[Editorial] India’s Approach to Myanmar

What is the current status in Myanmar?

  • Myanmar saw the overthrow of the elected government in a military coup in February, 2021. The military leaders had detained leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi. The country has been in a state of turmoil since then.
  • Since the beginning, India has held that the gains made towards democracy by its eastern neighbour over the decades shouldn’t be undermined.
  • Recently, Suu Kyi was sentenced to imprisonment for ‘breaching COVID-19 protocols’ and for ‘inciting dissent against the military’. India expressed concern over developments undermining democratic processes and accentuating differences. New Delhi also expressed hope that efforts would be taken by all sides towards the path of dialogue, while keeping the country’s future in mind.
  • Recently, India’s Foreign Secretary met the military leadership of Myanmar. He sought a meeting with Suu Kyi too. However, the military leadership had denied permission.

Why is Myanmar of significance to India?

  • The Indo-Myanmar border is 1,643 km long international border that includes tripoints with China (in the north) and with Bangladesh (in the south). This border is notable for its porosity.
  • This porous nature of the border means that a humanitarian crisis in Myanmar would have adverse implications for India, especially in the border states.
  • China is known to create trouble in the northeast region as seen from the recent attack in Manipur (near the Myanmar border) on a convoy of the Assam Rifles. This is especially significant in light of the tensions along the LAC.
  • In addition to the tumultuous political scene in Myanmar, COVID-19 pandemic is set to enter its 3rd year and its economic fallout will be no help to the situation.

How are the world nations responding to the situation in Myanmar?

  • The West has been condemning and sanctioning the military junta in Myanmar. The USA has been threatening to impose even more sanctions. However, it has been of little avail.
  • Meanwhile, China has started investing in Myanmar and consequently, is pulling our eastern neighbour into its sphere of influence. The Chinese economic grip on the country has been tightening with a special focus on projects crucial to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.
  • Countries like South Korea, Japan and many of the ASEAN nations have moved ahead to engage with the military junta.

What is the way ahead for India?

  • Myanmar’s military junta appears to have stopped bothering about the West’s threats of sanctions.
  • In this light, the burden falls on the neighbouring countries to shape the military junta’s behaviour in a constructive manner. Cambodia is to chair the ASEAN next and its PM is to visit Myanmar in January. The meeting is expected to give rise to new terms of engagement.
  • Like other immediate neighbour of Myanmar, India has been trying to push back against the military junta’s authoritarian tendencies. Meanwhile, its multiple interests in the country has kept the communication channels with all the stakeholders open.
  • The challenges emanating from Myanmar, the largest nation in the Indochinese Peninsula, mean that India has to directly engage with the SAC (State Administration Council) and other stakeholders. Avoiding this would only mean a lose-lose situation.
  • However, as the only major democratic country sharing borders with Myanmar, India needs to insist on demonstrable progress for a democratic transition. Yet, it is known that Myanmar doesn’t respond well to international pressure.
  • In such a case, the Myanmar army’s role is key in this transition and requires an active engagement. It needs to be made an active stakeholder to secure the release of political prisoners, to deliver on the democratic front and also to address India’s various concerns.
  • Marginalizing the Myanmar army would push it under the influence of China, which seems to have only its own economic and defence interests in mind.
  • In this context, the Foreign Secretary’s visit is a step in the right direction.

Conclusion:

Unlike the West, India doesn’t have the luxury to make democracy the sole prism in its Myanmar policy. New Delhi has several vital interests in the country. Black and white binaries don’t work in international relations. The complexity of our neighbourhood and the regional security demands a nuanced approach. Essential pragmatism mustn’t be lost in engaging Myanmar.

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