Myanmar coup and Bangladesh perspective
Lieutenant General Md Mahfuzur Rahman (LPR)
In November 2020 election, National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi had a landslide victory over Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) led by Than Htay supported by TATMADAW (Myanmar Armed Forces). Military rejected the result claiming widespread fraud and demanding reelection. This was not taken into cognizance by election commission. The preparation for parliament session was in progress that led to this coup by TATMADAW mainly for two reasons:
a. TATMADAW felt humiliated that their grievances were not taken into consideration.
b. TATMADAW understood, if Suu Kyi forms government and continues Civilian Government for next 5 years then the days of military influence in politics and running the country (Directly or Indirectly) are numbered. So the situation for military was now or never. On 01 February 2021 TATMADAW staged a coup under Senior General Min Aung Hla.
Senior General Min Aung Hla: He is a Bamar (Majority in Myanmar), grew up in the military as a mediocre but clam and composed with tenacity and know to be a pursuer of aim. He is little egoistic as well. He enjoys immense power given by the 2008 constitution (Military Crafted) to an extent that he actually gave himself extension for five years which would be over in 2021. After becoming commander-in-chief of Defence Service in 2011, he said “We have an unfinished job to be done”.
Following this we have seen heightened persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar. After the ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ of Rohingya from Rakhine in 2017, when the West and World Community were pursuing to repatriate the Rohingya his comment was “we did not send them to bring them back” This powerful man in Myanmar leads an organization possibly more than just an armed forces called TATMADAW.
TATMADAW: Directly or indirectly TATMADAW is ruling the country for seven decades. Military under a military over time turns into monster and TATMADAW is no exception. It is also a meritocratic organization with institutional strength, possibly only institution that outshines others in that country. Monstrous organization with meritocracy the mix is very dangerous. They run huge business, control economy to a great extent, look after Ministry of Interior Defense & Security and Immigration (Boarder) having influence in external ministry.
Constitution allows 25% military seats in the parliament beside their supported political party. The National Defence and Security Council the highest executive body in the country that has the power to dissolve the parliament if situation demands. This council in military majority led. Myanmar Generals are smart people the way they handled the Rohingya issue and took both the regional powers on their side and two permanent numbers in UN Security Council (UNSC) that UNSC even could not condemn the crackdown on Rohingyas. Their understanding on geopolitics and geo-strategy are praiseworthy.
When you are sitting across the table with a TATMADAW General, you are not sitting across a security person only but also an intellectual, a diplomat, a businessman, a politician and a leader of a meritocratic organization (all in one) who has institutional knowledge of running the country several decades. They talk less listen more expression seldom reveals conclusion. In case of Rohingya issue we need to understand that we are dealing with a smart set of professionals.
Aung San Suu Kyi: She became world famous for campaigns for restoration of democracy in 90s. She spent 15 years in house arrest between 1987-2010, awarded Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991. In 2015 election NLD was victorious after 25 years in a contested election in Myanmar.
She fell for grace when she did not condemn the military crackdown on Rohingya in Aug 2017.Her background and connection with West and apparent heroism in fighting for democracy and peace influenced West to put her on a high pedestal. To my understanding she is just a racist power hungry politician and my rationales are: (i) In 2014, I went to listen to her talk at Sandhurst Military Academy, UK. After her address my compatriot asked her position on persecution of minority in her country specially Rohingyas. She answered that “both majority and minority are in fear” and this is ramifications of fear so she has no comments on this.
This “Both in Fears” arithmetic is not difficult to understand. She is just a politician and the election was coming up in 2015 and she could not annoy majority or TATMADAW for Rohingyas for moral reason. (ii)In December 2019 she went to The Hague, International Court of Justice (ICJ) to defend TATMADAW from allegation of genocide and ‘ethnic cleansing’. Her decision for going to ICJ had own her huge popularity back at home. There were billboards in every parts of Myanmar where Suu Kyi in front and the TATMADAW Generals pictures at her back and the caption read “We are with you”. She was ready to compromise her fame as hero of democracy and peace for power hungry politics. The election was upcoming in 2020.
In ICJ court room we were sitting same 20 feet away from her. She was calm and indifferent to the evidences of genocide put up by the Gambian side. When Gambian lawyer showed pictures of genocide at Inn Din village on the screen where Rohingya men were hauled together kneeling down and next picture all were beheaded that touched almost everyone in the court room. Some Rohingya widows were in the court room too, their sobbing saddened the atmosphere of court room but I noticed Suu Kyi, the so called mother of democracy and peace was unmoved.
She was wearing a smile of indifference on her face. (iii) In 2013, BBC presenter Mishal Husain interviewed Suu Kyi where she was pressing Suu Kyi on a political challenge she was not handling well mentioning Rohingya persecution issue. Suu Kyi came up with her baffling “Both sides in fear” stance and she was rarely worse than in her interview with Husain, where she became defensive. After the interview, Suu Kyi did not realize that microphone was on, expressed her anger to an aide, “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim”.
President Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina are exchanging greetings with the members of the Army.
This is not a mother of democracy not an icon of humanity and Nobel laureate on peace. This is purely raciest. She is a power hungry racist politician afflicted by Bamar supremacy. She hates Rohingyas. However, she may be a smart politician but TATMADAW is smarter. Finally, if it is ‘hunger for power’ then Min Aung Hla has greater hunger than Suu Kyi. At the end she failed to realize ‘No Go Areas’ of TATMADAW.
