Stating that it is “disturbed” by the verdicts relating to Myanmar’s ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and others, India said Tuesday that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld. It said any development that “undermines these processes and accentuates differences is a matter of deep concern”.
Suu Kyi was sentenced to a four-year jail term by a Myanmar court which held her guilty of inciting dissent in the first of a series of verdicts. Her sentence was later reduced to two years in jail.
Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, said: “We are disturbed at the recent verdicts. As a neighbouring democracy, India has been consistently supportive of the democratic transition in Myanmar.”
“We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld. Any development that undermines these processes and accentuates differences is a matter of deep concern,” he said.
“It is our sincere hope that keeping their nation’s future in mind, efforts would be made by all sides to advance the path of dialogue,” the spokesperson said.
The MEA statement is significant, more direct than its past statements. Even the evolution of the statements is telling. Myanmar was rocked by massive protests after the military seized power in a coup on February 1 this year. Hundreds of people, including children, were killed in the crackdown against the protesters. Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), was among the key people detained by the military following the coup.
Hours after the coup, the MEA had said it had “noted the developments in Myanmar with deep concern”. “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. We are monitoring the situation closely,” it had said.
Weeks later, the Indian mission in Yangon tweeted on February 28 that “Embassy of India is deeply saddened by loss of lives in Yangon and other cities of Myanmar today”. This was the day when at least 18 people were killed during protests, according to the United Nations, after security forces opened fire on the crowds.
“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,” the Indian embassy had then said.
New Delhi had steered clear of criticizing the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, as it has been wary of Beijing’s growing influence and the high stakes involved to maintain peace and security along the India-Myanmar border. India’s statements so far have been based on pragmatism as turmoil has engulfed the neighbour.
New Delhi feels that instead of condemning the military leadership in Myanmar, it should work with partner countries to lean on the military to work together to resolve their differences in a peaceful and constructive manner.
With Washington leaning on Delhi, India finds itself in a tight spot on Myanmar. Aware of Beijing’s growing political, military and economic footprint in Myanmar, it does not want to isolate the Nay Pyi Taw regime. Delhi believes it can, with partner countries, engage the junta.
After being briefed by the UN Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener at the UNSC, India had said in March this year that it remains “deeply concerned that the gains made by Myanmar over the last decades on the path towards democracy, should not get undermined”.
“Restoring democratic order should be the priority of all stakeholders in Myanmar,” India’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, T S Tirumurti had said.
Officials say that India shares a land and maritime border with Myanmar and has direct stakes in the maintenance of peace and stability.
And, it needs the Myanmar military’s cooperation in dealing with the insurgent groups, which sometimes take shelter in Myanmar. Leaders of these groups have also taken refuge in China, and with Beijing’s proximity to Yangon, the government in Delhi is aware of the challenges.
In fact, that is the reason, Delhi has engaged with Myanmar through both civilian and military channels. In October last year, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Army chief General M M Naravane had visited Myanmar together, and had met the entire leadership, including top military officers and Suu Kyi.
Officials recalled that in 1988, India had firmly supported the protest groups and students, which were being led by Suu Kyi. But the military put it down, and Delhi was out in the cold.
As the situation along the India-Myanmar border worsened with the insurgency in the North-East, it had to change its strategy and started dealing with the military as well. And soon after, India and Myanmar launched coordinated joint operations against the insurgents in the mid-1990s.
Through the last three decades, even as India cooperated with Myanmar’s military rule, it also nudged it to follow the path towards democratic transition. In fact, it had counselled many Western countries against putting sanctions against the military regime. This, officials feel, had led the military in Myanmar to cosy up to China.
But, in recent months, as Modi met Biden in White House for the bilateral summit in September, the needle moved a little for Delhi.
After the meeting on September 24, the Indo-US joint statement said that the “leaders called for an end of the use of violence, for release of all political detainees, and for a swift return to democracy in Myanmar.”
On the same day, the Quad leaders’ statement said, “We continue to call for the end to violence in Myanmar, the release of all political detainees, including foreigners, engagement in constructive dialogue, and for the early restoration of democracy.”