Time to look and act East

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Time to look and act East

Thursday, 25 February 2021 | Rishi Gupta

Time to look  and act East

While democracy is the most sought after means of governance, it becomes a farce when core values are compromised, like in the case of Myanmar

The long-awaited goal of democracy in Myanmar was achieved in 2011 after a five-decade struggle led by civil society, international actors and agencies against an autocratic military in the country. However, the recent coup d’état by the national Army has once again led Myanmar to uncertain times. The coup surprised the world and it shall be seen as the outcome of a compromised leadership by Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite registering a mammoth victory in the November 2020 elections, the Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) was accused by the Army and Opposition of poll irregularities, corruption and unethical means in “stealing” the victory; hence, the coup.

While the Union Election Commission has refuted all claims of poll irregularities by the NLD, it was in no way possible that the Army would not act to assert its political victory, considering an uneasy ride with the NLD Government in the last six years.

Amid mounting international pressure, the military junta was forced to pave the way for the entry of democratic forces in 2010. The political prisoners were released, including Suu Kyi, but the NLD boycotted the elections over alleged irregularities by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. However, over the next five years, the NLD gained popular support which was reflected in the 2015 general elections. The NLD won 168 of the 224 seats in the Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities), with 25 per cent seats going to the Army without any contest. It indicated more space for pro-democracy leadership and restoration of the multiparty parliamentary system. In 2011, President U Thein Sein had carried out significant political and economic reforms though these were in sync with the needs and demands of the military.

For the current fiasco, one needs to look at the 2008 Constitution of the Myanmar Army as one of the root causes. The Constitution had strengthened the Army’s role in the parliamentary system on the legal front. Considering the popularity of Suu Kyi in the new political order, the Army had especially added that a President should have a military background and none of his/her spouses be subjects of a foreign power or citizen of a foreign country to limit her chances of holding the President’s office as her two sons are British citizens. The Home and the Defence portfolios can be held only by the Army, and the 25 per cent reservation was to keep the military in full control. The emergency powers have further strengthened the Army’s position.

In the course of a popular public movement demanding to reinstate a democratic order, Suu Kyi’s rise became synonymous to democracy. Yet she failed to condemn and control the gross human rights violations of Rohingyas in the Rakhine State. The refugee Rohingyas moved en masse to neighbouring Bangladesh. While the world was looking at Suu Kyi to emerge as a messiah for ethnic Rohingyas, she chose to rescue her own party. More surprisingly, she was seen labelling Rohingyas as “illegal migrants” who were already tagged as “Islamic terrorists” by the Army. While Amnesty International stripped away her honours, there were calls to take back even the Nobel Peace Prize.

Suu Kyi may have been vocal for democracy in Myanmar but she failed to stand for it while in power. She condemned neither a State-sponsored ethnic cleansing by the Army nor the Buddhist lobby that was reportedly instrumental in the alleged brutalities. Therefore, while the world is condemning the coup, international actors are cautious in defending Suu Kyi. It is an open secret that the NLD co-existed with the Army, but the compulsions of democracy had kept them on different paths. In reality, the Generals never gave up on their political aspirations and failure through the electoral route made the coup evitable.

India has aired its voice in favour of democracy and normalcy in Myanmar. At the same time, New Delhi has opted not to slap any sanctions unlike the US, UK and the EU. As a champion of democracy, India’s appeal for its restoration remains the common element across the volatile political surfaces globally. It helps New Delhi to convey the message of peace and democracy more actively. India’s COVID-19 vaccine gift to Myanmar is proof of its commitment to peaceful humanitarian causes.

Meanwhile, as an important country in India’s Act East policy, New Delhi needs to look at the Myanmar border with utmost caution. India’s challenge will not be limited to tackling an increasing bonhomie between China and the Myanmar Army; the looming political crisis in Bangladesh will double India’s Eastern challenge.

The recent exposé — ‘All the Prime Minister’s Men’ by Al Jazeera, revealing an alleged criminal nexus between the Bangladesh Army chief, his brothers and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party — has caused an uproar. While the Bangladesh Government has backed the Army, the alleged claims in the exposé are of grave concerns. Therefore, the Act East policy needs to include emergency strategies of diplomatic, intelligence, security and political nature.

(The author is an ICSSR Doctoral Fellow at the JNU, New Delhi, and Senior Fellow at the AIDIA, Kathmandu. The views expressed are personal.)

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