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India’s Myanmar Conundrum: Go Back To Basics – OpEd


While caution in condemning actions by a military which is considered as a critical partner in a country with which India has over 1600 km of open border with Free Movement Regime is understandable, New Delhi is in danger of estranging the people in Myanmar, which will have long term impact on the relationship. By Going Back to the Basics, India’s predicament can be overcome; here is how, but first a review of the situation.

Review of the Situation

By abstaining from condemning the violence in Myanmar perpetrated by the military and police with “shoot to kill,” orders which are completely illegal for armed forces across the World who claim to be professional, India may be driving itself in a corner of sorts. 

Twelve Joint Chiefs of Staffs of which includes India’s strategic partners as the United States, Japan, Australia, UK, Germany, and South Korea, among others, condemned the use of lethal force in Myanmar by the military, India choose to remain silent.

“As Chiefs of Defense, we condemn the use of lethal force against unarmed people by the Myanmar Armed Forces and associated security services,” the statement by the Chiefs said. “A professional military follows international standards for conduct and is responsible for protecting — not harming — the people it serves.” 

They urged “the Myanmar Armed Forces to cease violence and work to restore respect and credibility with the people of Myanmar that it has lost through its actions.” 

Attending the military parade on Myanmar Armed Forces Day on March 27, India may have further compounded India’s problem of estrangement with like-minded militaries and nation-states across the World.

The ham-handedness in which shelter to those who are escaping violence in the country, including reprisals is being denied is another sign of ambivalence towards humanitarian issues even though Indian foreign policy believes in the World being one family.

India has also consistently abstained from resolutions on Myanmar in the United Nations Security Council and the UN HRC in the last two months.

While caution in condemning actions by a military which is considered as a key partner in a country with which India has over 1600 km of open border with Free Movement Regime is understandable, New Delhi is in danger of estranging the people in Myanmar which will have long term impact on the relationship.

Furthermore, by attempting to adopt a median ground and not siding with the military completely as China has done, the Tatmadaw may also be looking at India’s approach in the future with a degree of suspicion.

However, India need not adopt this cautious policy in dealing with Myanmar even though the reasons for the same apart from the endemic vacillation by the Ministry of External Affairs is well established, here is why-

Caution is Not Justified

Firstly India’s caution may be driven by an assessment that whatever be the outcome of the present crisis, Myanmar armed forces or the Tatmadaw will remain a key decision-maker on matters military. This may be true to some extent, but the military is expected to emerge from this fracas significantly weakened on all fronts.

Ethnic groups such as the Karen, Arakanese and others have come out openly against the military and the peace process in the country nurtured over the past decade-plus by two successive governments with a fair degree of success is now lying in pieces.

The military is expected to be seriously engaged in combating a resurgence of ethnic insurgencies, some of which are likely to be supported by foreign agencies for sure.

Internally as well the military has lost confidence of the people, and winning back the same will require a change of approach and not more wielding of the gun. 

People’s support is the most essential factor that gives confidence to soldiers which the Tatmadaw has lost which may impact morale and motivation.

Secondly, antagonising the people of Myanmar can prove costly, as the Chinese have realised when they attempted to paint the coup as a change of the cabinet.

Massive protests were held outside Chinese projects in Myanmar, and the resistance is likely to continue in the years ahead.

India thus cannot afford to be on the wrong side of the people of Myanmar, including the Bumar, the majority as well as the Chin who border Mizoram.

Thirdly in the same vein, fears that condemning the Tatmadaw may provide a free run to China may be unjustified. 

Yes, Myanmar may get some military largesse from China, including possible free access to ports in the Bay of Bengal as Kyaukphu to the PLA Navy that may be detrimental to Indian security interests, however the larger antipathy against China may offset such a loss.

Fourthly concerns that the Myanmar Army will not take action against North East militant sanctuaries in the country may be unjustified. Presently these terrorist groups have lost support of the people in the North East and have been marginalised, which is the main factor in the reduction of violence. 

The Myanmar Army has been taking only limited action against these groups and has very little control in the Sagaing hill region in any case. 

Fourthly, “Delhi,” will be losing much of the ground gained in the North East in recent years connecting with the people be it in Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and other states. There is growing resentment against refusal to offer sanctuaries to Myanmarese police and civilians escaping the militaries heavy hand.

Mizoram Chief Minister went to the extent of writing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the issue and has held open discussions with pro-democracy elements nominated foreign minister thus denoting the level of adverse sentiment in the region.

Fifthly India’s international image as a country that promotes democracy and, “rule of the law,” is seen to be adversely impacted for obvious reasons.

Going Back to Basics

All this can be set right by, “Going Back to the Basics,” stand on sound principles by condemning violence by the Myanmar military, seek annulment of open orders for, “shoot to kill,” and engaging the Tatmadaw to start dialogue with the community if not the National League for Democracy.

In doing so if there is a risk of completely alienating the Myanmar military, it is one that should be taken and is in the long term interest of peace and stability in that country which in turn is for the strategic good of the region as well as India.

*Brigadier (Retd.) Rahul K. Bhonsle manages a strategic risk and knowledge management consultancy – — focusing on strategic culture and security trends in South Asia, future warfare and human security.

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