Myanmar coup and India’s Act East policy

 By Soumya Nair
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Following Myanmar armed forces’ forceful takeover of power in Myanmar, even as New Delhi put out a brief statement expressing “deep concern” echoing support for “democratic process” [i], Indian Army chief Gen MM Naravane while speaking at a seminar[ii] acknowledged the important role played by Myanmar military in stemming insurgency in the Northeast. His comments are reflective of the multi-dimensional nature of relations between the two countries and the dual-track approach India has successfully pursued for decades in its relations with Myanmar – a key pillar of the New Delhi’s Act East policy.

The Army chief said, “While relentless operations by the security forces and proactive government policies have laid the foundation, favourable external environment with Myanmar and Bangladesh has struck at the roots of the insurgent organizations.” Referring to India-Myanmar joint operations to weed out insurgents, he added: “A series of operations under Operation Sunrise with Myanmar Army has witnessed growing cooperation and synergy between the soldiers on ground with reasonable operational dividends.”[iii]

Besides cooperation in securing the Northeastern borders from secessionist groups, Myanmar is pivotal for the success of India’s Act East policy. With its long land border of over 1600 km with Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, Myanmar is a crucial land link through which India has been seeking to develop its ambitious trans Asian rail and road links to access other Southeast Asian countries.[iv] As of November 2019, Indian investment in Myanmar stood at $771.488 million.[v] Besides the major connectivity projects like India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral highway, the Kaladan Multi-modal transit transport network, and a Special Economic Zone at the Sittwe deep-water port as part of its Act East initiatives, there are a host of other Indian projects on the anvil like a $2 million bridge connecting Mizoram and Myanmar and a $6 billion petroleum refinery near Yangon.[vi]

Myanmar, Bangladesh and Northeast India have a shared history of intermittent unrest, trade flow and refugee movement that go back several hundred years. The fresh spell of unrest in Myanmar is sure to have its ripple effects in the rest of the region depending on what course the coup takes in the months to come. Following the coup, prolonged border closures have already severely hit traders at the busy international border crossing at Moreh in Manipur.[vii] When asked about the impact of political upheavals in Myanmar on Act East initiatives, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was hopeful that the developmental projects would not be affected, “These are early days. We see development projects as addressing the needs of people. I would very much hope that the development projects are not affected.”[viii]

New Delhi has cultivated a strong security relationship with Myanmar armed forces’ over decades while also supporting Myanmar’s slow transition towards democracy. India’s twin-track approach was evident when Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla and Army Chief General Naravane met with both State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi and General Min Aung Hlaing during their joint visit to Naypyidaw in October 2020.[ix] Gen Hlaing, who led the Feb 1 coup, hours before the new Parliament was to convene, had visited India in July 2017 and again in July 2019 when the two countries also signed an MoU on Defence Cooperation further strengthening the security relationship.[x] In 2019, India emerged as Myanmar’s leading arms supplier, providing $100 million of equipment faring way above China’s $47 million.[xi] This balancing act was easier then also because Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and her party National League for Democracy (NLD) was allowed to form government in 2015. What is also notable is that while the Myanmar military has looked at China with some distrust over its support for insurgent groups, Suu Kyi’s civilian government has pushed for good relations with China as she faced a hostile West over the Rohingya issue.

Although India joined the United Nations Human Rights Council consensus denouncing the happenings in Myanmar, India’s permanent representative to Geneva clarified in a statement that India will not lend support to any coercive steps against Myanmar. China and Russia dissociated themselves from the resolution.[xii] India has also steered clear of sanctions championed by the United States. US-led punitive strategy since the 1990s has only pushed Myanmar more towards China – Myanmar’s largest investor and lender. As many as 38 major projects are under the anvil as part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.[xiii]

In 1962 India faced a similar situation when the Myanmar military seized power deposing Burma’s first Prime Minister U Nu. Although disappointed by the turn of events, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru decided to pursue a pragmatic strategy of engaging with Gen Ne Win who led the coup.[xiv] In 1989, when the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) military government arrested Suu Kyi, India was under tremendous pressure to support the democratic forces, however, it once again chose to take the pragmatic path recognising the necessity to protect national interest.

