Updated: May 20, 2021 7:57:44 am
Myanmar has been under military rule since February 1, with the country witnessing the most violent uprising in the country since the Saffron Revolution of 2007. As of May 11, at least 783 people have been killed and a total of 3859 people are under detention, with 20 of them facing death sentences.
Despite the United Nations Secretary General and others condemning the takeover and the US, UK and EU all imposing sanctions on the junta, regional powers like India, China and Russia have taken a more measured approach to the unfolding situation. Though condemning the violence, none have explicitly criticised the Tatmadaw (the armed forces in Myanmar) or reinforced the legitimacy of the election.
“India recognises the need for a trade-off vis-à-vis military rule in Myanmar,” reasons Dr Bibhu Routhray, director of the independent research forum, Mantraya, who spoke to Indianexpress.com via phone call. The Modi government, Routhray says, looks unlikely to deviate from India’s policy of non-interference and will likely continue to call for peace without taking any steps to condemn or undermine the Tatmadaw.
Myanmar is the gateway to Southeast Asia and as such, a vital trade partner for India and the only neighbour with which India shares both a land and sea border. It is also an important ally in combating extremism and insurgency. Crucially, India’s approach to the situation in Myanmar needs to be understood through the lens of competition with China. “Letting its neighbour and a key regional player fall completely under the influence of Beijing would result in major security concerns for India,” reasons Routhray.
India and Myanmar since 1948
Myanmar, once a part of the British Raj, has a long and complicated history with India. It has been under near absolute military control since gaining independence in 1948, and even in the wake of the 2008 democratic reforms, the Tatmadaw remained a driving force in domestic politics. India and Burma were close allies in the Non-Aligned movement of the 1950s but following Myanmar’s silence during the Indo-Chinese conflict of 1962, the countries maintained a relationship characterised by “stagnancy bordering on the margins of cordiality” for the next two decades.
The Congress governments of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi viewed military rule in Myanmar a threat to global democratic values and in 1988, following a crackdown by the Tatmadaw, India aligned itself firmly with the pro-democracy camps. In 1989, India’s then External Affairs Minister Narasimha Rao granted fleeing Burmese activists safe haven, and in 1990 pushed for two controversial student activists to be given political asylum. In 1992, India also signed a UN resolution condemning the junta for its human rights violations. India had chosen idealism and under that reality, could not be seen remaining silent on matters of human dignity.
That policy changed in the late 1990s, explains Routhray. The BJP had come to power and its approach to diplomacy, especially in relation to Myanmar, would be markedly different from its predecessors.
Marie Lall, in an Institute of South Asian Studies’ paper published in 2008, writes that the BJP’s foreign minister in 1998, Jaswant Singh, served as India’s “architect of realism,” attributing the warming of relations between India and Myanmar to the BJP’s willingness to engage with the Tatmadaw in order to pursue and promote India’s strategic ambitions in Southeast Asia. New Delhi realised that the military would remain a significant power in Myanmar, says Routhray, and consequently shifted its approach to align with “whoever worked in India’s interests.”
Dr Amit Singh, Professor of Political Science at University of Delhi, agrees with this assessment. While he is surprised by New Delhi’s reluctance to address the coup forcefully, he also recognises that it is characteristic of India’s approach to Myanmar in recent years. In the last three decades, India and Myanmar have cooperated on a number of anti-insurgency initiatives, trade deals and infrastructure projects. India has hosted several members of the Burmese military and political establishments, and was a strong advocate for Myanmar’s inclusion into ASEAN in 1997. Whether Myanmar fell under military or civilian rule, New Delhi showed a willingness to work with whichever faction was in power at the time.
The first consideration for India in terms of Myanmar is border security. The Indo-Burmese border is not only characterised by insurgencies, but also by delicate national sentiment. After Independence, the British carved a series of arbitrary boundaries between India and Myanmar, relegating several communities on either side of the border to ethnic minority status and dividing populations with common heritage and cultural histories.
Groups like the Chins of Myanmar and the Mizos of Mizoram share strong ethnic ties, as do the Nagas living on both sides of the border. Villages such as Longwa are situated in both Indian and Burmese territory. The North East is intrinsically bound to the people of Myanmar by a myriad of shared connections.
