In a recent interview with nepalpress.com, an online news portal, Prime Minster KP Oli unconditionally condemned the bloody crackdown on Myanmar’s peaceful protests. He wished for swift restoration of the democratic process and the country’s return to normalcy. It was not Nepal’s official statement on a foreign country. But the statement of one country’s head of government on another country, wherever it is made, must be considered the position of his government.
This hasn’t stopped Nepali Congress and JSPN lawmakers from asking for a formal government statement on Myanmar, where the military has shot dead at least 500 people. Separately, a group of civil society members have called on Nepal to join international efforts to make the Burmese junta accountable for its murderous rampage. The high level of public and intellectual support in Nepal for Myanmar’s pro-democracy protestors partly owes to the large Nepali diaspora there. The presence of an estimated 300,000 Burmese of Nepali origin in Burma can be traced back to the Second World War when they fought there on behalf of the British.
Our earnest wishes aside, the country of 54 million that has always been under the shadow of its powerful military is unlikely to revert to democratic rule soon. Some smaller democracies in the region—especially the ones that don’t share a border with Myanmar—may speak out against the atrocities there. As will leading global liberal powers like the US and the EU. But the two countries that are best placed to effect change in Myanmar—China and India, in that order—will remain mum.
The largest democracy in the world has sealed its lips, nay, it even participated in an army parade in Naypyidaw on the bloodiest day of the military crackdown on unarmed people. As more and more countries turn inwards, strategic calculations have come to prevail over humanitarian ones even in liberal societies. India fears Myanmar could be slipping into complete control of China, which is already Myanmar’s largest trading partner as well as the biggest source of its FDI. An overt stand against the junta, India fears, could make the country tighten its embrace of China. Not to forget, the junta also has the power to foment unrest in the northeastern Indian states bordering Myanmar.
China and the Burmese military are not the best of pals these days. Beijing believes the junta is placing unnecessary hurdles before crucial BRI projects, partly to prove its nationalist credentials. The Chinese will nonetheless be loath to let the international community dictate terms in Myanmar, even if it’s for the noblest cause. As Beijing sees it, what happens in Myanmar could be repeated in Taiwan or Hong Kong. So China, as well as Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western Russia— and another permanent member of the UN Security Council—won’t allow the Security Council to take strict measures against the junta.
Has the narrative of absolute national sovereignty gained such traction in global affairs that all possible humanitarian interventions abroad will look dubious from now on? Some Madhesi lawmakers in Nepal compared events in Myanmar today to what has happened in Madhes during its various uprisings. Is that a credible comparison, and will such comparisons help or hinder the cause of the Burmese people? The comparison also raises another important uncomfortable question: what should be the grounds for foreign intervention in Nepal on humanitarian grounds?