Myanmar’s Transition to Democracy Vital for India’s Strategic Interests

By Jayanta Kalita 17 November 2020

Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has registered a stupendous victory in the just-concluded Myanmar elections, defeating the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) backed by the country’s military.

The ruling NLD has secured 396 of the total 642 parliamentary seats, compared to 390 it won in the 2015 election. The 2015 election was Myanmar’s first national vote since a quasi-civilian government took over in 2011 and ended nearly 50 years of Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) rule.

Myanmar’s Union Parliament consists of the 440-seat Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives) and 224-seat Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities). In both Houses, 25 percent of the seats are reserved for the military, which ruled the country from 1962 until 2010.

This year’s election marks yet another step in Myanmar’s transition from complete military rule towards democracy, something India has been taking a keen interest in. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the first leaders to congratulate the victors.

“Congratulations to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and [the] NLD for victory in the elections. The successful conduct of polls is another step in the ongoing democratic transition in Myanmar,” Modi tweeted.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in November 2010 was a major step and was followed by other constructive measures such as the establishment of a human rights commission, general amnesties to political prisoners, the institution of new labor laws as well as relaxation of press censorship.

In return, the international community has opened its doors to Myanmar; the ASEAN bloc approved the country’s bid for the coveted ASEAN chair for 2014. Then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar in December 2011 provided perhaps the biggest boost for the country since Washington lifted sanctions on foreign aid after years of diplomatic isolation and economic and military curbs.

Why Myanmar matters for India 

Needless to say, peace and stability in Myanmar, which shares a 1,643-km border with India, is vital for New Delhi’s long-term strategic goals. For instance, the success of the flagship Act East policy, aimed at strengthening India’s relations with Southeast Asia and the greater Asia-Pacific region would, to a great extent, depend on the political situation in this neighboring country.

To ensure political stability in Myanmar, there is a need to bring all ethnic groups onboard. As a first step, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party has urged as many as 48 ethnic political parties to join with the NLD in forming a democratic federal union.

Many of these ethnic groups have long been demanding greater autonomy and self-determination; some have even resorted to armed insurgencies, resulting in protracted civil wars. Among these, a resolution to the conflict in Kachin seems to be the biggest challenge for the NLD as of now.

While it remains to be seen how the NLD leadership tackles these challenges, New Delhi is desperately seeking Naypyitaw’s cooperation in flushing out northeastern rebel groups such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) and factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), which are holed up in the remote hilly regions of Sagaing Region. From time to time, these groups sneak into India to carry out attacks on security forces. The most recent one was on July 29 this year.

India’s strategic interests

As it appears today, India stands to benefit a lot from Myanmar’s transition to democracy. Being the largest democracy in the world, India would definitely want to see Myanmar become its partner in progress and move away from communist China’s influence. India is particularly concerned over China’s growing footprint in its immediate neighborhood.

China is also aggressively pursuing what is known as its “debt-trap diplomacy” in South and Southeast Asia, in order to extract economic and political concessions from the borrowing countries when they are unable to repay the loans.

Over the years, Beijing has made generous offers to Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bangladesh. Chinese investment, mostly in the form of loans and grants, is concentrated in hard infrastructure such as power, roads, railways, bridges, ports and airports, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker.

To counter these, New Delhi has given a fresh push to its Act East policy, in which Myanmar would play the role of a strategic partner. In October, the two countries agreed to operationalize the strategic Sittwe port in Rakhine State early next year and to initiate steps for completion of the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway. The latter would provide India with connectivity to ASEAN nations.

There are indications that New Delhi would try to make Myanmar a part of the Indo-Pacific bloc in order to reduce Beijing’s influence in the region. As former diplomat Ashok Sajjanhar wrote in an article, “Myanmar is undergoing dramatic changes in the political, economic and social arenas. It is imperative for India to closely follow ongoing developments and take full advantage of emerging opportunities and potential. Stronger engagement between India and Myanmar will be a significant contributor to regional peace, security and prosperity.”

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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