Guest Column

Why India Opposes Sanctions On Myanmar

By Jayanta Kalita 14 February 2022

It seems India will continue to engage with both the junta and pro-democracy forces in Myanmar, signaling it will not abandon its neighbor, which is going through a tumultuous phase. It was more than a year ago when the Southeast Asian country’s military generals ousted a democratically elected government, triggering countrywide protests and civil disobedience.

Since then, junta forces have launched a brutal campaign to suppress pro-democracy voices, killing more than 1,500 people and arresting over 9,000, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a human rights organization.

India has opposed imposing additional sanctions on Myanmar, even as New Delhi is pushing for what is seen as a “twin-track approach” to help find a solution to the crisis.

Deep down, New Delhi is aware that sanctions, a typical American practice, could turn Myanmar into another pariah state such as North Korea and Iran. A sanction-hit Myanmar could become a puppet in the hands of Beijing, which has already made deep inroads into the Southeast Asian nation.

QUAD meeting

QUAD foreign ministers, who met in Melbourne on Feb. 12, said they were “gravely concerned” and jointly called for a “swift return” to democracy in Myanmar, calling on the military junta to put an end to the ongoing violence there.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) is a strategic bloc comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India, primarily aimed at countering Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific, as well as dealing with matters pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic, cyber-security and other issues.

“We remain gravely concerned about the crisis in Myanmar and call for an end to violence, the release of all those arbitrarily detained, including foreigners, and unhindered humanitarian access. We reaffirm our support for ASEAN efforts to seek a solution in Myanmar and call on the military regime to urgently implement ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus and swiftly return Myanmar to the path of democracy. We encourage the international community to work together to support an end to the violence,” read the joint statement by QUAD foreign ministers.

India makes its position clear

On the first anniversary of the military coup, Western countries such the US, the UK and Canada sanctioned senior officials of the junta regime, including Attorney General Thida Oo and Supreme Court Chief Justice Tun Tun Oo. This was in addition to the curbs already imposed on Myanmar’s military generals and business entities linked to the regime.

However, India has opposed such punitive measures. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said New Delhi has some specific concerns vis-a-vis Myanmar but stressed that it does not “follow a national policy of sanctions”.

“But we are concerned as an immediate land-border neighbor. We have some very specific concerns on Myanmar, which guide our thinking. Concerns about insurgents operating there who some months ago killed a very senior military officer and his family, concerns about COVID and about the lack of vaccination on our common border, concerns about a humanitarian situation which is arising from food shortages,” Jaishankar said addressing a QUAD joint press conference in Melbourne.

India shares a porous 1,643-km-long border with Myanmar. Cross-border insurgencies have remained a major security threat to India’s northeast region for several decades. The rugged terrain makes it easy for the rebels to slip back and forth between their camps and ambush sites on the Indian side.

In November, an Assam Rifles colonel, his wife, their 8-year-old son and four soldiers were killed by separatists rebels in Manipur’s Churachandpur district. Two groups, including the proscribed People’s Liberation Army (PLA), claimed responsibility for the ambush.

The Manipuri PLA, which runs camps inside Myanmar, has been in the news for its alleged collaboration with the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military) to fight People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), something India’s security establishment must have taken note of.

Twin-track approach

Securing its border is of utmost priority for India and New Delhi stressed this during Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan’s visit to Myanmar in December. “Both sides reiterated their commitment to ensure that their respective territories would not be allowed to be used for any activities inimical to the other,” India’s foreign ministry said.

It is clear that India needs cooperation from the Tatmadaw to flush out northeastern separatist rebels from the neighboring country. Therefore, it would like to avoid a high-handed approach to the junta regime, unlike the US, its QUAD partner.

At the same time, India wants to reach out to pro-democracy forces, including representatives of the parallel National Unity Government formed to challenge the military regime’s legitimacy.

According to Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy, a foreign policy analyst, India’s recent comments on Myanmar indicate the QUAD’s strengths, as well as its weaknesses.

“The promotion of democracy is a mutual priority, yet members remain diverged with their strategic priorities and calculations. India continues to prioritize maintaining its strategic autonomy and disagrees with the US’ urge for national sanctions on Myanmar.

As the only QUAD country that shares borders with Myanmar and China, India would need to cooperate with the junta to restrict China’s increasing influence,” said Shivamurthy, a research assistant at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank.

“The junta would also be essential to cooperate and crackdown against the northeast militants seeking shelter in that country. A lack of cooperation would only return to haunt New Delhi’s security calculations in the region that is evolving as the hub for India’s ‘Neighborhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policies. Further economic sanctions would also weaken Myanmar’s failing economy and could exacerbate the prevalent refugee crisis, many of whom even remain unvaccinated,” he added.

Needless to say, a stable Myanmar is in India’s interest. Being the largest democracy in the world, India would feel uncomfortable doing business with a military regime in the long term. But in the short term, it seems to be treading cautiously by avoiding a West-centric sanctions approach that could antagonize the junta, something China might take advantage of.

“Despite the complexity due to China’s deep influence with Myanmar, Delhi in the near-term future believes that engaging with leaders of the military junta is its only tactical option for safeguarding its strategic interest,” noted Sukanya Bali, a doctoral scholar at the Jindal School of International Affairs.

“To occupy a moral high ground, India may continue to call for democratic transition in Myanmar, on international forums. But they are unlikely to follow up with punitive measures [like sanctions],” she added.

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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