The Military Coup in Myanmar and Thereafter by Lt Gen Shakti Gurung, (Retd)

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On 01 February 2021, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (MAH), C-in-C Defence Services Myanmar Tatmadaw announced a takeover after an interlude of ten years of partial democracy in the country. Declaring a state of emergency for a year he announced the formation of the State Administrative Council (SAC), very akin to its earlier avatar of State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) for overseeing all functions of the country so as to prevent it from falling into an “abyss of unending problems.”

MAH’s takeover is being attributed to the perceived corruption and fraud by the election commission and Suu Kyi’s government failing to check it in the recently held elections of 08 November 2020 to both houses of parliament and the state and regional assemblies. The share of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was a total of 396 seats, much higher than its 2015 tally of 390 seats. In the recent elections the NLD won 258 seats in Myanmar’s lower house (Pyithu Hluttaw) and 138 seats in the upper house (Amyotha Hluttaw) far higher than 322 needed for a majority.

The main opposition party – the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) managed to win only 33 seats, 26 in the lower and seven in the upper house of parliament. The party’s count was lower than the last elections where it had won 41 seats and this was not palatable to MAH.

Was the Coup a Result of Personal Ambitions of MAH and/or other Reasons

MAH was due to retire in July this year after attaining the age of 65 years as laid down for a Senior General in the Tatmadaw. It is possible that the general elections of November 2020 were being seen by him as an opportunity to elevate himself to President and Constitutional Head of the country.

The President is elected by a secret ballot of the Presidential Electoral College from a panel of three names and is composed of MPs from three committees: one of the elected members from each house of the Assembly of the Union, and one from the military-appointed members. Each committee recommends one candidate, and the Assembly then holds a vote. The Tatmadaw already has 110  of the 440 seats in the Lower House and 56 in the Upper House reserved according to the Constitution for uniformed personnel appointed by the C-in-C. They needed 156 more to reach 322 to achieve a clear majority. It was the USDP that MAH was banking on which did not deliver, dashing his hopes of the presidency.

The voting pattern in the November 2020 elections has also shown the relevance and acceptance of a Senior General in governance. It proves that while this role may be relevant in military rule, it loses its significance in a democracy.

Citing electoral fraud in the elections of November 2020, MAH following consultations with the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) overthrew the NLD government imposing martial law once again. The NDSC  is the highest authority in Myanmar with the power to remove the government if it chooses. It is made up of uniformed personnel and includes the three ministers (Interior, Defence, and Border Affairs) who are appointed from the military.

Aung San Suu Kyi the leader of the NLD had in her first term as State Councillor also attempted to bring about some amendments to the Constitution. One of these was to reduce the military’s representation in both houses of parliament in a phased manner. This would ultimately end any involvement of the olive green in governance.

Myanmar’s Constitution also prohibits an individual from becoming President whose parents, spouse, or any legitimate child or the spouse owes allegiance to a foreign power. Suu Kyi being directly affected had attempted to set this right as well. Both these attempts by Suu Kyi were opposed by the Tatmadaw but have created a doubt that these could become realities.

The Tatmadaw has also accused Suu Kyi’s government for a number of lapses in governance, the Rohingya issue being one of them. Suu Kyi’s inability to prevail over the international community defending Myanmar’s actions has been a sore point with the Tatmadaw. The Rohingya Offensives of 2015 and 2017 resulted in sanctions being imposed by western powers against MAH and a few Generals.  In the 21st Panglong Conference in August 2020, MAH is known to have warned the government from shifting the blame onto the military for the crisis.

Is China behind the Coup

It is Unlikely. When transition to democracy began in 2011 with Myanmar’s first democratic government led by Thein Sein a retired General, the first country to get a brush off was China. After fifty years of military rule, Myanmar was looking forward to getting out of the shadow of the Chinese diversifying their interests, and even looking westwards. With a retired General heading the country’s first democratically elected government, the time was right. In a first-ever by an American President, Barrack Obama visited Myanmar in 2012 with Thein Sein following up the next year.

Thein Sein’s government was the first to cancel a Chinese project of the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State following local protests and complaints of mass corruption, land grabbing, and environmental degradation. Myanmar-China relations were thus at their rock bottom during the first term of the country’s transition.

