Guest Column

Did India ‘Change Its Stand’ on Myanmar Under US Pressure?

By Jayanta Kalita 6 April 2021

India has injected some clarity into its stand on Myanmar with the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations condemning the ongoing violence and demanding “release of detained leaders.”

India’s top envoy at the global body, T.S. Tirumurti tweeted on April 1 that he made these remarks during a “closed meeting” at the UN Security Council. This is India’s strongest statement so far since the Feb. 1 military coup in the Southeast Asian nation. The country has witnessed an unprecedented bloodbath in the past two months with the death toll crossing the 550 mark as of last week.

There is speculation that New Delhi “changed” its position under pressure from its ally, the United States. But India’s reaction appears to be too little and too late. The latest move comes days after the world’s largest democracy was criticized for its ‘tacit support’ to Myanmar’s military regime. On March 28, India sent its military attaché to attend the annual Armed Forces Day parade in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw.

The same day, Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, was accused of killing more than 100 civilians in what was seen as the most brutal and barbaric crackdown since the coup d’état.

In addition to India, seven other countries—China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Russia—attended the military parade. A section of India’s national media took exception to New Delhi’s position with hard-hitting editorials.

The fact that the United States, India’s closest ally and the world’s second-largest democracy, had asked countries to stay away from the event did not go unnoticed. The question that would bedevil India in the days to come is how it would distinguish itself from autocratic China when New Delhi has already made a policy decision to be a part of the US-led anti-China bloc QUAD.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or QUAD is a US-led initiative to counter China’s growing aggression in the Asia-Pacific region. The bloc comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India held its first-ever summit last month where their leaders discussed “regional and global issues of shared interest” and exchanged “views on practical areas of cooperation towards maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.”

India’s ambiguous stand on Myanmar’s coup may have stemmed from its own strategic dilemma, but its continued silence on large-scale violence and the killing of civilians sent confusing signals to the world community, something Washington must have taken note of.

The US, for its part, has been consistent in condemning the military coup and the ongoing bloodbath that the Southeast Asian nation has been witnessing since the military generals seized power, overthrowing a democratically-elected government two months ago.

Tightening the noose on the junta regime, the US and the UK have imposed a series of sanctions on Myanmar’s generals and two military conglomerates–the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (MEHL)–which control significant portions of the country’s economy.

The refugee crisis

Meanwhile, India has eased the rigid norms announced earlier to check the “influx of refugees” from neighboring Myanmar.

India’s northeastern region, which shares a 1,600-kilometer land border with Myanmar, is getting a continuous flow people from the neighboring country. Mizoram alone had received more than 1,000 people as of March 18, according to a state lawmaker. Similarly, Manipur has been witnessing the entry of people fleeing violence in Myanmar.

In its latest directive, India’s federal government has asked these states to maintain a record of the refugees and allow them to stay until the situation improves in Myanmar. Earlier, the federal government had issued strict guidelines asking the northeastern states to stop the influx of refugees saying India is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol.

However, Mizoram defied the central government order and its Chief Minister Zoramthanga shot off a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying the federal government’s directives were “not acceptable.”

“I understand that there are certain foreign policy issues where India needs to proceed cautiously. However, we can’t ignore this humanitarian crisis,” he wrote. The CM also stressed the fact the Chin community, largely concentrated in areas just across the state border, has ethnic ties with Mizo people.

“Mizoram cannot just remain indifferent to their sufferings. India cannot turn a blind eye to this humanitarian crisis unfolding right in front of us in our own backyard,” Zoramthanga said in his letter.

The 2018 Land Border Crossing Agreement between India and Myanmar allows their citizens to cross the border and stay up to 14 days within 16 km.

The Adani Group controversy

While New Delhi attempts to shed ambiguity over its stand on Myanmar, Australian media outlet ABC News has recently published a sensational report alleging that India’s Adani Group was paying up to $52 million to a junta-controlled company that is facing US sanctions over human rights violations.

The ABC story was based on leaked documents from human rights lawyers and activists that showed Adani Group’s business dealings linked to a proposed container depot in Yangon. It also cited a video and photos showing the top leadership of Adani Ports meeting with Myanmar’s army chief in 2019.

In the wake of the Feb. 1 coup, Adani Group issued a statement denying it had engaged with military leaders over the 2019 approval of its $290 million port.

The $80-billion Adani Group is an Indian multinational conglomerate headquartered in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi’s home state. It has diverse portfolios ranging from energy, infrastructure, ports and terminals, to defense, real estate to airports.

The Indian business behemoth has had its fair share of controversies both at home and abroad. In Australia, the group is still dealing with negative publicity for its Carmichael thermal-coal project, for which it won approval in 2019 after a decade-long struggle with regulators and environmentalists, according to a Bloomberg report.

Back home, India’s Defense Ministry, in January this year, dropped Adani Group from a mega submarine deal after the opposition Congress party had alleged that the Modi government was trying to favor the company.

(Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi. He writes on issues relating to India’s northeast and its immediate neighborhood. The views expressed are his own.)

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