Rising concerns for India over political transitions in Myanmar and Thailand

It’s been more than a month since the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) hijacked power from the civilian government. The situation on the ground is increasingly becoming more horrific as the Junta cracks down on peaceful protesters on a daily basis. As of 13 March, more than 80 people have been killed and over thousands injured. The rising numbers of custodial detentions and deaths are a matter of concern in terms of human rights violations.

The coup essentially bears a resemblance to when Myanmar’s neighbour, Thailand, had its democratically-elected government overthrown by the army in 2014. Incidentally, as is the case with Myanmar now, both democratic governments were spearheaded by a woman. The pretext for both was to reinstate “peace and order.” However, Thailand’s “temporary” stint is entering its seventh year, with the military ensuring its long-term stay by appropriating the provisions in the country’s constitution.

While the military government in Myanmar has taken over power (supposedly) for a year; however, it would not be surprising for the Junta, who is quite adept at ruling the country, to do so for the long haul. The Tatmadaw, in its statements, has said that they will hold a fair re-election soon, and has stated that they want a democracy which is true and disciplined, or, to put it in simple words, a democracy that can be disciplined as and when required. This again hints to the Thai way of managing a return to quasi democracy, which is partial towards the military.

Fault lines of democracy

The current state of affairs throws light on the wobbly democratic system that tends to prioritise and please the needs of the significant ‘other.’ It did not create the much-needed democratic transitions whereby democratic structures and parties other than the National League for Democracy (NLD) could blossom. The Rohingya issue tends to be one such event where a lot was expected from the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, however, her defence in favour of the army at the international stage brought about disgrace in the worldwide arena. Ironically, after doing so, she is currently being detained by the army and is facing multiple and mostly irrelevant charges against her. It might serve as a lesson for democratic leaders to understand that making adjustments to such an extent, that it hurts democratic values and princliples, is eventually pointless. For democracy to truly and freely prevail, the growth of democratic culture as well as institutions remains crucial.

In all likeness, the Thai military is not as brutal as the Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw has a long history of viciousness and mounting human rights abuses. The younger generation is unlikely to put up with a prolonged military government that is hostile and closed in its approach. Their rage and disenchantment are likely to increase. Moreover, information and communications technologies these days cannot be so easily severed. The youth are already finding ways to connect and upload the happenings in Myanmar and are constantly in contact with pro-democratic activists in Thailand and Hong Kong.

Now if one analyses the impact of this military coup, then it will not remain restricted to Myanmar and Thailand. Not only is it causing wariness over the future of democracy in Southeast Asia, but it also represents yet another challenge to existing security concerns and human rights issues.

Growing concerns

A broad range of non-traditional security challenges, particularly drug and human trafficking plus efforts to stem the flow of illegal migrant workers, may escalate due to increasing levels of domestic tensions. It is estimated that drug production and trafficking in the region in the previous year generated profits of more than US$ 70 billion. The capital gained through this trade is used as seed money to buy weapons for the ethnic armed groups in the border areas of Myanmar and Thailand. Such acts fuel conflict and insecurity within the country as well as the region. In light of the current coup, the two major groups — the Karen National Union and the Restoration Council of Shan State — have already threatened to act and are waiting for the scope to retaliate. The contraband groups placed in various nations sharing borders with Myanmar and Thailand will add to the challenge of restoring of peace in the region.

Similarly, escalating numbers of human trafficking is another issue. The poor economy due to the pandemic and constant ethnic discord tends to fuel the growth of unchecked trafficking networks. Both the above situations are testimony to how intricately peace, development and proper livelihood opportunities are linked to fighting such transnational crimes.

The upward trend of migration resulting from the current crackdowns, which has enormous potential to become more ruthless, will be an additional concern. The Thai counterpart has been advising the Tatmadaw to restrain its vicious stance towards unarmed protesters. They are quite apprehensive of the increasing number of displaced persons if the situation becomes unmanageable. Since 1988, refugee and displaced peoples’ camps along Thailand’s western border have protected people evading Myanmar’s military operations. Today, more than 100,000 refugees remain in these camps as Myanmar’s peace process falters.

Forty eight Myanmar nationals, including 11 police officials who refused to follow Junta orders, have entered Mizoram, the north eastern state of India, while 80 more are reportedly waiting to cross the border. The Myanmar government has sought the return of the officers as a friendly gesture. However, whether the Indian government will act on it or not is yet to be seen. India has a vested interest in the region and is also concerned regarding the growing Chinese influence post the coup. The region already has scattered numbers of documented and undocumented Myanmar migrants as well as displaced people. However, the growing uncertainty may create more unsteadiness within the region.

Regional approach

Southeast Asia, at present, has two military-authoritarian regimes; the rest either have no popular elections or face erosion of democracy. However, the current coup has pushed the regional body, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its members, to take matters into their own hands, which is quite astounding given the fact that ASEAN is not known to concern itself with domestic matters of member countries. Indonesia is leading the way by speaking up regarding the fluctuating trend of democracy and the inhuman treatment of the Rohingyas. This has been quite evident in the arrival of the Myanmar junta-appointed foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, in Bangkok around the third week of February for an unannounced meeting with his Thai and Indonesian counterparts. This supposedly initiated the start of discreet undertakings for Southeast Asia.

In addition, ASEAN held a meeting amongst its member nations to reach a solution towards the ongoing problem, which is itself an exceptional thing. After the virtual meeting, a statement released stated that, “Political stability in Member States is core to achieve a peaceful ASEAN community. We urged all parties to seek a solution via constructive reconciliation in interests of Myanmar people. ASEAN stands ready to assist in a positive & constructive manner.”

Another sub-regional grouping, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), where both Thailand and Myanmar hold membership, has remained silent post the coup. While member nations have individually shown deep concern, however, a joint statement is yet to come out. Sri Lanka, the current Chair, has invited the Junta appointed Foreign Minister to next month’s BIMSTEC ministerial meeting. Colombo has maintained this has no bearing on its own stance of concern towards the coup. Whether the noiseless approach of the sub-region will help nudge the Tatmadaw to loosen its grip and open way for dialogue is uncertain.

Nevertheless, much more is expected from ASEAN. Also, ensuring peace and stability within the region is important and crucial for the functioning of a unified regional bloc. However, there may be limits to what ASEAN can possibly accomplish. While the western nations are imposing sectored sanctions, nonetheless, they understand that they are unable to influence beyond a certain point. The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

Source : ORF research and analyses


  • Pazdin Dalal

    A marketing expert from Mumbai takes interest in covering defence and geopolitical issues. He has also been active in covering growth of private defence sector in India.

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