China Factor: In 2019 while visiting China Senior General Min Aung Hla at the meeting with Xi Jin Ping, President Xi said Myanmar is a strategic partner of China (A strategic partner is also a development partner but development partner is not necessarily a strategic partner, Bangladesh is a development partner). In reply Senior General said, TATMADAW will always remain by the side of China. These vocabularies have deep meaning.
China’s energy security is a strategic issue and centre of gravity of Chinese economic development. China’s gas and oil pipeline go from Myanmar Kyaukphyu (Sittwe) port through once Rohingya majority parts of Rakhine State to Kunming (China). China needs Myanmar for her energy security. China would like to avoid Malacca strait and precarious South China Sea as much as possible. China has no moral dilemma in supporting Junta.
Russia Factor: Russia is biggest arms seller to Myanmar after China. They have deep military cooperation and exchange programs. Russian contingent participated in Myanmar Armed Forces Day parade on 27 March 2021 after this coup. Even Russian Deputy Defence Minister was present in the occasion. Senior General Min AungHla acknowledged Russian this gesture with gratitude. Russia has also no moral dilemma in supporting Junta.
Indian Factor: India’s KALADAN Multi-Model Transit Transport Project is strategic for its connectivity to her eastern states through Bay of Bengal, Kaladan River and Rakhine State of Myanmar. India has invested a lot in this project. India including her Western Allies do not want Myanmar should totally fall into the fold of China for geopolitical and geo-strategic reasons. In Rohingya issue India hid her moral dilemma for geopolitical reasons but could not hide her moral dilemma in the event of coup in Myanmar.
What is next: As long as there is support from China and Russia, Myanmar Military is going to hold on to power for two reasons:
(i) Their primacy in running the country directly or indirectly will disappear if they give into pressure.
(ii) TATMADAW’s understanding is ‘Union of Myanmar’ will fall apart without military in the helm of affair in Myanmar.
Unity Government: This initiative will give more impetus to the civil disobedience in Myanmar but itself cannot make any headway in removing Junta. ASEAN has already legitimized Junta by inviting Min Aung Hla to attend the summit. However, Unity Government along with its military wing (uniting all ethnic Armed Group) may create huge pressure on TATMADAW, Junta’s focus will be dissipated. It has to be remembered that brute force shall only give in to brute force. No amount of international pressure, sanctions or negotiations shall produce result. In the past TATMADAW withstood against all these tools.
ASEAN Peace Brokering: This may reduce the brutality of TATMADAW on civil disobedience but military will not be negotiating on handing over power to NLD and go back to barracks. TATMADAW understands this option will reduce them to subservient force under civilian/political force which they shall not agree.
However, they may agree to release political prisoners including Suu Kyi in exchange of fulfilling their demand of having a free and fare election once situation is stabilized in the country and hand over power to elected government. TATMADAW is unlikely to move from their goal as long as two permanent members in the UN Security Council remain on their side. This may result near civil war situation where China’s and Russia’s interests will also be hurt over time. Despite resource rich Myanmar will be impoverishing.
Security Concerns for Bangladesh: All dissident groups will be hyper active since TATMADAW attention is in centre on holding on to power. Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine will be active too. We may see Rohingya Armed Group surfacing in stronger form in Rakhine. In this crisis time AA and Rohingya Armed Group are likely to follow peaceful co-existence policy and fight government forces.
The Karen, Kachin, Shan Armed Groups will do the same. However when TATMADAW will see that their situation becoming untenable then to divert attention and prove their relevance as savior of the Union, will focus on Rakhine State became the other Armed Groups boarding China, India and Thailand where TATMADAW will be little hesitant to undertake adventure. Only Bangladesh border available for their adventure if any (they have done in the past with impunity).
In such scenario there is likely to be spillover effects in the rugged boarding areas in our South East. We may also notice increase in arms smuggling and drug trafficking. We may expect crackdown on AA &Rohingya Armed Group in Rakhine when situation is under control in the streets of Naypyidaw, Yangon and Mandalay.
Ways Forward: Bangladesh should continue to maintain her ‘Zero Tolerance Policy’ on exotic groups using her territory to destabilize neighbor.
Increase vigilance along the border and heightened intelligence activities to avoid being surprised. However, Bangladesh may move cautiously and observe closely as the situation unfolds in Myanmar and refrain from taking any side prematurely.
Meanwhile, at this fragile time ‘track two’ initiative may go ahead with TATMADAW led administration in negotiating early repatriation of Rohingyas in exchange of silence or tacit support. Again through ‘track two’ Rohingya Organization may be encouraged to express solidarity with ‘Unity Government’ led by NLD. This is the time NLD led ‘Unity Government’ may give space to Rohingyas.
Bangladesh earned due respect by sheltering/accepting the Rohingya population on humanitarian ground. This noble gesture should not turn into a burden for Bangladesh. Amicable and respectable repatriation of these huge Rohingyas seems a far cry at this moment. However, repatriation should be the ultimate goal of Bangladesh and it cannot be handled as business usual, a routine matter. We have to remember that we are dealing with TATMADAW.
Md Mahfuzur Rahman is Lieutenant General (LPR).