China’s tacit support to the ethnic rebel groups is another irritant for the Tatmadaw. Of the 15 ethnic armed groups only seven have signed the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) initiated by Thein Sein’s government in May 2015. The remaining eight groups who are non-signatories have formed the Federal Political Negotiation Consultation Committee (FPNCC) to take the peace process forward though nothing much has come of it so far. Of this, three groups; the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) have formed the Brotherhood Alliance and are the ones responsible for attacks against government forces.

Under the shadow of Chinese support, these eight groups have become defiant to government orders and policies striking the security forces at will. It is the Chinese-backed Arakan Army that the Tatmadaw is battling in Rakhine state that has resulted in very high casualty rates on both sides.

With Suu Kyi coming to power in 2016 the tables turned for China. In her bid to unify the country by bringing the FPNCC on board, Suu Kyi went out of her way to rebuild bridges with the Chinese even attending two important Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) meetings that led to the signing of the mega China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) project.

The CMEC comprises of three Border Economic Zones along the Myanmar-China border, the New Yangon City project, and the Rakhine Special Economic Zone which includes a deep sea port at Kyaukphyu. China was desperate to get an outlet to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for its energy-starved Yunnan province as also to get over its Malacca Dilemma. In so doing it convinced Suu Kyi to accept the proposal of CMEC. Tactfully using the ethnic armed groups as leverage, China has managed to push through all its projects connected to CMEC.

Suu Kyi’s growing closeness to China was a source of discomfort for the Tatmadaw which visualised an insurmountable interference by China in Myanmar affairs in the years ahead. While addressing a press conference in Moscow on Russia’s 75th Anniversary of Victory Day in July 2020, MAH pointed towards China while saying “terrorist groups existed in Myanmar because of the strong forces that support them”. Similarly when the FPNCC failed to turn up for the Fourth Session of the 21st Panglong Conference in August 2020 citing the covid pandemic, the blame was the same.

While Suu Kyi was in the chair China made tremendous progress on its plans for CMEC for which Chinese Premier Xi Jinping had also visited Myanmar (the first for a Chinese premier in 19 years) in January 2020. With Suu Kyi under detention, execution of CMEC projects could now get delayed for some time  till MAH is fully convinced of China’s good intentions and can extract his pound of flesh from them.

How has the Tatmadaw taken to the Coup

The Myanmar Tatmadaw is like any other professional military force. It is disciplined, nationalistic and has sworn loyalty. For purposes of its national security and interests, it is a force that can be depended upon. With MAH set to retire in July this year, the next in line according to the natural line up would have been Vice Senior General Soe Win the present Army Chief and Deputy C-in-C Defence Services. However, one cannot predict the manner in which upward movement in senior ranks takes place in the Tatmadaw. MAH himself was first promoted General in June 2010 from his earlier appointment of Chief Bureau of Special Operations No 2 (equivalent to an Army Group Commander) responsible for the North Eastern region superseding most seniors. Initially appointed Joint Chiefs of Staff he was subsequently elevated to Vice Senior General and Senior General in April 2012 and March 2013 respectively. That notwithstanding, it would be naive to assume that MAH would have planned this takeover all by himself without even taking his senior commanders especially the Army Chief into confidence.

What needs to be remembered, however, is that the Army returned to the barracks ten years ago. It was a tired and over stretched army then that had been relieved of its dual tasks of administration and governance besides guarding the country’s sovereignty and integrity. In the last ten years the new breed of soldiers would have grown up to understand the workings of a democracy. Getting them out of the barracks and back on to the streets may thus need a lot of motivation.

Will Social Media Affect the Coup

Compared to the earlier uprising in 1988 and the Saffron Revolution of 2007 this coup has been covered extensively by the social media. The past ten years of democracy has also opened Myanmar to the outside world. A parallel could be drawn to what is happening with Tibetans, who over the years have been able to create world opinion against China using social media platforms. They have also created pro Tibetan lobbies and involved countries like the US.

MAH and his Generals will have to be aware of such a censure rebounding on them as their citizens take to the social media with fearless gusto reporting excesses unacceptable to them. Excesses reported over the social media is what can go against the Generals both from within and outside the country.

