Why India Needs To Keep On Engaging With Myanmar Junta And Ignore Gratuitous Advice To Shun The Generals

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Dec 24, 2022 04:52 PM +05:30 IST
Why India Needs To Keep On Engaging With Myanmar Junta And Ignore Gratuitous Advice To Shun The GeneralsSenior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Snapshot
  • India has huge stakes in some ongoing projects in Myanmar that are crucial to the fruition of India's ‘Act East’ policy.

    MEA officials told Swarajya that New Delhi’s engagement with the junta is also dictated by the need to contain China’s expanding footprint in Myanmar.

New Delhi’s deepening engagement with Myanmar’s ruling military junta has caused a fair bit of hand-wringing and even anger in some capitals around the world, especially the band of planet earth’s self-proclaimed ‘conscience-keepers’ in the west. 

Some bleeding heart Democrats in Washington DC, as well as lawmakers in some European capitals, have been urging India to not only desist from engaging with the ruling junta in Myanmar, but also cut off ties with them. 

These voices have become more strident after the US Congress recently passed what is being called the Burma Act, 2021 recently.

This Act imposes limited sanctions on Myanmar and authorises the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to support pro-democracy activists in Myanmar and provide humanitarian assistance to the troubled South-East Asian nation. 

The latest to join this chorus, albeit a muted one, is Indonesia. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi wants India and other countries that engage with Myanmar’s military regime to support the ASEAN’s five-point consensus on Myanmar. Indonesia will assume the ASEAN’s chair soon. 

This ‘consensus’ calls for cessation of violence in Myanmar and for all parties (the junta, pro-democracy armed groups and others) to “exercise utmost restraint”. It also calls upon all parties in Myanmar to hold “constructive dialogue” for a “peaceful solution” to the strife in the country. 

ASEAN also wants a role in the dialogue process through its ‘special envoy’ who should be allowed by the junta to grant the envoy unhindered access to all parties and groups in that country. 

Marsudi said that New Delhi must line up with ASEAN’s efforts to bring peace to Myanmar, which has been wracked by violence that has claimed thousands of lives since the military coup in February last year. 

But this five-point consensus has been a non-starter and the junta has ignored and thwarted all initiatives by the ASEAN, terming such initiatives as blatant and unwanted interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs. 

Marsudi claims she brought up India’s deepening engagement with the junta at a meeting with India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September this year.

But such gratuitous advice completely ignores prevailing ground realities and New Delhi’s need to uphold and further its own interests. 

For one, ASEAN is a divided house as far as Myanmar is concerned. Some countries of the bloc, like Thailand and Cambodia, have deep ties with the junta. Singapore, Philippines and Brunei are not too interested in getting involved in Myanmar’s affairs and are loath to allow the bloc to act as a ‘moral policeman’ with a member state. 

Also, Marsudi’s unsolicited advice was directed only towards New Delhi and not Beijing which has very deep ties with not only Myanmar’s generals, but also some ethnic armed rebel groups within that troubled country. 

Russia, as well as Pakistan, also have much deeper ties with the generals in Naypyitaw (Myanmar’s capital) than India. But the Indonesian Foreign Minister chose to single out India. 

And that is precisely why New Delhi needs to ignore such calls by other nations and follow its own course.

It is true that India has deepened its engagement with Myanmar’s ruling junta. And for good reason. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, New Delhi accords topmost priority to India’s own interests, and it is in India’s interest to engage with Myanmar's military, also called the ‘Tatmadaw’. 

India needs the support of the junta to tackle a handful of Northeast insurgent groups who are still engaged in armed struggle.

Most of the rebel groups of Northeast India have either surrendered after peace agreements with the government, or are holding peace talks with ceasefire agreements in place. Only a few rebel groups are active and they have their bases in western and southwestern Myanmar. 

India needs the support and cooperation of the junta to tackle these insurgent groups. The Indian and Myanmarese forces have carried out coordinated operations to destroy the bases of the Northeast rebels in Myanmar’s Sagaing and Chin provinces in the recent past. 

India also has huge stakes in some ongoing projects in Myanmar that are crucial to the fruition of Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy.

Foremost among these is the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project that will provide easy access of cargo from the rest of the country through Myanmar to Northeast India. 

India is also developing industrial clusters and manufacturing hubs, besides the 1813-kilometer long India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway.

India is constructing two segments of this highway in Myanmar: the 120.74 kilometer Kalewa-Yagyi section and the 149.70 kilometer Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa section with its 69 bridges.

Work on these, and some other projects, had been held up for the past nearly two years after the coup, which triggered unrest and armed conflict between pro-democracy armed groups and the junta. Many rebel groups also joined in the armed struggle by pro-democracy groups against the junta. 

“The situation was very volatile and work stopped in all our projects in Myanmar. It was necessary for us to insulate our projects and interests in Myanmar from the conflict there, and for that it was imperative on our part to engage with the junta,” explained a senior officer of the Bangladesh and Myanmar (BM) division of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). 

South Block (the MEA headquarters) did not, however, limit itself to engaging with just the junta. It also reached out to the armed rebel groups and the pro-democracy groups.

New Delhi has also been silently nourishing its ties with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and other opposition groups in that country. 

“We have good ties with all stake-holders in Myanmar. And we believe that serves our interests the best,” said the MEA officer.

New Delhi’s quiet engagement with rebel groups has yielded good results. The Arakan Army (AA), for instance, has committed itself to allow Indian-appointed contractors to complete the remaining stretch of a highway that connects Mizoram to Paletwa river port in Myanmar.

Work on this was disrupted for nearly two years now due to fierce fighting between the AA rebels and the Tatmadaw (read this). 

MEA officials told Swarajya that New Delhi’s engagement with the junta is also dictated by the need to contain China’s expanding footprint in Myanmar.

“Even Pakistan has developed interests in Myanmar. In order to avoid western sanctions and strictures, China is routing supply of arms and military hardware to Myanmar through Pakistan,” said another MEA official. 

Pakistan has started selling arms, including rifles, field guns, grenade launchers, protective gear for soldiers, armoured vehicles and other military hardware, including ammunition, to Myanmar. Pakistan had sold a fleet of JF-17 Thunder aircraft, which it purportedly developed in collaboration with China, to Myanmar. 

“It would have been suicidal for India to sit idle and watch Pakistan deepen its influence in our backyard (Myanmar). Heeding sermons from some western capitals and other nations to cease our engagements with the junta would have left us out in the cold in Myanmar.

"In order to limit China’s and Pakistan’s growing footprints in Myanmar, we had to engage with the junta. Our policies and engagements with other countries are driven by realpolitik and not woolly-headed notions of morality, democracy and human rights,” said a joint secretary rank MEA official, reiterating what EAM S Jaishankar has been emphasising repeatedly. 

New Delhi is also gearing up to play a constructive and crucial role in encouraging Myanmar transition to democracy. Having good ties with all stakeholders in Myanmar is a prerequisite for playing such a role. 

Like in the past, New Delhi is leveraging its influence and ties with the junta to nudge the generals towards easing restrictions on pro-democracy entities, including the opposition parties.

And, at the same time, also engaging with the opposition parties to adopt a flexible approach towards the junta and work with the generals in the greater interests of their country.

“No matter what, we cannot cut ties with the junta. We have explained this, and the factors behind this, to major western nations and they understand our position,” said the senior MEA official.

Also Read: Feeling Strangled In China’s Embrace, Myanmar Turns To India For Help 

- Truce Between Myanmar Junta And Rebel Group Paves Way For Revival Of Crucial Indian Connectivity Project To Counter China

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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