The military coup in Myanmar (February 01, 2021) has significantly altered the strategic power balance in South East Asia. This has caught the western powers and other stake-holders off-guard, thus creating grounds for urgent reappraisal of policies for the Indo-Pacific region. It is clearly a major challenge to the Biden administration and it remains to be seen as to how the US and its allies react to the situation in Myanmar in the coming weeks.
The important regional players namely India, Japan, South Korea, ASEAN and China too will have to assess its impact on their respective national security interests and longterm objectives since all of them have major stakes at play in Myanmar.
It is obvious that the Myanmar military and China have emerged stronger from this development. Both countries are interdependent on each other to meet their respective political and strategic objectives. The manner by which Senior General Min Aung Hlaing assumed the powers of head of state is a matter for debate. Equally controversial are his assurances of holding elections within next twelve months. The transition to multiparty democracy has been dealt a severe blow from which a recovery is not expected in near future.
The next several weeks will see Myanmar enter into uncharted waters as the opposition to the military will graduate to the next level employing technology and unconventional methods to compete for mass support and influence. The military is unfazed by international reactions to it seizing power on Feb 01, 2020. The opposition to the military coup has been unprecedented and has surprised the authorities. Ten ethnic national organisations that signed a ceasefire agreement with the government have walked away from it and pledged support to the pro-democracy parties. The powerful Buddhist clergy have thrown in their lot against the government.
China is the major beneficiary of this situation in Myanmar. China will now be able to focus on the way forward to maximise its strategic relations with Myanmar under Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his administration that will occupy the seat of power for times to come. The visit of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi to Myanmar ten days prior to the military coup and his meeting with the top three personalities namely the then President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior General Win Min Aung Hlaing reflected Beijing’s concern about the evolving situation and perhaps to stave off a potential crisis. It appears that Beijing’s intervention failed to produce desired results. Media reports of mobilisation of Chinese PLA assets along the border and movement of aircraft carrying equipment between Kunming and Myanmar underlined the fact that Beijing was convinced that a major political drama would be unfolding shortly. The Chinese media especially the Global Times covered the developments, often pointing fingers at India and the USA and raising the specter of possible intervention.
China is backing an ASEAN- led dialogue with the Myanmar military government. The Myanmar foreign minister has visited Thailand and Indonesia for briefing his counterparts; this is the first visit by a junta leader overseas since the military take-over. A large demonstration outside the Indonesian Embassy in Yangon few days has sent signals to Jakarta of the sullen mood in Myanmar and cautioning it against giving a free pass to support the junta. This had desired results. It is obvious that by recommending the ASEAN to play mediator in the crisis, China is seemingly pre-empting an outside intervention led by either the US or the EU.
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