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Forgotten, forsaken but triumphing: The prospect of Myanmar’s civil war and what it means for rivalry between India and China over Myanmar.

At the beginning of the 2020s, the world was slide into unexpected and unstable periods: The Covid-19 pandemic (even though it started in 2019, peak of the pandemic was 2020-2021), Russo-Ukrainian war, Israel-Palestinian conflict, and critical blow from Azerbaijan to Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. A surprising yet chaotic chain of events is gradually tearing up fabrics of the fragile peace. The strategic rivalry between the US and the renegade countries such as China, Russia and Iran are intensifying.  The audience of the world could anxiously see the horrible images of war-torn Gaza and of Ukraine. Yet, the eyes of the world are ignoring a country as if the parents ignore their middle-child: Myanmar. Since 2021, the civil war in Myanmar has taken away thousands of lives. Civil war in Myanmar might be irrelevant for an average spectator. However, the civil war may determine not only the country’s future but could define the regional strategic rivalry.

A glimpse on Myanmar before the war

After Myanmar gained its independence in 1948 from the United Kingdom, the politics of Myanmar was turmoil. There are several factors that contribute to Burmese divisive politics: ethnic diversity (roughly 135 different nationalities exist in this country), the legacy of colonialism, and the role of the military. In 1962, General Ne-Win led a coup against the government and seized legitimate power. The efforts from the military government to centralize the nation-state through brutal suppression against democratic activists, divide-n-rule over the different ethnicities (and religions), rapid industrialization and maltreatment led to tensions between Burmese military junta and ethnic minorities. From the 1980s until 2000s, the military junta cracked down on the opposition with the brutalist approach resulting in constant casualties from civilians.  Starting from the late 2000s, the situation of Myanmarian politics seemed to thaw albeit under the eyes of the military due to the international pressure coming from ASEAN and the UN.  A series of reforms and elections were slowly being implemented that brought relief upon the general population. In 2015, Rangoon managed to reach a cease-fire agreement with some factions and ethnic groups and opened a route for the Panglong peace conference.  However, ethnic violence primarily against Rohingya was intensifying as some horrible cases such as rape, burning villages and random killing were being heard. These atrocities led to harsh criticisms from the international community.  As the National League for Democracy gains more and more seats in the parliament, Myanmar military starts undermining the legitimate elections’ results and a power rift gradually appears between the military and government. As a result, the military took a drastic approach and staged a putsch against the democratically elected Myanmar government in 2021.

A duel between Tyranny and Liberty

The Putsch government enacted a series of laws that barred the average citizens from enjoying their rights. The sudden action taken by the military met widespread contempt from the public in Myanmar and resulted in massive protests that encompassed all segments of society including civil servants. However, the junta’s old-guard approach against demonstrators enlarged low-intense violence into hyper-intense violence as many civilians were killed in a clampdown orchestrated by the Junta.  The junta’s actions mirror a rabid dog that attacks any surrounding living beings. For instance, the Junta personnel’s treatment of civilians was appalling cases such as torture and razing villages were common sights. In reaction to Junta’s draconian approach, the opposition formed a government called “National Unity Government (NUG)” that included various ethnic groups and ideological factions. So-called People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) were formed under the wing of NUG across the country just as the mushrooms were popping out after the intense rain.  On 7th September 2021, NUG called the able-bodied citizens to take-up arms against the Junta’s government prompting a wider skirmish into full-scale armed conflict. Aside from PDF, the regional, independent territorial armies such as the Three Brotherhood Alliance and Chin National Army that were fighting tit-to-tat with the Junta’s army actively took an aggressive stance. The swords were sharply drawn, the smell of the bloodshed taints the progress of peace and harmony nurtured through a stable decade, and everyone inhales the burning gunpowder across Myanmar. Through the initial two and half years, dozens of battles and hit-n-run skirmishes  mostly occurred in the outskirts of the country (mostly controlled by various factions). Thus, the conflict was reaching a stalemate until a radical development could occur. Despite the Junta’s more firepower, last October, the Three Brotherhood Alliance initiated a bold operation codenamed “Operation:1027” targeting multiple locations, inflicting severe damages to the military and grabbing some lands that borders neighboring countries. As a result, the tide of war is turning the table favorably on the side of the NUG and other resistant factions. Multiple news sources such as the BBC reported last November that Junta seems “looking weak, possibly beatable”.  Some sources also indicate that the offensive unveiled the fragile state of the military as several battalions’ strength was only at its quarter due to the overstretching and drying up of its manpower (central command’s lack of treatment towards its personnel).  Plus, the recently promoted senior commanding officers lack experience and expertise to engage according to the Voice of America. A few analysts even boldly assumed that Junta could be disintegrated as the internal rupture deepens inside the chain of command. Ironically, the opposition is in a similar yet awful situation as the Council of Foreign relations warned that the various factions could go at each other’s throats if the common enemy vanishes. Not only lacking the mutual enemy, the resistance lacks the tight-knit political integrity that could bind them for common good. The conflict not only caused unnecessary casualties but weakened Myanmar’s sovereignty. The onslaught of war, however, cost nearly 50’000 alive, 2.6 million were being displaced from their homes causing an influx of refugees pouring into neighboring states.  This causes further humanitarian issues as the Diplomat reported that the presence of refugees is inflating the costs of living in a southernmost province of China called Yunnan that borders Myanmar. The progress of the conflict can be assumed that war is going smoothly for the resistance that aims to establish the democratic state. The war also illustrates whatever the long-awaited Liberty can triumph over the long-oppressing Tyranny. Yet, the fate of war can be sealed under the thumbs of Asia’s two grandiose nations: India and China on the basis of their interests. 

