Faux outrage, schadenfreude, and the gritty reality of geo-politics all co-exist in reaction to Myanmar’s latest events
It’s been a week since the Tatmadaw took over: The force “The Lady” refers to as her father’s army. He, Aung San, did form and lead the Burmese National Army in the Second World War. That national hero was assassinated in 1947, possibly with rogue British military involvement. With him died the hope for cooperation and collective uplift for the several peoples who inhabit that state.
After the British sailed away, Burma became engulfed in civil war, involving separatist Karen, Kachin, the Arakanese (both Muslim and Buddhist), and the communists. By the end of 1948, the civilian government of Burma barely held on to Rangoon (Yangon) and Mandalay.
Independent India and Japan supported the central government, buying their rice exports with precious foreign exchange and offering loans. In the end, Burma did not break up. Ever since, the military has been fighting armed movements who represent a third of the country.
Myanmar today is not a failing state, neither is it fully stable. There has been no autonomous settlement satisfactory to both the majority Bamar and the rest.
The military is thus seen as the bulwark of the state, central to politics and business. The recent democratic arrangement was a hybrid creature: The military held the most powerful ministries, along with a reserved 25% of parliamentary seats.
Foreign friends with interests
“Democratic India” cultivates close links with Myanmar to a) close down rebel camps in Myanmar to quell armed uprisings in the Seven Sister states, b) promote links from there to Arakan (Rakhine) via the Kaladan River, c) connect the “north-east” to Thailand via a road through Myanmar. Crucially, and dangerously, Delhi has been pressing Myanmar’s military to consider China as an enemy, with India as its counter-balancing “friend.” Why? China’s Yunnan province has a long border with Myanmar, which has allowed China a direct energy and trade route to the Indian Ocean.
Biden and Obama did not pour in the billions of dollars necessary. Trump hardly tweeted about it. India is too cash-strapped. Japan is always present, but way behind. The go-to source for capital, skills, technology, and speedily-constructed infrastructure remains China. The military takeover is not really in China’s interests as some abroad think.
Realpolitik and welfare?
Bangladesh does not part company with lands of misogyny and feudal autocracy in West Asia. Billions of dollars of remittances override concerns over democracy. The coup or takeover is clearly wrong, but is outrage selective, seeking cases where there is less profit to lose?
Progressives should maintain principles, praising the virtues of democracy, but in its fullest sense (not the fiction in much of South Asia), while simultaneously putting the interests of the poor majority first. They should want Bangladesh and Myanmar to climb the ladder of prosperity together, with the Rohingya participating in development and contributing after returning home. The yardstick should be: What stance and position vis-a-vis Myanmar will improve the situation of the poor in southeastern Bangladesh and northern Myanmar? It never was.
Closing borders, shutting down trade, mothballing infrastructure condemns tens of millions of people to a poverty which we (from the better-off classes) have no right to perpetuate.
Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s call for boycott and sanctions, in the long years when she was under house arrest, was a wrong call. It kept her country in the Ice Age. It ossified a backward economy. It left the people in penury. Economic take-off was blocked. Inward investment was snuffed out.
Her party in opposition and exile did not focus on planning for an East Asian form of development (which the military were certainly not pursuing either). The years in (shared) power have not been kind. That does not excuse its removal, which was for more parochial reasons. When democracy does return, it has to offer less corruption, greater equality, and sound strategies for industrialization.
The welfare of the Rohingya requires more than just condemnation. They remain where they are, given the common attitude of the elite in Myanmar, both civil (democrat) and military, towards the Rohingya. Ironically, the largest displacement took place under democracy.
From kneejerk to a strategy
Rather than buying rice one week, cancelling the next, Dhaka should take the lead and step up a dialogue on a broad-based agenda with Beijing and Naypyidaw. Rohingya repatriation within the context of a serious application for entry into Asean and RCEP. That provides a reason for others to expend their political capital on an issue, unpopular to them.
Clearly indicating distinct differences with Delhi also helps. Some elites on this side, all democrats no doubt, might think about repairs at home before commenting over the neighbour’s fence perhaps?
Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst. @liquid_borders.