New Delhi should not jettison its hard-won strategic space in Myanmar because of self-righteous moral posturing.
Finally, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi broke her silence on the Rohingya crisis last month. After being pilloried across the globe for her indifference to the plight of Rohingya Muslims, Suu Kyi, in her speech to Myanmar’s Parliament, said she felt “deeply” for the suffering of “all people” in the conflict, and that Myanmar was “committed to a sustainable solution…for all communities in this state”. While she condemned “all human rights violations and unlawful violence”, she also made it clear that her government had made efforts in recent years to improve living conditions for the Muslims in Rakhine province – providing healthcare, education and infrastructure. Most significantly, she suggested that all refugees in Bangladesh would be able to return after a process of verification. The Myanmar military, for its part, says its operations in Rakhine are aimed at rooting out militants, and has repeatedly denied targeting civilians.
But Suu Kyi’s statement failed to satisfy her critics who feel she is not using her moral power to influence the military’s targeting of Rohingyas. She does not control the military and there continues to be a trust deficit between the two. But her refusal to condemn military abuses against Rohingyas provides the generals with political cover. From the regional perspective, she was under pressure from Bangladesh and India to do something about the refugee situation.
India too has come under criticism for not putting adequate pressure on the Myanmar government and also for its position in favour of deporting Rohingyas to Myanmar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar last month had underlined why New Delhi struggles to maintain a delicate balance between its strategic interests and its democratic ideals when it comes to its neighbour. This visit came at a time when the Myanmar government and Suu Kyi are facing global condemnation for their handling of the Rohingya crisis.
During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Myanmar – the third by an Indian prime minister in five years and the second by him in three years, New Delhi did not directly engage with the issue of Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority.
But at a time when Myanmar is getting isolated, India underlined its support with the joint statement: “India condemned the recent terrorist attacks in northern Rakhine state, wherein several members of the Myanmar security forces lost their lives. Both sides agreed that terrorism violates human rights and there should, therefore, be no glorification of terrorists as martyrs.” Perhaps because of this, Myanmar seems to have allowed India to provide aid in the form of infrastructure and socio-economic projects to Rakhine province, where violence against Rohingyas continues unabated.
But India’s position created tensions with its other neighbour, Bangladesh. After Dhaka made its displeasure clear, New Delhi agreed to “pressurise” Myanmar into ending the security crackdown in Rakhine and taking back the Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh has borne the brunt of the crisis with more than 400,000 Rohingyas having crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar, and the number is expected to reach one million by year-end.
After a bit of a tussle, India’s response has become more coherent. The government has made it clear to the Supreme Court that intelligence inputs are pointing to sections of the Rohingya immigrants as “a serious security threat to the country”. Yet India’s Operation Insaniyat is aimed at treating the problem at the source by providing humanitarian relief to Bangladesh. India is also engaged in working towards the long-term development of Rakhine province.
Unlike the West, which can take a unidimensional view of the problem, New Delhi cannot afford the luxury of making human rights the sole pivot of its outreach to Myanmar. This is something that needs to be understood by India’s critics at home and abroad. Even in the past, India found it difficult to toe the Western line on Myanmar as it was stuck between the demands of its role as the world’s largest democracy and the imperatives of its strategic interests.
India has significant geopolitical and security interests that continue to shape its outreach to Myanmar. As China’s profile continues to rise in India’s vicinity, New Delhi would like to enhance India’s presence by developing infrastructure and connectivity projects in the country. India has found it difficult to counter Chinese influence in Myanmar, with Beijing selling everything from weapons to foodgrains there, and projecting power in the Indian Ocean will become an even greater challenge if China increases its naval presence in Myanmar. No wonder Myanmar is at the heart of Modi government’s “Look East” policy with the India-Myanmar-Thailand Asian Trilateral Highway, the Kaladan multimodal project, a road-river-port cargo transport project, and of course BIMSTEC, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.
China, meanwhile, continues to support efforts by the Myanmar government to protect its national security and opposes recent violent attacks in Rakhine. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made this clear at the United Nations.
India is also working closely with the security forces of Myanmar to target the insurgents operating in the country’s northeast. India shares a 1,600km border with Myanmar, which has been very cooperative in flushing out Naga insurgents from its territory.
India would like to see the emergence of Myanmar as a robust democracy living in peace with its neighbours. But this is a long-term aspiration, and India’s past engagement with Myanmar indicates that a hands-off policy has worked much to India’s advantage. A harsh critic of the Myanmar junta since the mid-1990s, India muted its criticism and dropped its vocal support for opposition leader Suu Kyi in order to pursue its “Look East” policy, aimed at strengthening India’s economic ties with the rapidly growing economies in East and South East Asia. More important to New Delhi has been China’s rapidly growing profile in Myanmar. As India realised that Myanmar – one of its closest neighbours and a major source of natural gas – was increasingly in China’s orbit, it reversed its decades-old policy of isolation and began to deal directly with the junta.
India found it difficult to toe the Western line on Myanmar as it was stuck between the demands of its role as the world’s largest democracy and the imperatives of its strategic interests. The large Myanmarese refugee community in India is a product of the 1998 military crackdown in the country. Indian elites have long admired the freedom struggle led by Suu Kyi, who was honoured with one of India’s highest civilian awards in 1993. But India’s strategic interests in Myanmar have become significant in recent years, especially as China’s trade, energy and defence ties with Myanmar have surged. Strategic interests led New Delhi to only gently nudge the Myanmar junta on the issue of democracy. India has gained a sense of trust at the highest echelons of Myanmar’s ruling elite. As such, India remained opposed to Western sanctions on the country.
Once the Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy won a majority in Myanmar’s first openly contested election in 25 years in November 2015, she became the state councillor and the country’s foreign minister. It allowed her to work closely with the military in crafting a new future for Myanmar and this enhanced India’s strategic space to manoeuvre.
Much as ordinary Indians might be sympathetic to the plight of Rohingyas, India is not a non-governmental organisation whose sole aim is to seek prevention of human rights abuses. Myanmar is an important neighbour of India’s for a number of reasons and New Delhi should not jettison its hard-won strategic space in the country because of self-righteous moral posturing.