The Myanmar coup has left India in a tight spot as it continues to factor in its strategic interests in Myanmar
Prominent democratic political leaders have been placed under house arrest and thousands of pro-democracy protesters have been killed or injured.In the midst of all this, the international reaction was swift and crushingly opposed to the Tatmadaw’s power grab. The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to condemn the coup while the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) imposed sanctions. Even the ASEAN’s more sober and measured stance called for an end to the violence and the opening of negotiations between the opposing parties; it is a call that has been largely remained unheeded by Myanmar. As the crisis has unfolded, New Delhi finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. India’s position and complicated history with Myanmar do not afford it the luxury of moral certainty that western governments have been wont to display. To begin with, India’s security relationship with the Burmese security forces form a key part of its counterinsurgency strategy in the Northeast against armed groups like the Arakan Army. The necessity of responding to cross-border terrorism in the complex ethnic mix of India’s Northeast has made strange bedfellows of India and Myanmar. In the course of building this partnership, India has also sold military equipment to its neighbours; the arms sold range from sonar equipment to diesel submarines. With these security interests at play, New Delhi is wary of backing the sanctions and tough rhetoric emanating from a number of western capitals. Indian diplomacy is also guided by history. A similarly brutal crackdown on civilians by the Tatmadaw in 1988 brought harsh Indian criticism to the fore. However, New Delhi paid a heavy price for its outspoken policy as relations with Myanmar’s security forces were put on ice by the latter. Of course, Myanmar, in 2021, had been moving steadily towards a popularly-backed democratic movement. The Tatmadaw is deeply unpopular both at home and abroad and the citizenry is unwilling to go quietly into an authoritarian night.
The necessity of responding to cross-border terrorism in the complex ethnic mix of India’s Northeast has made strange bedfellows of India and Myanmar.Policymakers in South Block are also worried about India’s growing economic presence in Myanmar and the omnipresent China challenge. Bilateral trade, which stands at a modest US $1.5 billion, has nonetheless expanded at a steady clip for the last decade. India has also underwritten several key connectivity projects like the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project. India has also been fighting an intense battle to make inroads into China’s dominant sphere of influence in Asia. India’s economic commitments are dwarfed by the China-Myanmar economic corridor while questions linger about the Southeast Asian nation’s dependence on Chinese trade and investments. In this milieu, India finds that it has no easy choices. Its proximity to Myanmar and established interests in the country may temper its natural sympathy for pro-democracy protesters. Regardless of the outcome of Myanmar’s current predicament, the Tatmadaw are likely to remain a significant presence in the country’s politics. While it is undoubtedly a pressing moral quandary, preserving India’s relationship with long standing security partners remains essential. India’s abstention at the UN General Assembly vote condemning the coup spoke volumes about its strategic calculus. Though there is a danger that by hewing close to the military, New Delhi may end up alienating the wider citizenry, in the short term, India’s policy must rely on quiet, rather than public, diplomacy. While western governments can create pressure on the military junta through sanctions and mobilising international public opinion, New Delhi can adopt ASEAN and Japan’s more measured stance urging for political reconciliation. Indeed, recent statements by the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, which voice clear support for the resumption of democratic rule, are a step in the right direction.
One of the key drivers of Myanmar’s political liberalisation was a deep suspicion of Chinese influence and the need to bring in outside international investors.India’s role as a bridging power in this conflict also rests on Myanmar’s deep concern about magnifying existing dependence on China. In fact, one of the key drivers of Myanmar’s political liberalisation was a deep suspicion of Chinese influence and the need to bring in outside international investors. As such, India’s neutrality, economic investments, and security cooperation are assets that the military Junta cannot afford to do without. In the long term, India’s interests are best served by cooperating with other like-minded nations to affect the institutional culture of the Tatmadaw. Currently, vast numbers of the military brass are educated in countries with more authoritarian models of governance, like Russia. While attempts to train military officers in English and boost officer exchanges with the West did take off, these came to a screeching halt in the aftermath of the Rohingya crisis. Ultimately, training and shaping the value systems of the military elite by exposure to political models, where the military enjoys a respected albeit non-political role, may help shift attitudes in the long run.
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Shashank Mattoo was a Junior Fellow with the ORFs Strategic Studies Program. His research focuses on North-East Asian security and foreign policy.Read More +