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India attending Myanmar military parade was about ‘protocol’, not ‘condoning’ coup by junta

India has to walk a tightrope because of its interests in Myanmar, the long border, and the issue of Northeast insurgencies. It has urged a dialogue since 1 Feb coup.

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New Delhi: India believes its participation in Myanmar’s ‘Armed Forces Day’ was “unavoidable”, but cannot be construed as “condoning” the recent actions of the country’s military, the ‘Tatmadaw’.

Highly placed sources told ThePrint that New Delhi believes it has made its position clear, having urged a dialogue between the civilian government and the Tatmadaw in a “peaceful manner” ever since the latter staged a coup on 1 February. The sources said India has taken a “calibrated and nuanced approach”, and remains focussed on carrying out the developmental projects it is undertaking in Myanmar.

Saurabh Kumar, India’s Ambassador to Myanmar, had outlined India’s position, saying in a tweet on 28 February: “Embassy of India is deeply saddened by loss of lives in Yangon and other cities of Myanmar today. We express our heartfelt condolences to families and loved ones of those deceased. We would urge all to exercise restraint and resolve issues through dialogue in a peaceful manner.”

India has come under significant criticism globally since reports emerged that the defence attache at the Indian Embassy in Myanmar participated in the ‘Armed Forces Day’ programme, which is organised to commemorate the beginning of the resistance of what was then called the Burmese Army against Japanese occupation in World War II. The Tatmadaw also calls it ‘Resistance Day’.

While celebrations were carried out with zeal in capital Naypyitaw, the military was unleashing extreme violence in Yangon and Mandalay, resulting in what has been called as the deadliest day since the coup took place.

All the world’s big powers have called out the Tatmadaw’s violent actions, which have claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians, peaceful protestors as well as young children. The US suspended all its trade ties with Myanmar on 29 March, and imposed a series of rigorous economic sanctions.

However, the sources pointed out that India has to take this nuanced approach keeping in mind that unlike the US or European countries, it is Myanmar’s immediate neighbour, sharing a 1,600-km long border. Myanmar’s other neighbours — Bangladesh, China, Pakistan, Russia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos — also sent their representatives to the Armed Forces Day event on 27 March, despite the fact that some of them have “deep differences” with the Tatmadaw junta, the sources said.

Also read: India is strangely silent about Myanmar’s coup — there are two strategic reasons

India’s aid to Myanmar

India is undertaking a number of mega projects in Myanmar, and is committed to providing grant-in-aid assistance amounting to around Rs 4,000 crore. Some of the projects that New Delhi has been engaged in for more than a decade include the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project, and assistance for border area development in the Naga Self-Administered Zone by financing bridges, roads, schools and small health centres.

India has also invested heavily in the development of the Rakhine State for the benefit of the displaced Rohingyas refugees, who fled due to genocide. In 2019, India handed over 250 prefabricated houses to the civilian government of Myanmar under the Rakhine State Development Programme (RSDP) project, and has earmarked $25 million for a period of five years.

In October 2020, during the visit of Foreign Secretary Harsh V. Shringla and Army chief M.M. Naravane to Myanmar, India had also announced a grant of $2 million for the construction of a ‘border haat’ bridge at Byanyu-Sarsichauk in Chin State, which is expected to provide increased economic connectivity between Mizoram and Myanmar.

Also read: 110-km road is final challenge for long-delayed India-Myanmar Kaladan connectivity project

Refugee crisis looms large

India is once again faced with a looming refugee crisis in the Northeast states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, which share an international boundary with Myanmar.

On Tuesday, the Manipur government issued a circular, which was later withdrawn, that it will not provide food and shelter to the Myanmar refugees lining up on its border.

Prior to that, Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking help, and even spoke to Zin Mar Aung, Myanmar’s foreign minister-in-exile, to address the refugee crisis.

India permits a ‘free movement regime’ up to 16 km beyond the border in Myanmar, thereby making the international border extremely porous. This has also become a concerning factor now for New Delhi, sources said.

‘India should be willing to pay a price’

Veteran diplomat Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who was India’s ambassador to Myanmar from 2013 to 2016, believes that India should “be willing to pay a price” and make a “pragmatic long-term assessment” on its posture towards the Tatmadaw junta.

“We need to take a call on what is right under the present circumstances, and even be willing to pay a price for it in the short term if necessary, but also (make) a pragmatic long-term assessment of the end state where the military cannot possibly prevail over 95 per cent of the population by brute force. The cost of that will be far higher,” Mukhopadhaya told ThePrint.

However, the former diplomat also said that being an immediate neighbour, India has “stronger stakes and compulsions than pure principle”.

“Our defence attache attending the Armed Forces Day parade was part of the protocol and not much should be read into it… After all, all of Myanmar’s other neighbours, including democratic Bangladesh which has serious issues with the Tatmadaw over the Rohingyas, attended it,” Mukhopadhaya said.

He added: “The refugee issue is a purely humanitarian issue. India should not refuse them, nor do we need to be so solicitous of their sentiments. After all, they have given shelter to IIGs (Indian insurgent groups) for years.”

(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)

Also read: India must be smart in supporting Myanmar, if Quad won’t measure up


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