Aung Saan Suu Kyi.

Aung Saan Suu Kyi went into the November 2020 elections with one definite message– if voted back to power, her party NLD would push the Panglong peace process with renewed vigor.  It seems like she carries her father’s legacy — Marshal Aung San had gone to Panglong to initiate a dialogue with the multiple ethnic groups that makes up Myanmar (then Burma) to ensure a federal union that would generate a national consensus for post-colonial Burma. Seventy years after Burma (now Myanmar) became free, both a federal union and a democracy remains far cry in the country as the vats multitudes of its citizens struggle to shake off the jackboots.

‘Mother Suu’, as Marshal Aung San’s daughter is fondly called, seems to be their only hope.  That is evident in the landslide that NLD has secured under Suu Kyi‘s leadership ever since she came back to tend to a sick mother and ended up shouldering the burden of her late father’s unfinished legacy.

The landslide has been repeated again and again — 1990, 2012 (bye-elections), 2015 and now the biggest landslide in Nov ‘ 2020.  Suu Kyi does not seem to suffer from any anti-incumbency.  The army is worried about that — but fails to see they are the reason for that. Since the Myanmar people, both the majority Bamars and the multiple ethnic groups, desperately aspire to live in a democracy and since that is an unfinished dream, they see Suu Kyi as their Moses, the only politician capable of leading them to the desired goal.  If the army had stepped back and allowed Suu Kyi to run a government, anti-incumbency as a normal manifestation of electoral democracy may have caught up with even as popular a leader as ‘Mother Suu’.

Myanmar’s peace process initiated by the military but provided a new dimension by Suu Kyi since NLD took charge in 2015, involves comprehensive negotiations with multiple ethnic armed rebel groups — unlike the one-at-a-time approach adopted by India.

An all-encompassing nationwide ceasefire in Myanmar, if accepted by major rebel groups like the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA), would rub off on the neighborhood, especially on India’s Northeast.

Not only because the Northeast Indian rebel groups have looked to groups such as KIO and UWSA for sanctuary, weapons and training but also because a ceasefire in Kachin and Wa regions would put pay to the movement of Indian rebel groups towards China and thus cut off the physical connection between the rebels from Northeast India and China, which has directly backed them since 1966 and surreptitiously maintains contact with them since the mid-1980s when direct contact and aid was discontinued.

If that were to happen, NSCN leaders would think many times before threatening to take Chinese help to renew their insurgency. And leaders like ULFA‘s Paresh Baruah would either be consigned to live in isolation in Yunnan like Burmese Communist commissars after the breakup of the once-powerful BCP.

Make no mistake — the only way the Chinese can play the ‘rebel card’ in the Northeast is through Northern Myanmar and only if the rebels have access to Yunnan through the Kachin corridor. Compare the dozen-plus rebels of Manipur’s PLA who could reach China through Tibet (the ojhas of the movement) and the hundreds of Nagas and Mizos who trekked to Yunnan in the 1960-70s.

R&AW’s success in cutting off the Kachin corridor by developing close links with the KIO in the late 1980s can never be under-estimated — the legendary B.B Nandi was so successful in denying the northeastern rebels the use of the Kachin corridor that even the ULFA had to shift bases to Bangladesh. Nandi described that move as the trap — ULFA started losing out in Assamese imagination by moving to Bangladesh, the source of all illegal immigrants, against whom the Assamese passionately agitate.

It is now clear that the military takeover and the strangulation of democracy in Myanmar have not gone down well with the big rebel groups like the KIO and UWSA. They have made it clear that they cannot trust the generals and so negotiations were not likely to work. This means no Panglong process, no meaningful negotiations between the Central government and the ethnic rebel groups.  And that would mean the simmering conflict in Myanmar’s ethnic regions would help the northeast Indian rebels in keeping the pot boiling.

The Tatmadaw (Burmese military) may have helped the Indian army by launching coordinated operations against the Northeast Indian rebel bases in Sagaing Division, which has never been their priority. But they have done that in recent years to ensure Indian Army support for help against the Arakan Army which has become the biggest thorn in the Tatmadaw’s flesh.

Now with the army in perpetual internal security deployment not merely against other ethnic rebel armies but against its own citizens to crush pro-democracy agitation, it is very doubtful whether we will see any Tatmadaw action in Sagaing. That means denial of a base area for the Northeastern rebels will be a far cry.

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. He can be reached at: sbhaum@gmail.com