division, received active operational support from Myanmar troops, some of whom were killed. Such actions on a smaller scale have been a continuing feature of the good relations we have maintained with the Myanmar government and its army. The sort of triumphalism that has characterised the relatively miniscule trans-border operation recently is totally misplaced and will only offend a friendly neighbour.

Myanmar’s army chief General Ming Aung Hlaing recently reassured Indian leaders in New Delhi of “all possible cooperation to fight terrorism”. Our overzealous Mandarins and spooks, given to bravado and chest- thumping in New Delhi, would be well advised to emulate the restraint and responsibility shown by General Singh in dealing with sensitive trans-border issues. While the accord with the NSCN (IM) is welcome and commendable, there is a along way to go to bring peace in Nagaland, akin to what prevails in Mizoram. Moreover, we need cooperation from Myanmar, to deal with the many northeastern insurgent groups now operating from Kachin state, along and across the China-Myanmar border. Myanmar has little control in these areas, where China is now becoming increasingly assertive.

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