India’s foreign secretary and Chief of Army Staff may not have recently paid a joint visit to Naypyidaw, the capital of the country formerly known as Burma, if so much did not hang on the outcome of the November 8 elections. What probably influenced both Mr Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Gen. M.M. Naravane most was the spectre of “Paukphaw”, the China-Myanmar friendship that President Xi Jinping had underscored during his state visit in January.
Although India and Myanmar are distant neighbours at present, they comprised one administrative unit from 1885 to 1937. They might have been politically one now if Jawaharlal Nehru had accepted U Nu’s 1947 proposal for a “United Nations of South Asia”. The fears, hatreds and resentments that make these elections so different from the 2015 polls when Myanmar soared on the cusp of hope may signify major changes in the road ahead.
The electoral outcome is bound to leave a heavy imprint not only on Myanmar’s place on the chequerboard of Asia’s power politics but on the social and demographic character of a country that seems incapable of accepting that it must rise above tribal and religious loyalties to claim the status of a nation. It’s not just a question of more than 37 million voters choosing their parliamentary and sub-national assembly representatives or of the all-powerful military appointing its tame legislators. Empowering the people is what matters. Under Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, the Tatmadaw -- Myanmar’s all-powerful military -- chooses the vice-president and the home, defence and border affairs ministers, and controls 25 per cent of all parliamentary seats.
The future of 1.3 million Rohingyas whom the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, calls “the world's fastest-developing refugee emergency ... a humanitarian nightmare”, will have to be decided. So will the future of Aung San Suu Kyi, still elegantly winsome at 75, whose National League for Democracy infused the future with optimism in 2015. Today, she seems rather like a faded rose, having lost much of her shine as the global pin-up girl of Asian democracy and must justify her glory as Nobel Peace Prize laureate. For all that she is styled State Counsellor, Ms Suu Kyi seems to dance to the Tatmadaw’s tune on the Rohingyas.
Like the rest of the world, the Naypyidaw regime must also come to grips with a fast-spiralling Covid-19 crisis that may keep voters away from the polls. With nearly 24,000 infections, a meteoric rise from the 887 that were recorded on September 1, Myanmar has suddenly surged from only marginally infected to being Southeast Asia’s fourth-worst hit country.
The speculation is that pressed on so many fronts, Myanmar might feel that the future would be better protected if China’s rising influence were to be checked. That might explain reports of New Delhi’s offer of a $6-billion petroleum refinery project and the talks to boost connectivity, power and energy projects, as well as joint efforts to tackle the pandemic. Worthy as these initiatives may be, one cannot but wonder why they are not components of a permanent programme binding two such physically close neighbours.
When India did take an interest in Myanmar after years of neglect, it was to deny the Naga or Mizo rebels sanctuary or prevent China and Pakistan from gaining strategic advantages. These legitimate objectives were small in themselves and appeared to reduce foreign affairs to immediate petty gains, with little inkling of the broad sweep of history. Myanmar’s expulsion of Indian labourers, clerks, doctors, teachers and lawyers prompted little reaction because the victims seemed to be culturally, socially and financially remote from the mandarins of South Block.
Rightly or wrongly, it was whispered at one time that a pragmatic approach was discouraged by India’s ethnic Myanmarese first lady. That was nearly two decades aho. A subsequently more sympathetic attitude was attributed to Ms Suu Kyi’s personal contacts in New Delhi during the years her mother was Myanmar’s ambassador and she a student at the city’s Lady Shri Ram College. Inevitably, the suffering Rohingyas are now seen as Muslim jihadists rather than victims of racism.
Myanmar’s 2014 census listed Rohingyas as illegal Bengali immigrants. Most were stripped of citizenship in 1982. They are denied education, employment and the right to move about freely. This legal subjugation is nothing compared to the terrible atrocities of repeated military crackdowns, particularly in 2017-2018, when entire villages were burned down, men were murdered and women subject to gangrape.
Predictably, perhaps, some Rohingya groups responded with militancy. But the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation demands the right to “self-determination within Myanmar”, while the Rohingya-led National Democratic Party for Human Rights supported the 1988 democracy movement. It returned four members to Parliament in 1990 when the Tatmadaw cheated the victorious NLD of its right to form the government.
The former Army strongman, Shwe Mann, is now projecting his Union Betterment Party as the middle ground between the NLD and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, while the tycoon and legislator Thet Thet Khine, who left the NLD to launch the People’s Pioneer Party, focuses mainly on the economy. Meanwhile, the NLD’s promise of imported cars has invited ridicule. Unhappily, none of the 16 major parties in the fray is campaigning to enfranchise the marginalised ethnic groups like the persecuted Rohingya.
They needn’t be India’s priority either. The political challenge of “Paukphaw” -- including China-backed projects like the $4 billon Myitsone Dam, the Belt and Road Initiative, the economic corridor stretching from China’s Yunnan province to Rakhine state, and the $15 billion Yatai New City Project at Shwe Kokko on the Myanmar-Thai border -- matters far more. However, India’s national interest can never be divorced from the humanitarian cause of the Rohingya, especially not by a government that claims to go beyond “Look East” to “Act East”.