New Delhi: India is looking at taking its bilateral ties with Myanmar, especially defence and maritime security cooperation, to the next level as the country gears up for general elections on 8 November – its second since decades of rule by a military junta ended in 2011.
Myanmar is a key country for India as part of the Modi government’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy even as Nay Pyi Taw continues to balance its strategic and trade ties with both New Delhi and Beijing.
With China’s influence increasing manifold in the neighbourhood — from geopolitics to defence and business — New Delhi is looking forward to building “stronger ties” with Nay Pyi Taw, Indian diplomatic sources said.
Issues like the repatriation of Rohingya refugees remain, but India is now focussed on taking the bilateral relationship to a strategic level as Myanmar looks at making a slow and gradual transition to democracy, the sources added. Eventually, they said, India could bring it under the larger Indo-Pacific construct.
India is a “close friend, partner, and neighbour” of Myanmar and has a “deep and abiding interest to see an early stabilisation of the situation in the Rakhine state”, said an official who did not wish to be identified.
The Rakhine state is the Myanmarese province where the majority of its Rohingya minority was based before a brutal crackdown by its army in 2017 drove out members of the community, subject to years of persecution in Myanmar, which denies them citizenship. Thousands of the community’s members subsequently settled in refugee camps in Bangladesh, while some made their way to India.
India has been taking up the cause of Rohingya repatriation with Myanmar on behalf of Bangladesh due to its robust ties with the country, including during last month’s visit of Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Army Chief General M.M. Naravane.
“India supports safe, sustainable, and speedy repatriation of displaced persons from Bangladesh to Rakhine state based on the understanding between Bangladesh and Myanmar,” the official said.
Suu Kyi’s landslide victory and Rohingya challenge
Myanmar’s last election in 2015 came four years after the country made a transition to democracy following decades of military rule. The last election resulted in a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.
A Nobel Peace Prize winner, Suu Kyi is the de-facto leader of the country, but has seen her image get battered over the 2017 crackdown on Rohingya refugees and her government’s handling of the matter. The crackdown followed years of persecution suffered by the largely-Muslim Rohingya in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
While the Myanmar army denies having targeted civilians in the 2017 crackdown, saying it was fighting militants, the international community has taken a dim view, with the United Nations describing it as ethnic cleansing.
Since 2019, Suu Kyi has emerged as the face of Myanmar’s defence against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, where she has denied the allegations during a case based on a complaint from a group of Muslim-majority nations.
Refugees fleeing Myanmar, in 2017 and before, have found refuge in India and Bangladesh. But both countries are now working towards their repatriation. There are about 40,000 Rohingya refugees in India and 1 million in Bangladesh.
In July 2019, India gifted 250 prefabricated houses to the Myanmar government for the displaced Rohingyas, a move also meant to convince members of the community to return. The housing project was part of an agreement signed between India and Myanmar in 2017. India had accepted the project under the Rakhine State Development Programme (RSDP), and New Delhi allocated $25 million for the purpose for a period of five years.
“The Rohingya issue may continue, the case in ICJ may continue, but domestically she still enjoys robust support and may come back to power again. I do not see too many surprises there or too much course correction,” said Gautam Mukhopadhyay, India’s former Indian Ambassador to Myanmar.
“The government there has been running on a hybrid system and there has been a cohabitation of the military and the civilian government. Suu Kyi will like to have full civilian power but it will be difficult for her to garner support for the amendment of the Constitution,” he added.
According to Rajiv Bhatia, distinguished fellow at Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House, the repatriation of Rohingya refugees will be “very difficult” in the near future. However, he said, this is an important election and India is keeping an eye on it.
The China factor
In Myanmar, India shared a good rapport with the military regime and the equation continues with Suu Kyi.
During his trip to Myanmar last month, Indian Army chief Naravane separately met Vice Senior General Soe Win, deputy commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Armed Services.
India has also gifted a Kilo-class submarine — INS Sindhuvir — to Myanmar Navy even as it plans to bring the country under the larger Indo-Pacific construct, which is aimed at containing China, as well as its own vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region).
“We understand that this will be the first submarine of the Myanmar Navy. This is in accordance with our vision of SAGAR and also in line with our commitment to building capacities and self-reliance in all our neighbouring countries,” Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava had said last month while announcing the decision.
Bhatia, also a former Indian Ambassador to Myanmar, said, “Defence is a major component of the relationship between India and Myanmar. We are maritime neighbours, so we want them to use more of our defence armaments instead of foreign ones. Myanmar has established a good relationship with China but the military there is more favourably inclined towards India. So, they will always maintain that fine balance.”
Mukhopadhyay agreed. “Myanmar is not going to fall in China’s trap even though they are part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and will continue to balance their bilateral ties with India as well as with China,” he said.