By Biplabjoy Purkayastha, Researcher of Indian Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of South Asia and the Indo-Pacific
Now known as Myanmar, Burma formed an essential part of the Raj till 1937, when it was separated from British India. The country formally got its independence in 1948, and since then, it has witnessed many political upheavals. The latest of them includes the toppling of the democratically elected government by the military junta. The February 1 coup in Myanmar faced massive outrage among its people, which resulted in the junta resorting to repression. Political leaders such as Aung Sun Suu Kyi have been detained, and uncountable civilians were killed in the military firing. This is after the peaceful transition to democracy and hopes of a more integrated Myanmar in international fora, which has so far remained as a reclusive state. The recent chain of events led to the international community condemning the coup strongly with calls for cessation of violence and returning people’s rights. However, the degree of outrage varied widely, with the most lukewarm stand taken by the world’s second-largest economy, the People’s Republic of China.
China is like the omnipotent entity in International Relations, and more so in South Asia. It’s the most formidable challenge that India faces when it comes to the question of its neighbours. In the case of Myanmar, too, the Chinese factor loomed large. In the aftermath of the 2017 violent attacks on Rohingyas, India’s muted response to the humanitarian crisis was only to thwart a greater Chinese influence on the Myanmarese state. This irked Indian ally Bangladesh to a great extent as it had to deal with millions of Rohingya refugees with scant resources. In the February 1 coup, China blocked the UNSC resolution on Myanmar, which was supposed to demand the immediate end of violence in the beleaguered country. It argued that international sanctions on the junta would only alienate it further. This puts the Indian policies towards its eastern neighbour into a tight rope. The nose-diving India-China relations has made it important that no matter whosoever rules the people of Myanmar, India should not let Naypyidaw slip into Beijing’s hands. India’s ambitious Act East Policy hinges on the geographical location of Myanmar as the bridge to South East Asia. However, saying this, unrest in Myanmar is also not at India’s behest. The four Northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram share ethnic ties with the bordering tribes of the other side. There has been vocal support by the Mizoram Chief Minister about the influx of Myanmarese refugees in the recent coup.
Further, the rise of various armed insurgent groups of Northeastern India, historically funded or armed by China, who were kept at bay by the civilian government till now, poses a fresh internal security threat to India. China’s territorial reach in Myanmar up to the Andaman Sea (there is a Chinese presence at Coco Islands, 100 km from North Andaman) had been making New Delhi uncomfortable, and keeping in mind the history of Chinese relations with the Myanmar Junta, it has more reasons to be worried. We have to keep in mind that authoritarian China has been best in terms with the Myanmar military since the 1990s. Thus, the mandarins in South Block are faced with some tough choices. However, some breather came with the recent ASEAN summit held in Indonesia.
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recently had its leader’s meeting in Indonesia. Quite surprisingly, the Junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing also attended the meeting and also agreed to the ‘Five-Point Consensus’ released in the ASEAN statement after the meeting. Though the grouping faced a lot of backlash for inviting the military leader, the initiative seems to have paid off, at least for now. He listened to the demand of other leaders in the summit and promised to follow up on them depending on the regime’s internal assessment. The five-point consensus talked about the cessation of violence, constructive dialogue among all stakeholders, and humanitarian assistance. The other two points being the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy for mediation and the visit of the ASEAN delegation to Myanmar. Though these are welcoming gestures, the question remains. ASEAN, unlike European Union, is based on the principles of non-intrusive regionalism. It means ASEAN members cease to interfere in each other’s internal matters. Citing these, the junta can restrict the scope of the delegation and the envoy for mediation. It is also possible that to counter the miffed West, the junta can very much hinge on its northern neighbour China and maintain the status quo on the domestic conditions, further cementing its iron grip.
India has to deal with the current Myanmar crisis very delicately. The military seems to be a little concerned about the international condemnation, but the Chinese presence may act quite as a spoilsport. India has to strike the right balance between being vocal about democratic values and retaining its spot in the emerging geopolitical competition in the region. Its ambitious projects like Kaladan Multimodal Transport and India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway form bedrock for the development of its northeastern hinterland and greater engagement with the booming economy of Southeast Asia. It must also be mentioned that the first ‘surgical strike’ was also conducted over the Myanmar border, and hence the security aspect too very well comes to the picture. Till now, India has supported the ASEAN efforts in bringing peace to the resource-rich strategically located country. It can do a little more by leveraging its relations with ASEAN countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam to find a lasting solution to the crisis. Also, the Modi Government can put BIMSTEC, which also includes Myanmar, more actively into the picture through economic incentives and somehow get the Military leaders into the negotiating table. A stable Myanmar is in India’s national interest. It should not adopt the principle of inactivity when a crisis of such a massive scale is raging in its eastern borders. India’s aspirations of being a global power depend on how it stands up and mitigates the humanitarian crises in its backyard.