Guest Column

India’s Muted Response to Myanmar Military Coup Seen as a Strategic Move

By Jayanta Kalita 23 February 2021

It may seem quite odd that India, the world’s largest democracy, has not been very forthcoming about its position vis-à-vis Myanmar ever since the country’s military seized power on Feb. 1. The United States and Europe have expressed strong reactions against the arrest of country’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and President U Win Myint

Turning up the heat on Myanmar’s junta, Washington has already imposed sanctions on the military generals by blocking their access to $1 billion in the US.

In contrast, New Delhi’s reaction seems far more muted. During the 3rd Quad Ministerial Meeting on Feb. 18, India reiterated “upholding of rule of law and the democratic transition” in the Southeast Asian nation. India is part of the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), with Australia and Japan being the other two members.

Earlier, on Feb. 5, India’s foreign ministry spokesperson said at the weekly media briefing: “India and Myanmar are neighbors. We have close cultural and people-to-people ties. These ties have been bolstered by trade, economic, security and defense related exchanges.

“So we are therefore monitoring the situation very closely in that country. We are also engaged on the issue as a member of the UN Security Council.”

On both occasions, New Delhi avoided making any comment on the Tatmadaw’s large-scale crackdown on pro-democracy elements, nor did it appeal to the top military brass to release civilian leaders.

So, what does India’s measured response to the developments in its neighboring nation indicate?

One answer could be that the Narendra Modi government does not want to ruffle the feathers of Myanmar’s junta given the fact that current military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has maintained a good rapport with New Delhi in the past. In July 2019, Min Aung Hlaing visited India and the two countries signed a defense cooperation pact.

The two sides also discussed “joint exercises and training provided to Myanmar Defense Services, strengthening maritime security by joint surveillance and capacity building, medical co-operation, pollution response and developing new infrastructure,” a statement from India’s defense ministry had said.

Another factor that works in India’s favor is Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s anti-China stance. Despite the friendly ties between China and Myanmar, the latter is aware of Beijing’s tacit support to Rohingya militants fighting against the Tatmadaw in Rakhine state.

There were reports of China providing funds and weapons to the Rohingya militant outfits — Arakan Army (AA) and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) — both of which have been designated as terrorist organizations by Myanmar.

In June 2020, Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing sought international cooperation in the fight against terrorism. He stopped short of naming China as external “forces that support them (the Rohingya militancy).”

India’s Long-Term Strategic Interest

When Myanmar faced the 1988 democracy uprising movement, known as “8-8-88,” the Indian Embassy in Yangon actively assisted pro-democracy activists and offered shelter to students and refugees in New Delhi and Indo-Burma border.

At that time, New Delhi strongly voiced its support for restoration of democracy in Burma and demanded that the military government recognize the 1990 parliamentary election results where Daw Aung San Su Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 392 out of 492 contested seats. However, New Delhi changed its policy in 1993 and forged closer relations with the junta for fear of growing Chinese influence in Myanmar

Now, at the root of India’s muted response to the Myanmar’s military coup is the former’s long-term strategic interest. It goes without saying that Myanmar is key to the Modi government’s Act East policy, aimed at countering China’s growing influence in the Asia Pacific region.

India’s growing defense ties with Myanmar are aimed at making the largest Southeast Asian country a strategic partner of New Delhi. One of the key projects that India has initiated in Myanmar is the Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project.

The multi-million-dollar project is aimed at linking Southeast Asia through Myanmar. Under the project, a sea route will be established between India’s Kolkata and Myanmar’s Sittwe Port in Rakhine state. It will be further augmented to Paletwa in Chin State via the Kaladan river route, followed by a road to Mizoram state in landlocked Northeast India.

In October, the two countries had agreed to have the strategic Sittwe port operational by early 2021. Even if the port becomes operational, another challenge facing India is the fact that a portion of the road passes through the Rohingya rebel-infested region.

In November 2019, five Indian nationals engaged in the Kaladan road project, along with a Member of Myanmar Parliament, two local transporters and two speedboat operators were abducted by the Arakan Army. Later, they were released because of India’s “timely intervention,” according to a statement by India’s foreign ministry.

Going forward, India would definitely need Myanmar army’s support for a smooth completion of the Kaladan project, especially to keep the Rohingya militants at bay. And the fact that Myanmar is fully aware of China’s back-channel dealings with the Arakan Army is something India would like to use to its advantage. It is likely that India would provide all necessary assistance to the Myanmar military in its fight against the Rohingya militants.

In addition, New Delhi depends on the Tatmadaw to flush out Northeast India’s rebels operating from Myanmar’s Sagaing division and Chin state. In April and May last year, as many as 22 Indian rebels were handed over to India by Myanmar following their arrest in Taga in Hukwang Valley. There could be more crackdowns on the rebels in the coming days if India continues to maintain “friendly ties” with the Junta.

Apart from its defense ties, India has used its “vaccine diplomacy” to help Myanmar overcome the COVID-19 crisis. As part of Modi government’s “Neighborhood First” Policy, “We have extended assistance to Myanmar and its fight against COVID-19 by providing medicines, test kits and vaccines. We remain committed to continuing our humanitarian support for the people in Myanmar in mitigating the health and economic impact of the pandemic”, the foreign ministry spokesperson said on Feb. 5.

(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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