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India plans ‘twin-track’ approach to engage with Myanmar junta as China makes inroads

India has taken a ‘decisive step’ to officially engage with Myanmar’s junta, keeping in mind its close partnership with ASEAN and concerns over Beijing growing closer to the regime.

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New Delhi: Eleven months after a military coup overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government, India is now following a “twin-track approach” towards the country while continuing to push for a return to democracy, top-level sources told ThePrint.

New Delhi has drawn up a comprehensive plan to engage with Myanmar’s military junta in an effort not only to counter China’s growing influence there, but also to assert its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, while the security situation along the 1,700-km-long India-Myanmar border remains a concern.

In December 2021, India took a decisive step to reach out to the Tatmadaw — Myanmar’s military — something that New Delhi has done historically despite the turbulent years there. Atrocities committed by the military regime continue to mount even now.

During his two-day visit to Myanmar on 22-23 December, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla met the military’s commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, who led the 1 February 2021 coup, as well as representatives of ousted pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

However, the junta did not allow Shringla to meet Suu Kyi, who remains imprisoned. The foreign secretary had met her during his previous visit to Myanmar in October 2020.  

In November last year, seven people, including the commandant of the 46 Assam Rifles, Colonel Viplav Tripathi, his wife, son, and four jawans, were killed in Manipur’s Churachandpur district. Two proscribed militant groups operating in the state, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Manipur Naga People’s Front, have jointly claimed responsibility for the ambush.

With several such insurgent groups believed to have havens in Myanmar, Shringla raised the matter during his meeting with the military leadership. The two sides agreed that they would not allow their respective territories to be used for “any activities inimical to the other”.

Security was the main agenda for India during the visit, and it also raised the issue of Indian Insurgent Groups (IIG) in Myanmar’s Chin State, considered to be their safe sanctuary, said another source.  

The source also named a number of insurgent groups that have their camps or hideouts in the Myanmar Naga Hills (MNH). These include Manipur based-Meitei insurgent groups such as PLA, United National Liberation Front (UNLF), and People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), as well as Naga groups such as National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K), the anti-talk faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).

New Delhi believes that all these outfits are “regrouping” themselves, and thus it needs to heighten its engagement with the junta, the source said.

On the military cooperation front, the submarine that India gifted Myanmar in 2020 was commissioned by the Myanmar Navy as UMS Minye Theinkhathu in December last year. 

However, following its “twin-track” approach, India will continue to push for democracy in Myanmar, sources said.

“As a democracy and close neighbour, India has been involved in the democratic transition process in Myanmar and in this context has worked with various stakeholders in developing capacities on democratic systems and practices. India proposes to renew these efforts for Myanmar to emerge as a stable, democratic, federal union in accordance with the wishes of the people of Myanmar,” the Ministry of External Affairs said after the foreign secretary’s visit. 

Also read: India aimed to reshape regional power balance in 2021

Developmental projects and aid by India to Myanmar

New Delhi will also continue to provide food aid and other humanitarian assistance to Myanmar as the economy there remains in a ramshackle state, sources said.

India has also decided that it will continue to carry out its ongoing developmental projects across the length and breadth of Myanmar, including the crucial deep-sea project at Sittwe in Rakhine province, under the $484-million Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project, sources confirmed.

Meanwhile, China, which initially distanced itself from the junta, has now warmed up to it. Beijing gifted a submarine to Myanmar in December 2021, and it is making rapid progress in developing the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC).

Shringla handed over 10 lakh Covid vaccine doses to the Myanmar Red Cross Society, a portion of which will be provided to communities living along the border with India, as New Delhi believes the influx of refugees in the border areas is one of the main reasons behind the spike of Covid cases in the northeastern states.

India has also announced a grant of 10,000 tonnes of rice and wheat to Myanmar.

According to sources, India will also work closely with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in carrying out projects in Myanmar also to maintain diplomatic ties under the larger multilateral forum. Apart from Myanmar, the other ASEAN member states are Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Brunei, Laos and the Philippines. 

India, sources said, will also be pushing to complete the long-pending India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, which will connect Moreh in Manipur to Moe Sot in Thailand via Bagan in Myanmar.  

Also read: Key Naga groups to meet & decide ‘further course on talks’, Modi govt calls for peace

‘India to engage with the junta at any cost’

Shantanu Mukharji, a security analyst and former IPS officer, said, “Whether it is the junta or anybody else, we have to engage with them at any cost to counter the Chinese influence.” 

“NSCN-K are getting some kind of support — they used the most sophisticated weapons that came from the armoury of the Myanmar army. We cannot afford to have another ambush like that. If India joins the international bandwagon to release Suu Kyi, then the Myanmar military leadership might be incensed with India,” he added.

Mukharji believes that not letting the foreign secretary meet Suu Kyi is “significant” as it means the junta will continue to maintain a tough stand. “We need to continuously engage them so that we don’t lose control over them. We need to have a close watch. If one more attack takes place, then the assurances given to Foreign Secretary Shringla will fall flat. So we should follow every move of the military very gingerly.”

He added, “As far as China is concerned, it has always been supporting the Naga insurgents. So the security angle is such in the northeast that we can’t ignore it. The democracy bogey will not work at all there. China was initially upset with Suu Kyi’s removal but eventually went into the army’s camp.”

According to Mukharji, ASEAN has also reconciled with the new reality. They know that US sanctions will be ineffective. So, India will have to think about its own interests and ensure that security is maintained.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: Terrorists behind Assam Rifles ambush likely came through ‘porous’ Myanmar border: Manipur CM


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