Is Myanmar the next Syria?

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Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee is a Journalist with Indian Aerospace & Defence, Co-Author of the book 'The Indian Navy @75: Reminiscing the Voyage' and the Co-Founder of Mission Victory India (MVI), a new-age military reforms think-tank. He has been a columnist writing on defence and strategic affairs for national and international publications in both print and digital media.

The United Nations has given clear indications that the military junta ruled Myanmar is heading towards a bloody civil war along the lines of the one in Syria. The UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet fears that the tensions in Burma can evolve into a “full blown conflict.” Ravina Shamdasani, the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for human rights said, “The High Commissioner fear that the situation in Myanmar is heading towards a full-blown conflict. States must not allow the deadly mistakes of the past of in Syria and elsewhere to be repeated.”

The High Commissioner pointed out the clear parallels with situation in Myanmar and the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. “There too, we saw peaceful protests met with unnecessary and clearly disproportionate force.” The UN Human Rights Chief has urged the international community to take action to prevent the Myanmar’s military junta’s “slaughter.”

When asked about the military coup the, the subsequent protests and the likelihood of a ‘Syria like’ civil war, Rear Admiral Vineet Bakhshi (Retd) said, “The coup d’état in Myanmar is simply yet another in the last 3,000 years. Some have succeeded, some have been beneficial and some catastrophic to the progress of the concerned nations. The 20th and 21st century’s too have been replete with military coups and coup attempts. Why then is the coup in Myanmar attracting the attention of the UN and the power brokers, the USA, Russia, China and the EU? Surely it is an internal matter for that country to resolve. Is propagation of democracy a tenet of the UN, a doctrine of the Western world to be adopted by the rest? Undoubtedly interference in the affairs of another country is not India’s foreign policy.”

Disputing the parallels being drawn between the protests in Myanmar the ongoing conflict in Syria he opined “There are differences between the conditions in Syria and Myanmar. Whereas the former grew out of the Arab Spring and attracted the attention of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the setting up of a caliphate, fundamentally it gave control and strategic access to energy; no such conditions exist in Myanmar. The continued crack down would lead to an increased load of refugees, a factor which is difficult to wish away and would require to be planned for. Our way ahead has to be one of dialogue to bring peace, and this can hardly come through a policy of sanctions, denunciation and castigation.”

Disproportionate Violence

Bachelet’s statement comes following the brutal crackdown of demonstrators by Burmese forces last week in Bago where 82 anti-coup protestors were killed using an assortment of military weapons. Several accounts indicate that the Burmese Armed Forces used assault rifles, Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG), fragmentation grenades, heavy machine guns (HMG), and mortar rounds against civilian protestors.

The UN Human Rights Chief claimed that the Myanmar military ‘prevented medical personnel from helping the wounded’ during the Bago protests. Over 700 people have reportedly lost their lives in violence between the armed forces and anti-coup protesters since 1 February 2021. Advocacy groups claim the Burmese forces have launched a series of crackdowns against protestors with over 3,000 detained by the military during night raids. Widespread curfews and restrictions to internet access have also been enforced by the military junta.

Ousted civilian Burmese leader San Suu Kyu and other members of her party have been detained in “secret jails.” The Human Rights leader’s address came anti-coup demonstrators organised a weeklong protest during the nation’s traditional new year’s holiday, known in Burma as Thingyan which began on 13 April 2021. Protestors refrained from celebrating and organised a nationwide demonstration instead.

Moscow & Beijing a tall wall against international peace attempts? 

The UN Human Rights Chief has called on nations with influence to curb the arms and financial supplies to Myanmar’s military leadership. While the European Union’s (EU) Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell directed blame towards Russia and China for preventing the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) from enforcing an arms embargo on Burma.

Borrell said that geopolitical competition in Myanmar makes the deterrence of violence and the restoration of democracy a challenge. He highlighted that Myanmar’s location makes it a geo-strategic location for Beijing’s ambitions in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The EU leader further stated that Moscow is Myanmar’s second largest arms supplier. Beijing has simply referred to the military coup in Myanmar as ‘a major government reshuffle’ while Moscow had merely described it as a ‘domestic matter.’  

Defence and National Security Columnist Major General Raj Mehta (Retd) said, “China is supporting the military junta and the Myanmarese are upset and have been targeting Chinese facilities in anger. China will not allow the west to directly intervene in the standoff. It is a permanent Security Council member and will veto all efforts to discipline Myanmar. NATO and USA are most unlikely to get involved beyond sanctions which have limited usage in controlling the junta.”

He added further, “The regional armies within Myanmar such as Kachin could initiate a civil war but that is unlikely in the immediate term. Covid has degraded all except China… The current standoff will continue for some time.”

Implications for India

Author and analyst, Lieutenant General PC Katoch (Retd) opined, “The military junta in Myanmar has declared a state of emergency for one year on February 1, 2021. Whether that would extend further only time will tell but certainly the military needs to be engaged pragmatically by the international community, India included. For India, the geostrategic significance of Myanmar is far greater than for the US or the West.

He went on say, “Stability in Myanmar is vital and mere moralist opinions are not going to help. Power is the basis of upheaval in the world. The Tatmadaw has been enjoying 30 percent reserved seats in Parliament through the Constitution, which it feared Suu Kyi would amend. Try telling the Pakistan army to layoff and let democracy flourish in Pakistan.”

Speaking about the implications of an unstable Myanmar to India’s strategic interests, author, and analyst Colonel Rajinder Singh Kushwaha (Retd) said, “Myanmar not only is the sentinel of India’s strategic Eastern Coastline along the Bay of Bengal, but it also provides an alternative route to North East states of India through Kaladan Project — which runs from Kolkata through Bay of Bengal to Myanmar port at SITTWE and Kaladan river to Mizo Ram.”

He went on to say, “Eastern Coastline has such strategic locations as Missile testing Range at Wheeler Islands; Ship Building facility at Vizag, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) facilities at Sriharikota and of course Andaman and Nicobar group of islands. Maoist’s insurgency in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bengal, Andhra Pradesh etc adds another dimension to India’s security to keep Myanmar’ stable and friendly.

“The military coup is allegedly at the promoting of China — who has termed it as internal affair of Myanmar. China has already leased Coco Island in Bay of Bengal from Myanmar — they are 15 Kilometers North East of Andaman and Nicobar island group. Two pipelines linking Myanmar’s deep-water port of Kyaukphyu, in the Bay of Bengal with Kunming in Yunnan province of China. China has already created military facilities at Coco islands,” added Col. Kushwaha.

“A stable Myanmar is particularly important for India’s security. More Chinese influence could jeopardise it. India cannot allow it to become another Syria or Lebanon,” concluded the analyst.


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