Should Myanmar be a dilemma for India as global calls for restoration of democracy in Naypyidaw get louder?

Washington has announced sanctions against the military leaders and democracies around the globe are up in arms against the Tatmadaw

Jaideep Saikia January 30, 2023 09:03:00 IST
Should Myanmar be a dilemma for India as global calls for restoration of democracy in Naypyidaw get louder?

Myanmar's Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. ANI

On 10 January 2023, Myanmar’s air force strafed Camp Victoria, the headquarters of the Chin National Front. Situated cheek-by-jowl with Mizoram, stray reports emanating from unconfirmed sources said that the Myanmarese jets flew over Indian air space and caused collateral damage inside Mizoram. The attack triggered protest from the Tuipuiral Group of the Young Mizo Association who sought New Delhi’s intervention. Camp Victoria is situated close to the Tiau River which marks the boundary between the two countries and close to Farkawn in Mizoram’s Champhai district.

The 1 February 2021 military takeover of Myanmar has caused close to 40,000 people of the Chin community to flee their homes in Myanmar and take refuge in Mizoram and adjoining Manipur. The Chins living in Myanmar’s Chin State along the Mizoram border and the Mizos in India belong to the greater Zo community, as do the Chin-Kuki people settled in Bangladesh.

The refugee crisis is but one of the incidents that have come to characterise Myanmar after the military takeover. There has been widespread condemnation of the Tatmadaw with calls for international censure of human rights violations inside Myanmar. The Chin exodus into India could have long-term ramifications for the state of Mizoram and the North East.

New Delhi has sought not to take sides on the matter and has along with Russia and China, abstained from a UN Security Council resolution criticising Myanmar’s military regime, and has instead called for “quiet, patient” and “constructive” diplomacy with the junta.

A UN Security Council resolution on the situation in Myanmar, a first in decades, demanded an end to human rights violations in Myanmar and the release of imprisoned leaders including President Win Myint and Aung San Suu Kyi. In any event, the ambivalence that is being exhibited by New Delhi is being debated by Myanmar watchers in India. An episode that this author was witness to and analysis is merited at this juncture.

In November 2014, the author was a member of the Indian delegation for a Track II Dialogue with Myanmar. The delegation had among others, a very senior former diplomat who had headed a particular prime minister’s Policy Planning Committee in 1984 and a former army commander. The author had earlier represented India in Track II Dialogues with Bangladesh and China, but a curious sense of atavism had gripped his innards when he was asked to be part of the Indian delegation to Yangon. It was—he later surmised—because (almost subconsciously) he knew he would be going back to his roots. After all, his ancestors had come to Assam from the Shan province and from across the Patkai, the range which separated the North East from Myanmar. In any event, the Track II Dialogue got underway and all was well.

However, something was disturbing the author. It was the briefing that the Indian delegation had received from the senior diplomat (aforesaid) before the Dialogue formally began. The Indian delegation was clearly told, no mention of Rohingyas or the Lady in this hall! Almost a year later, Aung San Suu Kyi won the General Elections in Myanmar with a landslide victory and the issue pertaining to the Rohingya spillover into India became a matter of national concern. It is, therefore, wondered whether New Delhi has unveiled its Neighbourhood First policy just for effect. It is also wondered whether security czars in India are aware that China was storm-trooping across Myanmar, a course that would have far-reaching security implications for India.

Indeed, after the military takeover of 1 February 2021, Beijing offered to arbitrate between the Tatmadaw and the political parties primarily the National League for Democracy (NLD).

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), too, have been pressuring the military junta for the restoration of democracy. However, India seems to be the only important neighbour that was humming and hawing while it should have seized the opportunity and made an entry into what is a crucial expanse and whose geopolitics has a vital role to play in the fortunes of India. It is quite clear that Beijing is playing its cards with great care and it is loath to be seen as backing the Tatmadaw. Furthermore, their sense of realpolitik is leading them to ensure that India (despite its proximity with both the Myanmarese military and the NLD) does not acquire elbow room in troubled Myanmar.

Indeed, India did make the right noises about democracy and its support for a return to democracy in Myanmar. But beyond such watered-down statements; South Block seems to be maintaining a studied silence. Indeed, it has just been abstaining from voting against any international position against the junta. The reason for this conduct could well be that it is trying to avoid criticising the Myanmarese military. The memories of Op Golden Bird when the Myanmarese Army suddenly withdrew from a joint operation against Indian Insurgent Groups as a result of New Delhi’s unexpected (even as Op Golden Bird was on) decision to award Aung San Suu Kyi is perhaps fresh in New Delhi’s institutional memory and is, therefore, reluctant not to make a bold stand.

In the opinion of this author, the primary reason for the putsch was a) the growing popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi inside Myanmar as well as in the international fora b) the need to considerably weaken the constituency by way of the traditional supporters of the NLD and consequently the party itself and c) send a clear message that the military would always have the last word in Myanmarese polity. Therefore, even if Senior General Min Aung Hlaing harbours the ambition of becoming the president of Myanmar, he will ensure that the Tatmadaw would continue to wield maximum power in the country. This would be notwithstanding the fact that Suu Kyi would be able to script a repeat of the NLD’s past electoral performances.

Home, Defence, and Border Affairs, 25 per cent of parliament seats, and total control of the country’s administration during an Emergency would rest with the military. It is almost a truism that 99 per cent of the armed forces of Myanmar supported Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and the military action. In the scheme of things and if history is read with care, the military is the prima donna in Myanmar, and, indeed, would continue to be for all time to come.

Fierce protests and reports of human rights abuse within Myanmar have sparked off strong criticism from primarily the West. Washington has announced sanctions against the military leaders and democracies around the globe are up in arms against the Tatmadaw. But the author’s analysis is somewhat unorthodox: a) the junta knew what it was getting into before embarking upon the course of action that it adopted and b) it had already factored in aspects such as economic sanctions and criticism—aspects that are neither novel nor unduly disconcerting. The most important reason for the takeover is, therefore, power and, of course, the fear that Suu Kyi’s growing popularity (even with China with whom the Tatmadaw’s relations have cooled after Suu Kyi became the State Counsellor).

To be fair to India (despite the fact that its ambivalent character was called in for questioning!) its silence is egged on by two important considerations. This article has already referred to Op Golden Bird and to that end New Delhi does not want to offend the Tatmadaw so as to not incite it into inaction against the belligerents from the North East, elements of which continue to be based in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division, the last bastion for such groups.

The action which came in the wake of Op Sunrise I & amp; II were music for Indian ears and a goodly crop of North East insurgents (primarily the ULFA (Independent)) returned to India leaving Paresh Baruah to his own idiosyncratic devices in Yunnan’s Ruili and thereabouts.

Another aspect that must be playing heavily on New Delhi’s mind is that it would not like the Myanmarese military to do business with Beijing. The latter (notwithstanding its offer for mediation) would in the final analysis do business with whoever is in power in Naypyidaw.

The long and short of it is that India is playing a patient game, which under the circumstances has been guided by prudence. After all philanthropy cannot be at the expense of one’s own interest. And, as any judicious banker would testify interests accrue over a period of time. It does not come to be all of a sudden.

The author is a conflict theorist and bestselling author. Views expressed are personal.

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