As Myanmar’s Military Junta Starts Suffering Huge Losses, India Needs To Reset Ties With Pro-Democracy Forces

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Jan 11, 2022 04:08 PM +05:30 IST
As Myanmar’s Military Junta Starts Suffering Huge Losses, India Needs To Reset Ties With Pro-Democracy ForcesNUG's acting president, Duwa Lashi La
  • The foreign secretary’s visit to Myanmar was dictated by India’s self-interest, primarily the urgent need to get the junta on board to crack down on rebels of militant outfits of Northeast India sheltered in Myanmar.

    New Delhi, at the same time, has to explain to the pro-democracy forces pitted against the junta that it needs to keep engaging with the Tatmadaw and such engagement should not be viewed as an endorsement of the military establishment.

Myanmar’s military, which seized power on February 1 last year, is bleeding profusely from attacks by pro-democracy resistance forces and the country’s ethnic rebels.

Over the last one month (December 7, 2021 to January 6, 2022), 2,380 junta soldiers were killed and over 600 injured in 1,077 attacks, including ambushes, grenade attacks and landmine blasts across the violence-battered country (read this).

Violence is set to escalate in the country with the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) gaining in strength and pushing the junta on the backfoot. This will necessitate a recalibration of its weak ties with the parallel and pro-democracy National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar by New Delhi.

Foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s two-day visit to Myanmar in end-December (read this) did not go down too well with pro-democracy forces in that country.

The visit was viewed as an endorsement of the military junta, which has killed nearly 1,450 pro-democracy activists and incarcerated more than 11,300 of them.

Shringla, though, met senior leaders of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League For Democracy (NLD) after his request for an audience with Suu Kyi was turned down by the repressive military regime.

The foreign secretary’s visit was dictated by India’s self-interest, primarily the urgent need to get Myanmar’s military junta on board to crack down on rebels of militant outfits of Northeast India who are sheltered in Myanmar.

The junta has, according to many credible reports, been using the rebels as proxies to carry out attacks on pro-democracy activists in the states bordering India in return for providing safe havens to the rebels.

New Delhi was also concerned over China’s growing clout over the junta —China has been thwarting international efforts to sanction the junta — and the foreign secretary’s visit was also aimed at weaning the generals away from Beijing’s influence.

But recent developments in Myanmar have underlined the need from New Delhi to recalibrate its Myanmar policy and establish firm links with the NUG whose acting president, Duwa Lashi La, has termed the ongoing resistance against the junta as the country’s ‘second struggle for independence’.

The NUG and some other organisations have raised armies and have received substantial funding from a huge number of Myanmarese citizens as well the wealthy Myanmarese diaspora.

The ‘defensive war’ against the junta was launched on September 7 last year after it became apparent to pro-democracy activists that passive and peaceful resistance to military rule will not serve any purpose.

The decision to launch armed resistance was also dictated by the junta’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists. This crackdown has only intensified after the launch of the armed resistance that has been claiming the lives of junta soldiers and officers.

Between November 7 to December 6 last year, 2,117 junta soldiers were killed and 682 injured in hundreds of attacks on them by PDFs and ethnic rebels who have been fighting for greater autonomy or independence.

The NUG has managed to unite the disparate PDFs and the ethnic rebels under one broad umbrella to launch armed attacks on the junta.

“It is apparent now that resistance against the junta will intensify and Myanmar will witness a lot more violence. Both sides will suffer huge losses, but the junta more so. This battle of attrition between pro-democracy fighters and the military regime will affect the junta more. We have reports of many junta soldiers and lower-ranked officers defecting to the resistance fighters and this trend will continue,” a senior officer in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) told Swarajya from New Delhi.

The junta, according to reports put out by the NUG’s ‘shadow’ home affairs ministry which collates reports from resistance groups, media and citizens, has been losing ground in many places in the country and ‘liberated zones’ (controlled by pro-democracy activists) have been growing in size.

