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India’s option in Myanmar post-military takeover: Primacy of strategic interests

The military takeover of Myanmar has not come as a surprise. After the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) – a party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) was uncomfortable with the prospects of its waning authority and apprehensions of the NLD led parliament to clip its wings. The provision to have 25% of the seats in the parliament appeared insufficient to protect its interests. The Tatmadaw’s proxy party the Union Solidarity and Development Party had won only 33 seats of 476 seats. It was clear that in the new parliament, the influence of the military would have been reduced considerably. Fortunately for the Tatmadaw, the opposition pointed out widespread fraud in the elections and were demanding re-elections and these provided with a ground to oust the civilian government.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing took over formally the reins of power for one year during which he promised to scrutinise the voters’ list and investigate into the allegations of fraud. The clause of 2008 constitution was used for the transfer of power from the President to the Tatmadaw under ‘the state of emergency’. While the President Win Myint, a Suu Kyi ally was placed under the house arrest, the Vice President Myint Swe, a former general and member of the previous junta handed over the power to the Commander-in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Ms Suu Kyi the State Councillor has also been placed under house arrest allegedly for keeping a foreign communication system and a few more charges.

In fact, the Myanmar military has been ruling the country since 1962. After a popular uprising in 1988, thousands of people were killed in the crackdown. The military junta kept all the powers. Though the country in the 21 st Century started moving towards democracy particularly after 2008, the Tatmadaw continued to control both domestic and external policies. The civilian government could do whatever was not opposed by the Tatmadaw.

The recent action on the 1 st February appears to have been propelled by two factors. First, the Tatmadaw could have taken this step to prevent any chance of NLD dominated parliament amending the constitution to reduce the powers of the Tatmadaw. Media reports indicate that Suu Kyi was considering to reduce the number of military seats in the parliament to just 5%. Second, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s own ambition could also be behind this move. He was to retire soon and the possibility of his getting the position of the President of the country was remote by a NLD dominated parliament, given the antagonistic relations between NLD and the Tatmadaw.

India is again facing a dilemma over its approach towards Myanmar that it faced after 1989 crackdown on the people: whether to support democracy based on its high moral principle or maintain its normal good neighbourly relations with the Tatmadaw keeping its strategic interests in the calculus. In 1990s, India maintained a distance with the military junta and pushed for restoration of democracy like all the western powers. The Jawaharlal Nehru award given to Suu Kyi in 1993 greatly annoyed the military junta. Sanctions had been imposed by US in 1998, 1997 and 2010. This period was utilised by China to develop closer ties with Myanmar with the result that the Myanmar people began to use a term for the Chinese that meant cousins (Pauk Phaw).

It started giving economic support and got involved in several projects in that country. Myanmar’s dependence on China increased substantially since 8-8-1988 uprising. Obviously, that policy did not protect our interests. For India, the other option is to maintain normal good neighbourly relations with the Tatmadaw. India has significant geo-strategic interests in Myanmar.

First, its several insurgent groups have established their hideouts at the border of Myanmar and China. They receive support from the Chinese intelligence agencies. Second, the Chinese arms black market is also located there, which is the main source of illegal arms coming into India. Third, the Rohingyas have come to India and are causing problems for us as also for Bangladesh. Their return is essential. Fourth, Myanmar is the key pillar for India’s ‘act east policy’ as reflected by the Ministry of Defence. The project of Mekong-Ganga Cooperation needs Myanmar’s cannot achieve its objectives without Myanmar. It is the gateway to the South East Asia.

The policy of developing close ties with the Tatmadaw was adopted since the late 1990s in view of our need to secure the North-East borders and strategic interests, while nudging it for accommodation with the political parties. This policy was given a greater push since India’s adoption of ‘act east policy’. Senior General Hlaing visited India twice in 2017 and 2019 and during his last visit, the two countries signed a MoU on the defence cooperation. Last year,

India’s Foreign Secretary and the Army Chief visited Myanmar. India also gave a kilo-class submarine to Myanmar Navy.

It may be added that while China still has fairly close relations with Myanmar, the Tatmadaw is unhappy by the Beijing’s dominance, supply of inferior quality weapons and its links with the ethnic groups like Kachin Independence Organisation, United Wa Army and Arakan Army. Last year, Senior General had alleged that China was providing arms to the Arakan Army and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. On the other hand, Suu Kyi had developed very close relations with Beijing. She also had adopted anti-minority policies. On the Rohingya issue, Aung San Suu Kyi stated before the ICJ that the Tatmadaw did not inflict atrocities on them. She began tilting towards China in view of the growing displeasure of the West over her support for policy of ethnic cleansing.

The international reactions are on familiar lines. While the West is condemning it, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on the 3 rd Feb but took no action and issued no statement. Of course, the foreign ministers of the Group of 7 leading industrial nations on the 4 th Feb. issued a statement calling for Suu Kyi and others to be released, the state of emergency to be scrapped and power restored to the democratically elected government. China is reported to have used its veto to ensure no action was recommended against Myanmar by the UNSC. India also did not push for action against the Tatmadaw guided by realism, though the MEA’s statement supporting the democratic process in Myanmar was issued. This is a well-calibrated approach. India need not go beyond ‘monitoring the situation’, though there will be pressures to shift the approach. India’s approach should be governed by the principle of engaging with the ‘government of the day’.

It is clear from the present situation that the Tatmadaw would continue to remain in power in the foreseeable future. India will have to deal with the Myanmar military. Pragmatism demands that India keeps its good neighbourly relations with the Tatmadaw with which very close relations have been built in the last few years. With its help the Indian security forces could launch operations against the insurgents’ hideouts. Moreover, such a policy would also not yield strategic space to China to take advantage of the situation. India has already started pushing the multi-modal transport project in Myanmar. India’s high stakes in that country and prudence demand enhancement of its leverages rather than throwing whatever we have built in the past. In foreign and security policy, emotions and sentiments have no place: it has to be guided by strategic interests.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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