India has to consciously fill the aspirational space that is open in Myanmar, not just through routine economic means but by supporting human capital and strengthening moderate social actors there.
A political inferno has erupted in northern Myanmar’s Shan state to expose the destabilising role of China in Asia’s strategic hinterland. Intense armed hostilities between rebels of the minority Kokang community, which lives just across the border from China’s Yunnan province, and the Myanmar Army have killed at least 100 people and displaced tens of thousands of civilians this month.
Myanmar’s citizens and government officials believe that the Kokang insurgency has been re-ignited and let loose by China, which is frustrated about Naypyidaw’s recent opening up to the rest of the world and its shift away from Beijing’s sphere of influence.
Since 2011, when decades-long rule by an absolutist military junta that was a client of China ended, Myanmar’s nominally civilian regime has been courting foreign investment and diplomatic approval from far and wide. Its invitation to the international community has created a buzz about Myanmar as the new “frontier market” in Asia with immense potential for investors to tap into a hitherto isolated society with vast consumption potential.
Western states, as well as Japan and India, which are concerned about China’s expanding footprint, have entered Myanmar in a big way in the last four years by easing economic sanctions and offering Naypyidaw alternative, non-Chinese means for modernisation and economic growth.
As a corollary to the penetration of these new external forces, winds of change have gradually crept into domestic politics of Myanmar, particularly in the form of freer expression of opinions and a decline in state censorship. Previously suppressed and pent-up resentments of China’s role in monopolising and exploiting Myanmar’s natural wealth are now out in the public sphere. The utter rapacity and greed with which Chinese traders, miners and businesspersons have denuded Myanmar’s resources have propelled a nationwide anti-China backlash.
Even the Myanmar military big shots, who once ate out of China’s hands, are now tut-tutting Chinese neo-imperialism and blackmail. Aung Min, a minister in the office of Myanmar’s President and a former major general, has candidly admitted that “We are afraid of China and don’t dare to have a row with the Chinese”, because “if they feel annoyed with the shutdown of their projects (in Myanmar) and resume their support to the Communists, the economy in border areas would backslide.”
The Kokang rebels under the leadership of a China-favoured veteran commander, Pheung Kya-shin, are former Communists-turned-ethnic entrepreneurs and cross-border smugglers who remain useful instruments for Beijing to wreak havoc in Myanmar if the latter shows signs of independence.
Adjoining the Kokang territory lies Myanmar’s largest ethnic minority militant movement with a standing force of 30,000 heavily equipped troops. The United Wa State Army (UWSA) shares a common ancestry with the Kokang fighters in the now defunct Myanmar Communist Party (BCP), which used to be Beijing’s proxy in Myanmar. The Wa army’s war preparedness, technical sophistication and heavy weaponry are of exceptional standards, thanks to its paymaster China, which is using Myanmar’s minority struggles for leverage against its shrinking domination in that country.
Like the Wa, the Kokangs are an ethnic Chinese-origin people who enjoy sympathy of ultra-nationalistic Chinese citizens. Despite the Chinese state’s denial that it is interfering in Myanmar’s internal affairs, the massive firepower and organisational abilities displayed by the Kokang raiders who crossed over from China and rattled the hilly terrain inside Myanmar, earlier in February, leave little doubt that Beijing is stoking minority violence in Myanmar to apply pressure on the Central government in Naypyidaw.
The dust-up in Kokang areas is so terrifying that prospects of the Myanmar government sealing a nationwide ceasefire with a multitude of ethnic minority guerrilla groups have been dashed. With the country headed for a scheduled general election later this year, wherein power is likely to be transferred to a genuinely civilian government, the upheaval in the Kokang region is a bad omen.
Settling lasting grievances of Myanmar’s multiple ethnic minorities through peaceful negotiation and constitutional changes to the unitary nature of the Myanmarese state will be impossible if rebellions keep recurring and the military responds with harsh counter-insurgency tactics.
The tragedy of Kokang civilians, who are victims of China’s geostrategic power play, poses an existential dilemma for Myanmar. The country can make progress in its slow transition to democracy only by keeping China at bay and by involving pro-democratic foreign players to guide its political and economic evolution. But the more Myanmar assays what one informed local lawyer (identity withheld for personal safety) labels as “a global game to counterbalance China”, the worse the ethnic problem becomes due to sabotage by violent Chinese proxies.
After the Kokang clashes, Myanmarese educationists and civil society activists, who were unanimous opined that China is a prime hurdle limiting their country from achieving full democracy. Asked if there is any ray of hope for Myanmar when a global superpower like China is obstructing their freedom. They replied in consensus that “India can make a difference.”
One Myanmarese campaigner against racism and Buddhist fundamentalism said: “We have to learn from India how to forge acceptance of others in a diverse, multicultural society. We need Indian constitutional expertise to move towards a federal state structure.” A nervous Myanmarese journalist confided: “I am scared that the upcoming general elections will not be truly free and fair. Unless India and the rest of the international community assists us, we cannot cross the Rubicon.”
Spirited Myanmarese students passed the ultimate compliments: “While China robs us of our raw materials and dignity, India is an intellectual spur for our youth. Indian youngsters are more energetic than us because they are free, while we are still in a semi-authoritarian system that represses our full potential. Our goal is to become similar to Indian students who participate in movements to bring changes in society.”
The message for Indian diplomacy is clear. It has to consciously fill the aspirational space that is open in Myanmar, not just through routine economic means but by supporting human capital and strengthening moderate and tolerant social actors there. India need not be anti-China or compete against the West in Myanmar. Indians just have to be proactively themselves, i.e. accepted benevolent Asian neighbors who present a contrast to the hated China model.
~ Dr. Bikram Lamba, a political and business strategist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org