Myanmar military coup: Old wine in a new bottle

On February 1, the military seized the power in Myanmar. Myanmar military coup has questioned the experiment which claims to introduce democracy in Myanmar. Like other dictators, the military cites reasons to justify its stand. The planned session of the parliament was cancelled. The Military took control over the communication system. The military cut off the internet services and telephone network. The military also took control of the airport and airwave in order to block the information exchange with the rest of the world. As usual, a physical education teacher did her daily exercise outside the parliament building while the military troops unfurled in the background. 

Old wine in a new bottle: Justifications and mechanism

A similar kind of shift of power was witnessed in Pakistan during Zia-ul-Haq era. In 1976, Zia ul Haq was appointed by the then PM of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Merely one year later, in 1977, the same Zia-ul-Haq disposed of Bhutto in a military coup. He also suspended the constitution. He also began a censorship regime similar to Myanmar’s Min Aung Hlaing. He also took control over the communication system and adversaries. Zia ul Haq arrested Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and kept him in jail. Similarly, Aung San Suu Kyi is arrested by the military and put behind the bars.

It is astonished to understand the pattern that even similar reasons were cited before imposing military rule. General Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan, blamed the election rigging with respect to the election in 1977. Similar allegations are made by the military in Myanmar. In the first television address since the coup, Min Aung Hlaing justified military rule against the voter fraud in election 2020. Even if the election was rigged in 2020 then army rule can’t be the option. The US-based Carter Center which had more than 40 observers has not found any major irregularities in the Myanmar election. The Union election commission of Myanmar has also rejected the military allegations.

Even geopolitical ambitions are also similar. Military rule in Pakistan during Zia-ul-Haq was used in the interest of the US against the Soviet union in Afghanistan during cold war 1.0. Zia-ul-Haq was a suitable person for the US because he is very regressive in religious belief. It was perfectly fine to justify violence in the name of religion by creating fear psychosis of atheists, the communist rule. Similarly, now China needs Myanmar in the new cold war 2.0 against the US. That’s why Chinese mouthpiece, the Global Times, see this military coup merely as a major cabinet reshuffle hours.” In fact, China is on the front line to protect Myanmar’s military rule in UNSC.

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The straw that broke the camel’s back: Rohingya exodus

Pakistan witnessed the second election in 1977. The first election was held in 1970 after which Pakistan was bifurcated into two parts and Bangladesh was formed. In the 1977 election, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto from Pakistan’s people party (PPP) won 155 seats out of 216 seats in the National Assembly. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto has won the battle of the India-Pakistan war 1971 on the table in the Shimla Agreement and get back their more than 90,000 soldiers from India without paying much to India in return. This popularity made him king in the election of 1977. This popularity made Zia-ul-Haq unhappy in Pakistan. 

Similarly, after the Rohingya exodus, Suu Kyi has been more or less silent on Rohingya issues. Her silence was deemed as support to the Buddhist cause. It has increased the popularity of Suu Kyu among the majoritarian Bamar Buddhists in Myanmar. This popularity was translated in the 2020 election, in which Suu Kyi’s party got 80% of the voter. The increasing popularity of Suu Kyi has made Min Aung Hlaing unhappy as well as insecure. Both (Zia-ul-Haq and Min Aung Hlaing) asserted to get back the power by throwing civilian government and arresting all the possible adversaries.

The retreat of the “Myanmar spring”

Change in the political climate in Myanmar took place around 2010. In 2008, the military wrote the constitution. There was a 25% reservation for the military in parliament. For any amendment in the constitution, more than 75% of the votes would be required. In other words, the Military in Myanmar got veto power in the constitution written in 2008. The constitutional arrangement was pro-military. Apart from the reservation, the military in Myanmar has also fielded an Army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Initially, the National League for Democracy (NLD) under the leadership of Suu Kyi didn’t accept the constitutional arrangement and boycotted the 2010 election.

Consequently, the army-backed USDP won the election. In the next five years, the army didn’t win the credibility of the people of Myanmar. Slowly, Army relaxed the censorship in Myanmar. By 2012, the Obama administration has shifted its foreign policy from west Asia to a “Pivot to East Asia” regional strategy. It has motivated the US administration, Obama, to visit Myanmar. Increasing proximity between the US and Myanmar, Suu Kyi also changed her earlier stand to boycott the election. She was now comfortable with the existing pro-military constitutional arrangement. She was ready to fight the 2015 Myanmar general election.

