India - Myanmar: India’s Policy Challenges


India - Myanmar: India’s Policy Challenges

In a significant  gesture that will be interpreted variously, India attended an annual military parade in Myanmar’s capital Naypitaw on March 27.  Russia, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand also participated in the parade to mark Tatmadaw Day.

A senior official says “since diplomatic relations between both the countries continue, diplomatic commitments are also continuing”.

But the Myanmar military’s crackdown has already led to a refugee influx into neighbouring Mizoram, mostly by policemen who have fled the crackdown.  The Union Government has informed bordering states and the Assam Rifles to block the inflow of Myanmar nationals, and deport the ones who had come in.


India’s official stance

Meanwhile, India continues to  maintain silence on the coup. On February 1, the External Affairs Ministry had stated: “We have noted the developments in Myanmar with deep concern. India has always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar. We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld. We are monitoring the situation closely.”

India has traditionally enjoyed a close relationship with the regimes in power in Myanmar, especially the military. In October 2020, Army Chief General M M Naravane and Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla had visited the country to enhance bilateral ties.

India has handed over a submarine to Myanmar, which was officially inducted in December.

Speaking at a seminar in February, the Army Chief had spoken about the proximity of the militaries of the two countries. He had stated that “while relentless operations by the security forces and proactive government policies have laid the foundation, favourable external environment with Myanmar and Bangladesh has struck at the roots of insurgent organisations”.

Naravane had also said that a “series of operations under Operation Sunrise with Myanmar Army has witnessed growing cooperation and synergy between the soldiers on ground with reasonable operational dividends”.


India needs to be careful in choosing way forward

India, because of its proximity to Myanmar, its geopolitical role, and its interests, will inevitably be drawn into the train of events, writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta (contributing editor, The Indian Express). 

Refugees in Mizoram, Manipur: The most immediate challenge for India is dealing with the refugee crisis that this coup occasions. As the Chief Minister of Mizoram, Zoramthanga,  has said India cannot ignore the humanitarian crisis and remain ‘indifferent’ to the suffering of those crossing the border. The Manipur government has withdrawn a shameful circular that would have prohibited providing meaningful assistance to victims of political persecution. This circular, if enacted, writes Mehta “would have been terrible for India’s image….”

Concerns of the Northeast: At the same time, “there is also a more political case for crafting a more generous and imaginative policy. First, the protests for democracy are widespread, involve young people, and are driven by a genuine opposition to military rule. India has to decide whether it is on the side of the future. Second, Northeastern states like Manipur and Mizoram which will immediately bear the costs of helping refugees, are all, rightly, calling for a more generous and imaginative policy. As Avinash Paliwal, one of the most insightful writers on Myanmar, had argued in an important article, ‘A Cat’s Paw of Indian Reactionaries: Strategic Rivalry and Domestic Politics at the India-China-Myanmar Tri Junction,’ the concerns of the Northeast states have often been historically sidelined in India’s handling of the ‘trijunction’. This was partly because of counterinsurgency fears, and partly because of suspicion of political forces in the Northeast. But at this historical juncture, to ignore reasonable and accommodative sentiments in the Northeast, would be to potentially signal their marginality in shaping India’s calculations. Third, the counterinsurgency and subversion fears have to be intelligently handled. For one thing, if we are relying only on cooperation with the Myanmar military, without support for the local population, we will once again be setting ourselves up for long-term problems. A broadbased reputation for humanitarian concerns and the welfare of people is a strategic asset, not a liability if you are a long-term player…..

Geopolitical compulsions: “Fourth, it is not yet clear what India’s position on political developments inside Myanmar will be. With every major power, from Russia to China now seeing Myanmar in terms of geopolitical terms, the stakes for India are going to be high. Admittedly, the choices are not easy……..” And since “even Russia in the mix, the Myanmar military may have more options for support. So under such circumstances, it will be tempting for the so-called realists in India to deeply engage with the military. There is also a great deal of exaggeration about Myanmar’s economic importance to India. Certainly, connectivity and trade with Myanmar provide momentum for India’s eastward interests…..”

India’s credibility important: In shaping a global response to the crisis and helping with a settlement towards a less repressive transition within Myanmar, “it is important that India has widespread credibility with the different groups and movements inside Myanmar. That is what will give India potential advantage….”


India is in a fix

Basically, in the view of The Hindustan Times, “India is in a fix. It had, in the 1990s, supported pro-democracy elements in Myanmar. But the need to have a working relationship with the military — for security reasons in the Northeast, for strategic reasons with an eye on China, for geopolitical reasons to enhance connectivity with Southeast Asia, and for economic reasons to be able to leverage Myanmar’s resource-rich landscape — saw it tone down support for democracy. When the army and Aung San Suu Kyi shared power in the system, Delhi had equities in the system, primarily through the military, and shared an uneasy relationship with Ms Suu Kyi. When the military took power this year, India decided to take a cautious approach of relatively muted public criticism, as compared to the West, and private engagement with the military. The Indian Army chief, for instance, has not yet condemned the atrocities by a neighbouring military — even as many at the helm of defence forces in democracies have done so.

“This approach is unsustainable. One, India, as a democracy, which distinguishes itself from China on the count, cannot turn a blind eye to bloodshed in the neighbourhood. Two, even if one were to take a realpolitik rather than an ethical view, it is clear that the military regime, despite its hold over the State, is losing its legitimacy in society. Three, the crisis has resulted in refugee flows to India — the Manipur government’s inhuman notification denying any support to refugees has fortunately been withdrawn, but it shows that India will have to grapple with the cross-border impact of the political crisis. Rejecting them entry will diminish India’s standing, while accepting all of them will generate complications internally. And four, India’s western allies are looking to South Block to take a principled position. New Delhi may not have the leverage to change Tatmadaw’s behaviour. But it does have the standing to send a stern public and private message to the dictators in Nayapidaw — restore democracy now.”

All Neighbours Article