For more than a decade, from 2004 to 2017, Vijay Nambiar was a special adviser to United Nations secretaries-general Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, charged with following events in Burma, which the military generals renamed Myanmar in 1989. A former deputy national security adviser to the government of India and Indian ambassador to the UN in 2002-2004, Nambiar is also a specialist on China, where he was India’s ambassador from 1996 to 2000.
Now retired in India, Myanmar’s powerful neighbor to the west, Nambiar spoke to PassBlue in an exclusive interview by phone on April 15 about his concern that Myanmar could fully disintegrate soon, as an unhinged army rampages under a disastrous military leadership, led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.
More than 700 civilians have been killed in widespread protests against the army’s Feb. 1 coup, during which the country’s political leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was arrested and detained. In November, she and her National League for Democracy won a decisive victory in national elections, apparently deemed a threat to military power in the still-fragile democratic system.
Nambiar sees a three-sided struggle playing out right now, with no short-term obvious winner. There is the military — the feared Tatmadaw. There are the barely organized protest movements, marked by a large presence of young people and middle-class professionals. A group of them announced the formation of a unity opposition “government” on April 16 to challenge the military. The experiment is in its early stages.
On April 24, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), of which Myanmar is a member, will finally hold a summit of national leaders from the region, who have been widely criticized for failing to defuse the crisis. The leader of the Burmese coup, Min Aung Hlaing, is expected to attend the meeting, in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Nambiar sees little good that could come from punitive international intervention. “It is only Asean working with the other neighbors, perhaps with China, and perhaps with India, too, that can bring about any reasonable kind of change in this situation,” he said.
Less well known outside Burma, the third players in the crisis are the armed ethnic separatist forces on the country’s borders. Most of them, despite years of attempts at national reconciliation, could use the opportunity to strengthen control of their dissident areas, particularly on the eastern and northern frontiers. A few of them can mount significant military threats.
In recent weeks, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), operating in the northeast near the border with China, not only captured a Tatmadaw base but also held on to it despite bombardment and ground-force attacks. At least 200 national army troops were killed, including a battalion commander.
Here are excerpts from Nambiar’s comments responding to PassBlue’s questions on April 15. — BARBARA CROSSETTE
Q. Is the Burmese military facing instability in its ranks?
NAMBIAR: “What is extraordinary about the particular situation is that the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, has achieved something that is almost unthinkable in the Myanmar context. It has unified the opposition quite solidly against itself. Earlier, that did not really happen because the ethnic groups were divided. The civilian population was also divided, and the masses of the population didn’t seem to have been in the broader sense committed.
But now, particularly in the present conflict, the ethnic organizations — most of them, I think, except in the Mon and Arakan/Rakhine area [home of the Rohingya communities] have identified with the civilians. There seems to be a joining of all the oppositions — the ethnic organizations with the civilian opposition groups.
This has probably led the army to face an unprecedented situation. I think the commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing, and his advisers have handled this development poorly, and they’ve shown a lack of understanding, particularly in reading the sentiment of the younger population. It’s a totally different situation from the earlier 1990s era because there is a complete social media access which people have, and they are able to get together. I think they [the army leaders] have not been able to see that kind of a new phenomenon.
Secondly, the 10 years of democratic governments that people have had, however the limitations of these governments because of the 2008 constitution, have actually given a lot of courage to the population, particularly the supporters of the NLD. [Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.]
The opposition seems to be a lot more determined, particularly among the young, and they don’t seem ready to give up. . . . The army seems to have been getting completely out of control . . . and is also not able to get a sense of what’s happening.
The only thing is [whether] any kind of peace can be won or be sustainable without some kind of change in the army setup. I don’t know if there is any difference in the thinking between the various army leaders. I do know that even the former general Than Shwe [who headed a military junta from 1992 to 2011] seems to have been somewhat disappointed with what’s happening.
There seems to be some kind of difficulty in the credibility of the army. The structure of the army has been disturbed, and my sense is that there is a realization inside the army that they may have moved a little too far, and they need to step back from the brink. I don’t know how they would do that.
At the same time, if the army completely loses control, the situation would be even more chaotic because the army is not in fact an institution that can actually get state power into running condition. The opposition is depending on joining up together and bringing about a new setup, a new constitution. That is very far into the future.
