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Behind The ‘Return Of Jackboots’ In Myanmar


Myanmar’s powerful military (Tatmadaw in Burmese) has forced a declaration of emergency and placed under house arrest pro-democracy icon Aung Saan Suu Kyi and several NLD leaders.  The action comes just a day before the newly-elected parliament was to convene on Monday (Feb 1) — so clearly this to block the assuming of power by Suu Kyi and her NLD party .  The military seems least bothered with the expected global criticism of the ‘return of the jackboots’ because much is at stake for it . The Tatmadaw has been upset with the huge mandate secured by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and has been apprehensive of fresh efforts by an emboldened NLA  to amend the 2008 military-drafted Constitution. The military backed USPD has been completely marginalised in this election — winning only 33 seats as against the 396 won by the NLD. 

 On Jan 25, Burmese military spokesman Major-General Zaw Min Tun resumed pressure on the National Election Commission to provide the final electoral roll for cross-checking. This was the first direct challenge against the Nov’2020 polls that gave NLD a landslide (396 out of 476 seats)  but has been strongly criticized by rights groups for alleged disenfranchisement of voters in regions affected by ethnic strife and separatist insurgencies. The pro-military Opposition USDP ( only 33 seats) , routed in the Nov polls, has disputed the election outcome and had joined the Tatmadaw in alleging widespread irregularities , claiming atleast 8.6 million cases of fraud. Tatmadaw chief Min Aung Hlaing , due for retirement this year, seems to  behind the army’s tough action , having already claimed ; dishonesty and unfairness’ in the poll process. . His spokesperson Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun had said not resolving the voter fraud issue ‘ in line with the law means this is a political crisis’ . Asked by journalists about the possibility of a coup, Tun said : “ We do not say the Tatmadaw will take power but we do not also say it will not as well.” 

The Nov’2020 polls, only the second openly contested electons after 50 years of military junta rule, has upset the army and its chief for four reasons .

In the first place, General Hlaing, due for retirement this year , is upset over apparent failure to secure NLD backing for his presidential ambitions, as the NLD is keen to continue with the current incumbent Win Myint , a staunch party and family loyalist of Aung San Suu Kyi . That has led the army to suspect that Aung San Suu Kyi wants to keep the seat warm until constitutional changes makes it possible for her to contest for the top job.  According to Chapter 3, no 59(f) of the 2008 Constitution , the president must be someone who “he himself, one of the parents, the spouse, one of the legitimate children or their spouses not owe allegiance to a foreign power”. Suu Kyi’s late husband was British professor Michael Aris, both her sons are British citizens.

Secondly, the army fears the NLD, emboldened by the landslide, may attempt to bring amendments to change the 2008 military-drafted Constitution and challenge the military’s out-of-proportion role in running the country. The amendments may target the provisions that privilege the military – like holding 25 percent of the seats of the parliaments (Art. 14), reserving the nomination of ministers of defence, internal security and border affairs (Art. 17 b), enjoying the right to takeover power in a state of emergency (Art. 40 c) and the setting up of the National Defence and Security Council as the most powerful body during crisis with military representatives enjoying an upper hand (Art. 201).

Thirdly, the army is upset with the NLD government now agreeing to take back from Bangladesh the Rohingya Muslim refugees in phases after a Chinese-mediated dialogue. Nearly 40000 Rohingyas are expected to return in the first phase. The Tatmadaw, which was responsible for alleged ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingyas in 2017, is said to be less than comfortable with the prospective resumption of  the repatriation process. And with the declaration of trhe Emergency, this repatriation process that was due to start this summer may now be put on hold.

Fouthly, Suu Kyi and the NLD seems to have concluded that any genuine change in the constitution concerning federalism would be incomplete without finding a political solution to the ethnic armed groups. In fact, the constitutional amendment was part the Union Peace Conference-21st Century Panglong initiated by the NLD government in 2016 to take forward the peace process began by the previous USDP government. The army is not too keen on the Panglong process because a political settlement of the ethnic conflicts would not only reduce the need for an ever-expanding standing army and may lead to lesser budget allocations for military modernization (and expansion).

So Sunday’s declaration of emergency under military pressure and then the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD leaders comes as no surprise. The action puts India in a huge dilemma. If India does not join the West in opposing what is seen as a ‘return of the jackboots’, it stands discredited and its role in an evolving alliance of democracies in response to an increasingly assertive China would be open to question. If India joins the tirade against the Tatmadaw, it risks major tactical losses and a growing closeness between the Indian and Burmese militaries which would have implications on both Indian efforts to combat insurgencies in Northeast and Burmese efforts to combat the Arakan Army.

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