Should India review its Myanmar policy in view of the humanitarian crisis?

Updated - July 05, 2024 09:54 am IST

Published - July 05, 2024 01:38 am IST

An Indian police officer and an Indian man walk on a bridge across the Tiau river along the India-Myanmar border in Champhai village in Mizoram.

An Indian police officer and an Indian man walk on a bridge across the Tiau river along the India-Myanmar border in Champhai village in Mizoram. | Photo Credit: AP

The conflict between ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and the military junta in Myanmar has created a serious humanitarian crisis, which the United Nations Security Council took up for discussion on July 3. Some experts on Myanmar have called for India to review its policy and establish channels with the EAOs to help the affected civilians. Should India review its Myanmar policy in view of the humanitarian crisis? Rajiv Bhatia and Nandita Haksar discuss the question in a conversation moderated by Kallol Bhattacherjee. Edited excerpts:

Why does India’s policy towards Myanmar require course correction?

Nandita Haksar: Since October 2023, the ethnic armed groups and the PDF (People’s Defence Force) in Myanmar have been coordinated in their effort to resist the military junta. These groups have been fighting the junta for many years, but this is the first time that they have been coordinated and have been able to hold at least 45% of the territory in Myanmar.

Comment | A progressive Indian policy on Myanmar outlined

In this context, many people have called for a rethink (of India’s policy) and said that we must have some dialogue with these EAOs because of two reasons. First, the conflict is directly affecting India — there is an influx of refugees here. Second, the EAOs are being supported by China. At the same time, China has good relations with the military junta. Apart from this, many of these resistance groups have actually taken control of all the trading routes that fall on the India-Myanmar, Myanmar-China, and Thailand-Myanmar border.

Are the EAOs so powerful that they deserve to be recognised by state actors such as India?

Rajiv Bhatia: Essentially, India’s traditional policy towards Myanmar has had two main facets: one, to develop good cordial relations with the military junta and second, to keep supporting democratic forces and ensure the strengthening of democracy.

Comment | The Myanmar conflict is a regional problem

But in the last three years, Myanmar has changed beyond recognition. The military has not been able to impose its will. The people have rebelled against the military, but they have also not been able to prevail. In short, there is a strong military, political, diplomatic stalemate in Myanmar. That, I think, is the most forceful argument for some kind of a policy review and course correction. The second is that India’s fundamental objective in Myanmar is to develop bilateral relations in all domains and make sure that Myanmar plays a useful role in its own ‘Act East’ policy. And the third is to have some kind of a balance between Indian and Chinese influences in Myanmar because that is essential for our national interest.

The situation in Myanmar has become difficult. About half of country it is still under military rule and control, but the other half is considerably fragmented. I think the (Indian) government should consult national-level experts and scholars — people who have a clear view on the history and complexity of Myanmar; and neighbours such as Thailand, Bangladesh, Laos, and eventually even China, to ensure some kind of stability. To have stability in Myanmar is in the collective interest of the neighbourhood.

How compelling is the humanitarian situation in Myanmar to merit a review of the traditional policy?

Nandita Haksar: What Ambassador Bhatia said is that the situation is in a flux, so we cannot change course overnight. One way to test the waters is to start providing humanitarian assistance, at least in the border areas between India and Myanmar. India is directly affected, so we have a right to express our concern. The people in Myanmar don’t have access to water, sanitary napkins, and anesthesia. Many young people are injured and require surgery to get their legs or arms amputated, but they have no access to medical facilities. Some of them have been able to cross over to Mizoram and go to Delhi from there but they are few in number. So, it would be well worth our while to explore ways in which we could offer real humanitarian assistance to the people and obtain Myanmar’s goodwill that way.

Also read | Myanmar’s civil war and India’s interests

In the past, we have not done that. It is true that India has been supporting the democracy movement. It is true that in the past, the National League for Democracy was allowed to open an office in Delhi. It is also true that the National Unity Government was allowed to open an office in Delhi, but it was not allowed to operate openly. Providing humanitarian assistance is the most non-controversial way of intervening in this situation. And then we can negotiate with the military rulers about rebuilding villages which have been bombed and which people cannot return to.

Ground Zero | Along the Indian-Myanmar border, living in a limbo

Rajiv Bhatia: It is, of course, a complicated situation. In my view, there is still a legitimate government there, even though it does not control all the territory. So, if you are going to interfere in Myanmar’s internal affairs, in areas which are not under the government’s control, they are not going to like it. Therefore, to address that problem, it is very important for our authorities to talk to the government in Naypyidaw and explain that it is in our traditional mutual interest for the people of Myanmar to be assisted if their own government cannot help them. It makes sense for India’s humanitarian image.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had recently said that there is an international plan by some countries to create a Christian state in a part of Myanmar. Do such comments also highlight a requirement for India to closely engage with all sections of the Myanmar chess board?

Rajiv Bhatia: When a major neighbour begins to [become] fragmented, dangers of this kind could assume a clearer shape. She may have her own reasons to say what she said, although here in India we do not particularly see the creation of a Christian state within Myanmar. But what we do see is a kind of a Balkanisation. This is not in the interest of the people of Myanmar or in the interest of neighbours. That is why India has been closely associated with the Track 1.5 dialogue, which was initiated by Thailand, and in the Track 2 dialogue among scholars of the region, which is called the Bangkok process.

Comment | Finding light in Myanmar’s darkness

Nandita Haksar: I have been reading various blog posts and Facebook posts from the Northeast of the idea of a Kuki state which would include parts of Myanmar. That is why Ms. Hasina talked about it, because it was directly linked to her country and parts of India. This idea of a larger Kuki state has a direct impact on the Northeast. There are already some Kuki underground groups that are trying to control all the routes that border Manipur with this intention.

Ambassador Bhatia was referring to dialogue between India and Myanmar. But there is also the requirement of starting dialogue between the NUG and the military rulers.

Nandita Haksar: As of now, from the little I know about the NUG, they are thinking not so much about reconciliation with the army or the military junta — I don’t think that is possible — but about the kind of federal union they want. Conversations are going on within the NUG about a charter on the kind of alliances they could have, so that they can have a federal structure which keeps the whole of Myanmar as it is today. I think we have an interest in that because if there is Balkanisation, it will have a direct impact on India. That is one area of dialogue. As far as dialogue with the military junta [is concerned], I don’t think they are thinking about that. But there are some moves which I have been told have been made by certain Western powers of trying to achieve some reconciliation. That is something which I think the armed groups and the PDF and civil society would resist. But yes, there should at least be dialogue on the kind of federal structure they could have. In that dialogue, India can play a role because that dialogue is also taking place within India’s borders.

What would be that the one piece of advice that you would like to give the newly elected Indian government? What should it do to avoid greater calamity in the bordering areas with Myanmar?

Rajiv Bhatia: The advice is fairly self-evident. On the one hand, our people are trying to be in close touch with the military government. We have invested in this relationship over two decades, so that has to be. At the same time, we have sufficient leverage with the military to convey to them that their own people are suffering and the instability in Myanmar is having a negative impact across the board and on a major neighbour such as India and therefore the two countries should keep exchanging views on how we can address the humanitarian situation. At the level of people, at the level of communities, and at the level of the governments, we have to convey our deep interest in the good health, stability, and prosperity of Myanmar.

Listen to the conversation in The Hindu Parley podcast

Rajiv Bhatia is a Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former Ambassador; Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer

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