World’s Options on Myanmar Limited
Prof Rajaram Panda

A little over a month has passed since Myanmar’s army chief Min Aung Hlaing shocked the world by seizing power on 1 February from the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD), and arrested the country’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Since then protests have intensified, lives have been lost, blood has been spilled but the junta remains unmoved and resorted to harsh measures to quell the protests. As a result, the country once again stares down the abyss of autocratic rule. A number of charges are levied against Suu Kyi a day after at least 18 protesters were killed by security forces in the bloodiest crackdown since the military takeover. The number of deaths of protesters as per available reports has crossed 40 but could be much more and the world might never know the actual number as usually is the case in a country under military regime.

There are few clues to what lies ahead for the Southeast Asian country. Demonstrators, numbering thousands and largely made up of Generation Z citizens, are displaying new innovative methods of protest. This has aroused admiration around the world. In Hong Kong, Thailand and Taiwan, pro-democracy activists are inducting Myanmar protestors into their exclusive “Milk Tea Alliance”.1 In Tokyo too, Myanmarese staged protest in front of Myanmar embassy demanding restoration of civilian rule. A flurry of diplomatic efforts by Myanmar’s neighbours as well as major powers persuading the junta to restore democracy has not worked. After decades, people tasted the fruits of democracy after a long hiatus for some time and now seem more determined not to lose that freedom. So, the coming months and years do not look promising though the junta has promised to keep power for a year before it reviews future action. After all, military rulers rarely hold on to their promise, as was the case, for example, in Pakistan during Zia-ul Haq, who finally perished in an air crash but never kept promise to hold elections.

What was the immediate provocation for the junta to stage the coup? The relationship between Suu Kyi and the country’s military had deteriorated in recent years as the state counsellor sought to expand civilian control. She sought to amend the 2008 Constitution that guaranteed the military one-quarter of seats in parliament. This prompted the army leaders to reject results of November elections, accusing that there were many illegalities. This was just an alibi for taking over power from the civilian control.

The coup in Myanmar took many by surprise though some of its closer neighbourhood were expecting it. The unique civil-military power-sharing arrangement came unstuck and infantile democracy derailed and probably has met a premature death.

The world is keenly watching what response would come from China. China has stressed for stability without explicitly condemning or legitimising the junta. But for Beijing, the development could be a golden opportunity to expand its influence and strategic footprint. Except North Korea and Pakistan, China has no real friend and it would be keen to embrace Myanmar under its fold. Like Japan, which has traditionally been engaging with the junta for decades for economic interests by liberal disbursement of overseas development aid (ODA) and technical cooperation, China too has deepened economic ties as partner in many development projects. Though Japanese businesses would be worried now, the Chinese companies would rejoice with the prospect of the junta leaning towards China to remain in power. Japan too shall come under the US pressure to toughen its stance on Myanmar, though unlikely to join the sanctions regime. Japan’s response could come under scrutiny by the international community if it continues to remain a mute spectator when democracy is murdered. This issue has been discussed in an earlier post in the VIF website and needs no further elaboration.

So, it is a case of advantage China, as democracy slides from view at least for now. The junta is unlikely to surrender power anytime soon. Beijing might also foster ASEAN disunity, thereby undermining ASEAN’s centrality. Despite ASEAN’s existence for a long time, the 10 members have different forms of governments with varying economies. There are now strongmen in power in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. While there are single parties in Laos and Vietnam, democracy is eroding in Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. The Sultan in Brunei virtually rules the oil-rich small nation almost singlehandedly. As Southeast Asia continues to drift towards authoritarianism, the ASEAN nations individually would play into the hands of one of the countries in the US-China rivalry. Except Vietnam and Singapore, the rest might feel tempted to be victims of China’s enticement.

The ASEAN remains as a prisoner to the principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter, which includes respecting the “principles of sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, non-interference, consensus and unity in diversity’”. This is ASEAN’s dilemma. The developments in Myanmar might drive the ASEAN grouping to revisit it non-interference clause in the ASEAN Charter. That too is not easy. In contrast, India as a stakeholder on regional issues and driven by geopolitics, chose to align its viewpoints with that of the US, Japan and Australia but with limited success.2 But that still is sensible.

