Guest Column

Time Is Right for India to Step In and Help Solve Myanmar Crisis

By Jayanta Kalita 16 June 2021

The Myanmar junta chief’s candid admission that his regime is not in full control of the country ravaged by a civil war offers an opportunity for India to step in to mitigate the crisis.

Last month, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing reportedly said in a television interview that he did not expect to see such an uprising and nationwide civil disobedience against his rule triggered by the Feb. 1 military coup.

India’s ambiguous stand on the Myanmar coup has left many foreign policy analysts perplexed. Being the world’s largest democracy and a neighbor, it should stop procrastinating and initiate some smart diplomatic moves given that the military chief continues to maintain good relations with the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The general visited India in 2019 and the two countries signed a defense cooperation pact. They 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,” according to a statement from India’s Defense Ministry.

In 2020, the Myanmar military handed over 22 Indian rebels operating from its soil. These militants were from India’s northeastern region, which shares a porous 1,643-km border with the Southeast Asian nation.

Taking their defense ties to a new level, India delivered a diesel-electric submarine, the INS Sindhuvir, to the Myanmar armed forces. The Soviet-era Kilo-class submarine was refurbished by state-run defense shipbuilder Hindustan Shipyard and renamed as UMS Minye Theinkhathu.

In addition, India’s state-owned Bharat Electronics has reportedly sent seven shipments of radar and related equipment to the Myanmar military since the Feb. 1 coup, Justice For Myanmar said, citing government data.

All this indicates a cozy relationship between the Modi government and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. So, what prevents India from exerting some diplomatic pressure on the junta to work toward restoring democracy in Myanmar?

Need of the hour

It’s difficult to speculate on how New Delhi could convince Myanmar’s top general to begin negotiations with the shadow government of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. However, it is in India’s interest that this matter is taken up on a priority basis. Remember, Prime Minister Modi launched India’s flagship Act East policy at the 2014 ASEAN summit in Naypyitaw.

The policy seeks to connect India with Southeast Asia in order to help expand its footprint in the Asia-Pacific region. And Myanmar is key to Modi’s Act East dream, if one may call it that. By renaming Look East as Act East, Modi has tried to create a new strategic narrative aimed at countering China’s growing footprint in its neighborhood.

But in the past seven years, what the government has done is more symbolic. For instance, India’s Northeast bordering Myanmar, which would serve as the gateway to Southeast Asia, continues to be plagued with infrastructure issues. Without overall development of this region, the Act East policy would be meaningless, as nobody wants to visit a foreign city (Guwahati) that becomes flooded within 10 minutes of a downpour.

Nevertheless, the Act East policy offers a unique chance to Modi to bring about a shift in India’s policy vis-à-vis neighboring countries. Since independence, New Delhi has wasted much energy and efforts in dealing with its western neighbor – Pakistan – without any visible change in the latter. And things will remain unchanged in the near future as well.

Therefore, India would do well to invest its time and efforts in the countries that may fetch benefits in the long term, if not immediately. And Myanmar, despite its myriad internal issues, could be India’s partner in progress.

How to restore democracy

Myanmar needs India’s help to get back to the path of democracy if the nationwide pro-democracy protests in the Southeast Asian nation are anything to go by. New Delhi must engage with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military), which has 25 percent of seats in Parliament and local legislatures, according to the 2008 Constitution. Besides this, important ministries such as Home, Defense and Border Affairs are reserved for the military.

No doubt, India’s continued engagement with the junta regime is aimed at saving Myanmar from possible global isolation, something China would want to take advantage of. The US and several Western countries have already imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s generals and frozen their foreign assets. These sanctions could be tightened further if the Tatmadaw continues with its brutal suppression of civilians and keeps the democratically elected leaders under detention.

Given these scenarios, it would be prudent and just on India’s part to convince the junta leaders to restore some semblance of democracy at least in the neighboring country. While India cannot directly intervene since it is Myanmar’s internal matter, the regime leaders would definitely trust New Delhi rather than any Western nation, engaging with which might come with several preconditions.

 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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