The Debate | Opinion | South Asia | Southeast Asia

India Needs to Get Serious About the Crisis in Myanmar

The political landscape in the country has shifted. New Delhi now needs to adjust its own approach.

India Needs to Get Serious About the Crisis in Myanmar

An Indian police officer and an Indian man walk on a bridge across Tiau river along the India-Myanmar border in Champhai village, in Mizoram, India, Saturday, March 20, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Anupam Nath

The anniversary of the February 1 military coup against the National  League for Democracy (NLD) government in Myanmar is an occasion for sober reflection on the prospects for democracy or continued military rule in Myanmar, the regional and international responses to it, and what it means for Asia and the world, including India. Put simply and bluntly, the quest of the Myanmar people for a life of opportunity and freedom from military dictatorship has once again been rudely quelled by brute military force unleashed by the Tatmadaw against its own people.

A year on, the widespread protests and robust Civil Disobedience Movement against the coup that emerged in the initial months have been brutally suppressed.  These have given way to an armed resistance and a variety of People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) in urban centers and the countryside in many parts of the country, some hitherto peaceful.

While large scale protests have been subdued, daily ambushes, skirmishes, bomb blasts, assassinations and attacks on military or government installations by rebels have risen, to nearly 1,000 incidents a month, according to figures from the opposition National Unity Government (NUG), while the Tatmadaw has responded with punitive reprisal attacks, including aerial attacks, arson (including at least two gruesome cases of burning of civilians alive), and gross human rights violations in the Bamar heartland as well as ethnic areas. According to the Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners, nearly 1,500 civilians have been killed by the military, and close to 12,000 are interned, with many traumatized or tortured. Nearly 2,000 more are “wanted.”

Given the overwhelming military advantage of the Tatmadaw, its willingness to use lethal force, the lack of a charismatic national leader in the absence of the incarcerated Aung San Suu Kyi, the chronic mistrust between ethnic and Bamar-centric political parties including the National League for Democracy and NUG, and a poor tradition of unity and coordination amongst ethnic armed groups that have been fighting their separate wars over 70 years, it seems unlikely that the resistance, peaceful or armed, will be able to overthrow or replace the Tatmadaw in the short or medium term.

At the same time, faced with a plucky and tenacious revolt, the prospects of the Tatmadaw (whose leaders consider democracy to be a euphemism for anarchy and the disintegration of the Union), being able to “stabilize” the country and impose their version of “order” also look dim.

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Taken together, Myanmar seems set for a spell of prolonged instability, marked by a massive displacement and humanitarian crisis. All this is already having an impact in India’s Northeast. Some of the worst army offensives have been against rebel camps around Mt. Victoria and the Chin State townships of Mindat, Tlantlang, and Matupi.  These have sent waves of refugees into nearby Mizoram State, where there are now said to be “several thousand” people lodged in temporary camps sustained largely by the Mizoram government and Mizo civil society groups.

Taking advantage of the instability, there has been a perceptible increase in insurgent activity and drugs and arms smuggling, one of which resulted in an ambush killing an Assam Rifles commander in southern Manipur in November that has angered the Indian government. Intelligence on insurgent movements was also likely behind the botched military operation in Oting in Mon district, Nagaland, that eventually resulted in the killing of over a dozen innocent Naga civilians.

More recently, a large consignment of explosives and detonators was intercepted by the Assam Rifles in Mizoram, likely bound for Myanmar. There have been reports of cadres from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), an insurgent group active in Manipur, being used by the Tatmadaw against PDFs along the India-Myanmar border. Meanwhile, The Irrawaddy on an attack by a Chin National Army unit against a PLA “headquarter” south of Tamu, attributed by The Irrawaddy to the Indian Army, but denied, marking an intriguing twist to cross-border spillovers of insurgent military operations that could have wider repercussions for India-Myanmar relations.

The deteriorating situation in Myanmar should give India reasons for concern, especially given the fact that the international community’s responses to the crisis, both political and humanitarian, including that of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have been wanting.

Ever since India’s overt support for the 1988 pro-democracy agitation in Myanmar backfired with the Tatmadaw suppressing the movement and reimposing its authority over Myanmar, India’s policy toward the country has been predicated on dealing with the government in power in Myanmar in pursuit of its most tangible security and strategic interests (embodied in its Look East and Act East policies), while continuing its support for democracy in principle.

To some extent, this is part of a secular trend in favor of greater reliance on the security state over democratic aspirations, after the Indian government’s bitter experience with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and the suppression of the pro-democracy agitation in Myanmar in the late 1980s. In general, Myanmar’s cooperation with India on border security has been partial, episodic, and far from consistent at the best of times – the Tatmadaw has, for example, never expelled Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) from its territory, as have Bhutan and Bangladesh – and the Myanmar armed forces have not been above using IIGs for their own interests, including since the coup. But India’s dual strategy worked well enough so long the Tatmadaw and its political proxy, the Union  Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) were in control until 2015, and through the period of strained NLD-military “co-habitation” from 2015 until the coup, when both sides largely functioned within the parameters of the 2008 military-drafted constitution.

