Decoding India-Myanmar Conundrum

 By Vaibhav Kullashri
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India’s foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla was on a two-day visit to Myanmar on 22-23 December 2021, the country’s first high-level visit since the February Coup.[1] As per the Ministry of External Affairs press release, the foreign secretary emphasized Myanmar’s return to democracy at the earliest; release of detainees and prisoners; resolution of issues through dialogue; and complete cessation of all violence.[2]

However, Myanmar tries to portray this visit as a quasi-recognition of its government [3]; but India remained firm on restoring democracy. India’s compulsion to send its foreign secretary comes from various security threats emerging, especially in the Northeast, from the unstable, isolated Myanmar and harsh crackdown by ‘Tatmadaw’ (Myanmar military) on rebels and pro-democratic protesters.[4]

Unlike the Western countries, India does not have the privilege to isolate the country to pressurize for the revival of democracy completely. First, it shares over 1600 km of porous international boundary with Myanmar, and any instability directly impacts the Northeastern region (NER)- insurgency, illegal migrants, and drug trafficking are the prominent concerns. Second, India enjoyed healthy relations with the ‘Tatmadaw’, and their coordinated operation (Operation Sunrise) along the Indo-Myanmar border has uprooted the camps and hideout of many insurgent groups operating in the country, leading to a steady decline in the insurgency in the NER.[5] Third, India’s ambition to reach to southeast Asian nation, as encompassed in its ‘Act East Policy’ (initially Look East Policy), solely lies with the political stability and its relationship with Myanmar.  Fourth, isolated Myanmar is closer to China and is detrimental to India’s interest in the country and beyond. 

Thus, India’s initiative to have reached out to Myanmar is a welcoming step considering the likely fallout of pushing Myanmar into further isolation. Being the largest democracy, India expresses profound concern for sentencing Suu Kyi for showing dissent against the military and violating Covid-19 rule [6] and continues to call for the restoration of the democratic process. Furthermore, New Delhi also understands that international pressure doesn’t make much difference to the military junta policy. It has only enhanced China’s interest and grip, creating a conducive environment for the China-Myanmar economic corridor [7]. And it undermines India’s investment in the trilateral highway connecting India-Myanmar-Thailand and Kaladan Multi-Model Transit Transport Project (KMMTTP) connecting India’s NER to the Indian Ocean.

Also, following the coup, the insurgent group in NER has gained a rebound push as the military junta is busy managing the internal crisis that mushroomed after the military takeover and crushing the insurgency primarily in Rakhine province.[8] Further, following an ambush on Assam Rifles (AR) [9] and Nagaland Mon incident [10], the situation is quite fragile, and New Delhi does not want to disrobe the hard-earned peace in the NER. Also, there is continuous fear that China may use the situation to put additional pressure on armed forces, which are already on high alert following the Galwan clash at LAC and Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Moreover, Beijing sees it as an opportunity to sprout insurgency in NER, limit India’s growth, and enhance its regional arms market.[11] Further, according to the K. Yhome,[12] China is approaching the internal crisis of Myanmar from the perspective of increasing its lost influence in the country, stabilizing its border and pushing forward its ambitious project in the country.

Further, the humanitarian crisis led to an influx of migrants in NER, especially Mizoram, due to close cultural affinity among the tribes living across borders. It is scarier when the third wave of covid-19, following the emergence of the Omicron variant, is likely to reach its peak in February next year.[13] Not to forget, the second wave of Covid-19 created havoc in the country, particularly in NER. The sealing of the border will make less impact as the long border is porous and remains unchecked. Further, with Free Movement Regime (permitting locals to cross the international border without visa up to 16 km) policy, low strength of police force in the states bordering Myanmar, and no policing power to Assam Rifles makes proper management of the borders complex and a herculean task.

Also, the people living in the region (on both sides of the border) have a close cultural, traditional affinity. They are the real stakeholders and are least concerned with the geopolitical scenario in the region. Their main concern is to earn livelihood and live a dignified life by exchanging local commodities and maintaining their unique cultural, traditional, and ethnic identity. However, the prevailing sanctions, power-politics, imposed coup, and Covid-19 restriction made their life difficult, which generally went unnoticed. India being the immediate neighbour, must focus on this aspect as well.

Therefore, it became imperative for New Delhi to deal with ‘Tatmadaw’ irrespective of the situation prevailing in the country, and therefore, national interest must remain paramount in shaping foreign policy. A realist approach toward Myanmar needs to be considered more than an idealist, which the foreign secretary’s visit reflects but needs to carry forward in a much proactive way. India cannot afford to be surrounded by two unstable neighbours channelized by China. With Pakistan’s economy already paralysing and increasing its dependence on China, a similar situation in Myanmar will critically challenge India’s interest and sovereignty. The main concern for India is China’s involvement in Myanmar, its ambition to reach the Bay of Bengal (by its ambitious project China-Myanmar Economic Corridor), instability affecting India’s Northeastern region, and likely fallout causing hindrance to India’s Act East Policy. 

