New Delhi cautious as Suu Kyi seeks grip on reins of power

Following recent elections in Myanmar, neighbouring India may be pleased by Naypyidaw’s moves towards greater democracy. But Delhi will still have to keep a close eye on political developments across its eastern border, warns G Parthasarathy.


During a visit to Yangon some eighteen months ago, I was delighted to hear from a former Myanmar foreign minister that his country regarded its land borders with India as the most stable and well managed. This was especially so, he said, when compared with the borders shared with its four other neighbours, including China and Thailand. Such a view is not surprising, as India has no serious issues with Myanmar along their 1640-km-long border.  Over the past two decades, the two countries have cooperated closely, not only on issues of dealing with armed separatist elements on both sides, but also in dealing with drug smuggling, border trade, intelligence sharing and the development of roads and communications. Representatives of India’s border states and their Myanmar counterparts, largely drawn from the Myanmar Army, have been involved in these efforts.

Unlike Myanmar’s other neighbours such as China and Thailand, which have made huge investments in areas including energy corridors and mining for minerals and precious stones,

The focus of Indian attention in Myanmar has largely been on building scientific and technological skills

in areas such as information technology and remote sensing, and on human resource development. There has also been considerable focus on building connectivity through roads across border areas of both countries. The main infrastructure and development projects financed by India across the India-Myanmar border include the 130-km Tamu-Kalemyo-Kalewa Road, which is being extended to the trilateral highway connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand. A similar road project links the Indian state of Mizoram with Myanmar’s Chin State. Finally, there is a major transport corridor being built, linking India’s landlocked northeastern states with the Bay of Bengal, through the Myanmar Port of Sittwe. Security of all such efforts was ensured by the Myanmar army, which had control of the entire border administration.

India is naturally pleased with the successful democratic elections in Myanmar, as the stepping stone towards a truly democratic order. Aung San Suu Kyi has many friends in India from her long stay there and her graduation from Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College. She was conferred the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1995, when she was incarcerated.

NETWORK: The 130-km Tamu-Kalemyo-Kalewa Road, one of the key infrastructure projects financed by India across the India-Myanmar border
NETWORK:  The 130-km Tamu-Kalemyo-Kalewa Road, one of the key infrastructure projects
financed by India across the India-Myanmar border

But while she enjoys unquestionable public support in Myanmar, governing is not going to be an easy task. This arises from the fact that her country has been plagued by continuing ethnic insurgencies, with no firm signs of any political settlement in sight. The Myanmar army is regarded as the only institution capable of holding the country together, but it is not likely to surrender the many powers it wields, including its 25 per cent representation in Parliament, its control of the key ministries of Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence and its domination of the high-powered National Defence and Security Council.

It is no secret that in Myanmar today, the country’s President Htin Kyaw is a mere figurehead, acting entirely at the behest of Suu Kyi,


who has taken charge of the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Ethnic Affairs and Education. As the Minister of Foreign Affairs, she will have a seat on the crucial National Defence and Security Council. But what has invited opposition from the army, both publicly and in Parliament, is her action in creating a new post of ‘State Counsellor’, which gives her immense powers, akin that of a prime minister, enabling her to have a prominent if not dominant say in all appointments and executive action. She has made herself the de facto president of the country, something that will almost inevitably lead to a clash with the powerful Army Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Aung Hlaing. There has already been some criticism by ethnic minorities of the manner in which Suu Kyi has appointed members of her own party as chief ministers in the Rakhine and Shan States, even though her party did not enjoy a majority in either of these states.

Amidst these political developments, ethnic insurgencies have flared up again in the Shan and Kachin states. The army is also engaged in operations against ethnic groups elsewhere in the country. Troops have been sent into areas in Shan state, dominated by the Shan State Army. There are allegations the army wants to put the state under martial law. Daily battles continue between the Myanmar army on the one hand and armed ethnic groups, including the Kachin Independence Army, in the strategically located Kachin State, which shares borders with India and China. Armed conflicts are also continuing involving the Ta’ang National Army and Kokang Rebels who live in the Northern Shan State, with bases in China’s Yunnan Province. It would be impossible to undertake a viable peace process to end these insurgencies, unless there is broad agreement between Suu Kyi and the army leadership.

In the meantime, the release of those hundreds detained unjustly by the military is producing its own dynamic in states where ethnic minorities live. For example, three ethnic political parties who fought the elections separately have reunited to challenge the government in the strategic Kachin State, which is led by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. The armed insurgents of the Kachin Independence Army will now have political backing from these parties within the state.

ALMA MATER: Aung San Suu Kyi at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College, where she studied political science
ALMA MATER: Aung San Suu Kyi at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College, where she studied political science

According to the Myanmar constitution, land and the natural resources from land are all the property of the states. There are calls in Rakhine State and elsewhere for the people of the state to be entitled to a share of its mineral and other resources. This will inevitably be a major demand of the ethnic minorities. Right now, the Myanmar army and businessmen close to the military are trying to keep maximum control of the country’s energy and natural resources. Quite naturally, this situation cannot continue indefinitely in a democratic polity and will be yet another bone of contention with the army.

New Delhi will be carefully watching the impact of these developments on the situation in Rakhine State, the Sagaing Division and Kachin State, with which India shares land borders. It is particularly important that the Myanmar government and the army are able to control armed insurgents in the Sagaing Division and Kachin State. Insurgents from India’s northeastern states are resident largely in these areas and maintain links with China along the borders of its Yunnan Province and the Kachin State. Indian diplomacy will have to be subtle and imaginative in meeting these challenges.


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