By Barun Das Gupta
The army in Myanmar took over power two months ago, ousting the elected government and throwing its leader behind bars. There has been mass resistance to army rule which shows no signs of abating. The army continues to shoot down civil resisters demanding restoration of democracy. Even children are not being spared. The trigger-happy soldiers kill children without any qualm of conscience. More than five hundred people have been killed. According to a report of Save the Children, an international humanitarian group, as many as 43 children have so far been reported killed. The group described the situation as “a nightmare scenario unfolding.”
Unwittingly, the army has brought about a unity of the people against its rule. The youth was the first to raise their voice of protest against the murder of democracy. As the army retaliated with unprecedented brutality (during the previous army rule for fifty years there was no civil resistance), more and more sections of the people joined the resistance. Trade Unions were the next to join and then the professional – bankers and bank employees, doctors, nurses, shopkeepers, even the railway workers. The strike by bank employees has had its impact on government daily expenses. The junta-run government has been forced to limit heavily the daily cash withdrawals. About 90 per cent of the country’s 7.4 million private sector workers is also on strike.
The army, accustomed as it was to rule without any resistance, has been taken aback. It was not prepared for such a situation – a country-wide non-violent protest on such a massive scale, undeterred by the leonine violence unleashed by those who have usurped power from the people. More than two months later, the turbulent situation in the country is having its impact on the economy also. According to the World Bank, Myanmar’s economy may shrink by 10 per cent this year due to the unsettled conditions.
The United States which has been against the coup from the beginning has, along with the United Kingdom, has imposed sanctions on firms controlled by the army. During its prolonged rule, the junta also enriched itself by owning profitable industrial enterprises. One such was the Myanmar Economic Corporation, about whose operations very little is known, except that it is owned by the Defence Ministry and operates in strategic sectors like ports, telecommunications, etc. Another is Economic Holdings Ltd. It helped the brass hats to line their pockets with money from profitable businesses like cigarettes and petroleum products.
The restoration of democracy put an end to all that. These facts suggest that there was a strong economic motive behind the February 1 coup d’etat. There is very little to hope that the army will lift the national emergency after one year and quietly hand over the administration to the elected representatives of the people. They have captured power and mean to hold on to it as long as they can. The indiscriminate shooting of civil protesters leaves no room for doubt about it.
What should be India’s relations with post-coup Myanmar? The first thing is that India should not repeat the mistake it made when the army took over the country in its first coup in 1962. Since then, for several decades, India treated Myanmar as a pariah as it was against the army rule. It helped China to develop its relations with Myanmar in a big way. With China’s financial assistance, several projects were undertaken. Chinese influence in Myanmar grew as India detested army rule and stopped taking interest in internal developments in Myanmar.
This mistake should not be repeated now. We have to take Myanmar as a neighbouring country with which we have to deepen our relationship, irrespective of who rules the country. Myanmar is strategically too important a country for India to ignore. Myanmar is in the China-Myanmar economic corridor as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (B RI). This was done in 2018 after singing a 15-Article Memorandum of Understanding. This has enabled China to bypass, whenever necessary, to avoid the Malacca Strait and gain an alternative access to the Indian Ocean. Now there is a proposal to connect China with a railway line to a port in Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal.
India has to engage with Myanmar and deepen its engagement so that China does not get a walk over and India’s strategic interests are well protected. We cannot fashion the world according to our wishes. We have to adapt ourselves to the world as it is, not what we think it should be. (IPA Service)