The military takeover in Myanmar last February, just days before the newly elected democratic government was to be sworn in, stymied the country’s tenuous transition to democracy, for which a beginning had been made in 2015. The purported reason for the coup d’état was that the elections were rigged, in which the National League for Democracy, under the stewardship of Aung San Suu Kyi had secured a majority for another term. However, the motivations were most likely the dissonances that existed between the democratic polity and the Myanmar army, as well as China’s covert incitement of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who was to shortly retire. The Myanmar army is the most important stakeholder in the country and has a proverbial finger in every pie in the country. The growing popularity of Suu Kyi raised its worst fears about losing legitimacy.
Notwithstanding the unfortunate developments since the Tatmadaw took over, India should implement an unbiased and proactive “Neighbourhood First” strategy that facilitates the Act East policy crucial for India’s long-term security and economic interests. A recalibration exercise for developing a robust relationship with Naypyidaw is the need of the hour. Such a policy should take into account the measures that China has taken to arm the Tatmadaw. India, in all its wisdom, should find ways to support Naypyidaw for its critical requirements of systems and platforms like UAVs, surveillance systems and communication equipment. In addition, there is a need for dynamic economic engagement with Myanmar, to expedite the completion of the earlier agreement on the operationalisation of the Sittwe port, the establishment of an oil refinery and joint vaccine production facilities at a cost of $6 billion. Myanmar — regardless of who governs its polity — is not only the decisive lynchpin for India’s Act East policy but critical for the economic development and security of India’s Northeast. The latter aspect has become even more imperative as earlier operations that were conducted against Indian insurgent groups (IIGs) have experienced a reversal, with many valley-based insurgent groups of Manipur forging an agreement with the Myanmar army.
The putsch triggered the current political crisis, setting off spontaneous riots within the country. This has since metamorphosed into a large-scale civil disobedience movement and is being brutally suppressed by the security forces. The unfolding tragedy has been criticised globally and has tarnished the image of the Tatmadaw. The visit by India’s Foreign Secretary to Myanmar in the last week of December 2021 was significant. It conveyed the message that India, notwithstanding its commitment to democracy, is amenable to conduct business with the country, regardless of who is in the seat of power. It was also the first visit by a senior official from the liberal world and to that end, it has set the stage for rapprochement and dialogue with the junta.
India has the singular advantage of acceptability from both factions in Myanmar and it is, therefore, imperative that it takes the lead in engaging with the ruling military leadership, to stop the highhandedness that is being exhibited by security forces against the civilian population and also kick-start the process of peace and stability in the country. India also needs to proactively employ the existing “people-to-people” goodwill and proximate ties between the two armies. The joint operations that were undertaken by the security forces to flush out the IIGs billeted in Myanmar’s Sagaing division attest to the fact.
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Reports that suggest that the military junta has entered an accord with these insurgent groups, in order to use them to quell the internal strife, are disturbing. Although the agreement seems to be a marriage of convenience, it seems to have emboldened the IIGs. The attack on the Assam Rifles in Manipur’s Churachandpur, could in all probability be a manifestation of such a development. The humiliation which China faced in Eastern Ladakh has driven it to adopt a different modus operandi. To that end, active Chinese interest seems to be gearing itself towards fuelling insurgency in the Northeast. Indeed, an inimical China could, in collusion with its all-weather ally, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, sow seeds of discord in a milieu that is gradually transforming itself into India’s growth engine. Ill-fated episodes, such as the killings of civilians in Mon, Nagaland, could be raked up in order to retard the integration process that is actively underway in the region. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance for India to positively engage Naypyidaw and stave off attempts to exploit Myanmar by countries inimical to India’s growth. Any ambiguity or delay in India’s constructive engagement with Myanmar would only serve the interests of anti-India forces.
This column first appeared in the print edition on January 25, 2022 under the title ‘Engage with Myanmar’. Sahni is a former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian army’s South Western Command. Saikia is a conflict analyst and author
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