Aung San Suu Kyi’s Landslide Victory – Is It Good News For India?

K S Tomar

K S Tomar

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NOBEL laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s, National League for Democracy (NLD) has posted a resounding victory in the just-concluded parliamentary elections in Myanmar, defeating the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) which may result into a further decline of China’s influence besides accelerating the strategic, economic, military, cultural, educational and ensuing engagements between India and Myanmar.

According to Union Election Commission (UEC), Aung Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) finally won 396 of the 476 seats in the combined houses of the National Parliament (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) which will elect the president of the country for the next five years.

Aung Elections were not held for 22 seats in the Rakhine, Shan and a few other states because of supposed ethnic unrest; whereas 166 seats are reserved for the military. In this way, NLD has won more than 80 per cent of seats which went to the polls and tally was 60 percent in 2015 general elections.

The main opposition party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is congregation ex- generals from the armed forces have given a poor show as they could manage to register victory in 33 seats only as against 41 seats they won in the last elections. Its tally was even worse in the elections to the 14 region/state assemblies which went down from 75 to 38 seats. The NLD fared better even in these elections with its score edging up from 497 in 2015 to 524 of the 641 seats for which elections were held this time.

Aung Kyi’s victory has been disputed by main opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a military-backed opposition which demanded a re-conducting of the elections. USDP called on poll authorities to hold polls again without any delay in order to give an opportunity to voters to have a free, fair, unbiased use of their franchise which should be free from iniquitous and unfair campaigning.

Meaning Of NLD’s Unprecedented Victory vis-à-vis India’s Interests.

The NLD’s decisive win is definitely a good news for India and the crushing defeat faced by many USDP candidates including senior (retired) army officials will also tilt a balance in India’s way because many USDP leaders who had served in the ‘Tatmadaw’ (nickname for Myanmar’s military) have close links with China and had they been voted to power it would have enhanced Beijing’s interests and interference in Myanmar.

China has been utilizing some of these insurgent groups as proxy against India. For instance, the Arakan Army has been working against the Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project being promoted by India to facilitate easier transportation of goods to North East India.

Foreign policy experts believe that several of these ethnic groups have been waging insurgencies for decades and fought against the Tatmadaw. Insurgent groups like the Arakan Army are backed by Beijing and NLD’s outreach to them can pave the way for peace negotiations with the insurgents. Beijing has been using its influence over the Myanmar’s insurgents as a lever to force the Tatmadaw which retains considerable hold over the country despite the existence of the civilian government.

Experts believe that Under the NLD government, Myanmar has taken a decisive shift away from China and has rejected the dragon’s deadly grasp which means a positive development for India. Moreover, rebel outfits of the Kachin, Karen and some other ethnic groups have been offering shelter to India’s northeast militants who receive arms and other support from China through the Myanmar’s rebels primarily cultivated by China.

None can deny the fact that India had been encouraging the Tatmadaw for the past two decades which has been responsible for weaning it away from Beijing. Data reveals that military cooperation between India and Myanmar has substantially taken upward trend.

But China, which backs and funds ethnic rebel groups in restive Myanmar, still impacts the Tatmadaw and even holds the country’s elected government to ransom which will end in the event of a peace deal with the ethnic rebel groups. In this way, NLD’s capacity to establish contact with the ethnic parties assumed a lot of significance and works in India’s interests.

Aung Kyi factor is significant to the success of India’s ‘Act East’ policy as it may lead to hassle free progress in many mega connectivity projects funded by India in Myanmar. India has crushed several militant groups in north east but they find refuse in Myanmar which may be controlled by new regime thereby leading to socio- economic development of the Northeast.

Aung Kyi
Aung Kyi Has Got Her Roots Of Emotional Association With Delhi

Myanmar’s supreme leader, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, is considered close to India as she got her education in Delhi especially when the military seized power in Myanmar and later leading to her detention. At that time, she was indirectly helped by the Indian government hence she seems to be more inclined towards India which had finalized the Kaladan project agreement with Myanmar besides developing a port in Myanmar.

Why Did China Favour Aung ’s Victory?

Analysts opine that China supported Myanmar’s military alliance in 2015 general polls but it has changed track this time and wants to openly win the pro-democracy Aung San Suu Ki. Chinese government officials find it difficult to convince the generals in military rule whereas the leaders of the pro-democracy, National League for Democracy (NLD) may be flexible. Aung Kyi’s party has been close to China in recent years to maneuver the Rohingya conflict and getting financial assistance. China wants Myanmar to approve several projects for its Belt and Road Project to build pressure on the government of Myanmar.

Aung Kyi Is Barred From Becoming President

Experts say that Aung Suu Kyi’s NLD won 2015 elections and expectations veered around an idea of transition of full democracy which did not happen. Strategically, she bought the peace with military rule which is evident from her support to the Generals’ handling of the operations in Rakhine State that led to the exodus of at least 740,000 Rohingya Muslims thereby denting her image as a pro-democracy fighter and raised suspicion about her commitment to the country’s transition. Even now, the power-hungry military may keep control of three key government ministries, including the Defense Ministry.

