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Self-interest must guide India in Myanmar The Statesman 09 Mar 2021
In Myanmar, the army took over the country in a coup on 01 Feb, removing the elected government. Myanmar had previously remained under army rule from 1962 to 2011. Democracy in the country was still fragile, with the army controlling the shots from behind. The elected government had to play a balancing act in seeking to maintain a façade of democracy while keeping the position of the army secure. The recent elections, where Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory caused ripples of fear within army circles, which felt a threat to its power.
The population of Myanmar had witnessed a period of growth and freedom under democracy and hence, were unwilling to be pushed back under the yoke of the army. Protests have rocked the country since the army takeover. Reports claim many have been killed, thousands arrested, however, there are no signs of protests slowing down.
Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her government are under arrest and face charges which could place them behind bars, ending Myanmar’s short-lived freedom. World powers are rising in anger, demanding restoration of democracy, placing sanctions on the military leadership. Sanctions have never impacted Myanmar. It has faced them throughout five decades of army rule from 1962 to 2011. The two countries maintaining a studied silence are India and China, both neighbours of Myanmar. China has always supported autocratic governments and would come to rescue of nations facing global pressure, seeking to win them over.
Indian silence is because it does not want the country to move into Chinese embrace. A Myanmar riddled with instability and in the grip of China can enhance security concerns for India with North East terrorist groups gaining a lease of life as also China gaining a strategic foothold in the country. It would stall the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral Highway and the Kaladan project, part of India’s Act East policy. While China would block any censures from the UNSC, India has been advising western nations to consider alternate options to sanctions. India desires stability in the region.
There is no question that coups are against global norm and return to democracy must be demanded. However, pushing for democracy by application of sanctions may not be the right approach as it would further isolate a nation, which had recently entered the global stage after decades of self-imposed isolation. Further application of even strict sanctions has not changed the behaviour of either Iran or North Korea. The population suffers, enhancing anger against nations imposing sanctions, while leaders continue to remain unhindered in power. Currently, sanctions appear as the most plausible approach, however, are unrealistic.
Many western nations, including the US, support autocratic governments, with a worse record of human rights, where it suits them, while criticizing others, where it does not. In any case, if the military is to continue remaining relevant in Myanmar, it cannot restore democracy early, however, can release arrested politicians, as a sign of goodwill. That should be the global demand and would only come about with talks not under pressure or threats.
The visit last year by the Indian foreign secretary and army chief to Myanmar was a display of understanding between the political leadership and armies of both nations. India and Myanmar have collaborated in operations against insurgent bases on Myanmar soil. India has provided weapons to Myanmar and has also gifted the country a submarine. It trains Myanmar’s military personnel in its academies.
China, on the other hand, is providing the country with wherewithal to crush protests opposing the coup. Chinese manufactured teargas and other violence control equipment have been recovered wherever the police have retaliated against the protestors. Reports state that while there are no international flights arriving or departing from Myanmar, there are daily cargo flights to China. Most of these flights are suspected of carrying munitions to crush rising protests.
Instability in India’s neighbourhood is exploited by China for its own goals. It attempted to exploit the political crisis in Nepal, until it was rebuffed. It is winning over the military junta in Myanmar, where growing protests have placed the country in a precarious position.
National interests guide a nation’s foreign policy. India is no different. Indian foreign policy has to cater for growing competition for domination from China at its own doorstep. India has thus been careful in its criticism of the Myanmar government, while working behind the scenes to obtain the release of arrested politicians.
India had surrendered its influence in Sri Lanka and Maldives to China, however, has painstakingly regained its hold. It is essential that India’s immediate neighbourhood must remain pro-India if it seeks to continue keeping China at bay. India therefore needs to act, but carefully. It cannot come under pressure of western nation’s which consider themselves as guardians of democracy and are located on distant corners of the globe, while the nation in turmoil borders India.
In Myanmar, the current Indian policy of silence is ideal, despite calls for application of sanctions and imposing other forms of pressure. India has attempted to explain to global powers, albeit unsuccessfully, that pushing the army in Myanmar to restore democracy by sanctions would be detrimental. Myanmar has faced sanctions for decades to no avail. The more the pressure, the greater the possibility of Myanmar moving into the Chinese lap as also deeper into isolation. ASEAN foreign ministers have established contact with the military junta in Myanmar with the hope of pushing them to restore democracy. They are better suited to compel the army to release the democratically elected elite as the first step.
India should consider its own long-term interests and possible competition from China, prior to joining hands with global watchdogs of democracy and seeking to add pressure on Myanmar’s army leadership. In the UNSC, where India is now present, it should abstain from voting against Myanmar. It is better to wait and watch rather than join the global chorus. India needs to adopt realpolitik rather than be swayed by global sentiments and pressure.