Myanmar’s Game of Twister- International Confusion over Myanmar Coup

By- Aanchal Pannu

Myanmar’s new government seems to have proven both opportunity and misfortune to many in International Politics. Having overthrown the democratic government, Myanmar’s military seems to have confused the rest of the world on how best to respond to the situation, leaving many of their partner and relations seeming quite lost.

The fate of Myanmar’s democracy has once again taken a turn in 2021. The armed forces- Tatmadaw have detained the ruling politicians, in particular State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. The military has imposed a yearlong state of emergency. The reason for this was the elections where the NLD party won by a considerably large margin. The military, having backed the opposition, claimed fraud and demanded a rerun of the vote. The election commission denied these claims as having no basis and the military reacted by attempting a coup. 

China’s Response 

When the event took place, all eyes in the world seemed to turn towards China, eagerly awaiting their response. However, most seemed to be left unsure of whether to be satisfied or disappointed with China’s reaction. 

Myanmar- China relations could only be described as rocky all the way since 1949. While having great trade relations with China, the country still holds a sense of distrust over China’s interference in internal and external affairs. China is currently Myanmar’s largest trading partner in terms of bilateral trade, the country is also one of the largest arms suppliers and a major source of Foreign Direct Investment. 

China was one of the fastest countries to react in response to the change in leadership. While the response was not a direct condemnation, China has expressed concern at the announcement of the state of emergency. China seems to have largely brushed off the event as merely a “government reshuffle” and has blocked condemnation over the coup in the UN Security Council.

China, at the moment, appears to hold the largest potential of influence over Myanmar’s new change in leadership. While many had hoped for China making use of that influence to bring the Junta Leaders into negotiations, not many were surprised by the lack of condemnation on China’s part. China has been well known for favouring militant groups within Myanmar, even being suspected of having provided arms to these groups. China, previously, also had fairly comfortable relations with leaders of the last military coup that Myanmar had been under. 

The largest concern currently, seems to be the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s plans to establish the China Myanmar Economic Corridor were originally made alongside the deposed government. However, the military leaders appear to be continuing cooperation with China on economic zones as well as their most coveted project- the $2.5 billion Mee Lin Gyiang LNG generating plant which would power a major industrial zone for the Ayeyarwady region. The generals also boasted that they would continue plans for the Kyaukphyu port and special economic zones, which, if constructed, will complete China’s long-coveted access to the Indian Ocean.

China’s largely hands-off policy seems to have emboldened the Junta leaders who have taken the chance to impose violence on the civilian protesters currently rejecting their rule. The anti-China sentiments across the country seem to have greatly increased due to the mentioned developments. The attention of the protesters is now turning to the Chinese-owned factories.

China’s actions in response to the military coup could be seen going one of two ways. The first being exploitation of the situation that Myanmar has now found itself in the international community. Considering the international response, the previous coup, where most large powers in the international community publicly condemned the actions of the military, some even going as far as to impose sanctions. Myanmar seems to yet again be in a similar situation where the country has been politically isolated by the international community. In this first scenario, China is free to exercise complete monopoly over the country. However, this expectation would be an obvious oversimplification of the current relations between the two countries. 

The second would be to consider the drawbacks of backing the military rule in Myanmar. The sentiments of the people would be considerably hostile, and has already begun to turn so. This would have negative effects on the current projects China intends to establish in Myanmar. Another fact to consider was the positive relations that China and the NLD government seem to have been building. Cooperating with the current government could lead to deterioration in progress despite previous efforts. 

India’s Stance on The Coup

China has announced its intention to mediate between the two warring groups in Myanmar, and India, Russia and Vietnam have backed the decision in front of the UNSC. India has largely remained silent on the matter, though has reiterated its continued support of the democratic transition in Myanmar. 

Myanmar is one of the few countries in ASEAN that shares a border with India. Due to this, India is one of the few countries that refugees can escape to. An influx of refugees into Mizoram and Manipur was expected when the coup first established itself, however it still remains a concern for the Indian government. India has signalled that illegal immigration from Myanmar is not welcome and the borders along Myanmar have been sealed. 

India has retained good relations with Myanmar as fellow ASEAN members and had plans to establish the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, however political instability could very well provide an obstacle for extending the highway into Vietnam. 

A third concern for India is the international isolation that Myanmar will have to undergo. With western countries being largely critical of the coup and imposing sanctions, China’s influence on Myanmar would be allowed considerable growth. This could prove quite detrimental towards India’s own security, already having to share a border with Tibet, a state annexed by China. 

India has to tread carefully in terms of their reaction to the coup, because the country has built tentatively good relations with both the military and the democratic government of Myanmar. Any questionable statements could lead to the Junta turning their attention to India’s eastern states that share Myanmar’s borders or break down all of the diplomatic efforts made over the last 25 years. 

Other than sealing their borders, any actual reactions to the “government reshuffle” would have to be made after a period of observation. The political situation could escalate leading to a civil war, due to which India would be forced to deal with the following implications in the North eastern states. 

India’s neutral and at best lukewarm response could, however, be its downfall. It continues engagement with the military forces in Myanmar could lead to a downgrade in credibility in the international community, because of the very clear commitment of crimes against humanity currently taking place. Another factor would be the hostility shown by dissenters against military rule within the country itself. Rebels have already made their distaste towards Chinese corporations and industries in Myanmar and have been eyeing the rest of the country’s allies that have not condemned the coup. 

Whether condemnation or outright support, the political upheaval caused by Myanmar’s military forces, both internally and internationally seems to be set to continue for a while.

Aanchal Pannu
 is a student of International Relations. She is also a writer for The International Scholar. Her research interests lie in Security and Defense. 

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