Borders in Crisis: Understanding Myanmar’s Conflict and its Repercussions 

By Shreya Krishna – Research Assistant SAFN

Picture: Refugees fleeing Myanmar (Council on Foreign Relations)

Since independence from British rule in 1948, Myanmar has faced a long-lasting struggle with its governance. The glimmer of hope for democracy in Myanmar before 2021 was trampled after the military junta took control of power following a coup in February 2021. Since then, the military crackdown has only intensified and targeted more and more civilians, especially those from the Rohingya ethnic group. Rampant ethnic violence in tandem with border security crises has emerged. 

On November 25, 2023, Myanmar state media declared that they had been struck with an “insurgent attack” from China along the Myanmar-China border after a fleet of trucks exploded, thus evoking severe responses from Myanmar. According to the Southern Theatre Command, this was not an attack but a drill to test border security, which he claimed Myanmar was well aware of. Interestingly, the Myanmar Army General and Deputy Minister of Information Zaw Min Tun conveyed that China and Myanmar maintain strong relations with their armies, contrary to the assertion of Myanmar state media. 

This explosive event brings attention to the ever-growing phenomenon of Myanmar’s military junta losing power over civilians. There has been an uptick in fighting amongst pro-democratic rebel groups and the military, but this time, the rebellion is garnering more and more power. The authority that the military junta maintains through exerting power and shutting down insurgent groups is faltering. As Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, describes, the “military-installed president of Myanmar” has even warned that “the country could collapse into a range of fiefdoms or a total failed state” as a result of how severe the army’s setbacks have been.

This surge in conflict has also resulted in the displacement of over 2 million civilians. As Myanmar shares borders with India, China, Laos, Thailand, and Bangladesh, we are seeing more and more refugees flee to these states. India is home to more than 74,000 Myanmar refugees and is estimated to admit 54,100 more after this recent coup. The increased hostility along the India-Myanmar border is now bleeding into the Indian state Mizoram and the state Manipur. Manipur is currently overflowing with refugees amidst the ethnic conflict happening within the state itself.  

Furthermore, we can also see the impact of this ongoing conflict through the closing of various trade routes with bordering countries. For example, Myanmar-China trade routes are unstable due to hostile fighting along the border. The crucial Muse-Lashio-Mandalay trade route has shut down due to the uprising of the Three Brotherhood Alliance, a resistance group to the Myanmar military regime, on October 27th, 2023. This group consists of 3 armed ethnic groups: the Arabian, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army. The other major trade route going through the border town of Chinshwegaw has also been disrupted. These closed trade routes have worsened the circumstances of civilians because the military junta can no longer tax the trade routes. As Htwe Htwe Thein, associate professor at Curtin University and specialist of business and economic development in Myanmar emphasizes, results in “suffering from a shortage of goods, unemployment”, and threats to security due to heavier crackdown on civilians. 

The intensifying severity and amalgamation of this conflict has led to the question of what roles bordering countries like India and China can have in Myanmar’s civil war. According to geopolitical analyst Akash Sahu, it would be beneficial for India to maintain an understanding with resistance groups in Myanmar, primarily due to the growing concern for border security. As more and more resistance forces continue to overtake junta control, it will be in India’s best interest to be on working terms with these groups. According to Swaran Singh, a visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, India is making efforts to engage with both the junta and democratic efforts. India is working with the National League for Democracy headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, an avid advocate for democracy. According to Singh, “India is likely to continue with this balanced approach of engaging all parties while hoping for an early end to the crisis followed by revival of democracy.”

These recent developments draw the question of how relations with China affect this geopolitical situation as well as how Indian national security may be impacted. India and Myanmar’s diplomatic relationship dates back to the 1950s, when both nations were under the colonial British rule. This carried on into the 1990s when India developed the Look East and Act East policies, which fortified relations between regions, militaries, and the shipment of aid. India enacted these policies with hopes for Myanmar’s solidarity in matters concerning Indian security. 

This semblance of harmony was disrupted in 1962 due to Myanmar’s stance of neutrality in the Sino-Indian war. These tensions led to India condemning the junta and supporting the pro-democratic group, ultimately leading India to provide asylum to refugees. While India solidified its support to the pro-democratic efforts, Myanmar consequentially increased trade with China. According to the World Bank, China was Myanmar’s top export and import partner in 2021, with 29.52% partner share

Despite these tensions, India still relies on the efforts of the junta to maintain its security domestically. Northeast India sees the rise of many insurgent groups which rely on their connections in Myanmar to operate. India seeks the junta’s cooperation to turn in these groups to India, however, cooperation fluctuates based on the current dynamic of India-Myanmar diplomatic relations. For example, in 2019 Indian and Myanmar armies joined forces against insurgent groups impacting both sides of the border. However, these relations weaken when India supports rebel groups in other instances.   

Economic and Political Influence by China and India on Myanmar
China’s Influence on MyanmarIndia’s Influence on Myanmar
Significant trade partner and provider of weapons. Through the enactment of CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor), Myanmar and China have closely developed their relationshipIndia is also a trade partner of Myanmar, executing infrastructure projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway and Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project. Through its involvement in these projects, India seeks to maintain influence. 
China installed oil and gas pipelines in Myanmar and is keen on maintaining influence in Myanmar to promote its economic growthIndia intends to contribute $500m towards road and sea projects to link Northeast Inia and Myanmar. The Myanmar-Thailand-India trilateral highway and power grid links are crucial in furthering India’s inter-regionalinitiatives.
China supports the military junta and is against Myanmar’s shift into a more western-democratic form of government. Thus, it will use its influence to turn Myanmar’s politics away from democracy. While India does not completely support junta-controlled Myanmar, it is unable to make public statements because it is still competing with China for influence in Myanmar

As Sahu states, it is key for New Delhi and Beijing to come to an understanding together as both countries’ borders are facing repercussions. However, it is vital to consider the impact of India and China’s competitiveness with one another. Both countries seek to garner influence in Myanmar, and it is only a matter of time before these countries are left with no choice but to intervene. Myanmar’s military junta is on the brink of collapse. Its inventory of Russian planes is diminishing, it is consistently facing defeat from rebel groups, and there is even speculation of potential collapse internally. All of these factors underscore the importance of intervention by other nations, and the role they may play in the future of Myanmar. 

Shreya Krishna is a Research Assistant (Intern) at  South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN). She is a student from Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. 

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