by Andrew Korybko
The Southeast Asian state of Myanmar is beleaguered by creeping threats that risk returning the country to the dark days of full-scale civil war. Neighboring powers India and China have no interest in seeing this scenario, as such an event would spoil the role that they expect a stable Myanmar to fill vis-à-vis their strategic vision for the country. In what makes for tragic irony, however, their latest actions in attempting to stabilize Myanmar have inadvertently had the opposite effect, and if New Delhi and Beijing don’t coordinate their actions soon enough, they may end up unwittingly empowering the forces that are intent on tearing it apart. Russia, perfectly positioned in a relationship of trust with both Asian anchors, has the greatest potential to bridge the strategic divide between them and help prevent the Yugoslav-like disintegration of the Union of Myanmar. By diplomatically balancing between India and China and helping the two reach an agreeable accommodation for the country’s overall regional role, Russia would become the force that’s critically needed to align the multipolar world behind Myanmar and help preempt the coming geopolitical catastrophe.
Part I begins by touching upon the four major threats to Myanmar’s internal balance, before listing the respective interests that India, China, and Russia have in the country’s stable future. The second part then looks at each of their unilateral initiatives in attempting to actualize this (with mixed results), and proposes a more efficient multilateral framework for achieving this shared goal. Finally, a brief concluding section summarizes the piece.
There are four primary drivers of destabilization in Myanmar, each of which is interlinked and has the distinct possibility of individually or simultaneously throwing the country into disorder around the time of the general elections in early November . In one way or another, all of these connect to the return of civil war in Myanmar, be they direct or indirect influencing factors:
Civil War Redux:
The risk of a full-fledged resumption of Myanmar’s civil war weighs heavily on the minds of the country’s decision makers, as they must delicately maintain the tenuous proto-truce that preserves the fragile peace. They intend to seal an actual deal with the patchwork of ethnic-affiliated rebel groups sometime later this year, but they will likely end up doing so around the time of the general elections, which would grant all sides added legitimacy either before or after the event. Thus, it’s of prime importance that the government secures peace within the country, but nonetheless, various disturbances have still taken place since the end of March when all sides agreed on the forthcoming truce’s text (the ‘proto-truce’). These include the Kokang insurgency that has been raging since February and the mid-June clashes between the government and the Kachin Independence Army. If either of these, or perhaps another outbreak of violence in a different region, results in the return of all-out civil war, then the country could quickly descend back into chaos and all of its previous economic and soft power gains from the past few years would evaporate, to say nothing of the destabilizing consequences this would have for India’s ‘Seven Sisters’ and China’s Yunnan Province.
Aung San Suu Kyi:
This pro-Western agent of destabilization has been making Color Revolution trouble since the late 1980s, when she first rocketed to notoriety and was subsequently placed under house arrest in 1989. This punishment was lifted at happenstance since then, and she’s presently able to move freely throughout the country and travel abroad since being released in late 2010 as part of the country’s ‘transition to (Western) democracy’. This was a mistake by the authorities, who originally anticipated the move as being an innocuous gesture intended to ingratiate them closer with their new Western ‘partners’. Suu Kyi has since then capitalized off of her image as a political ‘martyr’ in order to exceed the bounds of what’s acceptable in Myanmar (or any country for that matter), knowing that she could push all limits simply because the government is too afraid to jail her again after their much-publicized pro-Western pivot. This abuse of freedom saw Suu Kyi assemble a horde of ultra-nationalist militant Buddhist thugs that have since taken Myanmar to the brink of wider warfare between some of its Buddhist and Muslim communities. Their indiscriminate purges of the Rohingya minority are responsible for creating the present crisis afflicting that demographic, which runs the chance of opening up a new front in the country’s civil war.
Additionally, Kyi has implicitly threatened that any ‘instability’ in Myanmar around the time of the elections could invalidate their result, raising the question of whether or not she or her proxies would try to purposely escalate ethnic and/or political tensions in order to apply pressure against the government. Her “National League for Democracy” party could then present itself as the only force capable of mitigating them and saving the country from a (manufactured) imminent crisis. Playing identity politics in Myanmar is exceptionally irresponsible, however, since it runs the risk of foreseeably spiraling out of its initiators’ control and returning the country to uncontrollable civil war. Suu Kyi clearly has ambitions of leading the state (whether as its formal head [despite her legally being unable to do so ] or de-facto ruler [perhaps under a new state of affairs where the chair of parliament becomes more influential), and it’s thus not in her own political interests to see Myanmar fall apart. Still, in her lifelong pursuit for power, she and her supporters might recklessly engender this very scenario.
By itself, the existence of the Rohingya is obviously not a cause for destabilization, but the international role that they’ve been corralled into is. The transnational migrant crisis in Southeast Asia (which the Rohingya had been forced into because of Suu Kyi’s Buddhist militants) has bequeathed the US with the opportunity to create a South Asian “Kosovo” out of the Rohingya-inhabited Rakhine State. No matter if it succeeds in splitting the Rohingyas from Myanmar or not, the US can still use their plight as a ‘plausible’ justification for covertly aiding them in any forthcoming uprising against the state. Should this occur, then the opening of a new anti-government front might embolden the other rebels to break the proto-truce and go on the offensive as well, presenting an opportunity for a semi-coordinated nationwide campaign that might finally result in the success of some (or all) of the separatist movements. Simply put, the Rohingyas’ situation is one of the main triggers that could reignite Myanmar’s civil war.
