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The Unfolding Crisis in Myanmar

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • October 19, 2007

    Myanmar has been in the eye of the storm in recent months. In August, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the Myanmarese military regime led by Than Shwe is known, arbitrarily increased the fuel prices from US $1.18 to $1.96 per gallon. This sudden decision caught the country's impoverished people by surprise, who subsequently began a massive non-violent protest. Similar mass protests had taken place in 1988 against the military regime's removal of bank notes from circulation resulting in loss of savings for the common people. However, this time around, there was a spectacular difference to the protests. It was led by the revered Myanmarese monks, who stated that they were representing the wishes of the people for better living conditions, establishing a dialogue for national reconciliation, and the release of political prisoners. Prominent amongst the prisoners is Aun San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, who has been under house arrest since 1989.

    What has followed since the August protests has been reported widely in the world press. Caught off guard by monks joining the protests this time, the military regime responded with disproportionate violence to terrorise and intimidate the protestors. On September 26, in a brutal military crackdown in Yangon and Mandalay, several monks and peaceful protestors were killed and several thousands arrested and put in prison. Eye witnesses and video clippings of the Myanmarese military response suggest that military personnel were operating under the influence of methamphetamine, a drug that increases aggression. The BBC reported that until the first week of October, the military had raided more than ten monasteries and suggested that the nearly 1000 missing monks had been murdered in cold blood. Amidst the brutal repression of the monks, the common people continue to protest. Amnesty International reported on October 13 that arrests continue and that people are being forcefully detained on a regular basis.

    The international community has taken strong note of the unfolding crisis in Myanmar. On October 11, the UN Security Council's President Leslie Kojo Christian of Ghana issued a statement deploring the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators. The statement also asked Ibrahim Gambari, the Secretary General's Special Advisor on Myanmar, to find a solution to the crisis at the earliest. It must be noted that amidst international pressure, the Myanmar regime invited Gambari in order to offer his good offices to resolve the unfolding crisis. The UN Human Rights Council, in a special session held on October 2, also condemned the violence. Similarly, the Council of the European Union (EU) has strongly condemned the brutal military crackdown in a meeting at Luxemburg on October 15-16. It has also sought the application of direct pressure on the military regime through stronger measures including an export ban on Myanmar's timber, mining, and precious stones. The US Congress has also added its voice to this general condemnation.

    But are these statements sufficient to deter a desperate military regime, clutching onto power by violent means, from carrying out massive human rights violations. It is sad but true that such international debate and condemnation of the Myanmarese military regime's behaviour is not good enough to stop its brutal measures. It is indeed plausible that if the monks manage to take to the streets again, which appears highly unlikely given the calculated brutal military repression that has been unleashed on them, the regime's response will be even more brutal, the international community's condemnation notwithstanding.

    The Myanmar military regime seems to be absolutely confident that there will be no international military intervention against its human rights violations. The reason for this is not hard to find - the presence of China in Myanmar's vicinity and its growing influence in the latter's internal politics. Indeed, China, with its veto power in the UN Security Council, is the reason for the continued immunity enjoyed by the Myanmarese regime from international sanctions and explains to a large extent its belligerent behaviour. This is where countries like India (without the power of UNSC veto) lose out to China in the game of wooing Myanmar, despite adopting a policy of constructive engagement with the regime there. It is only China that can effectively stand between Myanmar and the UNSC passing a resolution declaring the internal situation in the country as a threat to international peace and security. In January 2007, both China and Russia had cast vetoes blocking a UNSC Resolution against the SPDC.

    It is not hard to understand why China is protecting Myanmar's military regime. In recent years, it has been aggressively pursuing a policy of securing resources to feed its rapid economic development, and Myanmar's abundant natural gas reserves are a great attraction in this regard. China is also keen to develop alternate energy routes besides the Malacca Straits, which could be blocked in the event of a conflict. Myanmar's deep sea ports and opening to the Andaman Sea offer a viable route for Chinese oil imports.

    It is also interesting to note that the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a full member since 1997, has come in for increased international pressure to condemn Myanmar's recent belligerent behaviour. ASEAN had accommodated Myanmar in the hope that inclusion rather than isolation would facilitate political reforms within that country. Also, ASEAN members like Thailand are keen to procure gas from Myanmar. Significantly, in January 2007, ASEAN drafted a Charter, which affirms its commitment to the promotion of democracy, human rights and good governance. It has also established a human rights commission. These developments might be in response to increased focus on such issues at the international level. However, ASEAN must make it imperative for members to adhere to minimum requirements of human rights norms in order to pressurise Myanmar's military regime to change their ways. In this context, it is heartening to observe that ASEAN foreign ministers, in a statement on September 27, condemned the violence unleashed by the Myanmar regime against peaceful protestors. ASEAN also needs to use its institutional influence to pressurise China into playing a more constructive role vis-à-vis the Myanmar regime.

    Democracies like the United States, Japan and India need to be more pro-active in enabling political reforms in Myanmar. It is not enough for the US to sanction Myanmar's regime and continue with its policy of diplomatic isolation. Such a "hands off" policy is unlikely to work. Instead, the US needs to create realistic channels of pressure by opening up diplomatic contacts with Myanmar so that it can exert direct pressure on the military junta. In this context, it is worth nothing the change in Japan's Myanmar policy in recent years. From a completely "hands off" policy in the 1980s and 1990s, Japan has moved towards supporting UNSC statements on Myanmar's status recently and has also indicated its commitment to human rights and democracy.

    With regard to India, its Myanmar policy has been hinged on "constructive engagement" in order to procure natural gas, obtain security co-operation to control insurgency in the North-East, and build roads connecting the North-East with Southeast Asia through Myanmar for bolstering economic linkages. It is, however, a truism that when it comes to tapping Myanmar's gas reserves, China has the upper hand vis-à-vis India. As for the other two issues, it could prove dangerous to depend on an unpredictable military regime for effective co-operation. If Myanmar were to become a failed state, India stands in direct danger of cross border flows of violence, drugs and disease. It is therefore important that India factors in these aspects as well while formulating its response to the unfolding crisis in Myanmar.