An Age of Uncertainty in Myanmar

Puyam Priyobarta Singh
4th October 2021

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

After the declaration of general election result in 2020, Aung San Suu Kyi was set to lead Myanmar for the second term as State Counsellor, with the National League of Democracy (NLD) winning an impressive 83.2% of the total electoral seats. All eyes were fixed on how her second tenure will confront the challenges confronting Myanmar, both domestic and foreign. The world was watching in anticipation, to see how Suu Kyi was going to deal with the controversial response of Myanmar’s government to the Rohingya crisis and the issue of the continuing grip of the military on Myanmar’s constitution and polity. In her second term, Suu Kyi was expected to work towards constructing an independent foreign policy for Myanmar that will enable the country to expand its economic and political ties with other foreign partners rather than taking assistance solely from China. Such a foreign policy under her second regime as State Counsellor was expected to be the key to counter China’s influence as a proximate power in the region.

In addition, such a foreign policy venture seemed very similar with that of neutralist foreign policy of Myanmar that dates back to the year 1974, and thus this new step was being seen as an effort to rekindle the foreign policy direction reminiscent of the 1974 constitution.  NLD’s election manifesto of 2020 seems to have given further impetus to this expectation as it focussed on joint economic enterprise of mutual benefit in order to work on cooperation with other countries. It is also worthwhile reflecting on the similarities between 2020 and the 2015 election manifesto, except this special addition to boost cooperation with other foreign countries like Japan, India, Thailand and South Korea rather than partnering exclusively with China.

The military drafted constitution of 2008 enables the Myanmar Army for 25% seat reservation in the country’s parliament. As a result, people expected NLD’s second regime to reform it in order to bring democracy in Myanmar into full swing.  The military also reserved with themselves authority over issues such as border affairs and internal security. In addition, the 2008 constitution allows the military representatives to take over the National Defence and Security Council in the time of emergency. NLD under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi was expected to bring changes in all these affairs, to decrease the overwhelming control of the military on the country’s governance.

However, all speculations had to bite dust when the military coup took effect on February 1, 2021. Many nations blamed the incident including India, appealing to restore back the democracy in Myanmar. Although many experts viewed India’s appeal as a diplomatic statement, India’s Ministry of External Affairs has been walking the line in terms of calling for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. India has been balancing its interest in vouching for a democratic Myanmar, and in maintaining relationship with the Tatmadaw, keeping in mind its own  security concerns relating to insurgency in the North-eastern states bordering Myanmar, and also its strategic calculations of dealing with China’s strong influence in the political, security and economic landscape of Myanmar. The coming times will test India’s diplomatic adroitness to protect and promote its interests in the midst of the uncertainty prevalent in Myanmar.

The military coup became the first challenge to be faced by the present US president Joe Biden in deploying its foreign policy around the Indo- Pacific region. His government even imposed sanctions on the military leaders of Myanmar and froze 1 billion dollars in government assets on 11 February. Besides the US government, organisations like the EU and ASEAN also blamed the Tatmadaw for their undemocratic actions and expressed their desire to bring back democracy in Myanmar. However, as of now, things are not improving despite the reactions from various sections all over the world and still the Tatmadaw is in control of Myanmar’s government after accusing NLD for corruption and fraud in the 2020 general election.

More than 1,100 people have been killed and over 8000 people have been arrested during the protest. Various pro-democracy leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi are still under house arrest. People all around the world and the various international organisations are hoping to see a free and fair trial in order to free Suu Kyi, which is expected to start very soon. And lastly it is important to remind the famous saying in Myanmar which states that “The Tatmadaw shall never betray the national cause”. It was used as a flex by the Myanmar military in exclaiming their good deeds in getting their independence from the British rule. However, the sentence itself speaks about the reality of Myanmar politics even after the military coup on February 1, 2021. This statement was a grim reminder even during Myanmar’s democratic interruption that the Tatmadaw was not far away, it was still present and could return if necessary. But this time round, the Tatmadaw has betrayed the national cause.

Currently, the ousted NLD leader’s trial has been affected by the outburst of Coronavirus in the country. Her personal lawyer and some of her close party members has died due to the pandemic and this gave chance to the Myanmar Junta to postpone the court trial of Aung San Suu Kyi for more than two months. Her new lawyer Min Soe confirms that Suu Kyi too needed to skip the September trial due to her health condition. Apart from accusing the ousted leader for breaking the Covid-19 pandemic restriction during the general election 2020 campaign, the military Junta also accused her for four new corruption charges where each corruption charges carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. Her court trial for the four corruption charges is due to start soon. The Tatmadaw are likely to continue its power run in Myanmar, as the country enters a new era of uncertainty.

*The Author is a Postgraduate from the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. His research interest lies in understanding the geopolitics of Southeast Asia in general and the politics of Myanmar in particular.


The Views expressed in the Article are of the Author