That contrived mutual arrangement has now totally broken down and is unlikely to be resurrected or restored. Whatever eventually emerges as a stable order out of the coup, it will not be the old order. India now faces challenges in Myanmar from the point of view of its desire to consolidate Myanmar’s democratic opening to rebuild a full-fledged political, economic, security, people-to-people, and strategic relationship commensurate with their past ties, which that requires a friendly Myanmar government at peace with itself. It also faces challenges in pursuing its narrower security interests relating both to China’s expanding influence in Myanmar and the activities of IIGs based in or operating from Myanmar, for which needs a military that is friendly and capable of preserving Myanmar’s unity and independence, and willing to cooperate with India on its borders.

India will now have to question how far a Tatmadaw that is at war with its own people, plays ducks and drakes with IIGs at the India-Myanmar border or has little control over them, and is prone to Chinese blandishments, can be relied upon for its security. Too narrow a focus on selfish security, strategic, or economic interests at the expense of popular sentiment, as China is doing, would be counterproductive. This is not a moral argument that India should put values over interests; rather it is simply a recognition that faced with such widespread outrage, it is not possible to pursue interests at the expense of the future of a country and people, and that it may be stuck in a policy reflex that is no longer valid when it comes to Myanmar.

So far, while India has paid lip service to democracy in Myanmar, it has not really taken any serious political initiatives. Like the rest of the world, it too has left a resolution to the governments of ASEAN. But ASEAN has its own limitations imposed by its consensus principle and the wariness of many of its members towards pro-democracy sentiments. With a live insurgency along its borders, thousands of refugees from the same Chin stock in nearby Mizoram where they enjoy public sympathy and solidarity, IIGs getting more active, and the recent detection of a large consignment of explosives in Mizoram likely meant for Myanmar, it seems clear that India cannot stay aloof from developments in Myanmar for much longer.

Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s visit to Myanmar in December was perhaps a welcome first step in this direction. This should be consolidated both bilaterally and within a regional framework. By itself, India does not have the clout to influence the Tatmadaw, which will resist any change towards the people’s will tooth and nail. Yet there is no option for Myanmar but to reverse course and return to a more open, democratic framework where the youth of Myanmar has a future, the international community can play a rightful role, and Myanmar has greater strategic options in its international alignments. It is therefore time to enlarge outreach to ousted Parliamentarians, representatives of the NUG and National Unity Consultative Council, ethnic parties and EAOs, and civil society activists, with a view to moving the Tatmadaw and the opposition to a dialogue aimed at restoring democracy, however difficult it may seem at present. At this juncture, India can also use its enormous soft power as a provider of education to Myanmar youth, which could constitute a political capital in a changing future.

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Regionally, strategic rivalry, competing interests, and lack of trust may preclude a close bilateral working relationship with China on Myanmar but India could work with China within a larger Asian framework. Despite its limitations, ASEAN remains the key player, though there is a discrepancy between the extent to which India is directly affected by the situation as an immediate neighbor, and its status in ASEAN as a Dialogue Partner. India could however step up consultations with Thailand and Bangladesh as two most affected immediate neighbors. Within ASEAN, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam are natural interlocutors.

In the wider region, Japan, which has both historical and economic influence in Myanmar and with which India has a strategic relationship, and South Korea, a new economic player in Southeast Asia, can help shape outcomes. India could also work with the new U.N. special rapporteur, Noeleen Heyzer, who has indicated that she will involve Myanmar’s neighbors and the wider region in a “Myanmar-led” strategy reflecting “the will of the people,” with a “humanitarian plus” approach leading towards an inclusive political solution and elections in the medium term. As a member of the Quad, India will also have to manage its relationship with Russia, which has played its Indo-Pacific card with its open military support for the Tatmadaw. Whatever the approach, India would do well to steer clear of any approach that could fall into a new Cold War rivalry involving the U.S. on the one side and China, Russia, and the Tatmadaw on the other. That would be a recipe for a failure, as well as the possible exacerbation of the crisis in Myanmar.

Sandwiched between the northeast of India and Yunnan province of China, India has a vested interest in a united, strong, stable, and prosperous Myanmar that can be a buffer and bridge between India and China, and a launching pad for India’s terrestrial outreach towards the Greater Mekong Sub-region and the Indo-Pacific. A security-first policy predicated on engagement with the Myanmar military worked as long as the Tatmadaw was in control of the country. That is no longer the case. India needs to enlarge and expand its options in Myanmar toward a more comprehensive relationship rooted in the support of the people rather than the Tatmadaw alone. This requires a new approach that would work for a reformed military under a new democratic minded military leadership as an institution that can play its role in the unity and integrity of the country, within a much more accommodating federal democratic union to which the bulk of the people of Myanmar have pledged their support. India should help advance that process.

in The Wire, and it is reprinted here with permission.