Defence Secretary And Indian Army Chief Met Aung Kyi

Harsh Vardhan Shringla, India’s foreign secretary and army chief, M.M. Naravane had met Aung Kyi in Oct this year and discussed security related issues with her. They gifted Kilo Class submarine-INS SINDHUVIR to Myanmar navy to boost maritime ties. Now she will lead NLD which has to keep army on her side and India’s initiative may bring fruit.

Challenges Before New NLD Leader

Notwithstanding the polls’ victory, Aung Suu Kyi faces the challenge of creating power balance with military regime and people who have not forgotten dictatorship’s atrocities which are still afresh in their minds.

Secondly, she will have to deal with India and china which are facing worst relations due to aggression by the latter.

Thirdly, the agreements signed between china and Myanmar included a railway linking Kunming in southern China to Kyaukphyu by way of Muse and Mandalay in northern and central Myanmar besides the New Yangon City project, anurban development zone being developed by China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) across the river from downtown Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital and largest city.

The projects are all linked to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), part of Beijing’s vast Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), interweaving and blending together a series of strategic ports, railways, and pipeline projects across the globe. Sui will have to cautiously ponder over these projects as India is opposed to BRI initiative which is a part of a China’s Grand design policy of expansion in Asia.

India has built a port of its own in Myanmar, and the Indian government coaxed private sector firms into building a highway across Myanmar to the Thai border, but India doesn’t have the deep pockets and opaque leadership that Beijing enjoys when it comes to buying influence.

“India is more constrained,” Dhruva Jaishankar, an India expert at the Observer Research Foundation said. It has provided about $30 billion for different kinds of infrastructure financing all over the world since about 2003, he estimates, but that pales in comparison to the headline figures of China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road. “It’s not large-scale cheque book diplomacy, and it’s not that significant compared to China, but it’s not insignificant,” he said.

Indian PM Modi Welcomes Aung Kyi’s Unpredented Victory

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi with Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has hailed the election process in Myanmar and Aung Kyi’s win as a “successful” effort in the “ongoing democratic transition” in the South Asian nation. Modi was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Aung Kyi. Apart from Modi, Japan and Singapore prime ministers have also wished her success. But now New Delhi is seriously keen to bring Myanmar under the fold of Indo-Pacific construct. Myanmar’s entry into the Indo-Pacific initiative will prove to be part of a ‘successful strategy’.

Rohingya Repatriation A Ticklish Point For Aung Suu Kyi

Diplomatic sources reveal that the issue of Rohingya repatriation in which ties with Bangladesh are also involved, can prove to be a sticking issue between India and Myanmar. The issue of Muslims Rohingya population and rising Covid19 cases are some of the long-term challenges being faced by Myanmar’s new government.

Aung Kyi still faces the charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague over the Rohingya issue, where she has denied the allegations during a case based on a complaint filed by a group of Muslim-majority nations in 2019. Following large-scale persecution there, millions of Rohingyas sought refuge in Bangladesh as well as in India. There are about 40,000 Rohingya refugees in India and 10 lakhs in Bangladesh.

By the mid-2019, the United States has imposed sanctions on senior officials of the Myanmar military that prevents these officials from crossing US border. The military strongly condemned those measures. At the end of 2019, when the West African Nation Gambia filed a case at the international court of justice against Myanmar, accusing it of genocide, the US immediately tightened up sanctions against Myanmar Army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, where the any assets of the Hlaing in the US will be frozen. On 31 January 2020, the Trump administration restricted immigration from 6 countries and Myanmar was among them.

Was The Election Controversial?

Observers had questioned the credibility of the election because of the disenfranchisement of virtually all the Rohingyas who were denied their rights. Six of at least a dozen Rohingya who applied to run as candidates in the election were barred from contesting the elections. Other ethnic groups have also been affected.

Myanmar’s Union election commission cancelled voting in large parts of Rakhine state – where fighting between the military and the Arakan Army, comprised mainly of the Buddhist Rakhine ethnic group, has killed dozens and displaced tens of thousands.

Election commission also cancelled the election in parts of other conflict-hit states, including Shan and Kachin, saying that some areas were “not in a position to hold a free and fair election”. The mass cancellations have outraged ethnic minority parties and mean nearly two million people have been disenfranchised in a nation with some 37 million registered voters.

How Do Elections Work In Myanmar?

Myanmar follows a first-past-the-post system. More than 6,900 candidates from 92 political parties and independent campaigns stood for election in 1,171 seats, according to the US-based Carter Centre. But a quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military under a controversial 2008 constitution drawn during junta rule. The constitution also gives the military control of three key ministries – home affairs, defence, and border affairs.

In the conclusion, India’s persistent foreign policy to encourage and support democratic forces may yield positive results which will go a long way to cement and strengthen the relations with Aung Suu Kyi and army and may help in keeping China at bay.


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K S Tomar

K S Tomar

The writer, a senior political analyst, is a former Editor of the Hindustan Times' Rajasthan edition and has spent nearly four decades in journalism, including a six year stint in Nepal where he covered Sino-India-Nepal complex relationship and had a ringside seat to the Himalayan Kingdom's transition into democracy.

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