In recognition of these connections, India and Myanmar formed a unique arrangement called the Free Movement Regime (currently suspended due to Covid-19,) which allows residents to go up to 16km on the other side of the border and stay there for 14 days without a visa. People from Myanmar regularly visit India for work and medical care, and children cross the border unrestricted to attend school. Unlike India’s border with Pakistan, the Indo-Burmese border is largely unfenced and extremely porous. Its regulation is determined by trade and security considerations, but is also heavily influenced by the sentiments of the North East states towards their kin in Myanmar.
According to Singh, the four Indian states that share a land border with Myanmar, namely, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland, are all emotionally invested in the coup, a fact that New Delhi will have to keep in mind when dealing with Burmese citizens fleeing the country. Currently, the government has sealed the international border and has instructed the North Eastern states to “check illegal influx from Myanmar to India.”
This hard-line approach has stirred resentment and protest in the North East, with the Chief Minister of Mizoram in particular, expressing his dissatisfaction with New Delhi’s position. In March, Zoramthanga wrote to the Modi government that “Mizoram cannot just remain indifferent” to the suffering of the Burmese people and “cannot turn a blind eye to this humanitarian crisis unfolding right in front of us in our own backyard.” While the Indian government has not changed its position, it has, according to Routhray, demonstrated a cognizance of the emotional aspects of the situation.
Despite India’s reluctance to embrace populations crossing the border, Mizoram has seen a steady influx of people from Myanmar entering its territory in the aftermath of the coup. Amongst the civilians fleeing violence, there are also a number of policemen who refused to obey the junta’s orders to shoot activists. The Tatmadaw has asked the Indian government to repatriate the policemen, but the government has yet to heed their request.
This, Singh notes, is a tacit recognition of the sentiments of the North Eastern states by the Modi government albeit one that refrains from fully addressing their demands.
Myanmar is facing severe economic challenges and public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to military rule. Myanmar also has a considerable population of ethnic minorities, who have long felt ignored and suppressed by the government. With the country on the brink of civil war, vulnerable groups are likely to flee to neighbouring countries such as India, especially given the lack of secure border controls.
In the past, India saw refugees from Myanmar, including thousands of Rohingya Muslims, seek asylum within its borders. Following a greenlight from the Supreme Court, most of them were subsequently deported. However, following the coup, citizens in the North East have indicated a willingness to shield fleeing individuals from central authorities. If New Delhi maintains its current policy moving forward, it will have to accept that its directives may well be ignored in the North East.
The North East states of India have been conflict ridden since Independence, exacerbated by the presence of insurgent groups along the Indo-Bangladeshi and Indo-Burmese borders. Several extremist and separatist groups operate out of Myanmar, crossing into India via the porous border. Additionally, large quantities of narcotics are smuggled into India through Myanmar, with the latter being the second largest producer of opium in the world. The Indian army engaged in a policy of “constructive engagement” with the Tatmadaw, under which they also conducted joint military campaigns in 1995 to combat the spread of extremism in the North East, writes Pierre Gottsclich in the Journal of Current Southeast Affairs.
General Hlaing, who led the coup in Myanmar, has visited India on two occasions including in 2019, when the countries signed an MoU on defence cooperation. In 2020, the Myanmar military handed over a group of 22 insurgents active in Assam to the Indian government. The operation, a first of its kind, not only signalled strong ties between the two military establishments but, according to Routhray, also sent a message that “insurgents acting against India would not be allowed to operate within Myanmar.”
New Delhi has also assisted the Tatmadaw in fighting the Arakan Army in the Rakhine and Chin states. As a result of these joint efforts, in Singh’s opinion, “insurgency in the region has declined significantly.”
However, he notes, the ongoing strife in Myanmar has the potential to “ignite tensions,” an outcome that the Indian government will want to avoid.