I’m not surprised by the middle-class and professional support for the protest. They are fed up with the [military] profiteering and the appropriation of all that is good for Myanmar. They also know there is no other institution which can bear the weight of governance in the country. Even the NLD is not very strong in terms of structure, in experience in running a government.
As far as I can see, both within the army as well as within the civilian population, there has to be some dawning of reality, and that will mean stepping back. I don’t know whether that can easily be done now. Refugees are pouring into neighboring countries and there is the human-rights toll and the [Covid-19] pandemic.
The situation is becoming a full-blown security crisis.
Q. What are the signs now from ethnic groups on the borders that never wanted to be part of ethnically Burman Burma?
NAMBIAR: The ethnic groups are in control. . . . I don’t think in the border areas any kind of orderly [national] governance will be possible. Each of the groups is powerful in its own area. They can keep their own people together, their own region together, but they cannot keep the country together. If there is no [national] army, then there is a very real danger of disintegration. That is what the army has always been talking about. Disintegration: They really are worried about that.
Despite the fact that during the discussions on peace talks [in the past], the ethnic armed groups have come together — but they’ve come together to discuss the constitutional aspects of a federation. But how to establish an overall nationwide control, I don’t think that they have either the ability or the capacity to do that.
Q. Will China and Russia gain from Myanmar’s current tumult and weakness?
NAMBIAR: My own sense is that the Chinese may have had some kind of an inkling of how things were going, but I would not suggest that they knew in advance of these developments [the coup and what followed]. In the past, Myanmar had differences with the Chinese, and the Tatmadaw has been very worried about the influence of China. They were actually accusing The Lady of bending over backwards in the cause of the Chinese in terms of the BRI [the Belt and Road Initiative linking the Chinese mainland to the Indian Ocean with a shortcut across Myanmar].
The Chinese ambassador in Myanmar has mentioned that they absolutely are not in favor of what’s happening there now. But the stability of Myanmar is upmost to them, and their interests in the BRI center on the gas and other pipelines, the infrastructure. They cannot afford to have either any breakdown of public order or even a major kind of confrontation between the Burmans and the armed ethnic groups that actually put them in great difficulty.
If it was clear that the army was going to settle down and establish control, then China would have to work with the army. They’re not sure at the present moment how they should respond. At the same time, the kind of antagonism in the civilian protestors against the Chinese is not something that they would certainly be happy about, and they’ve been in touch with me to say that they have not been behind any of these developments.
In this context, I’m not sure how far the Russians have been involved. Clearly, they have been supplying equipment and perhaps arms in the past, and therefore it is possible that they may have established a strong kind of relationship with the Tatmadaw. But I don’t think that relationship is going to harm the relationship that China has with the Tatmadaw or, for that matter, even the one that India has. My sense is that the Russians could play the strongest role [in Myanmar], but it could not be a leading role. Of course, they would oppose sanctions on Myanmar, but other countries would oppose sanctions also.
Both India and China face a very delicate process of how to pressure the Burmese army to bring back the situation [under control], but at the same time not force a situation where the structures of the army become too brittle and then they collapse. That’s the problem.
Q. What is the situation of The Lady — Aung San Suu Kyi?
NAMBIAR: The impression I get is that she still has political influence and control. But at the end of the day, she has not directly established any certain lines of leadership. This has been the bane of the government over the last five years. . . . The youngsters have actually established that they will be willing to organize political support for her. But I have not seen any structure emerge.
I’m not sure how that will work, in terms of being able to run a country; I’m not sure that they have that capacity. They will still need some kind of organizational consolidation, and that can only happen with the government that was previously established under the 2008 constitution, which the protestors are now actually undermining. I don’t see any other way in which civilian authority can come back.
The State Administrative Council [established by the military after the Feb. 1 coup as a governing body] is not very strong. It has no credibility today. And the credibility of the West to bring about change — I don’t think it is very strong.
There is hope, and the Lady has worked on that hope. But I think that on institution-building, not enough action has been taken by The Lady. That’s why it was important that for another five years her government would have grown in confidence and that structures would have been built. Which meant that the army’s power would progressively fade. This is probably what the army was worried about.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.