India’s Myanmar Dilemma: Why Moral Posturing Won’t Work

Balanced stand on Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis will ensure that India safeguards its own interests in the region.

5 min read
Myanmar Dilemma: Why Moral Posturing Won’t Work

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Suu Kyi Breaks Silence

Finally, Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi broke her silence on the Rohingya crisis. After being pilloried across the globe for her indifference to the plight of Rohingya Muslims, Suu Kyi, in her speech to Myanmar’s Parliament, said she felt “deeply” for the suffering of “all people” in the conflict, and that Myanmar was “committed to a sustainable solution… for all communities in this state”.


Why Is Suu Kyi Being Criticised?

A boy holds a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi during a rally where hundreds of people gathered to show their support for her, Yangon, 24 September, 2017.
(Photo: AP)

While she condemned “all human rights violations and unlawful violence,” she also made it clear that her government had made efforts in recent years to improve living conditions for the Muslims living in Rakhine: providing healthcare, education and infrastructure.

Most significantly, she suggested that all refugees in Bangladesh would be able to return after a process of verification. The Burmese military, on its part, says its operations in the northern Rakhine state are aimed at rooting out militants, and has repeatedly denied targeting civilians.

But, her statement has failed to satisfy her critics who feel she is not using her moral power to influence the military’s targeting of Rohingyas. Suu Kyi does not control the military and there continues to be a trust deficit between the two.

But her refusal to condemn military abuses against Rohingya provides the generals with political cover. From the regional perspective, she was under pressure from Bangladesh and India to do something about the refugee situation.

Also Read: ‘B’desh Is to Rohingyas What India Was to Bangladeshis in 1971’


India's Dilemma Over Rohingyas

A Rohingya Muslim girl, Yasmin Ara, stands in front of her shanty at a camp for refugees in Hyderabad.
(Photo: AP)

India too has come under criticism for not putting adequate pressure on the Myanmar government and also for its earlier position in favour of deporting Rohingyas to Myanmar.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar earlier this month had underlined why New Delhi struggles to maintain a delicate balance between its strategic interests and its democratic ideals when it comes to its neighbour. This visit came at a time when the Myanmar government and Suu Kyi are facing global condemnation for their handling of the Rohingya crisis.

During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar – the third by an Indian Prime Minister in five years and the second by him in three years – New Delhi did not directly engage with the issue of Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority. But at a time when Myanmar is getting isolated, India underlined its support with its joint statement:

India condemned the recent terrorist attacks in northern Rakhine State, wherein several members of the Myanmar security forces lost their lives. Both sides agreed that terrorism violates human rights and there should, therefore, be no glorification of terrorists as martyrs.

Why Is Bangladesh Getting Anxious?

Rohingya Muslims who crossed over from Myanmar walk back to their shelters after collecting aid in Taiy Khali refugee camp, Bangladesh.
(Photo: AP)

Perhaps because of this, Naypyidaw seems to have allowed India to provide aid in the form of infrastructure and socio-economic projects to Rakhine province where violence against Rohingya continues unabated.

But, this position of India created tensions with its other neighbour, Bangladesh. After Dhaka made its displeasure clear, New Delhi agreed to “pressurise” Myanmar into ending the security crackdown in Rakhine and into taking back the Rohingya refugees.

Bangladesh has borne the brunt of the crisis with more than 400,000 Rohingyas having crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar, and the number was expected to reach 1 million by the end of the year.


India's Two-Pronged Approach

Indian Muslims hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, in New Delhi.
(Photo: AP)

After a bit of a tussle, India’s response has become more coherent. The government has made it clear to the Supreme Court that intelligence inputs are pointing to sections of the Rohingya immigrants as “a serious security threat to the country.”

Yet, India’s Operation Insaniyat is aimed at treating the problem at the source by providing humanitarian relief to Bangladesh. India is also engaged in working towards the long term development of the Rakhine province.


Standing Up Against China

Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar Hong Liang talks to journalists after Aung San Suu Kyi’s televised speech to the nation in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.
(Photo: AP)

Unlike the West which can take a unidimensional view of the problem, New Delhi cannot afford the luxury of making human rights the sole pivot of its outreach to Myanmar. This is something that needs to be understood by India’s critics at home and abroad. Even in the past, India found it difficult to toe the western line on Myanmar as it was stuck between the demands of its role as the world’s largest democracy and the imperatives of its strategic interests.

India has significant geopolitical and security interests that continue to shape its outreach to Myanmar. As China’s profile continues to rise in India’s vicinity, New Delhi would like to enhance India’s presence by developing infrastructure and connectivity projects in the country.

India has found it difficult to counter Chinese influence in Myanmar, with China selling everything from weapons to food grains there, and projecting power in the Indian Ocean will become an even greater challenge if China increases its naval presence in Myanmar.

Also Read: Anti-Rohingya Propaganda Relying On Fake Images Of Children


Rationale Behind Modi's Act East Policy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being received on his arrival at Bagan, Myanmar.
(Photo: IANS)

No wonder Myanmar is at the heart of Modi government’s ‘Act East’ policy with the India-Myanmar-Thailand Asian Trilateral Highway, the Kaladan multimodal project, a road-river-port cargo transport project, and, of course, BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation).

China, meanwhile, continues to support efforts by the Myanmar government to protect its national security and opposes recent violent attacks in the country’s Rakhine state, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made it clear at the UN.

Also Read: Religion Not Only Reason Rohingyas Are Being Forced Out of Myanmar


Moral Posturing Won't Work

Newly set up tents at a refugee camp for Rohingya Muslims who crossed over from Myanmar in Balukhali refugee camp, Bangladesh, 26 September, 2017.
(Photo: AP)

India is also working closely with the security forces of Myanmar to target the insurgents operating in the country’s northeast. India shares a 1,600-km border with Myanmar, which has been very cooperative in flushing the Naga insurgents from its territory.

India would like to see the emergence of Myanmar as a robust democracy living in peace with its neighbours. But, this is a long term aspiration and India’s past engagement with Myanmar indicates that a hands-off policy has worked much to India’s advantage.

Much as ordinary Indians might be sympathetic to the plight of Rohingyas, India is not an NGO whose sole aim is to seek prevention of human rights abuses. Myanmar is an important neighbour of India for a number of reasons and New Delhi should not jettison its hard won strategic space in the country because of self-righteous moral posturing.

(Harsh V Pant is Distinguished Fellow and Head of Strategic Studies at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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