[Sansad TV] Diplomatic Dispatch: India-Myanmar Relations

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  • In this article, we will examine India’s ties with Myanmar which has been in turmoil since February, 2021.
  • The military had seized control of the country in a coup and detained Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of her Parliament.

Myanmar: A backgrounder

  • Myanmar, also known as Burma, is in South East Asia and neighbours Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, China and India.
  • The biggest city is Yangon (Rangoon) but the capital is Nay Pyi Taw.
  • The main religion is Buddhism. There are many ethnic groups in the country, including Rohingya Muslims.
  • The country gained independence from Britain in 1948. It was ruled by the armed forces from 1962 until 2011, when a new government began ushering in a return to civilian rule.

Myanmar under Suu Kyi

  • Aung San Suu Kyi became world-famous in the 1990s for campaigning to restore democracy.
  • She spent nearly 15 years in detention between 1989 and 2010 after organising rallies calling for democratic reform and free elections.
  • She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest in 1991.
  • In 2015, she led the NLD to victory in Myanmar’s first openly contested election in 25 years.

Myanmar in recent timeline:

(1) Crackdown on Rohingyas

  • Suu Kyi’s international reputation has suffered greatly as a result of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya minority.
  • Myanmar considers them illegal immigrants and denies them citizenship. Over decades, many have fled the country to escape persecution.
  • Thousands of Rohingya were killed and more than 700,000 fled to Bangladesh following an army crackdown in 2017.

(2) Military Coup

  • The military is now backing in charge and has declared a year-long state of emergency.
  • It seized control following a general election which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won by a landslide.
  • The armed forces had backed the opposition, who were demanding a rerun of the vote, claiming widespread fraud.
  • The election commission said there was no evidence to support these claims.
  • Suu Kyi is thought to be under house arrest. Several charges have been filed against her, including breaching import and export laws and possession of unlawful communication devices.

How does the world see Myanmar today?

  • Many western liberal democracies have condemned the military takeover.
  • UN Secretary-General António Guterres said it was a “serious blow to democratic reforms”.
  • US President Joe Biden has threatened to reinstate sanctions.
  • However, the issue has now faded from the geopolitical discourse.

Chinese pleasure over Myanmar Coup

China neither condemned nor expressed any concern. It just said that reconciliation is needed between the civilian set-up and Myanmar military or Tatmadaw.

  • China blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the coup.
  • The country, which has previously opposed international intervention in Myanmar, urged all sides to “resolve differences”.
  • Its Xinhua news agency described the changes as a “cabinet reshuffle”.
  • Neighbours including Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines, have said it is an “internal matter”.

An analysis: India-Myanmar Relations

  • India-Myanmar relations are rooted in shared historical, ethnic, cultural and religious ties.
  • As the land of Lord Buddha, India is a country of pilgrimage for the people of Myanmar.
  • The geographical proximity of the two countries has helped develop and sustain cordial relations and facilitated people-to- people contact.
  • Both share a long land border of over 1600 km (approx.) and a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal.

A large population of Indian origin (according to some estimates about 2.5 million) lives in Myanmar. India and Myanmar signed a Treaty of Friendship in 1951.

India’s interests

  • India needs a good working relationship with the Myanmar government for its diplomatic and strategic initiatives.
  • This is especially due to China’s nefarious designs in Myanmar, which wants to develop it as a geopolitical base against India.
  • Despite Myanmar being ruled by military junta over the years, India has developed close ties and shares a good relationship with Tatmadaw.

(a) Strategic relations

  • The geographically strategic location of Myanmar makes it a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia.
  • Last year, despite facing shortage of its own, India handed over INS Sindhuvir, a submarine, to the Myanmar Navy.
  • Tatmadaw responded well to Indian overtures and even allowed India to conduct counter-interagency operations against Indian insurgents groups in Myanmar border areas.
  • Both nations seek to cooperate to counteract drug trafficking and insurgent groups operating in the border areas.

(b) Economic Relations

(c) Humanitarian Assistance

  • India responded promptly and effectively in rendering assistance after natural disaster in Myanmar such as the earthquake in Shan state (2010) Cyclone Mora (2017), and Komen (2015).
  • India offered to help in capacity building in disaster risk mitigation as well as strengthening Myanmar’s National Disaster Response Mechanism.

What defines China-Myanmar relations?

China has its own designs and wants to use Myanmar as another base in its ‘string of pearl’ strategy against India. Through the string of pearls approach, China intends to encircle India by developing military bases in India’s neighbouring countries and Myanmar has long been on China’s radar.

(a) Debt trap diplomacy

  • Burdening Myanmar under Chinese debt trap is the first step of the plan.
  • Under China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is funding and developing many big projects in Myanmar that can be used as military bases in future.
  • These infrastructure projects have put Myanmar in massive Chinese debt trap, and accounts for over 40 per cent of the current $10 billion national debt.

(b) Political interference

  • The second Chinese step was to control the political machinery.
  • Like in Nepal, where China maneuvered to install a pro-Beijing and anti-India group government, Myanmar is expected to witness the same thing with military coup.
  • Geostrategic experts say China instigated Nepal to start the border dispute with India.

(c) Trade dependence

  • With this second step done, the third step comes into play: making a country your economically held scapegoat.
  • When it comes to bilateral trade with India, it stood at just $1.5 billion dollars in 2019-20, nowhere near that of China.  With China, the bilateral trade is worth $12 billion dollars.
  • But if we go by an official Chinese report quoting the Ministry of Commerce of China, export and import between China and Myanmar was worth $168 billion dollars in 2019.
  • That is huge for a small country like Myanmar.