Decreasing grip of the army in Myanmar society and government favored Suu Kyi in the 2015 election. National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Suu Kyi won the election. It was the first free and fair election of Myanmar where the various parties took part in it. From 2015 to 2020, Army tried to gain popularity among the masses. On the name terrorism, the army launched a brutal crackdown due to which more than lakhs of  Rohingyas were forced to flee to neighboring countries. In spite of all these, Suu Kyi won the popularity in Myanmar general election 2020 by keeping herself silent on Rohingya exodus issues. Sense of insecurity among Myanmar army with respect to military arrangement ended up with the retreat of “Myanmar Spring” after the military coup.

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A new message for Indian people: Pluralism as strength of a nation

Myanmar military coup gives a special message to the extremists in India – Pluralism is the strength of a nation. To accommodate today’s universal adult franchise, politicians search for narrow determinants like ethnicity, caste, class, religion, and regions to polarize and fetch votes. In Myanmar, religion was used for polarizing voters. Historical reasons as well as differences in the way of life created the gap between the majoritarian Bamar Buddhists and Rohingyas. The exodus of Rohingya led to a shift of power (in terms of people’s credibility) from the Military to Suu Kyi in Myanmar. It ended up with the end of democracy in Myanmar.

A similar pattern is seen in other south Asian countries like India and Pakistan. For example, Kashmiri pundits were thrown out from Kashmir in the 1990s in the name of religion through an engineered eviction process. The exodus of Kashmiri pundits led to the weakening of social interdependence between Srinagar and New Delhi. Srinagar failed to bargain with New Delhi and ended with the abrogation of Article 370 and the end of special status given to the people of Kashmir. It would have been difficult for New Delhi to abrogate Article 370 if Kashmiri pundits were existed in a similar state as before the 1990s.

Similarly, Pakistan has systematically eroded minorities in their countries. The exclusion of minorities in Pakistan has weakened Pakistan’s defense capabilities. If Hindus and Sikhs were there in significant numbers, India couldn’t execute a surgical strike or oppose Pakistan openly on the international platform. There would have been some sort of social and ethnic interdependence between New Delhi and Islamabad. Muslims in India are the first line of defense for India against Pakistan’s nuclear mischief. Either people of Pakistan or religious clerics may not agree with the military to go with a nuclear attack against India. Thus, India’s pluralism is the strength of our nation.

The dilemma before India: A hard choice

India has expressed “deep concerns” and opted balanced approach with respect to the new political development in Myanmar. It has created a dilemma before India. On the one hand, supporting the present arrangement will go against India’s core values which promote democracy and openness. It will also give the wrong impression in the world. On the other hand, India’s security and strategic interest say not to oppose the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military). India’s management will depend on the reactions of the world in general and the US and China in particular.

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Currently, China is in a unique position. This has been a China’s way of engagement in the world affair where China refrain from intervening in the domestic affair of the country. For China, “end” determines “mean.” China tries to get things done from any kind of arrangement irrespective of the nature of government i.e. democracy or authoritative or theocratic. But the US’s way to get things done has different. The US tries to topple the government first. It makes the country like-minded and then gets the work done. But India’s ways have been the balancing between the two.

Myanmar has been important for India. Myanmar is a gateway to the “Act East Policy” of India. Myanmar has cooperated with India against terror activities in the northeastern region. Growing proximity between China and Tatmadaw may bring worry moment for Indian security in the northeastern region which is connected with India through a narrow passage called “Chicken neck corridor.” Time will tell how Myanmar is going to engage with China. After assessing cost-benefit analysis, India will respond to the situation so that India’s national interest could be served. 

Footnotes

  1. JSTOR | The March 1977 Elections in Pakistan: Where Everyone Lost
  2. The New York Times | INDIA TO RELEASE 90,000 PAKISTANIS IN PEACE ACCORD
  3. The Diplomat | Pakistan’s Black Day
  4. BBC | Myanmar coup: Does the army have evidence of voter fraud?
  5. The Carter Center | Carter Center Preliminary Statement on the 2020 Myanmar General Elections
  6. The Hindu | Myanmar Election Commission rejects military’s fraud claims
  7. The Print | 30 years on, Zia ul-Haq’s extremist, military legacy alive and well in Pakistan
  8. Global Times | Major cabinet reshuffle announced in Myanmar
  9. BBC | Myanmar coup: China blocks UN condemnation as protest grows
  10. The New York Times | Main Opposition to Boycott Myanmar Election
  11. The New York Times | Obama to Visit Myanmar as Part of First Postelection Overseas Trip to Asia
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