Myanmar’s Unfolding Crisis: China’s BRI Faces Peril As Conflict Escalates, India Grapples With Security Threats

Myanmar civil war, which originated from a contested coup, has evolved into a multifaceted conflict involving the Tatmadaw, the NUG, the PDF, and various ethnic armed groups. The Three Brotherhood Alliance and other ethnic entities contribute to the intricate dynamics of the conflict, highlighting the diverse challenges that Myanmar faces on its path towards peace and stability.

Myanmar, since independence from the British in 1948 has witnessed a long period of military rule which was shortly disrupted by a democratically elected government in 2011 under Ang San Suu Kyi.

The Myanmar civil war, which began in 2021 following a military coup, has unfolded as a complex and multifaceted conflict, marked by political upheaval, violent repression, and the emergence of armed resistance groups. Central to this conflict is the Tatmadaw’s seizure of power on February 1, 2021, citing alleged voter irregularities in the 2020 general elections. The coup, widely seen as an attempt to reassert military dominance, triggered widespread protests and a violent crackdown, setting the stage for the ongoing civil war.

The Tatmadaw’s claim of 8.6 million voter irregularities was unsubstantiated, raising questions about the true motives behind the coup. Many analysts speculate that it was a strategic move to regain control after a decade of waning military influence. The military’s repressive measures against anti-coup demonstrators further escalated tensions and led to the formation of armed groups resisting the State Administration Council.

One significant development in the conflict is the creation of the People’s Defence Force (PDF) and the National Unity Government (NUG) in response to the military junta’s actions. Comprising parliamentarians in office before the coup, the NUG and the PDF declared a “defensive war” against the military regime in September 2021. This marked a pivotal moment in the conflict, with the NUG attempting to establish an alternative government while the PDF engaged in armed resistance against the Tatmadaw.

It is estimated approximately 23,521 lives were lost in the violence following the 2021 coup. The conflict has resulted in a humanitarian crisis, displacing countless civilians and prompting international concern.

Beyond the dynamics involving the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar civil war also encompasses the role of various ethnic groups and alliances. The Three Brotherhood Alliance, consisting of the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), has played a crucial role in the conflict. These ethnic armed groups, representing different communities, have joined forces to resist the military junta and seek greater autonomy.

The Arakan Army, primarily active in Rakhine State, aims to address the concerns of the Rakhine people and protect their interests. The Ta’ang National Liberation Army operates in northern Shan State, advocating for the rights of the Ta’ang ethnic group. Meanwhile, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, with a history rooted in the Kokang conflict, seeks autonomy for the Kokang people in the northern Shan State.

The 3 Brotherhood Alliance launched Operation 1027 on 27th October against the Junta with the aim to:

  • Safeguard the lives of civilians
  • Assert the right to self-defence
  • Maintain control over their territory
  • Take decisive action in the face of continued artillery assaults and airstrikes carried out by the State Administration Council.
  • Eradicate the oppressive military rule
  • Address the pervasive online gambling fraud afflicting Myanmar, especially in the vicinity of the China–Myanmar border.

The alliance has taken control of towns at the China–Myanmar border in the Shan Province which serves as an important trade route between the two countries. Over 92 Junta posts have been captured with around 300 soldiers killed.

This brewing conflict has raised concerns in the neighbourhood with its two biggest neighbours, India and China being at the forefront.

Additionally, other ethnic groups across Myanmar have been drawn into the conflict, each with its grievances and aspirations for self-determination. The complex interplay of these groups adds layers to the civil war, creating a mosaic of ethnic, political, and historical factors driving the ongoing struggle.

Myanmar civil war, which originated from a contested coup, has evolved into a multifaceted conflict involving the Tatmadaw, the NUG, the PDF, and various ethnic armed groups. The Three Brotherhood Alliance and other ethnic entities contribute to the intricate dynamics of the conflict, highlighting the diverse challenges that Myanmar faces on its path towards peace and stability.

A pain for China

This conflict has led to the Chinese Foreign Ministry launching a strong protest and calling for an immediate ceasefire as around 80 Chinese citizens were killed in the violence and a couple of buildings were damaged by the shelling across the border.

