Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Is India striking out on its own with regard to Myanmar?

Diplomatic Affairs Editor Suhasini Haidar takes a deep dive into the Indian Foreign secretary becoming one of the only international officials to shake hands with the Military leader in Myanmar 10 months after the coup

Updated - December 24, 2021 10:25 pm IST

Published - December 24, 2021 10:11 pm IST

This week on Worldview  Suhasini Haidar speaks about the reasons and compulsions behind the extraordinary move from New Delhi to send Foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla to Myanmar.

The military coup in Myanmar and its geopolitical implications | The Hindu In Focus Podcast

Since the coup in February, General Min Aung Hlaing, or MAH as he is called has shown few signs he might soften his actions:

  • More than 1,000 civilian protestors have been killed in crackdowns on rallies and political parties after the Tatmadaw or Military overturned the government and declared elections invalid.
  • Thousands are in prison, including all the elected leaders of the country, facing trials conducted by the military junta on a wide range of charges.
  • Former President Win Myint and 76 year old State Councillor and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) that won elections last November have already been sentenced to 4 years imprisonment and face trials on charges that could add another three decades to their sentence.
  • Despite appeals from many countries, UNSC statements and US sanctions, General MAH has not backed down on any of these moves, and refused to let any foreign envoy or dignitary meet ASSK.

What has India’s position been:

  • India has joined the international community on asking for a restoration on democracy, and issued a carefully worded, stern statement over the conviction of ASSK saying it was disturbed over developments
  • MEA says India is aligned to the position taken by ASEAN:

1. Immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar

2. Constructive dialogue among all parties concerned

3. A special envoy of the ASEAN Chair shall facilitate mediation

4. ASEAN shall provide humanitarian assistance

5. Special envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned

  • India has kept up Covid aid during this period, sending vaccines to Myanmar, and Foreign Secretary Shringla took another batch of 100,000 vaccines. Significantly, the government released no photo of Shringla meeting MAH.
  • India voted on UNSC statements criticising the Junta actions, but abstained from a resolution that sought to curb the flow of arms into Myanmar.
  • India has also kept up all diplomatic links, and even appointed a new Ambassador to Yangon, making it clear it is not downgrading ties with its neighbour.
  • And Indian companies like Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) has reportedly continued to ship radar components that help in coastal surveillance, amongst others.

Apart from FS Shringla, which international officials have met the Military regime in Myanmar?

1. While a number of western countries have been in talks with the Myanmar regime through their envoys based in Yangon and Naypyitaw, none have sent officials. US former diplomat Bill Richardson did meet MAH in November, however, even as the government rolled out a series of financial and visa sanctions against the regime leaders.

2. A Japanese non official envoy Peace ambassador Sasakawa also made the trip to Myanmar.

3. Chinese special envoy Sun Guoxiang and the Chinese ambassador have both met with MAH, although neither were allowed to meet jailed leaders.

4. MAH visited Moscow for a security conference this year, met with State Security Council secretary General Patrushev.

5. ASEAN the 10 member grouping normally maintains a neutral posture on internal developments, and while envoys met with MAH and other officials earlier this year, it cancelled a visit after the regime refused a request to meet ASSK, and disinvited MAH from attending the ASEAN summit and the China-ASEAN meet in November this year. Things might change next year, as the incoming ASEAN chair Cambodian PM Hun Sen met with the regime’s foreign minister in Phnom Penh and says he will visit Myanmar and bring the government back into ASEAN meetings.

6. Clearly, the FS move is significant move away from the western position, and more in line with China, Russia than even ASEAN. It is also significant that the Modi government sent the envoy despite the regime turning down its request on meeting ASSK, who has a very old, strong personal relationship with India.

Why is India reaching out to Myanmar ?

  • India has built strong military links with the Tatmadaw and has several development projects including the Kaladan multimodal road and shipping network. These have slowed down, and a plan by Adani ports to develop the Ahlone ports has now been withdrawn due to US sanctions, but the government says it is keen to keep working on others.
  • India shares a 1600-km boundary with Myanmar, and security is the foremost concern say officials. In the past few months, with the military occupied with the internal crackdown, many insurgent groups that target India have been able to take shelter along the border. In November the ambush killing of Col Tripathi, his wife, son and four jawans of Assam Rifles in Manipur is believed to have been carried out by PLA and Manipur Naga Peoples’ Front militants who then fled across to Myanmar. Unconfirmed reports say some were later handed over to India, but Mr. Shringla, who had last visited Myanmar in 2020 along with Army Chief Gen Naravane, has discussed increasing border coordination.
  • Each time Myanmar is isolated diplomatically, it is China that gains, and New Delhi would like to avoid ceding more space in the neighbourhood. Already China has stepped the gas on about $7.5 billion worth of new projects since the coup, as part of its China Myanmar Economic Corridor of the Belt and Road Initiative.
  • India is deeply concerned about the NLD and ASSK in particular, and hopes that if it keeps engaging the Tatmadaw, it may be able to convince them to release her.
  • The Modi government also worries about the influx of refugees, particularly Rohingya that fled ethnic genocide by the military in 2017, and has turned a blind eye to internal developments in the past as well. PM Modi visited Myanmar just months after the Rohingya crisis, and did not criticise the military action, or even refer to the Rohingya by name.
  • Finally, as a regional leader, India would like to stay relevant in Myanmar. The failure in ties with Pakistan has already led to SAARC being stopped, and any idea to diplomatically isolate Myanmar could have an impact on India’s other regional initiative BIMSTEC.

As a result, unlike in Afghanistan, where New Delhi has closed its embassy and firmly shut the door on recognition for an illegitimate overthrow of the democratic government by military means by the Taliban, in Myanmar, the Modi government seems set on a course that recognises the military regime, and is now trying to increase its engagement with it.

Book Recommendations:

  • The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and The Crisis Of Democracy in the 21st Century , and Where China meets India by Thant Myint-U,
  • Democratisation of Myanmar and Myanmar: A political history by Nehginpao Kipgen
  • The Wa of Myanmar and China's Quest for Global Dominance and Great Game East by Bertil Lintner
  • Myanmar in the World: Journeys Through A Changing Burma by Abhijit Dutta
  • Myanmar's Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim 'Other' by Francis Wade
  • The Shadows of Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Persecution of the Rohingya by Poppy McPherson
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