Since the erosion of democracy in Myanmar, international actors have failed to devise strategies that help bring an end to the country’s democratic crisis. Condemnations from neighboring states including India (the world’s largest democracy) have also been hollow, superficial gestures aimed, majorly, at upholding their democratic appearance. This implies that moral considerations and national interests are no longer interwoven; realpolitik has taken precedence. However, it is also a fact that in these circumstances democracies do not flourish and crises (such as the Myanmar crisis) only exacerbate.
It has been almost three years since Myanmar’s military toppled the country’s democratic government. Inter-communal violence, corruption, forced displacements, and drug trafficking have become normal in a country that has long been struggling to find politico-economic stability. Moreover, the genocide launched by Myanmar’s military (Tatmadaw) against the Rohingya community is turning out to be the world’s largest refugee crisis. Alone, in 2017, over 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in order to save their lives. Another 50,000 people from Myanmar have fled to neighboring India’s northeast.
The crisis, however, is not new and has its roots in the operation ‘Dragon King’ that was started by Tatnadaw for the same purpose. The continuation of this crisis is not sustainable.
The international community especially the Western States has been providing humanitarian assistance in the wake of the crisis. Neighboring Bangladesh is also annually spending $8 billion for the maintenance of law and order in border areas. Even after such measures, several Bangladeshi citizens often get killed in unintended strikes originally carried out by Myanarm to target Rohingya resistance groups. Given the nature of Bangladesh-Myanmar ties, such incidents can swiftly escalate from skirmishes to violent standoffs. The presence of millions of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh has also impacted the living standards as well as the country’s politics. Many in Bangladesh see repatriation as the only way to improve the domestic situation.
For regional powers especially China and India, geopolitical interests certainly appear to be more important than regional stability. Both states want to maintain their presence in Myanmar and utilize the country’s geography to support their connectivity projects and also prevent the other from becoming Myanmar’s sole regional facilitator making it a zero-sum contest. India’s Foreign minister has also stated that his country wants to see the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. It is, however, ironic that India wants democracy to flourish in Myanmar, and, on the other hand, it is also providing the Junta with arms to suppress the democratic forces in the country. Recently, India also provided Myanmar with a free diesel-electric submarine and since 2021, India has provided arms worth $51 million to Myanmar’s military.
Indian Foreign Secretary’s two-day visit to Myanmar in 2021-22 ended with no emphasis on the point of the revival of democracy. Also, India’s geo-strategic interests are aligned with Myanmar’s military in such a way that -despite the desire of the US- it would be very hard for the former to support pro-democracy movements in Myanmar. In simplest terms, Myanmar’s military is India’s partner in maintaining border security and denying safe havens to Indian rebels something that is not happening as the Junta is secretly providing sanctuaries to the same rebel groups.
India cannot afford to weaken ties with Myanmar’s State Administrative Council (SAC) and create avenues for swift development of China-Myanmar ties by increasing the latter’s dependency.
Purportedly, China has also provided Myanmar with fighter jets that were used against civilians. China’s moves to revive the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) have also signaled that the country is looking to further strengthen ties with Myanmar’s government. However, this move comes as a response to the growing engagement between the U.S. and the National Unity Government (NUG). The U.S. has incorporated the Burma Act into the National Defense Authorization Act; something that China considers as an attempt to induce a new security threat in its vicinity. The other motive behind the revival of economic interaction with Myanmar is to prevent the country from falling into India’s ambit. Besides individual states, multilateral bodies such as ASEAN have also failed to play their part in managing or resolving the conflict.
ASEAN which carries the reputation of being an effective regional organization has not been able to devise a framework to end the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. In April 2021, ASEAN states reached the Five-Point Consensus that called for dialogue, the end of violence, and the appointment of a special representative. The plan has failed in the phase of execution and has become an empty statement. With Myanmar set to chair ASEAN in 2026, the organization has only three years to devise a comprehensive and all-inclusive plan that can lead to a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
These facts amply unveil that neighboring countries are neither willing nor ready to accommodate Myanmar’s refugees. One reliable strategy to deal with the Rohingya crisis and budding border skirmishes along the Indian and Bangladesh border is through peaceful repatriation of the displaced people. This requires a united effort from all major powers that so far only appear to be concerned about their geopolitical interests. Without a united, non-partisan effort the crisis in Myanmar is only going to exacerbate and, if anything, end up in history as another example of the curse of living in a world divided by interests.
Ammar Hassan Sajjad is an International Relations Scholar and a visiting faculty member at the International Islamic University Islamabad. The author tweets @AmmarHS96