Thus, the constructive engagement of countries like Japan, South Korea, and most ASEAN nations, especially Cambodia (the incoming chair of ASEAN) with Myanmar, must be encouraged and popularised among Western countries. The harsh sanctions only benefit China in the long run and create more impediments in bringing Myanmar back to democracy. Further, India needs to do more on enhancing the cooperation with Tatmadaw and push for shaping its intent to act on the insurgent camps nesting along its border, especially in the Sagaing province (A probable hideout of Naga and Manipur based insurgent groups). Building capacity by enhancing military cooperation, joint operations, and developing training facilities.

With the current situation prevailing in the region, ‘India needs Myanmar more than Myanmar needs India.’ Therefore, foreign secretary visits must not be seen from the prism of a paradigm shift in India’s approach toward Myanmar. However, it must be seen as the nuanced approach in dealing with the neighbours more pragmatically and efficiently to face the prevailing challenge in the region. Beyond being a converging point for India’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ and ‘Act East Policy,’ Myanmar is a country whose potential remains unutilized for the larger good of the region, which needs to be channelized.

Endnotes

[1] Shubhajit Roy, “Shringla visits Myanmar today in first outreach after coup”, The Indian Express, 22 December 2021. Available at https://indianexpress.com/article/india/harsh-vardhan-shringla-myanmar-visit-7683700/, accessed on 22 December 2021. 

[2] Press Release, Ministry of External Affairs, 23 December 2021. Available at https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/34723/Visit_of_Foreign_Secretary_Shri_Harsh_Vardhan_Shringla_to_Myanmar_December_2223_2021, accessed on 23 December 2021.

[3]Suhasini Haider, “Myanmar statement on Shringla visit differs from Indian line on restoring democracy”, The Hindu, 24 December 2021. Available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/myanmar-statement-on-shringla-visit-differs-from-indian-line-on-restoring-democracy/article38030897.ece, accessed on 24 December 2021.

[4] AFP, Myanmar coup: Crackdown turns deadly after month of protest”, The Times of India, 01 March 2021. Available at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/rest-of-world/myanmar-coup-crackdown-turns-deadly-after-month-of-protest/articleshow/81273003.cms, accessed on 24 December 2021.

[5] Manish Shukla, “Myanmar army launches Operation Sunrise-3 to crackdown insurgent groups at Indo-Myanmar border”, Zee News, 26 October 2020. Available at https://zeenews.india.com/india/myanmar-army-launches-operation-sunrise-3-to-crackdown-insurgent-groups-at-indo-myanmar-border-2320204.html, accessed on 24 December 2021.

[6] Explained Desk, “Explained: Why Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi has been sentenced to 4 years in jail”, The Indian Express, 07 December 2021. Available at https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-myanmar-aung-san-suu-kyi-imprisonment-4-years-charges-7658512/, accessed on 24 December 2021.

[7] Harsh V Pant, “India cannot take a black-and-white approach to Myanmar”, The Indian Express, 24 December 2021. Available at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/24/rumbles-in-rakhine-amid-strains-between-myanmar-military-rebels, accessed on 24 December 2021.

[8] Kyaw Hsan Hlaing, “Rumbles in Rakhine amid strains between Myanmar military rebels”, Al Jazeera, 24 Novemebr 2021. Available at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/24/rumbles-in-rakhine-amid-strains-between-myanmar-military-rebels, accessed on 24 December 2021.

[9] Rahul Singh, “Colonel, wife, 8-yr-old son among 7 killed in Manipur”, The Hindustan Times, 14 November 2021. Available at https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/colonel-wife-8-yr-old-son-among-7-killed-in-manipur-101636828069758.html, accessed on 24 November 2021.

[10] Tora Agarwal, “Nagaland: 14 civilians killed by forces; soldier dies of injuries as violence erupts”, The Indian Express, 06 December 2021. Available at https://indianexpress.com/article/north-east-india/nagaland/nagaland-14-civilians-killed-by-forces-soldier-dies-of-injuries-as-violence-erupts-7657872/, accessed on 24 November 2021.

[11] Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy, “Assessing Tatmadaw’s intentions and capabilities: What is next for the North-East insurgencies?”, Observer Research Foundation, 04 May 2021. Available at https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/assessing-tatmadaws-intention-and-capabilities/, accessed on 24 November 2021.

[12] K. Yhome,”Understanding China’s response to ethnic conflicts in Myanmar”, Observer Research Foundation, 10 April 2019. Available at https://www.orfonline.org/research/understanding-chinas-response-to-ethnic-conflicts-in-myanmar-49759/, accessed on 24 November 2021.

[13] Syed Akbar, “Omicron may trigger 3rd wave, could peak by February 3: IIT”, The Times of India, 24 December 2021. Available at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/omicron-may-trigger-3rd-wave-could-peak-by-february-3-iit-k-study/articleshow/88463482.cms, accessed on 25 December 2021.