What India Needs to Do

The pace at which India-Myanmar relations have developed must not be allowed to diminish. Being India’s strategic neighbour the momentum has to be maintained. Strategic interests have to be paramount and must prevail over other issues. Negotiations must go on irrespective of the government in power in Myanmar.

Following the announcement of India’s Act East policy by PM Modi during the ASEAN Summit at Nay Pyi Daw in November 2014, tremendous strides have been achieved in India-Myanmar relations. For India’s Act East policy, the Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) maritime initiative of March 2015 and the Neighbourhood First policy of May 2019, Myanmar is the cornerstone for success.

Myanmar is the land bridge that connects India to the rich markets of South East Asia and the Mekong Sub Region. Myanmar thus becomes vital for India’s North Eastern Region (NER) and its Act East Policy to be successful.

Besides a number of initiatives taken by India in Myanmar two main ones that stand out are the Kaladan Multi Modal Trade Transit Project (KMMTTP) and the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway (IMT). The KMMTTP is meant to take care of the threat to the Siliguri Corridor by linking the NER with Kolkata through Myanmar’s sea port of Sittwe, the river port at Paletwa and onwards connecting to Mizoram by a 109 kilometer long highway through the border at Zorinpui. The project was due for completion by April this year and is now all set to take off.

Disturbances in the KMMTTP can be expected from the Arakan Army and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army that operate against government forces in Rakhine state. Both these groups have been declared terrorist organisations by Myanmar. The government has also declined to recognise both as ethnic rebel groups and has refused to offer them the option of signing the NCA. As a consequence operations are undertaken endlessly against the Rohingya community in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. India needs to apply diplomatic skill to solve this problem earliest.

The next major Indian project the IMT highway is meant to connect India’s NER to Southeast Asia and beyond to the Indo Pacific. Divided into three sections, one each allotted to the three countries to develop, India’s portion up to a place just short of Monywa the capital of Sagaing Division and the headquarters of Myanmar’s South West Command, is nearing completion.

The IMT highway once completed would connect up with the three economic corridors planned for the Greater Mekong Region. Of these, it is the North-South Economic Corridor (NSEC) connecting Kunming to Yangon and beyond to Bangkok and Vietnam which India hopes to hook on to from the border town of Moreh in Manipur. Linking up with the NSEC would automatically mean getting access to the other two corridors virtually connecting the NER right up to the Malay Peninsula. This would be of tremendous benefit for which India needs to scale up its efforts.

The hurdle blocking the IMT from becoming operational is the acceptance of the Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) by the three countries. The MVA will allow seamless travel across borders permitting traffic to move from India’s NER across Myanmar, Thailand up to Vietnam. The benefits would accrue both ways – for the NER and South East Asia.

Finally it is military diplomacy that will pay rich dividends with the Tatmadaw. From among its neighbours India shares a 750 kilometer long maritime boundary with Myanmar. Relations with Myanmar in the maritime domain are already on a high with the gifting of INS Sindhuvir, a 3000 ton refitted attack submarine by the Indian Navy to the Myanmar Navy in May 2020. This has assisted Myanmar in building its underwater arm at a time when all its neighbours have already done the same. It has given what Myanmar was always looking for to extend its reach in the Indian Ocean Region. For India to steer this course would be the best way to negotiate the military coup in Myanmar.

Published Article – https://usiofindia.org/publication/cs3-strategic-perspectives/the-military-coup-in-myanmar-and-thereafter/

Author – Lt Gen Shakti Gurung, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) was the General Officer Commanding (Corps Commander) in the North East and also the Military Secretary (Sena Sachiv) at Integrated HQ of Ministry of Defence (Army). He was the Defence Attache’ Embassy of India, Myanmar.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the STRIVE.

One thought on “The Military Coup in Myanmar and Thereafter by Lt Gen Shakti Gurung, (Retd)

  • March 17, 2021 at 1:18 am
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    A very comprehensive article on Recent happenings in Myanmar. Gen Gurung had been MA at the Indian Embassy and the the original thoughts in the article reflect that deep understanding of author. Recent happenings are highly important from Indian perspective and the Indian decision makers and the strategic community in India should watch the events seriously as they will have bearing on Indian interests in Myanmar.

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