Strategic value of Myanmar and prospective different scenarios

Myanmar’s geo-strategic location brings dazzling attention from various powers including China and India. Situated near the Indian Ocean and bordered with China, Myanmar is a perfect port for China. In case a naval blockade occurs near the Malacca strait (nearly 80% of Chinese exports and imports pass through the strait), Beijing could utilize Yangon’s ports as a backdoor for its economic security. Not only Myanmar possesses critical ports, but Myanmar also has abundant reserves of natural gas  that amount to trillions.  On the other hand, Myanmar’s civil war may disrupt the strategic and security interests of China as it shares a long land-border which can be vulnerable to “friendly fire”. Even though sources claim that China is funding both the military and some of its rebellion groups to guard its interests, other experts point out that Chinese presence may be overwhelmingly seen as Myanmar’s Junta shadow (China provided junta’s bulk of  its military equipment, CNN reports) and may receive their presence negatively. If the civil war ends in favor of the rebellion, there are three possible scenarios that could determine the relations between rebel-won Myanmar and China. The first scenario would be pre-coup status-quo of bilateral relations as if nothing happened. However, this scenario is the most ideal option. The second scenario would be pursuit of relations with reservation and reluctance from Myanmar. Because pursuing actively could jeopardize its internal political stability as some political groups would perceive this as a sign of betrayal. The third scenario would be a cold approach towards China driven by previous support with the Junta government. Myanmar’s future government might have to take a passive stance with China’s relations. The second scenario might be more realistic as China is one of the biggest trading partners of Myanmar. Nonetheless, the civil war in Myanmar is dragging China into a difficult position. As of India, the primary interests would be economic and security. India’s north-east territory is sandwiched between Bangladesh and Myanmar as New Delhi intends to build infrastructure that could tie its region to Myanmar and Thailand. By constructing this infrastructure could not only thwart China’s influence to a certain extent in South-East Asia but it could attach several benefits to its north-east territory.  There are several constraints that put India’s initiatives down: Firstly, Myanmar’s civil war is restraining its progress of establishing the intended infrastructure (connecting India to Myanmar). Secondly, enraging civil war is forcing India to take a methodical approach whatever India supports the junta or the rebellion. If India directly supports one of these two belligerents, it could bring more harm to the prospective relations with the future victor’s government. Thirdly, like China, the civil war may endanger its North-Eastern borders as this region is susceptible towards separatism. If the rebellion hoists its flag on top of Yangon, there is a chance that Yangon could establish cordial relations with the world’s biggest democratic nation-state as Yangon will hope that New Delhi could support them diplomatically, ideologically, and economically (even though, India supported the Junta’s government for a couple of times).  Assisting the post-war development enormously (Rebuilding requires significant amount of capital and effort) and aiding prospective Myanmar in matters of external debts, New Delhi could be able to assert its influence boldly just as the US managed to pull its strings over Europe via “Marshall plan”. Another alternative scenario for both India and China is hastening the balkanization of Myanmar into small nation-states (Last September, National Unity government outlined that there is a lack of common political strategy among the various groups and an absence of chain of command) to not letting each other get the upper hand. But India and China would be reluctant to pursue this scenario as it could cost the dwindling stability over the region, face backlashes from the international community and unwanted humanitarian issues. However, only the passing time would disclose the next portrait of Myanmar’s and the regional powers’ rivalry.

Conclusion

The conflict does not get highlighted as the coliseum’s complete attention is drifted towards Ukraine and the Middle-East. Even though the world ignores Myanmar, the forsaken conflict is gradually shaping the region. As the rule-based world order is getting weaker, Myanmar’s fate could symbolize a small gesture of keeping the fracturing status-quo or cementing the shifting multipolar order. But, Myanmar would be a key pawn for China and India to wrestle over the Indo-Pacific region.