Guest Column

For India, Security Trumps Human Rights Concerns When it Comes to Myanmar

By Bidhayak Das 2 April 2018

Even as the US and UK oppose the idea of engaging in joint defense exercises with Myanmar’s army, better known as the Tatmadaw, because of its human rights abuses against ethnic minorities and possible genocide against the Rohingya, India continues to look the other way. The world’s largest democracy, which shares a 1,600-km land border with the one-time global pariah, is in fact expanding its plans to help train the Tatmadaw.

New Delhi has remained unperturbed by the terrible and widespread allegations against Myanmar’s defense services, and mounting calls to hold its generals accountable. The plight of the nearly 700,000 people who fled to Bangladesh to escape the Tatmadaw’s crackdown in northern Rakhine State since late August, now struggling in overcrowded refugee camps, seems not to matter to New Delhi, which appears to be developing an appetite for supporting Myanmar’s military.

In the roughly four months since Nov. 20, India has engaged the Tatmadaw in three joint defense exercises.

The latest exercises, the India-Myanmar Naval Exercise 2018 (IMNEX-18), began on Mar. 26 in Vishakapatanam, off the eastern coast of India in the Bay of Bengal. To be conducted in two phases — a harbor phase followed by a sea phase wrapping up on April 3 — the exercise is aimed at enhancing security cooperation and strengthening professional interaction between the two navies.

The harbor phase will include briefings, practical demonstrations, professional discussions, social interactions, cross-deck visits and sports fixtures. The second phase will include four days of “complex operations [at sea], including fleet maneuvers, gun firings and coordinated anti-submarine exercises,” according to a statement from the Indian Navy.

The statement says two Myanmar Navy ships — the UMS King Sin Phyu Shin frigate and the UMS Inlay offshore patrol vessel — arrived in Vishakapatanam on Mar. 25. The Indian Navy is sending its INS Sahyadri anti-submarine frigate and INS Kamorta anti-submarine corvette, along with a Chetak helicopter, two Hawk advanced jet trainer aircraft and a submarine to take part.

The exercise follows close on the heels of two other high-level military drills this year: the maritime Milan-8 at Port Blair in early March and the India-Myanmar Bilateral Military Exercise (IMBAX-2017) in Meghalaya in November. The first was aimed at enhancing Myanmar’s ability to join UN peacekeeping operations and featured more than a dozen army officers from each country.

India’s decision to engage with the Tatmadaw has raised questions among the international community in the past and is sure to continue to invite criticism.

A source in South Block New Delhi, home of India’s Defense Ministry, said “it’s a conscious decision to continue to develop strong security relations with Myanmar,” perhaps intending to send a loud and clear message that international pressure will not force the country’s policy planners to yield.

Very recently Thailand’s decision to invite Myanmar to take part in the annual Cobra Gold war games, despite US objections did not go down well in the international community. The US ambassador to Thailand was asked to explain the presence of the Myanmar military but he skirted the question and passed the buck to the Thais. Many were outraged by the decision. The Business Insider UK quoted Zachary Abuza, a professor at the U.S. National War College, saying that “inviting Myanmar to the exercise was ‘outrageous’ and sent the wrong message.”

“To invite them after what the U.S. government has labeled ethnic cleansing, when the Treasury Department just yesterday designated the commander for these egregious violations of human rights, just seems wrong, and that is putting it too mildly,” said Abuza, who focuses on Southeast Asia security issues, including human rights.

But criticism and concern surely are not enough to dissuade countries like Thailand, India and China, which are strategically located near Myanmar and have security concerns that may override all forms of international pressure.

The increasing cooperation between the militaries and the navies of both India and Myanmar is not surprising especially as both countries share long land and maritime boundaries. Myanmar shares a 1600-km-long land border with four of India’s northeastern states and a maritime boundary in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal. Perhaps such cooperation is critical to the security of the region given that both countries are confronted by common problems of insurgency, human trafficking and drug smuggling. The rise of China and its aggressive forays in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean were possibly the decisive factor that prompted New Delhi and Naypyitaw to work more closely than ever before.

Indeed, defense and security cooperation between the two countries has strengthened since the 2015 elections. An Indian External Affairs Ministry statement issued recently claims that “exchange of high-level visits, signing of memorandum of understanding (MoU) on border cooperation, training, army, air force and naval staff talks are important indicators of this growing relationship.” A string of exchanges have seen Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi make his first bilateral visit to Myanmar, in September 2017, and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visit India twice after her NLD government came to power.

In July 2017, Myanmar Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing visited India in what was his second official trip to the country in as many years. India managed to get the Myanmar side to provide assurances at the highest levels that it would cooperate with India in taking necessary action to prevent the use of Myanmar territory for anti-Indian activity. On September the same year, India reciprocated by deciding to supply arms including US$39.7 million worth of lightweight torpedoes to Myanmar. These decisions were taken at a time when the pressure was mounting on India to join the international community in criticising the Tatmadaw for its crackdown on Rohingyas in Rakhine State.

India has stood rock solid behind Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her government on the Rohingya issue, blaming terrorist groups for the attack on security forces. New Delhi was forced to express concern on the flight of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees only after severe international criticism. But improved defense cooperation with Myanmar, especially aimed at dismantling cross-border insurgency in India’s Northeast, and also better naval cooperation are definitely the high octaves of melody for New Delhi. It is like a double-edged sword that India can use at once to find a solution to its insurgency issues while also using the maritime cooperation to keep an eye on Chinese influence in the region.

For India, defense forms a vital component of its relationship with its Southeast Asian neighbor and it has apparently been a key area of focus under India’s Look East policy, now known as the Act East Asia policy.

This has also to do with the paradigm shift from a pro-democracy to a pro-military policy that India has implemented since the mid ‘90s. This shift has been largely seen as a decision which served India’s national and security interests. It therefore perhaps matters little to New Delhi if the human rights situation deteriorates further in Myanmar not just in Rakhine but in Kachin and parts of northern Shan State. Ironically, the message from the world’s largest democracy has been one of support for the Myanmar military. It started in the mid-1990s when it was dealing with a junta and has not changed and continues today through strong contacts with the Myanmar military.

The author is a former senior journalist who has worked for national and international news media in India and elsewhere. Currently he is a contributing editor for The Irrawaddy.