Guest Column

India’s Dilemma Over Ties With Myanmar Military

By Bertil Lintner 10 December 2021

A little more than a month remains before India celebrates its Republic Day, and speculation has already begun about who might be invited as special guests. While India became independent from colonial rule on August 15, 1947, it was not until January 26, 1950 that the last ties to the British crown were severed and a new, republican constitution was adopted. Republic Day is a colorful event with parades, shows and events, and spectacular displays by the armed forces.

In 2018, all ten leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were among the special guests, including Myanmar’s State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Now, in the run-up to the January 26, 2022 celebrations, the Indian media has reported that preparations are underway to host the heads of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or BIMSTEC, a seven-nation regional grouping that besides India includes Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. According to a November 22 report in the Indian Express newspaper, “This will be the first opportunity for the Indian leadership to engage directly with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who seized power in February this year”.

That very same day, India’s Ministry of External Affairs scotched the report saying that there had been no move to invite the coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to observe the main parade along New Delhi’s central Rajpath. All the BIMSTEC leaders attended Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second swearing-in as prime minister on May 30, 2019, but at that time there was a democratically elected government in office in Naypyitaw. Myanmar was represented by President U Win Myint.

Regardless of who will be there next month, the controversy surrounding Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s possible participation reflects India’s dilemma when it comes to relations with the Myanmar military. On the one hand, India is right now taking part in the Summit of Democracies, a global meeting convened by United States President Joseph Biden with the aim of “defending the world against authoritarianism, fighting corruption and promoting respect for human rights.”

The Economist stated on December 6 that the countries invited reflected American politics rather than any adherence to democratic values. Be that as it may, it will not be to India’s advantage if a blood-stained dictator like Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing is one of the guests of honor at India’s Republic Day celebrations.

On the other hand, however, India is facing two main security challenges along its eastern frontier which over the past few years have led to increased cooperation with the Myanmar military: cross-border insurgencies and concern over the growth of China’s influence in Myanmar.

Ethnic separatist rebels from the northeastern Indian states of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur have for years had bases in remote, mountainous areas of Myanmar’s Sagaing Region. From there, they have launched armed raids into India and then retreated back across the border beyond the reach of Indian security forces. India shares a 1,643-kilometer-long, porous border with Myanmar and the rugged terrain makes it easy for the rebels to slip back and forth between their camps and points of ambushes on the Indian side.

Myanmar’s inability or unwillingness to uproot those rebel sanctuaries has been a persistent thorn in the side of the two neighbors’ bilateral relations, contributing to mutual distrust and suspicion. Much to New Delhi’s chagrin, the Myanmar authorities until recently denied the existence of such camps on their territory. But it was believed that Myanmar’s policy of benign neglect towards those groups changed when the Myanmar military overran one of their main camps in January 2019. That clearance operation, which drove Naga, Manipuri and Assamese rebels from their de facto headquarters at Taga in northern Sagaing Region, was followed by markedly improved relations between the Indian military and its Myanmar counterpart, an entirely new and precious friendship that the Indians did not want to upset by, for instance, condemning the February 1 coup.

Immediately after the military takeover, India’s army chief, Manoj Mukund Naravane, stated that a “series of operations” together with the Myanmar military “has witnessed growing cooperation and synergy between the soldiers on ground with reasonable operational dividends.” Significantly, India was among eight countries that sent a representative — its military attaché — to attend the Myanmar Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw on March 27. The others came from China, Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

And then there is growing concern over China’s influence, which after a few years of setbacks for Beijing as Naypyitaw’s relations with the West improved, was re-ignited in 2016 and 2017. At first, Western powers turned their backs on Myanmar in the wake of the bloody campaign against the Rohingya in those years and then, again, and in an even more forceful way, after the February coup. India’s chief of defense staff, General Bipin Rawat, stated at a July 24 military webinar on “Opportunities and Challenges in North East India” that “India needs to closely monitor the emerging situation in Myanmar where China is making further inroads after international sanctions were re-imposed on the country after the February 1 coup”. He added, “The BRI of China is bound to get further impetus with the sanctions on Myanmar”. Rawat died in a helicopter crash in southern India on December 8, but the policy is unlikely to change.

Indian security planners often tie the two issues — cross-border insurgencies and China’s machinations — together. Beginning in the 1960s, hundreds of Naga and later also Mizo rebels trekked through northern Myanmar to China, where they received political and military training, and returned to India’s northeast with modern Chinese weapons. In the 1970s, a smaller group of Manipuri insurgents went through Nepal to Tibet, where they were trained at a Chinese army camp outside Lhasa.

Direct Chinese support ceased after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and Beijing changed its foreign policy from exporting revolution to promoting trade with its neighbors and beyond. But Manipuri and Assamese rebels still have unofficial representatives in Ruili and other towns in Yunnan Province near China’s border with Myanmar. Even the top leader of the once-mighty United Liberation Front of Asom (Assam), Paresh Baruah is residing in Yunnan, and so are militants from the People’s Liberation Army of the Revolutionary People’s Front (PLA/RPF) and the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak, two groups active among Manipur’s majority Meitei population.

That issue was not high among India’s security priorities — not until October 2020. China does not normally object when other countries trade with Taiwan as long as it is done on a private level. But when news reports began circulating at that time about the possibility of an official Indian-Taiwan trade pact, the Chinese authorities hit back via their mouthpiece The Global Times with unprecedented threats. Long Xingchun, president of the Chengdu Institute of World Affars, a think tank administered by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote in the Chinese Communist Party-run paper on October 22 that “once a country wants to develop official trade ties [with Taiwan], is it by no means a purely trade issue”. Then came a stern if not ominous warning. “If India supports Taiwan secessionist forces, China and India will come to hostility, especially if the India moves force China to support secessionist forces in India as a countermeasure. Each would attack the weakness of the other,” added Long Xingchun.

There’s no indication of renewed material support from China for India’s northeastern rebels, but the means are there should Beijing want to take action against India: Indian rebel liaison officers in Yunnan, and a difficult-to-control, mountainous terrain in northern Myanmar that connects China with India’s northeast. In recent months, the Myanmar military on its part has begun to use some of the Indian rebel forces which are still encamped in Sagaing to fight local anti-coup People’s Defense Forces. In return, those rebels from India — mainly Manipur — can stay and are left alone to do whatever they want. On November 13, a combined force of militants from PLA/RPF and a smaller group, the Naga Manipur People’s Front, came across the border and ambushed an Assam Rifles convoy, killing seven, including a commanding officer, his wife, their six-year-old son and four riflemen. The ambush could be seen as a return to the bad old days, before relations between the Myanmar military and the Indian military began to improve.

The Indians seem damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If previously cordial relations with the Myanmar military are not restored, it could open the floodgates for a potentially dangerous security situation along the traditionally volatile and difficult-to-control India-Myanmar border. But a cosy relationship with the Myanmar military could be seen as an endorsement of their coup and a recognition of the junta which has ruled Myanmar since February 1, and that would upset India’s geostrategic partnership with the United States and other allies. India, the United States, Australia and Japan are members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialog, or the Quad, an informal gathering that is widely viewed as a pact aimed at curbing China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

It remains to be seen what India intends do to in order to tackle its many challenges on the eastern border. But the first indication of what direction India’s relations with Myanmar may take should be seen on the grandstand for foreign guests on the Rajpath on January 26. Will the coup leader be there, or won’t he? And what price will India have to pay if he is not, or indeed if he is?


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