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Myanmar coup: do India and Japan have the will or the leverage to exert pressure on the military regime?

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Armoured military vehicles on the streets of Mandalay after the military coup. Photo: Reuters

With the US State Department naming Japan and India as countries it is consulting as Washington forms its response to the Myanmar coup, attention has turned to the ties the Asian nations have with the military leadership and whether Tokyo and New Delhi have the will and leverage to exert pressure on the regime.

Washington on Tuesday condemned the coup, saying it was reviewing aid and existing sanctions on military officers in Myanmar, while Japan also described the Monday detention of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other officials as a coup and urged the military to reverse its actions. Myanmar police have since filed charges against Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint, detaining the former until February 15 for investigations.

Asked on Wednesday if Japan would continue providing the millions of dollars in aid it sends to Myanmar annually, government spokesperson Katsunobu Kato said: “We will consider our response while we keep watching the situation.”

In contrast, India refrained from using the word “coup” and stressed that the “rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld”.

Experts agreed that Tokyo and New Delhi were keenly aware how fragile the power-sharing arrangement in Naypyidaw has been since Myanmar embarked on its democratic transition in 2011, and had continued cultivating both the civilian government and the military leadership – with this engagement taking on a renewed emphasis in recent years as a means of countering China’s rising influence in Southeast Asia.

This was unlike the United States, with the State Department admitting in its Tuesday briefing that existing sanctions had limited its contact with the Myanmar military, known locally as the Tatmadaw.

Indeed, when senior Japanese and Indian officials visited Myanmar last year, they held meetings with both Suu Kyi and army chief Min Aung Hlaing, who has since taken charge of the government under a year-long state of emergency. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi took a similar diplomatic approach on his trip to Naypyidaw last month.

Analysts said Tokyo and New Delhi would not be in favour of excessively punitive measures that might push the generals into Beijing’s arms, and that those governments would seek to work with whoever was in power.

Others, such as Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, suggested that Western democracies would have some leverage in dealing with the military given its uneasy relationship with China.

The generals have business interests in Myanmar that have benefited from Chinese largesse, but they are also suspicious of Beijing’s role in supporting armed ethnic rebels in the country’s north.

Akitoshi Miyashita, professor of international relations at Tokyo International University, said Japan had maintained bilateral ties with junta-ruled Myanmar from the 1980s, even when it was under wide-ranging international sanctions from Western countries.

Added Yuko Ito, professor of international relations at Asia University: “Tokyo has kept many of the connections it had with the military, and I expect it to go back to working with the new government.”

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A graffiti of Myanmar's ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi on the shutter of a shop in Bangkok. Photo: DPA

Former diplomat Rajiv Bhatia, India’s ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2005, said New Delhi had always had a “dual track” policy to establish ties with both sides and would not sacrifice one for the other. “The generals know Delhi will happily deal with them,” he said.

BUILDING BRIDGES WITH AID

Myanmar, which was under military rule between 1962 and 2011, has long relied on Japan as an important source of foreign aid. Tokyo’s economic assistance to Naypyidaw in 2018 came to US$536.9 million, while on a visit to Myanmar’s capital last August, foreign minister ToshimitsuMotegi reiterated Tokyo’s support for “democratic nation-building” and pledged US$30 million in medical support for the Covid-19 pandemic and an additional 45 billion yen (US$428.4 million) to support small businesses.

Ito of Asia University said Japan had an opportunity to be a moderator between Myanmar’s military leadership and the West, pointing out that “Japan used aid in the past to build bridges and move towards democracy”.

But while Miyashita agreed that Tokyo’s ties with the military could convince the generals that Japan was genuinely a friend, it was too early to determine how Myanmar would respond to external criticism or even pressure.

Japan’s deputy defence minister Yasuhide Nakayama on Tuesday urged cautious action. “If we do not approach this well, Myanmar could grow further away from politically free democratic nations and join the league of China,” he said, adding that any move to suspend Japan’s partnership programme with Myanmar’s military could result in China winning more influence, potentially undermining security in the region.

Since 2014, through in-country seminars and other programmes, Japan’s defence ministry has been training Myanmar’s military officers on underwater medicine, aviation meteorology, disaster relief and Japanese language. The two countries also have an academic exchange programme, under which eight cadets from the Myanmar military are currently studying at Japan’s National Defense Academy.

Patrick William Strefford, who teaches international relations at Kyoto Sangyo University, said Tokyo was well attuned to the needs of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) countries and India, including their concerns about China’s rise.

“One of the most important areas where this plays out is in Myanmar,” he said. “If the US were to coordinate closely with Tokyo, they would get this big advantage. If the US could defer to Tokyo in some way, it would allow a practical, not ideological approach. I doubt the Biden administration is able to do this, though.”

Miyashita of Tokyo International University suggested Tokyo would also have in mind the presence of Japanese companies in Myanmar. Dozens of Japanese firms – among them retail giant Aeon, auto-parts maker Denso and beer maker Kirin – have a presence in the country and are keen to tap into an emerging market of more than 50 million people, especially since Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 2015 election by a landslide. An estimated 3,500 Japanese expatriates live in Myanmar.

“A lot of Japanese companies have made inroads into the country and some have set up manufacturing facilities there, as the labour market is very attractive and they can open up a new market for their products and services,” Miyashita said.

BURNED BEFORE

As for New Delhi, analysts attributed its restrained position to a need to preserve its domestic interests. In May 1990, after a convincing general election win by Suu Kyi’s NLD, the military decided to ignore the result and put her under house arrest. India’s strong condemnation of the Tatmadaw resulted in the military closing an eye to the activities of Indian armed separatist groups that were seeking refuge in Myanmar.

Gautam Mukhopadhyay, who served as India’s ambassador to Myanmar from 2013 to 2016, said New Delhi needed the Myanmar army’s help to quell the simmering separatist movement in India’s northeastern states that shared a border with Myanmar.

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People burn a portrait of army chief Min Aung Hlaing during a February 3 protests against the coup. Photo: Reuters

It also believed that support from the Myanmar military was key to protecting the US$1.4 billion New Delhi has invested in an array of connectivity and infrastructure projects such as a proposed trilateral road corridor linking New Delhi, Naypyidaw and Bangkok; the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project connecting eastern India with Myanmar; and the East-West Economic Corridor that will link India with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

NehginpaoKipgen, associate professor and executive director at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the Jindal School of International Affairs in India, said New Delhi would prefer to deal with a democratically elected government in Myanmar but it would respond to a military government because “both sides needed each other”. For Myanmar, India provided a balance to China’s outsized influence in the economy as its largest trading partner and investor, while for India, Myanmar was a linchpin of its border defence and a partner to counter Beijing’s growing footprint in South Asia.

Former ambassador Mukhopadhyay pointed out that while New Delhi’s relationship with the Myanmar military had “grown in trust and comfort, it has been focused mainly on Myanmar’s defence-capacity building and India’s security concerns, not domestic politics”.

As such, former diplomat Bhatia said India did not intend to use whatever leverage it had with Myanmar’s generals to “strike a compromise between the two sides” – but Mukhopadhyay said he would not rule out India playing a behind-the-scenes role.

“In Myanmar, quiet diplomacy is likely to work better than public reprimands,” he added.

Additional reporting by Reuters, Kyodo, and Cheryl Heng