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Tussle over Myanmar: Who has the upper edge now?

Two role reversals in Myanmar, situated across India’s North-eastern border, are now engaging attentions in South Asia’s

Myanmar

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  24 July 2020 1:58 AM GMT

Amitava Mukherjee

(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. He can be reached at amitavamukherjee253@gmail.com)

Two role reversals in Myanmar, situated across India's North-eastern border, are now engaging attentions in South Asia's geo-political chessboard. Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counsellor of the country and so long a darling of the United States and the West European countries, is turning towards China for her political survival. On the other hand the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar army is popularly called, is raising its voices against China day by day. This can baffle international observers as China was the principal patron of the Myanmar army for a long period of time, particularly when Aung San Suu Kyi was waging her heroic struggle for restoration of democracy in her country.

This sudden sharp turn was visible recently and it surprised watchers of international geo-politics when it was reported that Zaw Min Tun, the spokesperson for the Tatmadaw, has accused a 'foreign country' of instigating the Arakan Army, allegedly an armed organization of the United League of Arakan, which has been declared a terrorist organization. Zaw Min Tun levelled the accusation in the light of an incident from 2019 when the Arakan Army, using modern technologies, had launched mine attacks on the Myanmar Army in Rakhine state.

The story does not end here. In November, 2019 the Myanmar Army had raided hideouts of the Taang National Liberation Army, an ethnic guerilla group, and recovered among other weapons sophisticated anti-aircraft launchers. Commenting on the recovery of arms, Tun Tun Nyi, a Major-General of the Tatmadaw said, "Most of them are Chinese and the total value is high. I would say the TNLA has illegally acquired weapons from China." The hint is clear although the Major-General has deliberately kept a smokescreen by using the word 'illegally'.

The timing of these accusations is interesting. The incidents happened during the end of 2019 but the Tatmadaw has taken a public stand nearly six months later- at a time when India is involved in a military stand-off with China. It may not be unreasonable to assume that the Tatmadaw has taken a nationalist stand against the fast spreading influence of China in Myanmar. The reason is easily understandable. Although the Army and Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy are partners in a power sharing setup, yet mutual suspicions remain. Suu Kyi has no way but to support the army's strong arm measures against the Rohingyas. For this she has lost supports from the US and Western Europe. The more she feels cornered in that part of the globe, the more her inclination towards China increases. At the same time the army also turns away from Beijing in equal measure.

This should be a golden moment for India for digging its heels deep in Myanmar which has immense strategic importance for two reasons. First, for New Delhi Myanmar is the gateway to South-East Asia for fruition of its Act East policy. Secondly a good relation with the Myanmar army will enable India to throw a solid counterweight against China's policy of 'String of Pearls' which in effect means Beijing acquiring a host of naval bases in the Indian Ocean region thereby threatening India's geo-political interests.

Still China is way ahead of India in Myanmar and it is using the ethnic insurgency there for furthering its own strategic interests. Most of China's energy supplies from West Asia and the Persian Gulf countries pass through the heavily clogged and US-dominated Malacca Strait and in order to avoid it Beijing has acquired a go-ahead signal from the former military dictator of Myanmar Thein Sein for constructing a deep sea port and a special economic zone (SEZ) at Kyaukphyu which would give access to China to the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal.

In a word condition within Myanmar is fluid. The country is now a part of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and obviously Beijing will try to connect the Kyaukphyu port with the mainland China by an all-weather road. But there has been a belated awakening among the Burmese ruling elite that too much Chinese presence in their country might ensnare Myanmar into a severe debt trap as it happened with Sri Lanka. Therefore, the Naypidaw government has whittled down the Kyaukphyu project cost from USD 7.5 billion to USD 1.3 billion.

Being a country torn by decades of ethnic rebellion Myanmar has very little elbow room. Inexplicably the Indian foreign policy has been found to be extremely slow in making its presence felt in such a strategically vital country. Therefore, it is taken for granted in diplomatic circles that Thein Sein, the former president of Myanmar, was forced to green signal the Kyaukphyu project to China after intense pressures from Beijing, particularly after a show of strength by the Chinese army on Myanmar's north-eastern border in the wake of the Tatmadaw's retaliatory actions against the secessionist Kokangs who are Mandarin speaking Han Chinese inhabiting the northern part of the Shan state of Myanmar.

Natures of the Chinese projects indicate that it is preparing Myanmar as a base for future strategic aggressions which may hurt India most but will not spare US interests also. Let us take the case of the two Chinese pipelines originating at Kyaukphyu in Myanmar and terminating at Kunming of China for transporting oil and gas. Still now not much is known about the volume of gas transportation, but the oil pipeline is working up to only 15 per cent of its capacity and China has already either cancelled or postponed its plan for a big refinery in Kunming. So the pipeline is not meant to serve any immediate purpose but is being kept in readiness for serving a long-term strategic goal.

The Kyaukphyu port carries a deeper meaning, having an indirect connection with the growth of China's naval power. That it is situated quite near the landing point of the crude oil terminal meant for the above mentioned pipeline is significant. Through Myanmar China is perhaps trying to ensure its future energy supplies. It will not rely on Kyaukphyu only. Chinese companies have expressed interests to build another deep sea port and a SEZ at a place called Dawei, on the south eastern coast of Myanmar.

For China, Kyaukphyu port is more important than the Gwadar port in Pakistan. Beijing is certain to try its expeditious implementation because inside Myanmar there are critics who oppose increased strategic relations with China. This has resulted in downgrading of the share of the Chinese Consortium, with whom Aung San Suu Kyi has signed the framework agreement, in the project from 85 per cent to 70 per cent. Still there are reasons for China to hope that the Kyaukphyu deep sea port and SEZ will give it big advantage in its expansion of maritime influence.

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