From Sanctions to Submarines - Myanmar, July 2019
Jaideep Chanda, Senior Fellow, VIF

July 2019 saw Myanmar remain in the news for a number of reasons, some negative and others not so negative. At the end of it all, though it may be a bit early to judge, it seems to be business as usual for the nation.

News of the ban on the Myanmar senior military hierarchy1 followed by the Israeli ban2 on Myanmar officials from attending military fairs dominated the news and mind space initially. Neither is expected to substantially make any notable change in the way Myanmar functions. The ban on the generals was responded to by Myanmar with a suitably contrite statement stating that the ban had affected the dignity of the leaders3. There was no response to the Israeli action. Bans on leaders of countries which do not tow the US line are not new – neither to Myanmar, nor to India4. They do not serve much purpose except to placate the domestic constituency. This was also articulated by Yanghee Lee, UN Special Rapporteur to Myanmar who said that it was not enough and more was needed to be done5. If at all, they serve to harden the resolve of those affected, to take their respective struggles to the logical conclusions. The Israeli action too seems to be directed to meet the requirements of the US domestic politics. It seems unlikely that Israeli realpolitik policies would jeopardise the military business opportunities that Myanmar offers and hence would have to balance the need to be seen as going along with the rest of the world while continuing business on the quiet.

In the brouhaha over the bans, a statement by the Arakan Army (AA) on 18 July 2019, went largely unnoticed. In this the AA stated that they welcomed foreign investors including the Chinese investments in the Rakhine region and would support all those who wanted to work for mutually beneficial multisectoral projects in the region6. The media savvy AA is likely to be playing the China vs India hand in the region as it struggles to consolidate its gains and take the discourse towards a political fructification of its Arakan Dream 2020. The AA has also disclosed that it does not intend to participate in peace talks so long as the open lawsuits7 against its leaders exist in Myanmar. The statements of the AA have to be seen in the context that this group, amongst the ethnic Myanmar groups, is one that directly affects Indian interests in Myanmar. The progress of the Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project is directly affected by the belligerence of the AA and hence neutralisation of this group is expected to be high on India’s wish list8.

From the peace perspective, the Myanmar Government’s 30 Jun 2019 extension of the unilateral suspension of military operations against armed groups in five military commands, is significant. Currently the extension of ceasefire is valid till 30 Aug 2019, ostensibly to give time to peace committees to work out the way forward. Notably the ceasefire does not extend to the Rakhine.

India’s engagement with Myanmar continues both on military and non-military issues. In a quiet ceremony at Maung Daw, Rakhine State on 9 July 2019, India handed over 250 pre-fabricated houses for use by displaced returnees from Bangladesh9. India also recently handed over an unspecified quantity of Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) manufactured Shyena Advanced Light Torpedoes to Myanmar as part of a defence deal. Further, India is also refitting INS Sindhuvir, a Kilo class 1980 vintage Russian submarine, at the Hindustan Shipyards Ltd, Vishakapatnam, for handing over to the Myanmar Navy10. The deal also includes a training package for the country as it aspires to develop its own submarine fleet, as have been done by Bangladesh, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia, in the region. Notably, INS Sindhuvir, in service with the Indian Navy since 1988 and having undergone a deep refit in 1999, is considered far superior to the Ming class submarines being peddled by China to other navies in the region.

The signing of the MoU on Defence Cooperation on 29 Jul 2019 during the visit of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services (CDS) Myanmar, to India11 was a significant continuation of India’s engagement with Myanmar. While details are not known yet, it is reported that the MoU would cover enhancing military training, joint surveillance, and maritime security. India’s engagement with Myanmar is maturing, though yet to take off on the scale desired to meet Myanmar’s aspirations vis-à-vis the one-sided economic development that it is forced to accept under the present global geopolitical environment, from China.

The Union Parliament’s 45 member Charter Amendment Committee comprising representatives of the 14 political parties, independents and the military reviewed all the 15 chapters of the Constitution, along with five additional schedules relating to tax collection, the state and regional legislatures, self-administered regions and other topics to come up with recommendations. The Committee was formed in Feb 19 with a charter to come up with the suggestions by Jul 19. Having done so, they put forth 3765 recommendations, all of which have been summarily rejected by the military on three grounds, viz., the formation of the committee was illegal as it was not approved by the military being unconstitutional; they however joined the committee out of respect for the Parliament and that being the case, all the committee’s proceedings would by default be unconstitutional12. The 2008 Constitution is considered having undemocratic provisions such as reserving 25 percent of parliamentary seats—both regionally and nationally—for the military; granting the Army chief the power to appoint three important ministers (defense, home affairs, and border affairs) and the final say in questions of military justice. Article 436, which requires approval from more than 75 percent of the total lawmakers in Parliament to amend a number of crucial articles (most of which privilege the military), after which the proposed amendment must be approved by a majority of eligible voters in a nationwide referendum, effectively gives the military a veto over any proposed changes.

In a welcome move, Myanmar's Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Myint Thu led a 19-member delegation accompanied by a five member ASEAN observer group, and visited the Rohingya camps in Cox's Bazar and spoke with their representatives. The Myanmar stand was that while they were ready to take them back, however the Rohingyas could only be taken back if and when they felt ready to return. Conversely, Bangladesh's Acting Foreign Secretary Kamrul Ahsan, who also accompanied the delegation, said Naypyidaw must generate trust among the Rohingyas for their spontaneous return and stated that Bangladesh would not force them to return. Bangladesh had earlier handed over a list of 30,000 Rohingyas and Myanmar had already verified 8,000 for repatriation in first batch13.

