Guest Column

Will India Serve as a Catalyst to Solve Myanmar Crisis?

By Jayanta Kalita 24 December 2021

Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited neigboring Myanmar days after New Delhi said it was “disturbed” by the verdicts relating to ousted leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and others.

The Nobel laureate was handed a four-year prison sentence by a Myanmar court earlier this month, even as the junta regime continues with what international human rights groups and pro-democracy forces have called high-handed policies against former ruling party leaders. The sentence was later commuted to two years’ house arrest by military regime leader Min Aung Hlaing.

Shringla “emphasized India’s interest in seeing Myanmar’s return to democracy at the earliest; release of detainees and prisoners; resolution of issues through dialogue; and complete cessation of all violence. He reaffirmed India’s strong and consistent support to the ASEAN initiative and expressed hope that progress would be made in a pragmatic and constructive manner, based on the five point consensus”, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in a statement issued on Dec. 23.

India’s stand on Myanmar appeared ambiguous in the immediate aftermath of the Feb. 1 military coup. It took a measured approach by avoiding any direct criticism of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces), but expressed “deep concern” over developments such as the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protestors.

And Shringla’s visit seems to be aimed at answering some of the tricky questions that New Delhi faces vis-à-vis the Southeast Asian nation.

The underlying message of his visit is that India will continue to demand the restoration of democracy in Myanmar; and at the same time, it will keep the communication channel with the military leaders open to mitigate its domestic security challenges.

This became evident as Shringla “called on the Chairman, State Administrative Council [SAC] and other senior representatives and held meetings with members of civil society and political parties, including the National League for Democracy [NLD]”, according to the MEA statement. The SAC is the junta’s governing organ.

India’s foreign policy

Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken hinted at more sanctions on Myanmar amid continued violence and bloodshed and the resulting humanitarian crisis in the country. Being an ally of the US-led Quad, India has also clearly stated its position. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India is aimed at countering China’s aggressive posture in the Indo-Pacific region.

“As a democracy and close neighbor, India has been involved in the democratic transition process in Myanmar and in this context has worked with various stakeholders in developing capacities on democratic systems and practices. India proposes to renew these efforts for Myanmar to emerge as a stable, democratic, federal union in accordance with the wishes of the people of Myanmar,” the MEA statement read.

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 on the Indo-Myanmar border.

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

Even now, there is no reason why New Delhi cannot serve as a catalyst to restore a semblance of democracy in Myanmar. It is in India’s interest that normalcy returns to this country at the earliest.

It is pertinent to mention here that Indian Prime Minister Narendra 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. By renaming Look East as Act East, New Delhi has tried to create a new strategic narrative aimed at countering China’s growing footprint in its neighborhood.

It is quite apparent that India maintains a distinct foreign policy, which is not conditioned by pulls and pressure from its allies. For instance, while Washington talks about tightening the noose around the Tatmadaw generals, India has made it clear that it will keep talking to them. Needless to say, India has to perform a balancing act without undermining the security factor.

“The Government of India, after the February 02, 2021, coup in Myanmar, has taken a calibrated policy of dissuading the State Administration Council’s excessive use of force on the pro-democracy activists, calling for dialogue between the opposing parties, while also continuing with the bilateral strategic cooperation. India cannot wish away its borders, and, therefore, cannot adopt a heavy-handed approach on the Tatmadaw, as pushed for by the USA-led western democracies,” said Dr. Ambuj Thakur, a Myanmar expert.

India’s internal security threat

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.

Therefore, New Delhi looks to the Tatmadaw to flush out Northeast India’s rebels operating from Myanmar’s soil. 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 the Hukwang Valley.

Recently, five Manipuri insurgents belonging to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were handed over to India. The rebel group has been fighting for secession from India since 1978.

Thakur, an assistant Professor of history, C.K.B. College, Teok, Assam, said the boundary is a “colonial vestige, since it arbitrarily segregated a number of ethnic groups on both the sides. Villages like Longwa, in Nagaland, are testaments to this anomaly. The post-colonial dispensations have, thus, been heavily involved in viewing and handling the problems arising out of it through a security paradigm for most of the last eight decades”.

Securing its border is of utmost priority for India. During the Indian foreign secretary’s visit to Myanmar, “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,” the foreign ministry said.

India also pointed out that peace and stability in Myanmar have a direct bearing on the border. Needless to say, India’s northeastern states such as Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland have hosted thousands of Myanmar nationals displaced by the civil war in their country.

The problem is compounded by the fact that India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. And the federal government does not officially accord refugee status to foreigners seeking shelter even on humanitarian grounds, and considers them illegal immigrants. But that did not deter India’s northeastern states bordering Myanmar from offering a helping hand to those seeking refuge.

Mizoram, for one, openly defied a Union Government notification and chief minister Zoramthanga wrote a letter to Prime Minister Modi, stating that “it was not possible for Mizoram to refuse shelter to our own brethren who fled Myanmar fearing for their lives”.

“Myanmar remains a key to India exerting its influence on Southeast Asia overland, through its soft power. Myanmar is a key peg in the fruitful execution of India’s Act East Policy. Foreign Secretary Harshvardhan Shringla’s Myanmar visit should be seen in this perspective. It is more about India reaching out to striking a deal with Myanmar to safeguard its border regions in the short and the medium terms. So far as the long-term objectives are concerned, India doesn’t have too many cards to play at the moment unlike China, which has both money and muscle power,” Thakur 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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