Cross-Border Militant Groups:
The most destabilizing force in Myanmar today is the existence of cross-border anti-India militant groups. These organizations have the dangerous ability to draw New Delhi directly into Myanmar’s civil war, as is seen by India’s surgical intervention in mid-June. While all countries inarguably have the right to defend themselves against terrorism, India may have inadvertently exacerbated the simmering tensions inside Myanmar and endangered the country’s proto-truce. This is because the NSCN-K group that carried out the terrorist attack in India’s Northeastern state of Manipur is recognized as a legitimate fighting force in Myanmar per the ceasefire that it’s currently a part of. NSCN-K and its Indian-operating affiliates should be understood as forming part of the complex alliance network linking together other anti-government rebels in the country, meaning that any Myanmar military attack against them (as New Delhi proposed to do in coordination with Naypyidaw) would inevitably draw in their affiliates and likely return the country to civil war. It’s for this simple reason that Myanmar rejected India’s offer and is said to be reworking the proposal. Still, if India continues to behave unilaterally in attacking cross-border militants inside Myanmar (no matter how justified it may be in doing so), it might end up sparking a wider conflagration that could even spread to its own territory.
Each of the three Eurasian Powers has tangible interests that they seek to promote within Myanmar, thus giving them a vested stake in ensuring its stability:
New Delhi is fearful of Beijing’s ‘ String of Pearls ’ and Maritime Silk Road, and it feels the need to expand its influence into Myanmar and beyond as a means of responding to what it views as an encroaching encirclement around its borders. Its focus on ASEAN (and Myanmar as the geopolitical gateway) is embodied in the government’s new Act East policy.
The institutional means that New Delhi plans to use in promoting its interest to nearby Indian Ocean states is something called the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). This entity encompasses India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand, and is a loose multilateral economic framework that New Delhi wants to consolidate and turn into its formal sphere of influence.
The mainland trade corridor linking India with Myanmar and Thailand would be the proposed highway running from its Northeastern States to Bangkok. This infrastructure project would stimulate the Indian-ASEAN free trade area and tie India’s Southeast Asian partners more closely to its expanding economy. The net effect of this would be to compete with China in its own backyard through the deployment of a symmetrical response to what has been going on against India.
The maritime component of BIMSTECS and the Indian-ASEAN free trade area could realistically see India becoming a crucial commercial actor along Southeast Asia’s coasts. Geographic logic suggests that Myanmar would form a key component of this emerging trade architecture, and it’s thus in India’s interests to make sure that the country (and especially Rakhine Province) remains stable and capable of fulfilling its expected economic role.
Beijing’s primary interest in the former land of Burma is in establishing a secure non-Malacca maritime corridor that evades the potential control of the US Navy. China would ideally like to use this route for expediting the import natural resources and assisting with the export of its products to the world market. Again, it must be emphasized that this prospective trade corridor between Yunnan Province’s capital of Kunming and a sister city along Myanmar’s coast is pivotal to Chinese grand strategy precisely because it provides an alternative to the American-controlled Strait of Malacca chokepoint, which would give the Chinese leadership expanded options for securing its logistical interests in the event of any increased military tension with the US.
The other reason why Myanmar is geopolitically meaningful for China is that it behaves as a strategic buffer in keeping unipolar influence at bay from its southern borders. China is ever fearful that the country could become a staging base for hostile military forces along the vulnerable frontier, be they the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military forces) or perhaps even Western troops, or that its destabilization can spread across the border into Yunnan. Thus, it sought both to prevent the consolidation of a unified anti-communist state during the Cold War, and in the years afterwards, it reversed its strategy and aimed to position a stable, non-aligned ally at its doorstep. China’s policies did retain a notable constant, however, and that’s the adaptation of its buffer concept to the changing geopolitical realities of the day.
Pivot to Asia
Moscow’s strategic focus on expanding its relations with non-Western countries, specifically those in Asia and ASEAN, encapsulates the core of its interest in Myanmar. Russia needs partnerships that are politically reliable and not under the commanding influence of the US because it doesn’t want to repeat the ‘EU scenario’, which saw the US belligerently inserting itself into a flourishing bilateral economic relationship in order to sabotage it as payback for one of the parties’ souring ties with Washington. As regards Myanmar, although it’s a high-risk economy because of the politically destabilizing reasons outlined in the first section, it’s also one of attractive rewards for those who choose to take their chances.
Russia wants to intensify its trade and investment in the country and understands the regional significance of Myanmar’s stability. Any major outbreak of disorder could carry through to Thailand, affecting it with refugee flows and the illegal trafficking organizations (people, arms, drugs) that typically exploit cross-bordered humanitarian crises. Other than the fact that Thailand is emerging as one of China’s most strategic regional allies per the ASEAN Silk Road initiative (and Russia and China work hand-in-hand in assisting one another’s global strategic initiatives per their Partnership ), Russia needs a stable Thailand so that the Eurasian Economic Union (EAU) could enter into a proposed Free Trade Agreement with it and flex out its Pivot to ASEAN.
If it can clinch a deal with Thailand to complement the existing one with Vietnam , all while maintaining and growing its Myanmar investments, then the opportunity might arise for a EAU-Myanmar Free Trade Agreement too, which could set the stage for a potential free trade zone between all of ASEAN and the EAU one day. In order to move towards this mutually beneficial scenario, Myanmar must first be stable and prosperous. Since Russia has no ulterior geopolitical motives at play (unlike India and China in their rivalry with the other), it emerges as the most neutral multipolar partner for Myanmar and the one in the best position to help sort out New Delhi and Beijing’s conflicting strategic interests in the country’s long-term role.