However, the Asian giant has bigger concerns with an existential crisis looming around its infrastructure investments made in the country under their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China uses Myanmar as a gateway into the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal to bypass the narrow straits of Malacca to secure its energy trade against potential naval blockades by the American and Indian Navies.

Beijing has built an oil and gas pipeline from the Burmese port of Kyaukphyu on the Bay of Bengal to the Chinese town of Kunming and an upcoming rail line from the port of Kyauphyu to the Chinese border, facilitating additional trade.

On November 24, an attack targeted a convoy of trucks transporting goods from China to Myanmar near Muse, raising suspicions of insurgent involvement. This incident followed the Brotherhood Alliance’s Operation 1027, capturing crucial outposts along the China-Myanmar border. Simultaneously, China’s Ambassador Chen Hai met Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Than Swe to discuss border stability. The next day, China’s PLA Southern Theatre Command conducted live-fire drills along the China-Myanmar border, emphasizing readiness and border control, sending a message that internal unrest in Myanmar should not spill across borders.

Chinese naval ships, including a guided-missile destroyer and frigate, visited Yangon in a “show of friendship.” These developments occurred amid a surge in internal conflicts in Myanmar, displacing over 330,000 people, with some seeking refuge in China. However, recent events suggest a shift in China’s approach, potentially signalling a crackdown on refugee influx, as tear gas and intensified border controls indicate.

A rare protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Yangon saw nationalists expressing concerns about China’s alleged support for insurgent groups. Myanmar’s military junta accused Western media of attempting to harm Myanmar-China relations. China’s embassy in Myanmar urged Chinese nationals in Laukkai to evacuate due to “high” safety risks, following an incident where a rocket hit a fleeing vehicle, causing casualties. Analysts speculate on the possibility of a misfire by Chinese forces, though this remains unconfirmed.

China’s apprehension extends beyond border security, encompassing joint efforts with Myanmar against internet fraud centres, a source of tension between the two nations. China’s frustration with Myanmar’s handling of financial scams has led to a more assertive stance, heightening China’s concerns in the short term.

The ongoing conflict can jeopardise the projects, hinder trade and deteriorate ties as there is a high level of anti-China sentiment in the country amongst the masses.

India’s Troubles

India and Myanmar share a 1600km long border which is covered by thick forests and rugged terrain. The Southeast Asia nation is a key trading partner and a crucial component of India’s Act East Policy (AEP) owing to the country’s strategic location, connecting ASEAN nations with South Asia.

India’s ties with Myanmar have varied throughout the decades as New Delhi has pushed democracy and sidelined the military junta-led governments. However, under the Modi-led government, India’s outreach to the country has been significantly high irrespective of the regime.

New Delhi and Myanmar signed multiple projects and bilateral agreements primarily aimed at improving connectivity to enhance trade and the movement of traffic and goods. One of the 2 main projects is the Kaladan- Sittwe multimodal transport project and the India- Myanmar- Thailand highway project.

While Indians generally hold favourable views on the projects, there are concerns raised about their completion and execution.

Besides the projects, a new security threat lingers in Northeastern states that border the nation. It is feared that the rugged terrains and forests of these states could be used by either of the parties as hideouts or even launchpads for offences, overextending the reach of Indian security forces.

Lastly, this conflict could bring in an influx of refugees into India once again, just the way it was witnessed during the Rohingya ethnic cleansing drives carried out by the Burmese Army. Over 40,000 Rohingyas took refuge in Northeast India and West Bengal during that period. This similar influx of refugees could further destabilise the situation in Manipur where its two largest ethnic groups have been embroiled in a conflict for the past 6 months.

Concluding

The conflict may have two regional powers scratching their heads and redrawing their security strategies, but Myanmar’s ASEAN neighbours of Thailand and Laos pay close attention to the violence, as they fear the proliferation of drugs such as methamphetamine, LSD and marijuana across their borders as these drugs will be used to generate much-needed finances to fuel offences against either side.

The conflict has displaced over a million people and killed thousands including 15,000 children. Both sides have committed several human rights violations and crimes against humanity with the army resorting to airstrikes on civilian areas.