The threat of increasing violence from insurgent groups is significant. Myanmar has a number of ethnic armed organisations (EAOs,) that are active within the country. These organisations are often well-funded, armed and adept at carrying out attacks both within and outside of Myanmar’s borders. As of now, many EAOs have opposed the military coup with some even providing support to the pro-democracy protesters. Their preferred method of resistance has typically been to stage attacks across the borderlands that they occupy, thus diverting military resources across multiple fronts. They have also been known to provide training to civilians and protection to those fleeing the junta. Empowered EAOs present security implications for both New Delhi and the Tatmadaw, with neither standing to benefit from the rise of these groups. One could argue about which country is more reliant on the other in this context, but realistically, permitting the spread of armed and active EAOs would prove to be a zero sum game for both parties.
New Delhi will be hesitant to alienate the Tatmadaw in the likely event that insurgent groups gain prominence in the aftermath of the coup. Myanmar has shown a willingness to pull out of joint anti-insurgency campaigns following perceived slights from India in the past, writes Routhray in his research paper ‘India-Myanmar relations: Triumph of pragmatism’, published in 2012. Notably, in 1995, the military allowed 200 rebels belonging to separatist groups in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur to escape detention, seemingly in response to India’s decision to award Suu Kyi the Jawaharlal Nehru Peace Prize in 1993.
According to both Routhray and Singh, Myanmar is the lynchpin of India’s Act East policy, particularly in regard to trade, by virtue of being India’s gateway to Southeast Asia. Myanmar provides India with increased connectivity to its North Eastern states, providing a faster route of transit as compared to going through Bangladesh and a more efficient route at times, than crossing the narrow Siliguri corridor. India currently has a number of infrastructure projects in Myanmar, including a trilateral highway to Thailand and the Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project (KMMTT.) The latter is particularly significant for India as it aims to connect southwestern Myanmar to northeastern India by creating a multi-modal trifecta of sea, river and road transportation corridors. Under the KMMTT and as part of India’s Indian Ocean security policy, New Delhi has developed the Sittwe port in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. This port is part of a larger plan to create a Special Economic Zone in Rakhine and boost India’s presence in the strategically important Bay of Bengal.
In his book, India and Myanmar Borderlands, Political scientist Nehginpao Kipgen, describes the Act East policy as India’s main tool in the economic development of the North East states. He writes that the policy aims to create “an enabling environment so as to end the landlocked situation and isolation of the Northeastern region by opening up its borders and integrating the region’s economy through improved trade and connectivity with Southeast Asian countries.”
Cross border trade with Myanmar is a vital driver of employment and income generation for households in India’s northeast, and the impending transportation linkages with other Asian countries through Myanmar will further fuel their economic growth and stability, writes Shwe Hein in a 2015 conference report for the Burma Centre Delhi titled, ‘India-Myanmar relations: Looking from the border’. As a fundamental part of the Act East policy, Myanmar has also been a beneficiary of Indian investment and foreign aid. India provided Myanmar with $1 billion in aid to strengthen its electoral processes and more recently, gifted a kilo-class submarine to the Burmese military forces. India also has a deeply integrated energy partnership with Myanmar and has invested in various oil and gas partnerships including a $6 billion petroleum refinery near Yangon.
A military junta in Myanmar in and of itself would not be detrimental to India’s Act East policy, as the Tatmadaw shares a “strong relationship” with the Indian government, according to Singh. However, instability in the region would threaten India’s near $780 million worth of investments in Myanmar and hinder the completion of vital infrastructure projects.
According to Routhray, Act East is as much about curbing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, as it is about maintaining strong economic relations with other Asian nations. However, despite India’s willingness to work with the Tatmadaw, and its increasing levels of investment in the region, according to Singh, China is still “by far” the most important foreign player in Myanmar, with India registering a “distant” second. If Western nations were to impose additional sanctions on Myanmar, given its already devastated economy, it could fall into the arms of Beijing whose deep pockets have been relatively bolstered by the Covid pandemic. India must maintain good relations with “whomever is in power” in Myanmar in order to protect its own investments and continue to develop its economic linkages with Southeast Asia, says Routhray.
China is an important partner for Myanmar. Journalist and writer Sudha Ramachandran in a 2012 research paper for the Institute of South Asain Studies, notes that when Western nations imposed sanctions on the junta in the 2000s, China gave it a much needed “lifeline” by expanding cross-border trade, providing the military with weapons and sanctioning loans and technical assistance. Between 1988 and 2013, China accounted for an enormous 42% of the foreign investment flowing into Myanmar and 60% of its arms imports. While Myanmar does under $2 billion of trade with India, it does over $12 billion with China.
