Guest Column

QUAD Regional Bloc May Hold Key to Myanmar Crisis

By Jayanta Kalita 25 October 2021

The decision of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) not to invite the architect of the Myanmar coup, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, to its upcoming summit is likely a result of pressure from western countries.

The United States (US) and the European Union (EU) have so far backed ASEAN’s five-point consensus for possible mediation between Myanmar’s junta and the parallel National Unity Government. But this idea did not translate into action because of a lack of cooperation from the coup leaders, prompting the ASEAN foreign ministers “to invite a non-political representative from Myanmar to the upcoming summits,” ASEAN chair Brunei said in a statement issued October 16.

The move is significant as it came ahead of a US delegation’s visit to Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia, for talks on topics including the Myanmar crisis.

Last month, the first in-person summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), a four-country group comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia, called for an end to violence in Myanmar, which has come close to slipping into civil war. The four-nation alliance, which China has dubbed an Asian NATO, is expected to play a more active role in the Asia-Pacific region in the months and years ahead.

However, foreign policy experts believe that QUAD should be more articulate about its position on Myanmar. Despite country-specific policies, the four-nation bloc should exert pressure on the junta to put a stop to violence and coercion and create an appropriate atmosphere for dialogue with the detained civilian leaders of the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government.

Amnesty Move

Meanwhile, in a surprise move, Myanmar’s military regime released over 1,300 people jailed for participating in anti-coup protests and more than 4,300 detainees who were awaiting trial on incitement charges for their anti-regime activism.

However, several NLD leaders, including State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint, remain in custody.

The significance of the prisoner release is that it comes in the wake of ASEAN’s decision to exclude Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing from the bloc’s upcoming summit.

Over 9,000 people have been arrested since the February 1 coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which records alleged excesses committed by junta forces. It claims that at least 1,181 people have been killed by junta forces as of October 18 and 131 have been tortured to death.

What QUAD Can Do

During the first QUAD summit, held virtually in March, it became clear that the four-nation alliance has an inclusive agenda. It decided to launch an ambitious COVID-19 vaccine supply program and formed working groups to explore cooperation in the realms of emerging technologies and climate change. The leaders also made it clear that finding an early solution to the Myanmar crisis was a top priority.

But within Quad, the reactions to the continuing violence in Myanmar have been different. While the US, along with the EU, has imposed sanctions on the military regime, India and Japan are treading more cautiously. Tokyo and New Delhi have maintained good relations with both Myanmar’s military and the NLD, as well as investing in various economic projects in the country.

Another important reason behind Tokyo and New Delhi treading carefully is that they do not want to alienate Myanmar and push it towards China, according to foreign policy analyst Dr Sriparna Pathak.

As for India, pushing Myanmar further towards China will ensure the re-emergence of non-traditional security threats. Several rebel groups from India’s restive northeast continue to operate from bases in Myanmar’s western border regions.

Although Beijing has officially denied that it supports these Indian insurgent outfits, last year amid the border standoff with the Indian military in eastern Ladakh, China’s state-run Global Times warned that Beijing could aid and support northeast India’s rebels.

That the Global Times  was confident enough to state that China may fuel insurgency in India is only possible when actual control over the groups exists, according to Dr. Pathak, who is an associate professor and director of the Centre for Northeast Asian Studies at India’s O.P. Jindal Global University’s School of International Affairs.

Among the QUAD nations, India and Japan both have a deep understanding of the complex dynamics at play within Myanmar. Along with their relatively good relations with the Myanmar military, that insight could definitely be leveraged to usher in peace in the country.

“As responsible players of the international system, the members of the QUAD need to engage and find a peaceful solution to the crisis, lest China foments further crises as it has done in the past in several other regions and countries. While the aim should be restoring peace and tranquillity, what cannot be forgotten is that China can and will use the slightest opportunity, even if it is at the cost of regional and global peace, to fulfil its narrow, selfish national interests which rely primarily on reducing stability and security for other actors of the international system,” said Dr. Pathak.

Veteran journalist and foreign affairs expert Dr. Prakash Nanda echoed those views.

“As the QUAD statement said, India wants an early solution [to the Myanmar crisis]. But the real question is the extent to which it can go. It is the only QUAD country that shares a border with Myanmar. A working relationship with the elements controlling the country, irrespective of their political affiliations or nature, is absolutely vital for fighting the insurgents in India’s northeast,” said Dr. Nanda, who has authored several book on India’s foreign policy, including Rediscovering Asia: The Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy.

“Then there is the factor of China, the containment of which is the primary, though unstated, goal of QUAD,” added Dr. Nanda. “It is very much against India’s national interests if Naypyitaw comes under China’s sphere of influence.  So India’s role will not go beyond exercising some sort of moral pressure [on the junta]. It would like the other QUAD members to be more proactive.” 

Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi. He writes on issues relating to India’s northeast and its immediate neighborhood. The views expressed are his own.

You may also like these stories:

Myanmar Views New Chinese Border Wall With Growing Unease

India-Myanmar Military Ties Pay Dividends as Naga Rebels Return to Mainstream

Myanmar Workers in Thailand Need Better Welfare Protection