Many parts of the Sagaing region in western Myanmar bordering the Indian states of Manipur and Nagaland have become ‘liberated zones’ from where the junta has withdrawn after facing intense attacks.

The PDFs are especially active in the Sagaing region and resistance groups say they carried out 246 ambushes and blasts in the region over the past one month.

In November, 209 attacks on the Myanmarese military by resistance groups were reported from Sagaing.

The armed resistance against the junta is also gaining ground in the Kayah, Chin and Karen states, and the country’s commercial capital Yangon has emerged as a hotbed of resistance.

The regime’s writ does not run over vast areas of Yangon, which has witnessed 45 attacks on the military forces and 173 explosions in December last year — up from 32 attacks and 118 landmine blasts in November.

Dozens of soldiers and ward administrators appointed by the military regime were killed in attacks by the PDFs in Yangon last week (read this).

More than 245 attacks on the Myanmarese military (commonly known as the ‘Tatmadaw’) were reported from Karen state in December 2021. The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the Karen National Union which wants greater autonomy for the province, is the main perpetrator of the attacks on the Tatmadaw.

Last week, in one of the deadliest attacks on the Tatmadaw in the northern Shan state, a dozen junta soldiers were killed in fighting between the army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). The Tatmadaw responded with artillery fire on TNLA hideouts, including a hospital, resulting in the deaths of scores of civilians.

Such a response by the military to attacks on it by PDFs has only intensified opposition to the regime and driven more and more people into the ranks of the armed resistance groups.

The TNLA is a constituent of the ‘Brotherhood Alliance’ comprising resistance groups of northeastern Myanmar. This alliance has been responsible for a number of devastating attacks on the Tatmadaw and according to many reports, a number of soldiers and officers of the Myanmarese military have joined this alliance.

The junta, in a rare admission of the intensity of the attacks, acknowledged that the Tatmadaw is facing a grave challenge in many parts of the country from resistance groups. Junta spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun said in an interview to the BBC recently that the regime had not been prepared for such deadly attacks from resistance groups.

“The Tatmadaw is facing serious challenges. The main challenge is mine attacks and sneak attacks by resistance fighters,” he said.

Attacks on the Tatmadaw have intensified of late after a horrific massacre (read this) in Kayah state’s Hpruso township where the Tatmadaw tortured and burnt to death 35 civilians on December 24, 2021. This massacre triggered an exodus of an estimated 12,000 civilians over the past two weeks to neighbouring Thailand.

Faced with attacks from resistance fighters on the ground, the Tatmadaw has often responded with aerial attacks on towns and villages which they (the Tatmadaw) feel are hideouts of resistance groups (read this).

The brutal response of the Tatmadaw to the opposition (read Myanmar Junta's Worst Massacres of 2021) has pushed Myanmar into a raging civil war. But despite the military’s brutalities, opposition to the Tatmadaw is growing.

According to the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the parliamentary wing of Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), and independent reports filed by human rights groups and media organisations in Myanmar and Thailand, a large number of civilians are boycotting products and services linked to military-owned businesses, and many are refusing to pay taxes.

A huge number of civilians, including the country’s diaspora, are funding the resistance groups. Many wealthy families have sold their properties and businesses — a few have even liquidated their prized collections of vintage automobiles — to fund resistance groups. A number of such families have fled to the jungles to join the resistance groups.

All this points to the changing dynamics in Myanmar. And this poses a challenge for New Delhi since the NUG wants India to deal exclusively with it, but realpolitik and ground realities necessitates dealing with the Tatmadaw as well.

While the mandarins in South Block (housing the MEA) have to do a considerable amount of tight-rope walking, it is also very important for India to establish firm and inalienable ties with the NUG. Past experience across the world shows that brutal and deeply unpopular military regimes are relatively short-lived aberrations and, ultimately, democratic forces triumph.

New Delhi, at the same time, has to explain to the NUG that it needs to keep engaging with the Tatmadaw and such engagement should not be viewed as an endorsement of the junta.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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