As in the past decades, Indian policy makers need to take a big picture view while at the same time pushing for more freedoms in Myanmar thereby not alienating the democratic forces. While choosing between ideals and realpolitik, India cannot lose sight of the fact that it is an important stakeholder in bringing stability to the region.

Endnotes

[i] Ministry of External Affairs, “Press Statements on Developments in Myanmar”, 01 Feb 2021. Available on https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/33434/Press_Statement_on_developments_in_Myanmar, accessed on 16 Feb 2021.

[ii] Elizabeth Roche (2021), “Myanmar military helped curb insurgency in Northeast India: MM Naravane”, livemint, 12 Feb 2021. Available on https://www.livemint.com/news/india/myanmar-military-helped-curb-insurgency-in-northeast-india-m-m-naravane-11613136488107.html, accessed on 16 Feb 2021.

[iii] Idib.

[iv] Ministry of External Affairs, “India Myanmar Relations”, https://www.mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Myanamr_Feb_2016.pdf

[v] Ministry of External Affairs, “India-Myanmar Bilateral Brief”, 01 Feb 2021. Available on  https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/IndiaMyanmar.pdf, accessed on 16 Feb 2021.

[vi] Ranjit Bhushan (2021), “Myanmar Coup – What does it mean for New Delhi, the neighbourhood, other questions answered”, moneycontrol, 07 Feb 2021. Available on https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/business/cars/myanmar-coup-what-does-it-mean-for-new-delhi-the-neighbourhood-and-other-questions-answered-6464221.html, accessed on 16 Feb 2021.

[vii] Neha Banka (2021), “Recovering from lockdown, Myanmar coup deals a fresh blow to Moreh traders”, Indian Express, 06 Feb 2021. Available on https://indianexpress.com/article/north-east-india/manipur/recovering-from-lockdown-myanmar-coup-deals-a-fresh-blow-to-moreh-traders-7176947/ accessed on 16 Feb 2021.

[viii] Prasanta Mazumdar (2021), “Coup won’t affect India-Myanmar Kaladan transport project, work on verge of completion: Jaishankar”, New Indian Express, 15 Feb 2021. Available on https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2021/feb/15/coup-wont-affect-india-myanmar-kaladan-transport-project-work-on-verge-of-completion-jaishankar-2264373.html, accessed on 16 Feb 2021.

[ix] Suhasini Haidar (2021), “News Analysis | With Myanmar’s military coup, the tightrope between idealism and realpolitik returns for New Delhi”, The Hindu, 01 Feb 2021. Available on https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/news-analysis-with-myanmars-military-coup-the-tightrope-between-idealism-and-realpolitik-returns-for-new-delhi/article33720952.ece, accessed on 14 Feb 2021.

[x] Press information Bureau, “India and Myanmar Sign Mou on Defence Co-Operation”, 29 July 2019. Available on https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1580637, accessed on 16 Feb 2021.

[xi] SIPRI Fact Sheet (2020), “TRENDS IN INTERNATIONAL ARMS TRANSFERS, 2019”, March 2020. Available on https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/fs_2003_at_2019.pdf, accessed on 17 Feb 2021.

[xii] United Nations Human Rights Council (2021), “Human Rights Council calls for release of all arbitrarily detained persons in Myanmar, and lifting of state of emergency”, 12 Feb 2021. Available on https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/NewsDetail.aspx?NewsID=26748&LangID=E, accessed on 17 Feb 2021.

[xiii] Ranjit Bhushan (2021), “Myanmar Coup – What does it mean for New Delhi, the neighbourhood, other questions answered”, moneycontrol, 07 Feb 2021. Available on https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/business/cars/myanmar-coup-what-does-it-mean-for-new-delhi-the-neighbourhood-and-other-questions-answered-6464221.html, accessed on 16 Feb 2021.

[xiv] Praveen Swami (2021), “Myanmar military coup: India faces tightrope walk between expectations of Nay Pyi Taw, Western countries”, firstpost, 03 Feb 2021. Available on https://www.firstpost.com/world/myanmar-military-coup-india-faces-tightrope-walk-between-expectations-of-nay-pyi-taw-western-countries-9266771.html, accessed on 17 Feb 2021.