Through the prism of Coup

(a) Impact on India

While the coup invited international condemnation, not much has changed for India as it has built ties with the Tatmadaw over the years.

  • The handing over late last year of INS Sindhuvir, a kilo-class submarine of the Indian Navy, to the Myanmar Navy, was the most recent sign of the deepening ties between New Delhi and the Tatmadaw.
  • India and China have been competing for influence in Myanmar.
  • If India hadn’t agreed to help Myanmar meet its naval requirements, it would have meant a greater Chinese presence in the Bay of Bengal.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (behind this coup) has made multiple visits to India over the last few years, most recently in 2019, when he met our PM.

(b) Impact on China

  • India was the largest supplier of weapons and other military equipment to Myanmar in 2019, the last year for which records are available in the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database.
  • Tatmadaw exported military hardware worth $100 million from India that year while it spent only $47 million on Chinese military equipment the same year.
  • This is significant because China has been the largest supplier of weapons to the Southeast Asian country over the decades.
  • The General has also been critical of China, accusing Beijing of providing support to certain insurgent groups in the country, including the Arakan Army in Rakhine state, which the Tatmadaw has been fighting.

Many rebel groups in Myanmar have been using Chinese-made weapons against the military. This, experts say, rules out a tight embrace of China in the near term.

Repercussions of the Coup

  • Diplomatic isolation: And with over 50 years of military rule and an isolated status in the world, it seems that most of the relations are held by China alone.
  • Sanctions and embargoes: If the US goes ahead with its threat of sanctions because of the coup, Myanmar will have to turn to Beijing as a shield.
  • New puppet of China: In a nutshell, Myanmar’s economy is largely dependent on China, and with a pro-Beijing government in place, Myanmar may well fall finally into Chinese debt trap by allowing China funded BRI projects.
  • Hostility in India’s neighbourhood: If that happens, Myanmar will be reducing to a mere economic scapegoat of its largest trading partner China, and a hostile neighbour for India’s geopolitical interests.
  • Deterrence in Indo-Pacific: This in turn will emerge as a deterrent in the global vision of Indo-Pacific.

It may be often tempting to describe India’s Myanmar policy as suffering from a dilemma between values and interest.

Wait….. India never acts blindfolded

India’s interest in Myanmar has always been guided strategically by the centrality of democracy to ensure deeper ties.

India has also learned to accept that “the liberal democratic paradigm will not automatically come about” in Myanmar, nor in any other part of India’s politically volatile neighbourhood.

So while Indian policymakers have always been clear about their democratic endgame in Myanmar, they also recognise that pragmatic adjustments are sometimes necessary to engage with the military, which remains the ultimate guarantor of internal stability and order.

Since Nehruvian times….

60 years ago, the Burmese armed forces, the Tatmadaw, first took over power to end a decade of democratic reforms in the 1950s.

  • The coup of March 1962 was a severe setback for India’s investment in a federal, democratic Burma under the leadership of Nehru’s great friend U Nu.
  • However, with the democratic regime in deep crisis, it made sense to engage General Ne Win to protect Indian interests, including cross-border insurgencies, China’s influence and the safety of the larger Indian diaspora.
  • Despite his personal distress at the imprisonment of his friend and the end of democracy, Nehru gave the green light for India to become one of the first countries to recognise the military regime, even before China.
  • For the time being, India will push for democracy in public domain but in private it will pivot to engage with Myanmar’s new military regime.

The road to democracy in Myanmar lies through its military

  • Sixty years later, the situation is strikingly similar.
  • This marks a return to India’s dual policy of the 2000s, when it built a relationship of high-level trust with the Myanmar military while also nudging and supporting the Generals to embrace democratic reforms.
  • This approach was first crafted in the late 1990s by Shyam Saran, then India’s ambassador in Yangon, and executed in 2000 with a rare display of successful defence diplomacy led by Army chief VP Malik.
  • This was no easy task. Western analysts criticised India for blindly engaging Myanmar.
  • At the UN India came under attack for not supporting sanctions and condemnatory resolutions, especially during the failed 2007 democratic uprising.

Despite such pressure, India stood firm and also paid a price for it. PM Manmohan Singh, for example, declined two invitations and only visited Myanmar in 2012, after the democratic opening.  

Way forward

  • The carefully calibrated policy of the 2000s will serve India well today, where circumstances are even more favourable.
  • Thanks to the rise of China, the US and the EU are now more wary of isolating Myanmar.
  • And the Tatmadaw is now also less enamored of China and keen to deepen relations with India.
  • But New Delhi will still have to work hard to pursue its democratic realist policy in Myanmar.

For India to play a role

(a) Domestically

  • The first challenge will be to preserve trust with the Generals even while keeping up the pressure to restore a democratic order.
  • Delhi will have to keep the relationship going at the highest level to ensure that the Generals respect India’s core concerns.
  • This includes the Naga peace process, keeping an eye on China’s activities, and cross-border connectivity initiatives.

(b) Internationally

  • The second challenge will be for India to coordinate its position internationally and buy itself manoeuvering space to engage Myanmar.
  • The US and the EU are still likely to be less understanding of India’s position than the Association of South-East Asian Nations and Japan.
  • Especially at the UN Security Council, India could play an important role to bridge differences and develop a common platform to nudge Myanmar back on to the democratic track.

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