International reactions to military coups fall into two broad categories — “we demand the immediate restoration of democracy” or “the generals might be bastards, but they are our bastards”. The two responses appear mutually exclusive, but to astute practitioners of statecraft, they are not. One way to accomplish this is to say one thing and do the other. A more sophisticated way is to say and do both things simultaneously. If we were to employ such methods in our personal and domestic lives, it would be rightly considered duplicitous, hypocritical, and immoral. In the amoral world of international relations, however, the same value judgements don’t readily apply. What matters is how well you secure your national interest.
This is the route the Narendra Modi government will have to take with Myanmar over the next few years, in the wake of General Min Aung Hlaing’s coup earlier this month. New Delhi should advocate for the restoration of a popular government, even as it remains engaged with the new junta. This is not necessarily a difficult task and India has managed this feat over the past two decades, but it can become difficult depending on how the political turmoil in the neighbouring country unfolds.
Supporting Aung San Suu Kyi
A major backlash against Myanmar’s military rule is unfolding right now, with the medical fraternity, student bodies, some civil servants, and sections of the Buddhist religious establishment openly protesting against the junta. Unlike previous episodes, this time there is a chance that public protests might achieve some success, especially if — as some astute analysts point out — there is support for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, National League of Democracy (NLD), within the ranks of Myanmar’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw.
For New Delhi, the challenge will be to break foreign policy out of two popular mind traps: First, that supporting Aung San Suu Kyi is uniformly in India’s interests, and second, that not backing the generals will throw Myanmar into China’s camp.
Suu Kyi is more Benazir Bhutto than Nelson Mandela. Far from being a liberal democrat in principle and a unifying national leader in practice, she has been either unwilling or unable to resist intolerant Bamar majoritarianism, making her indistinguishable from a man in the Tatmadaw. And in response to the international criticism against her role in covering up for the Rohingya genocide, she started getting so close to Beijing that even the Tatmadaw got worried. She cannot be blamed for pursuing what she sees as her political interests, and Myanmar’s national interests — but it is important to recognise that as much as Suu Kyi is popular among the Bamar majority, she is neither a liberal democrat nor a partner against Chinese geopolitical influence.
The China angle
Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s coup is not about ideology, policies, immunity from prosecution, or even the corporate interests of the Tatmadaw. It is about his personal career — he wants to rule the country. The only policy changes you can expect him to make are the ones that ensure he stays in power. The extent of Chinese influence in both the country’s economy as well as the security of the border provinces has caused the Tatmadaw to reach out to India, Russia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and even the West in a bid to balance Beijing’s clout.
He knows that China will not oppose his coup, but is quite likely to be concerned that the price Myanmar will have to pay for it might be too high. He cannot do without Beijing at this time, but should he successfully retain power, he will be looking to engage with India, ASEAN, and if the Joe Biden administration is receptive, the United States too. China, for its part, will seek to consolidate its gains and acquire greater influence in Myanmar’s economy, military, and politics. This is bound to trigger a nationalist backlash, as it has over the past decade.
What this means is that New Delhi need not be overly concerned about Beijing’s shadow in its dealings with Myanmar. Regardless of Suu Kyi’s politics, it is in India’s strategic interests to promote a developmental model in the region that is different from China’s. A stable, democratic, pluralistic and federal Myanmar is necessary for India to unlock the immense potential of “Act East”. It is also necessary to stabilise the politics of India’s own states of Nagaland, Manipur, and Assam.
Way ahead for India
As I have previously argued, “New Delhi should stop seeing the region from the perspective of its own geopolitical insecurities. Current policy has gotten it wrong. It’s not that India must engage Myanmar to prevent that country from coming under Chinese dominance. It’s that Myanmar needs India to prevent itself from being dominated by China. It is unnecessary to indulge the military-majoritarian regime to the extent India has been doing. If Myanmar falls to China, let it. Sooner or later the rulers of the country will have to call New Delhi.”
If the consequences of Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s coup expand from being a political contest on who gets to rule Myanmar to renewed armed struggles in its border states, New Delhi will have a different reason to be concerned, for those conflicts could spill over into India. Given that Bangladesh, too, is concerned about spillovers, it is probably as good a time as any for New Delhi and Dhaka to cooperate a lot more closely.
Nitin Pai is the director of the Takshashila Institution. Views are personal.