Chinese investment in Myanmar has increased rapidly over the last two decades making Beijing the largest investor in the country. In turn, Myanmar features prominently in China’s trade calculus as well. It provides the impoverished provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou with a ready market for their commodities and is a key source of timber and gems for China. Myanmar also falls under China’s One Belt One Road project with a $100 billion economic corridor connecting the Yunnan province with oil and gas fields in Rakhine.
Additionally, Myanmar plays a crucial role in China’s security calculus too. Ramanchandran states that a Chinese pipeline passing through Myanmar would decrease Beijing’s dependence on the Straits of Malacca, which could be compromised by maritime terrorism or dominance of the Straits by another rival power. Chinese ports in Myanmar will provide a buffer for China against India’s presence in the Bay of Bengal and further strengthen its ‘string of pearls’ strategy.
China has also been accused of supporting militancy across the Indo-Burmese border for decades, most notably following an incident in November 2020, in which a large cache of weapons was seized in the Shan state by the Tatmadaw. The subsequent investigation revealed that the weapons were smuggled across China, with the intention of reaching terrorist factions operating in Myanmar. Investigations have also found that rebel leaders in Myanmar have trained on Chinese soil, met with Chinese leaders, procured arms from Chinese markets and gathered intelligence for China in India. New Delhi already has to contend with a Chinese threat along its Northern frontier and a Chinese backed Pakistani threat from the West. It is reliant on cooperation with the Myanmar army to ensure that its Eastern front avoids succumbing to the destabilising influence of China as well. China’s growing presence in Myanmar is of great concern to India and several other Asian states such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, who fear an heightened Chinese naval presence near the Straits of Malacca and in the Indian Ocean.
India’s approach towards the coup in regard to China may not be as simple as expected. While the Tatmadaw enjoyed a relatively strong relationship with New Delhi, Beijing found a far more receptive partner in Suu Kyi according to Chinese foreign policy expert Yun Sun in her 2012 research paper, ‘China and changing Myanmar’. Even in the early 2000s, when China was the dominant foreign presence in Myanmar, the Tatmadaw was suspicious of Chinese intentions, states China and Asia analyst, JM Malik in his research paper, ‘Myanmar’s role in regional security: Pawn or pivot’ (1997). It understood that China was willing to support communist factions in the country and that it had provided covert assistance to several EAO groups as well. China had also agreed to a dam project on the Irrawaddy river with the Tatmadaw, only to back out of it in 2011.
Additionally, the Tatmadaw has always been suspicious of foreign powers, a sentiment that prohibited it from considering any country, even one that it was as reliant on as China, as a true partner. On the other hand, China had a strong record of engagement with the Suu Kyi government, writes Yun Sun. It supported the NLD in the aftermath of the Rohingya crisis and signed the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor agreement while Myanmar was under Suu Kyi’s rule. Observers have argued that given those circumstances, India would actually benefit from military rule in Myanmar, especially if curbing Chinese influence remains New Delhi’s main foreign policy objective. However, there is no definitive way of proving that hypothesis and for now, all that can be agreed upon, is that instability in Myanmar is detrimental to India, China and the region as a whole.
Bibhu Routray, India-Myanmar Relations: Triumph of Pragmatism, Jindal Journal of International Affairs (2011)
Kristian Stokke, Roman Vakulchuk and Indra Øverland, Myanmar: A Political Economy Analysis, Norwegian Institute of Foreign Affairs (2008)
Ambuj Thakur, India’s Northeast: Transforming a Troubled Frontier into a Gateway, Institute of Social Science (2015)
J. M. Malik, Myanmar”s Role in Regional Security: Pawn or Pivot?, A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs (1997)
Yun Sun, China and the Changing Myanmar, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs (2012)
Sudha Ramachandran, Sino-Myanmar Relationship: Past Imperfect, Future Tense, Institute of South Asian Studies (2012)
Munmun Majumdar, India–Myanmar Border Fencing and India’s Act East Policy, India Quarterly: A Journal of International Affairs (2020)
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.