Feeling Strangled In China’s Embrace, Myanmar Turns To India For Help

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Jul 10, 2020 05:15 PM +05:30 IST
Feeling Strangled In China’s Embrace, Myanmar Turns To India For Help Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
  • China’s influence over Myanmar, however, cannot be wished away. It has invested hugely in that country and needs Myanmar to gain access to the Indian Ocean.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, who was in Moscow at the end of June to attend the Victory Day Parade, met Myanmar’s military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

The meeting was significant, and so was what the Myanmarese military commander-in-chief told the media in the Russian capital. Hlaing said that since “strong forces” (read: China) were aiding terrorist groups in his country and it was not possible for Myanmar to tackle that threat on its own.

The Myanmarese military chief said he was thus seeking cooperation and assistance from “partner countries that oppose terrorism”.

According to Myanmar, India is now the primary ‘partner country’ in this, and Hlaing’s meeting with Singh discussed a blueprint to widen defence and security cooperation between the two countries.

Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun later clarified that by ‘terrorist groups’ the military chief meant the Arakan Army (AA) and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

While the ARSA operates in the Rakhine province bordering Bangladesh, the AA is active in Rahine and Chin province, which borders Mizoram.

Tatmadaw (as the Myanmarese military is called ) spokesperson Brig Gen Tun said that Myanmar has substantive evidence that a “powerful foreign country” is helping the AA.

“The sophisticated weapons, latest technology and modern electronic gadgets they use are all being supplied by that country,” Tun told The Irrawaddy, a popular daily in Myanmar.

Recent arms hauls (read this) also point very strongly to Chinese collusion in arming and encouraging the AA, which has been launching attacks on Myanmarese military targets.

The AA has killed many Myanmarese soldiers in ambushes since last year, provoking a fierce backlash from the Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw’s offensive against the AA is still continuing.

Myanmar also has strong evidence of China providing support to the ARSA, which had also attacked Myanmar’s security forces. The resultant counter-offensive by Myanmar’s security forces resulted in the mass exodus of lakhs of Rohingyas from Rakhine to Bangladesh.

Myanmar is facing severe condemnation from many countries for its alleged persecution of Rohingyas.

The Tatmadaw has been traditionally close to China. Faced with international isolation and sanctions because of suppression of civil rights and persecution of pro-democracy activists, the erstwhile military rulers of Myanmar found support only from China.

Myanmar thus got into China’s tight embrace. But China was not satisfied with having only the military junta as its friend in Myanmar and started aiding and encouraging ethnic insurgencies in the country.

“China’s motive was sinister. By encouraging these insurgent groups, Beijing gained control over them and then used them to extract more concessions from the military junta in Myanmar. Myanmar thus became a client state of China,” said Thidar Win, a former senior faculty member of Mandalay University.

But when China persisted with the same policy after Myanmar’s transition to democracy from 2011, sentiments among the people and the country’s politicians as well as the Tatmadaw started turning against Beijing.

“People and the country’s rulers knew that Myanmar now has more options and does not have to look up to China for everything. The realisation also dawned that Chinese support had come at a huge price and China had been short-changing Myanmar,” said Win.

Prominent pro-democracy activist Myint Thein says that after the dawn of democracy, public sentiments towards China started changing and there was a push-back against that country.

“China’s influence over Myanmar was always on-your-face, overwhelming and unfriendly. When Myanmar started opening up to the world and the political system also started changing, people got a chance to resist China’s dominance,” said Thein.

Faced with the prospect of losing its overbearing influence over Myanmar, China’s communist dictators got desperate and started exerting more pressure on the southeast Asian country to do its bidding. And it stepped up its assistance to Myanmar’s insurgents with the objective of using them as bargaining chips with Myanmar’s rulers.

Beijing also started pushing Myanmar to accept various projects under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), especially the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). Myanmar started re-assessing many Chinese-funded mega projects and applied the brakes on the CMEC also.

Myanmar realised China’s objective was to ensnare it in a debt trap, and thus resentment against China started growing. More so because China started using the pandemic to pressurise Myanmar to get started on the CMEC (read this and this).

Myanmar’s rulers, and its civil society, have realised that China wants to make Myanmar a client state and is playing many double-games in that country.

“Myanmar started looking at other options and realised that India can be a good ally. Apart from security cooperation with India, Myanmar also realises that it can take India’s help in many other areas also,” said Thein, who spent many years as an exile in Delhi.

Myanmar’s rulers want India’s help in not only tackling the AA militarily, but also in getting the insurgent group to the negotiating table. Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga, being a former rebel himself (he belonged to the Mizo insurgency group MNF), and leaders of other insurgent outfits of North East India, have influence over the AA and some other outfits in Myanmar like the Kachin Independence Army.

Myanmar wants to leverage that influence to wean outfits like the AA away from China’s pernicious embrace and ultimately to the negotiating table.

Myanmar realises that it is not possible to root out insurgency through force, and this is where it needs India’s help.

“India, with its democratic traditions and by virtue of being a multi-ethnic polity, is best suited for this,” said Win.

After the meeting between Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and General Hlaing, a roadmap for closer cooperation between the two countries on security, defence, energy, trade, space technology, IT and healthcare is being worked out in New Delhi and Naypyidaw (Myanmar’s capital).

China’s influence over Myanmar, however, cannot be wished away. It has invested hugely in that country and needs Myanmar to gain access to the Indian Ocean. But India’s help and benign cooperation can help Myanmar come out of Beijing’s vice-like grip and get the south east Asian nation to stand on its own feet.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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