With China announcing plans to mediate between Myanmar’s military junta and political parties, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations stepping up the pressure on its return to parliamentary democracy, India seems to be standing out as a reluctant neighbour with neither the heft nor the intent to play any role in the biggest ongoing crisis in the region. Chinese ambassador to the United Nations made a significant statement this week, saying that it was “time for dialogue” and not confrontation in Myanmar.” Clearly the Chinese, after the adverse impact their handling of Covid-19 had on their global image, do not want to be seen as backing a military takeover. They would seek to make a virtue out of necessity and play the role of mediator in Myanmar’s conflict resolution matrix — a role one would imagine India to play, given our credibility with Burmese political parties and the positive military relations between the Indian Army and the Tatmadaw.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs, in its first and only statement after the 1 February military takeover, did express ‘deep concern’ over the developments in Myanmar. “India has always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar. We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld,” said the statement.
But since then, India has been strangely silent on Myanmar, avoiding direct criticism of the military junta that has unleashed a fierce 1988-style repression of peaceful democratic protests.
Now India has joined China, Russia, and Vietnam to oppose and water down a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution drafted by the United Kingdom that was much more critical of the military junta than the one that was finally issued on 12 February. Diplomats of these four countries say they want to give dialogue a chance. Is democratic India in the right company on this may well be asked.
An illegal coup
At least 126 Myanmar citizens have died so far during the protests against the coup, with more than 400 injured, and close to 2,000 arrests reported across the country. The Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, has especially targetted Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, National League of Democracy (NLD), in a determined bid to weaken its organisation so that it cannot repeat its landslide win from November 2020 in the next election.
The Tatmadaw knows it has to let Myanmar return to electoral democracy but it is in damage control mode, trying desperately to weaken the NLD.
If Suu Kyi’s party fails to repeat its last performance in the polls, it will not be able to bring about key amendments to the 2008 military-drafted constitution, which gives the Tatmadaw control over three ministries of Home, Defence, and Border Affairs, 25 per cent of parliament seats, and total control of the country’s administration during an Emergency, which it forcibly declared on 1 February this year.
When President Win Myint refused to sign the proclamation of Emergency, that he alone was authorised to sanction, the army threw him in prison, and made military-backed Vice President Myint Swe hastily sign the proclamation as ‘Acting President’. So, the military takeover based on this very flawed use of emergency powers is completely illegal.
The fierce protests within Myanmar have been spurred by strong global, especially Western, criticism of the military takeover. Led by the United States, which has announced sanctions against Burmese military leaders, the leading democracies are up in arms against the Tatmadaw. The ASEAN, though more restrained, has pushed for a return to democracy in Myanmar without much ado.
India’s silence, regardless of its realpolitik constraints, makes it stand out in the global community of democracies, which the West is trying to forge to control and combat an assertive, authoritarian China.
India has two primary considerations in avoiding direct criticism of the Myanmar military junta. First, it does not want to upset the Tatmadaw so as to not provoke it into inaction against the rebel groups from India’s Northeast based in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division, the last trans-border base area for these groups.
Second, it does not want to push the military junta into the waiting arms of the Chinese, who will do business with whoever runs the country, obviously unconstrained by hangups about democracy.
Both these concerns are misplaced. The Tatmadaw needs the Indian Army more to fight the Arakan Army, which has challenged Burmese control of the conflict-scarred Rakhine province, than Indians need the Tatmadaw to fight the weakened insurgencies of Northeast. India’s Home Ministry has reported an eighty per cent drop in insurgent-related violence in Northeast, and the Assam Rifles and the Army can take credit for it.
An opportunity for India
The rebels have been denied use of Bhutan and Bangladesh’s territory since the first decade of this century. The Tatmadaw has traditionally avoided any major action against Northeast Indian rebels because it has had to focus on more powerful insurgencies challenging Burmese authority over regions populated by ethnic minorities. Only in the last few years has it resorted to some action, primarily as a quid pro quo for Indian military action (Operation Sunrise) against the Arakan Army.
The Chinese stole a march on India by backing, and arming, both the Burmese military (overtly) and the Arakan Army (covertly), and its ambitious Kyaukphyu port and SEZ project was not disturbed by the Arakan Army (AA). The AA has, in contrast, disrupted India’s Kaladan Multi-Modal project because it resents both Indian military action like Operation Sunrise and its 1998 double-cross of the National Unity Party of Arakans (NUPA), the AA’s precursor organisation in Rakhine.
Burmese democratic parties, civil rights groups, and freedom-loving citizens have communicated to Indian diplomats that popular opinion in the country was very strong against China. Placards during the protests in Myanmar read “Myanmar military coup, Made in China”. One leading NLD minister said the Burmese people will soon go on a ‘complete boycott’ of Chinese products, and they would love to replace them with Indian products.
Burmese traders have been approaching Indian companies for agency to sell their products in Myanmar in ever-increasing numbers, sensing a potential business boom. But corporate India is oblivious to this opportunity — and politicians, diplomats and military leaders have done nothing to exploit this.
After the hit its global image took post Covid, and keen as Beijing is to play a global role as a responsible power, there is no way China can shamelessly support a murderous campaign by the Tatmadaw against its own citizens, especially in the era of the internet and social media. One-third of Myanmar’s population is on Facebook. That explains China’s proactive mediation plans targetting all stakeholders in Myanmar.
By not joining other democratic nations in pushing strongly for a restoration of the dissolved Parliament, India risks losing its way towards a diplomatic no man’s land on a critical regional issue. If India believes it is an important power, it must start behaving like one.
The author is a former BBC & Reuters correspondent and author on India’s Northeast and its neighbourhood. He worked as Senior Editor in Myanmar’s Mizzima Media in 2016-18. Views are personal.