Only time will tell
Myanmar’s November Elections may put it on a path to considerable change — a potential shift in polity that greatly concerns regional players like Indian and China
National politics and international relations, both are interrelated. Any major political change occurring within the boundaries of a nation-state will bring about changes in that nation-state's external behaviour.
Myanmar, a nation-state that has remained under military rule for more than fifty years, is gradually moving towards strengthening its democracy. This in fact will bring to the fore two perceptible alterations. Internally, a centralised, stringent governance system will be replaced by a more liberal, decentralised political order. Externally, Myanmar's global isolation and non-autonomous posture will be replaced by strategic autonomy and multi-alignments. In the context of the upcoming elections in Myanmar to be held in November, this essay will try to present arguments in favour of the changes within the domestic structures that the elections will bring in and analyse the implication of the election on powers like China, India or for that matter Japan, who have strategic interests in engaging with Myanmar.
Myanmar has a long history of suppressing pro-democracy movements. The 1962 military coup under General Ne Win heralded a strict, centralised governance system in the country. Since then, Myanmar has remained a subject of widespread criticism that resulted in global trade embargoes and economic sanctions. The global estrangement of Myanmar following the harsh military crackdown on the '8888' (August 8, 1988) pro-democracy upheaval, further pushed the country into economic and political isolation. It was only after the ratification of a new Constitution in 2008 and the Parliamentary Elections held in 2010, under the leadership of General Than Shwe that Myanmar started its onward journey towards democratisation. In 2015, National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi gained a landslide victory in the General Elections. But her victory did not pave the way for complete democracy as the military-drafted 2008 constitution reserved 25 per cent of the seats in the parliament for unelected military representatives. Suu Kyi only acquired the position of a de-facto head of state because Chapter 3 59(f) of the Constitution states that neither the country's President nor his or her family can have any allegiance to foreign powers but Suu Kyi's sons are British citizens. If in the 2020 general elections NLD wins with a higher margin and secures more than 60 per cent of the seats in the parliament against the Tatmadaw (military)-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party, then NLD will be in a position to nominate the President of Myanmar.
The first term for Aung San Suu Kyi as the State Councillor was directed towards buttressing her position within the Parliament and the Burmese society. For her, the biggest challenge was to win the confidence of the Buddhist Burmese population in the wake of the growing dissension of the Buddhist community with the Muslim minority Rohingyas. The second major challenge was to bring the ethnic rebel groups under the Nationwide Cease-Fire Agreement to ensure peace and stability within the country. And the third major challenge was to ensure economic development for all. NLD winning the 2020 elections would mean that the Burmese society is in favour of dissenting opinions and diverse representations in the 'Hluttaw' (Parliament). In her second term, Aung San Suu Kyi will try to project Myanmar as an inclusive nation and therefore will work vehemently to reach a peace accord with the ethnic rebel groups. The November elections, therefore, will remain significant for the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement that has begun as a peace process program between Naypyidaw and the ethnic armed organisations (EAOs). But what will continue to impede the process of democratic consolidation is the fact that the Constitution cannot be changed without the support of unelected military representatives. As long as the military continues to have leverage over power, complete democracy in Myanmar remains a distant dream.
The imposition of severe sanctions by the west following the military crackdown upon the Rohingyas in August 2017 lured Naypyidaw to align with a power who could voice in favour of Myanmar at global platforms. Aung San Suu Kyi, therefore, looked up to China, a UNSC permanent member and a strategic partner of Myanmar since the 1980s. Besides protecting her country from further global estrangement, for Suu Kyi, bringing in economic advancement through foreign investment was also indispensable. This provided Beijing new opportunities to further strengthen its economic footprints in Myanmar especially at a time when the military regime and Burmese population were raising concerns against Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) ambitions and its undue interference in Naypyidaw's initiative to sign a peace accord with the ethnic rebel groups. By defining Beijing's Myanmar policy as 'carrot and stick' diplomacy, many Burmese scholars have argued that on the one hand, Beijing is providing aid, loans and investing millions in infrastructural projects. While, on the other, it is tacitly supporting rebel organisations to use them as diplomatic cards against Naypyidaw, if Myanmar fails to comply with Beijing's BRI ambitions. For Beijing, the peace process is important to secure its infrastructural projects in Northern Myanmar, but selective assistance to groups like the United Wa State Army might prove inimical for China if Suu Kyi's aspirations of democratic consolidation are achieved in the upcoming elections.
Strategic location and the shifting geopolitics of Asia have brought in many powers into Myanmar. Nations like Japan and India have strengthened their presence in the country, largely to deter Chinese overtures. With China's increased economic activities in Myanmar under BRI and the subsequent engagement of Japan and India in the country's economy, Myanmar has turned out to be a space of competitive and containment politics. This competitive engagement of the three Asian powers in Myanmar is directed towards one, to make their presence pronounced; two, to exact compliance from Myanmar and three, (related to the first two) to secure their sub-regional and greater-regional goals. For Beijing, Suu Kyi's 'status quo ante' foreign policy that she followed over the last five years coupled with rising anti-Chinese sentiments amongst the military regime has changed Beijing's deep-rooted perception that democracy in Myanmar will prove detrimental for Chinese interests. In an exemplary piece published in Asia Times on September 3, 2020, Bertil Lintner argued that Beijing "would prefer to see Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) win" in the upcoming elections. However, if democracy is further matured post-November elections, Naypyidaw will try to reshape its foreign policy on the ideas of 'balancing'. In other words, balancing regional powers to promote interconnectedness and inclusivity will define Myanmar's external relations.
As mentioned in the preceding section, India's engagement in Myanmar can be attributed to its policy of countering China in the Asian region. China's access to the Indian Ocean through the ports of Myanmar is inimical to India's Indian Ocean strategies. To offset Chinese presence, therefore, India has invested in a series of infrastructural and connectivity projects in Myanmar. However, under minimal funding and non-prioritisation of the projects, most of these investments have failed to produce any effective outcome for India. Despite India's low profile in this strategic space, democratic consolidation in Myanmar post-November elections is significant in New Delhi's 'Deter China' diplomacy. Democracy demands development that is holistic. Democracy demands interdependence and egalitarian order. All these norms shape India's approach towards regionalism. National League for Democracy's (NLD) victory in November elections would, therefore, give India a renewed impetus to use these norms as a 'trump card' against Chinese expansionist and realpolitik footprints in Myanmar.
Beijing has granted aids and loans for Myanmar's development but Chinese investments in the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor or Kunming-Kyaukphyu Gas and Oil Pipeline was targeted, primarily to bring in higher dividends for its landlocked Yunnan. On the contrary for India, connectivity and infrastructural projects were aimed at sustainable and all-pervasive growth for India's Northeast and Myanmar's most underdeveloped Sagaing region and Chin state. In other words, there is a stark difference between Beijing and New Delhi's approach of engaging with Myanmar, where for Beijing the approach is defined by its realpolitik interests while for India, the approach is shaped by its ideas of all-pervasive growth and development. In the wake of the ongoing India-China face-off, elections in Myanmar will grant new rhetoric provided how New Delhi avails the opportunity. To what extent New Delhi can promote the ideas of pervasive growth, strategic autonomy, democratic international order, domestic peace and stability against China's aggressive expansionism and self-fulfilling economic overtures is time testing. But if New Delhi succeeds, no doubt, India's position vis-à-vis China will strengthen, in Myanmar and the Indo-Pacific region.
The writer is an assistant professor and Head, Department of Political Science, Sukanta College, University of Calcutta. Views expressed are personal