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In Myanmar Suu Kyi and the West loses the round

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The ousting of Aung San Suu Kyi by the military soon after she won an election hand down, has met with dismay in many countries particularly in the West. It is seen as a loss of their icon and that “democracy” has been hit below the belt. That the problem in Myanmar could be deeper than a regime change initiated by the military (which was always informally in power), hasn’t been recoginized.

The crisis in Myanmar is not one between civilian and military rule but one that originates in the nature of the Myanmar State, already split into many rebellious semi-independent zones. Just as martial law is no solution nor is democracy of the Western variety a solution.

It is also a fact that Myanmar has become a casualty of the new “global” conflict between the West and China. That China didn’t back Suu Kyi in her struggle with the military has been regularly stated in the Western media. Like the Rohingyas, who became victims of Myanmar’s domestic politics and were forced out, Suu Kyi and Myanmar are now collateral victims of a global political conflict. 

Suu Kyi’s choice 

Suu Kyi is a dynastic ruler with her father Aung San as the founding father of Myanmar. She is firmly located in the West and represents theirs values and attitudes. Her Westernized personal life and political belief structure have always inter-mingled. This is one reason why she is lionized in the West. In some ways, she also is a part of the longer historical chain that holds the colonial West and current Myanmar together. That many of the problems of Myanmar today, including the ethnic conflict, were produced by a colonial legacy is usually forgotten by her champions.

She has, of course, suffered through incarceration and lack of access to power but Myanmar is not beset by one problem only, that of military dislodging an elected government. She has always been “a champion of democracy” of the Western kind to serve Western interests. Suu Kyi has been trying to interpret Myanmar’s reality through Western paradigms. 

The need for power and paying the attendant cost are not ignored by her either. Her expulsion of the Rohingyas and the public defense of the same are an excellent example of that attitude. The people of Myanmar are split into many ethnicities and almost all belong to the East Asian or Mongoloid variety barring the Rohingyas and a few others. And the Rohingyas are despised by almost all other ethnic groups, chiefly the Bamars, the dominant community (68%). 

That Rohingyas are Muslims, and are hated, helps the West. Being brown and black complexioned race hate towards the Rohingyas has been added making it a comprehensive hatred. But it also indicates that the notion of “Nation”, “people”, “citizens” etc. are under developed in Myanmar where race/ethnicity-based identities dominate. In that scenario, democracy seems a distant prospect. 

It had been a major advantage for Suu Kyi to be a “democrat abroad and a “racist” at home. In pushing out the Rohingyas, she had played the card that works best in Myanmar. It was used as a fuel to first achieve and then cling to whatever little power was on the table. When the International Court of Justice trial began, she also whipped up a “nationalist” sentiment which in Myanmar is largely based on hating other ethnicities particularly the Rohingyas and other minority groups. 

It worked for a while for her but the ghosts she was trying to exorcise were playing the same game too and the price was paid. Her ouster was inevitable once she had become an ally of the West at a time when global East-West friction was peaking in the region.

It’s difficult to feel fully sympathetic towards the Myanmar people as a whole at the loss of civilian rule given that they didn’t exactly believe in democracy and human rights, cheering the Rohingyas’ expulsion. But history has a terrible habit of returning favors. 

Suu Kyi had chosen power hoping to cash in on the “civilian rule” tag and expecting Western support to get her out of trouble. But the problem was, just as the Rohingyas were pawns for her, another bigger game was on and in that, she had stepped into a trap and become a pawn herself pulling the Myanmar State with her. 

The East-West conflict and regional politics 

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The commander of an honor guard shouts during a ceremony to mark the 72nd anniversary of Independence Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.

The US and its Western bloc support were meant for Suu Kyi because she was a reliable Western ally. Her image was unsullied till the Rohingya issue came in. Many saw her as a bulwark against China in the region. Both India and the US had ambiguous policies on Myanmar, not sure what to do when the Rohingya crisis went international.

However, it was never a big issue because neither the Rohingyas nor Bangladesh had much strategic importance. Hence, while statements were made criticizing the expulsion, nothing concrete was done by anyone. The US was tentative as it saw no big game going on. India supported the Myanmar Government policy in the hope of gaining advantage in a zone (Rakhine State) where China’s footprint was bigger than anyone else’s. 

By trying to counter China in Myanmar, India of course had become the Western proxy but India is not yet a noteworthy regional player still. With the change in Myanmar, it stands to lose any clout it may have had as a pro-Western power. 

It was ok for India to curry favor with Myanmar while ignoring the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh. But right now, its bank account will have little to show from this Myanmar misadventure. India may not have remembered that while it’s looking for an entry point, China has already got a foothold there. And this is where global politics came in. 

US President Biden’s election hasn’t dampened the general confrontational spirit in Washington DC as far as China is concerned. The escalating Taiwan situation is a good example. The US is encouraging an environment of tension, and China in response isn’t holding back. The words “Taiwan’s independence means war” uttered by China’s leadership reflects the hostile atmosphere. 

Trump’s departure may mean a new era but the China-US relationship probably can’t heal given the fact that the US has no experience in working in a shared power-based global model. America’s strategy is built around sustaining “permanent supremacy” because it has never played in an orchestra, always solo. During the last Cold War, its foe USSR was always hobbled by the inefficient socialist economy, hence the US was not bothered by threats to its global market. But in the case of China, Beijing’s market capitalism-based economy makes it a much bigger and multiple threat. The US hasn’t found a good strategy to deal with both a militarily and economically strong China. 

What China is doing is push a “my backyard” policy which means it’s going to restrict entry of the West into South East Asia similar to what the US had once done in South America. Thus, Suu Kyi with her West links and leanings could not be trusted. The Myanmar army, now in power, will be much more part of the China-designed mosaic. Once, some thought that Myanmar would be able to tackle China but that position might need revision as China goes bullish. 

And of Myanmar?

The monolithic state model may not apply to Myanmar give the seven or eight insurgencies that are on. Sub-state structures are already in place backed by military forces battling the Myanmar military (the Tatmadaw). Their roots go back into history but they emerged as a result of colonial conflict that sharpened around World War II. With nearly a century of armed conflict and virtual independence, the chances of these groups accepting Yangon’s supremacy and laying down arms are low. 

So it’s either permanent conflict or a federation at best. The rise of small, virtually independent states, as a consequence is inevitable. But no matter what the outcome, China’s loses are nil. Hence China has the upper hand in Myanmar. 

Myanmar saw the Rohingyas as their big “demon”. Ethnic cleansing became a state objective forgetting that ethnic conflict within Myanmar is their biggest problem. And there is no reason why China won’t take advantage of that when much is at stake for it. And the Myanmar leadership, civil or military, doesn’t have the skills to manage the situation. 

But if ethnic conflict is happening partly because China supports several of the groups, peace is also not possible without China. It doesn’t just have just one finger in Myanmar, it has pushed its fist in.