The United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres described the coup as a “serious blow to democratic reforms”. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on the military to “reverse [its] actions immediately”, referring to the detention of civilian government and civil society leaders.

For the US President Joe Biden, barely weeks in office, this is the first major foreign policy challenge. His response should be indicative of his policy towards Asia, in particular Southeast Asia. Though Biden is likely to impose sanctions in accordance with the Foreign Assistance Act mandating Washington to halt assistance to any government overthrown by a military, his response could be muted given Myanmar’s relatively marginal importance to US foreign policy.

The Biden administration has already unleashed fresh sanctions against the junta and his top lieutenants. But for Myanmar’s neighbours, the diplomatic conundrum following the coup is more complicated. Singapore and Indonesia are ready to toughen their stance against violence against unarmed protestors and demand open communication channels with the junta. Singapore would however weigh that if widespread sanctions are imposed, as recommended by some rights groups, those would adversely affect ordinary Myanmar citizens. So, that would not be an option for Singapore.

Indonesia is ready to take the lead to cajole the Tatmadaw, as the military is called in Myanmar, to restore the status quo ante and release Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. But the anti-coup protestors did not take kindly when Indonesia reportedly suggested that fresh elections should be held. Two regional powers – India and Japan -, both benign powers yield considerable clouts with the Tatmadaw. Both are never seen as threatening powers unlike China in the region. Both find their options limited now. Both too have their own vulnerabilities. While Japan has close economic ties since the 1960s, India has strategic interests as Myanmar is the gateway to further its Act East Policy. The best they can do is to persuade the junta to see the merits of democracy. That is unlikely to work either. Power is always intoxicating and the junta is conscious of this.

For Japan, Myanmar is a virgin market for doing business and has the experience to work with the junta during long period of military rule and is unlikely to surrender that advantage. Whatever measures Japan might take against the junta are likely to be cosmetic without much biting effect. As regards India, like Japan it had also engaged with the junta before.

India still can have a role in Myanmar’s affairs without interfering too much. Myanmar does fit well into India’s strategic architecture in pursuance of its Neighbourhood First and Act East Policy but South Block has to make the necessary move. As a neighbouring country, India’s strong cultural links, growing economic ties and security interests in the wake of China’s ‘encirclement policy’ have a bearing on India’s Myanmar policy. How much India prepares to leverage both the military and the National League for Democracy (NLD) to keep its own interests from not being jeopardised needs to be watched closely. India is well positioned to play a decisive role for the cause of democracy so that the efforts of the previous governments dating back to Jawaharlal Nehru to Atal Behari Vajpayee are not wasted. At the same time, India needs to take cognizance of the fact that the military shall remain a key player in Myanmar politics even if democracy returns in the future and needs to craft its policy accordingly.

Also, it shall be keen to keep its presence in that country in order to check Chinese influence. Its options are limited. India might be compelled to revisit some strands of its Indo-Pacific and Neighbourhood First Policy. Countries such as Austria and Germany rolled out the red carpet to the junta in recent times. Foreign governments view engagement with the Tatmadaw as vital to influence reforms.

Thus it transpires that the outside world’s influence in determining what comes next is limited. Nobody regionally or internationally has much leverage, except expressing concern and “diplomatic scurrying about to give the appearance of action”. As China looks like to be the main beneficiary, it is to be seen what policy responses India and Japan come out with hereafter on Myanmar.

  1. The “Milk Tea Alliance” is an online democratic solidarity movement made up of netizens from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and Myanmar. It originally started as an internet meme, created in response to the increased presence of Chinese trolls and nationalist commentators on social media and has evolved into a dynamic multinational protest movement advocating democracy and human rights. It is a loose, transnational network of youth who see themselves as engaged in similar fights against authoritarianism.
  2. M.K. Bhadrakumar, “Post Coup Myanmar: India must be careful”, 11 February 2021,

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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