The recent death of 13 jade miners14 in a mine collapse in Hpakant in Northern Myanmar typifies the primitive and exploitative nature of the trade in which very little reaches the government coffers with Chinese businessmen, ethnic elites and the Myanmar Army ensuring the profits are all pocketed. This poorly regulated industry saw the death of 54 persons in April 2019 in a similar landslide. Unless the Myanmar Government takes corrective measures, rampant loot of the natural resources will go on unabated15.

In conclusion, India’s Look East Policy had two major aims when it started in 1991; one was to chart a fresh course away from the Cold War alignments and the second was to counter the Chinese strategic and military influence in the region16. While the first may not hold good any longer, but the second is probably far more relevant today. Further, the need to develop the North East as a launch pad for economic cooperation with the rest of South East Asia also drives the decision makers. In order to develop the North East, insurgency needs to be countered for which Myanmar is vital. Hence defence cooperation with Myanmar has always been a high priority for India and will remain so. The unambiguous dividends of the coordinated operations carried out by armies of both the nations as part of Operation Sunrise17 are testimony to this.

With this backdrop, the recent isolation of Myanmar in the international community and consequently the expected18 Chinese surge19 in investment goes against the aims of the Look East Policy. While the ban on the Generals of Myanmar to travel to USA may not be significant, the recent call by the United Nations (UN) 20 to sanction foreign firms doing business with the Myanmar military could have far reaching consequences.

Either ways India needs to do more, much more than it is doing so far, in Myanmar, so as to retain relevance in the eyes of the Myanmar people and remain a reliable, trusted and preferred alternative to China. And the only way it can do so is by scaling up and stepping up on the deliverables.

References:
  1. Asia Times news report, https://www.asiatimes.com/2019/07/article/us-bans-myanmar-army-chief-over-rohingya-rights-abuses/ (Accessed on 31 Jul. 19).
  2. News report on the Middle East Monitor website, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190717-israel-bans-myanmar-officials-from-arms-fairs/, (Accessed on 31 Jul. 19).
  3. Frontier Myanmar Report https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/myanmar-says-military-dignity-harmed-by-us-ban-on-army-chief (Accessed on 4 Aug 2019).
  4. Article in Wall Street Journal https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-narendra-modi-was-banned-from-the-u-s-1399062010 (Accessed on 6 Aug 2019).
  5. News Report by Channel News Asia, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/us-travel-ban-on-myanmar-army-chief-not-enough-says-un-11733304 (Accessed on 4 Aug 2019).
  6. Mizzima Myanmar News Report, http://www.mizzima.com/article/aaula-welcomes-chinese-investment-rakhine (Accessed on 4 Aug 2019).
  7. News report in Irrawady.com https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/open-lawsuit-kept-aa-leaders-from-govt-peace-talks.html (Accessed on 4 Aug 2019).
  8. Article in Current Affairs website, https://currentaffairs.gktoday.in/operation-sunrise-03201967165.html (Accessed on 6 Aug 2019)
  9. Report from Indian Embassy Yangon website https://embassyofindiayangon.gov.in (Accessed on 4 Aug 2019).
  10. News Report from Economic Times https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/taking-it-to-next-level-india-readies-submarine-for-myanmar/articleshow/70442448.cms?from=mdr (Accessed on 4 Aug 2019).
  11. Press Release Indian Embassy Yangon, http://www.pib.nic.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1580637 (Accessed on 4 Aug 2019).
  12. News Report in Irrawady.com https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/constitution-amendment-committee-returns-nearly-4000-recommendations.html (Accessed on 4 Aug 2019).
  13. News Report in Business Standard, https://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/myanmar-delegation-visits-rohingya-camps-in-b-desh-expresses-readiness-to-take-them-back-119072901226_1.html (Accessed on 6 Aug 2019).
  14. News Report by Mizzima, http://mizzima.com/article/least-13-killed-myanmar-jade-mine-landslide (Accessed on 6 Aug 2019).
  15. For a comprehensive study on commercialisation of insurgency in Myanmar, please see Kevin Woods (2011) Ceasefire capitalism: military–private partnerships, resource concessions and military–state building in the Burma–China borderlands, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 38:4, 747-770. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2011.607699 (Accessed on 6 Aug 2019).
  16. Nehginpao Kipgen, Myanmar: A Political History Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2016, pp. 178.
  17. News report in India Today https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/operation-sunrise-india-myanmar-target-insurgent-groups-camp-in-north-east-1550835-2019-06-17 (Accessed on 5 Aug 2019).
  18. News report by Eleven Media Group, https://elevenmyanmar.com/news/chinese-airlines-request-dca-to-allow-more-flights-from-china (Accessed on 6 Aug 2019).
  19. Article by Bertil Lintner in Asia Times, https://www.asiatimes.com/2019/07/article/as-west-retreats-china-surges-in-myanmar/ (Accessed on 6 Aug 2019).
  20. News Report by Straits Times, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/un-urges-sanctions-on-myanmar-army-businesses-says-foreign-partners-could-be-complicit (Accessed on 6 Aug 2019).

  21. Image Source: https://akm-img-a-in.tosshub.com/indiatoday/images/story/201907/EAotDeVUYAAgaEH-770x433.jpeg?Z5ImJ3DMt2cXdCnwMf14wB9ffMUEkpEO

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