The coup d’etat in Myanmar on 1 February 2021, reset the clocks on its democratic journey. The Tatmadaw arrested the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) top leadership, including Suu Kyi, and declared a year long emergency under Min Aung Hlaing.
India has abstained from voting on the latest UNGA resolution on Myanmar. TS Tirumurti, India’s Ambassador to the United Nations, said that India does not believe that the tabling of this resolution for adoption at this juncture, is "conducive to aiding our joint efforts towards strengthening the democratic process in Myanmar.
India has been expressing ‘deep concern’ and reinstating its commitment to Myanmar’s democratic transition. However, the moves reflect a clear abdication of this claimed normative position.
The Indian ministry of external affairs has advocated the exercise of restraint and dialogue with the international community. The ASEAN initiative on the situation has been welcomed as well but there is a lack of any further diplomatic engagement on the issue. Not only has India failed to back these normative positions but has actively undermined them through a few of its steps.
India’s Recent Abdication of the Stated Position on Myanmar
India was a vocal supporter of the 1988 pro-democracy movement in Myanmar and was critical of the subsequent coup d’etat under General Saw Maung. However, this position changed as India warmed up the Junta to limit China’s growing influence in the country. The democratic transition and the eventual election of NLD to power promised greater potential for collaboration between the two neighbours.
India’s reluctance to condemn the genocide of the Rohingya established that India was ready to placate the Myanmar government. However, the recent coup under Min Aung Hlaing has verified that the prioritisation of the state over the concerns of the people shall sustain irrespective of the nature of the regime.
The Indian embassy sent its military attaché to attend the Armed Forces Day military parade on March 27, 2021. This day was the bloodiest day of the conflict since the coup. India’s attendance in the event reflects the acceptance of the State Administration Council (SAC) as the legitimate power in Myanmar.
Indian States & Centre Stand Divided on Myanmar
The crisis has brought into the limelight the difference of opinion between the Union government and the border states. The border states in India—Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram—have communities and ethnic groups which have kinship links across borders. Therefore, people and political groups in these states have shown eagerness to host refugees from Myanmar.
However, the Union Home Ministry has issued directions to identify and turn away the refugees. Therefore, not only is the Indian government denying help to the Myanmarese citizens but also neglecting the voices of its citizens in the border states.
India is also yet to recognise and engage with the National Unity Government (NUG). It has also failed to engage with ASEAN and ensure the implementation of the five-point consensus. Such a clear abdication of India’s normative position has been defended in the name of strategic interests. The divorce of strategic interests from moral responsibility is apathetic and undesirable. Further, even these strategic calculations at best are half baked and short-sighted.
Myanmar’s Strategic Importance for India
As India looks to enhance its position in the Indo-Pacific, the position of Myanmar becomes even more important as it links India with the rest of South-East Asia. It is also an important theatre for India’s competition with China. India has been attempting to challenge China’s increasing presence in Myanmar, especially through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through its infrastructure programmes like the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport project and the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway. Apart from infrastructure, Myanmar is also an important consumer of India’s defence industry.
Myanmar’s strategic importance is not only relevant for India’s geopolitical calculations but also India’s internal security. One of the primary reasons for India to pursue closer relations with the Tatmadaw is the cooperation to counter insurgencies in the North-Eastern states.
The border between India and Myanmar is also an important piece in the sustenance of organised crime in the region. India is the pivot between the golden crescent and golden triangle. Therefore, these issues need a collaborative approach. The defence and security cooperation between India and Myanmar reached its high point with the signing of the Defence Cooperation
Is India Pursuing a Short-Sighted Myanmar Policy?
However, the policy to appease the Junta in the hopes of maintaining security and infrastructure cooperation has its limitations. The coup has triggered both peaceful demonstrations in the form of the Civil Disobedience Movement as well as a violent response by the ethnic militias.
This has led to the failure of the previously agreed ceasefires and destabilisation of the entire country but especially of the border regions. This has led to militant mobilisation and has also triggered citizens to flee the country for refuge. Tatmadaw’s ability to enforce its commitments to the Indian government are bound to weaken as the conflict rages on.
Further, as the conflict turns more violent it is bound to facilitate illegal arms trade, money laundering, and the drugs trade. It also has the potential to strengthen the North-Eastern insurgent groups who seek haven and operate out of Myanmar. New Delhi’s decision to support (through omission of condemnation) SAC may bring the local militias close to the insurgent groups.
The larger geopolitical aim to balance or limit China’s inroads and influence over the Myanmar regime is also short-sighted. India cannot beat China at its game. China wields stronger influence over the Tatmadaw. Moreover, the size and delivery record of China’s infrastructure projects in Myanmar beats India. One look at the trajectory over the failure to deliver the IMT trilateral highway would reveal the reasons why the SAC is bound to choose China over India if it comes down to that.
Why India Must Engage with the NUG
The February 2021 coup can be a watershed moment in the history of Myanmar and the region. It has brought together different ethnic groups and the NLD to form the NUG. This coalition has even shown willingness to address the plight of the Rohingya population. There is an argument to be made for realigning India’s loyalty in the crisis. India must engage with the NUG. The Tatmadaw is facing more resistance than it expected.
The NUG provides an opportunity to create an umbrella coalition in Myanmar which shall address its historically fragmented politics along the borders and deep ethnic conflicts.
The potential of NUG creating a stable and peaceful Myanmar, as opposed to the SAC, is vehemently higher. It may offer a chance to drastically replace China’s influence as it has backed the Junta. The Chinese projects in Myanmar even before the coup faced local resistance. Therefore, India should put its weight behind the people and their true representative in Myanmar. This will create a favourable ecosystem for future projects and cooperation between the two countries.
India Must Not Lose Time & Room For Manoeuvrability
The United States has openly criticised the February 2021 coup and imposed sanctions. The Junta rule earlier as well had limited the United States engagement in the region. If the military rule sustains, it will further put India in a precarious position to balance its relations with the US and the Tatmadaw. Therefore, there is a lack of congruence between India’s strategic calculations in Myanmar and its strategic calculations in the Indo-Pacific.
India has the potential of leveraging the Quad and pressuring ASEAN to provide a diplomatic channel for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. The rhetoric of a liberal international order becomes even more hollow if they back the Min Aung Hlaing in the situation.
India’s current policy on Myanmar is not based on sound strategic logic, it is an attempt to avoid taking difficult decisions. The NUG provides an opportunity for India to make the right decision. If India continues to avoid its responsibility the room for manoeuvrability will only decrease and it shall go down as another instance where India failed to live up to its word. A vishwaguru that failed even its neighbour.
(Chetan Rana is a Ph.D. Research Scholar, Diplomacy and Disarmament at Centre for International Politics, Organisation, and Disarmament (CIPOD) in Jawaharlal Nehru University. He tweets at @ChetanRana96. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)