India’s quiet influence
Following the recent coup in Myanmar, New Delhi has been working to promote consensus in the UN Security Council to bring an early return to democratic rule. G. Parthasarathy reports
Myanmar attained independence from colonial rule in 1948. It has, thereafter, been under military rule from 1962 to 2011. While an army-dominated government ruled Myanmar till 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi became the de facto ruler in 2016, after her National League for Democracy participated in and won a majority of seats in parliamentary elections. Under Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, however, key security portfolios like Defence, Border Affairs and Internal Security are controlled by the military, which also occupies 110 seats in Parliament. Suu Kyi, is constitutionally disqualified from becoming Myanmar’s President, as she married a foreign national. She took charge of the government, after being designated as ‘State Counsellor’, while the country’s President, who has been a loyal supporter, has backed her fully. Despite these limitations, Suu Kyi wielded the powers of office skilfully, and mustered growing public and international support.
A major factor which determines India’s relations with Myanmar is the readiness of the Myanmar Government to strengthen bilateral cooperation in dealing with ethnic insurgencies in India and Myanmar, which share a 1,640-kmland border. The two countries have cooperated extensively to ensure that there are no problems along their land border, caused by cross-border movements of armed separatist groups. It is primarily because of such cooperation that only small elements remain in armed ethnic insurgencies in Indian States bordering Myanmar.
Nevertheless, existing armed separatist elements continue to enter Myanmar, and establish links with armed insurgent groups there. They then move into China’s Yunnan Province, where they freely receive arms and logistical support, before returning to India. The Myanmar military enjoys an excellent rapport with its Indian counterparts in dealing with armed separatist groups which cross their borders. There are 31 armed ethnic groups in Myanmar, controlling significant parts of the country’s territory. Some of these groups are funded and armed by China, which has a dominant economic foothold and significant political influence in Myanmar.
Along with Myanmar’s military, India has also established a good relationship with the country’s civilian rulers. Indian economic cooperation has improved communications within Myanmar, and India has also assisted in the development of IT facilities in Myanmar. Hundreds of Myanmar nationals get scholarships to study and acquire professional expertise in India. Indian aid has also led to the development of roads and communications across its borders with Myanmar. The Bay of Bengal Port of Sittwe in Myanmar, built by India, is set to become a valuable outlet to the Sea for India’s landlocked northeastern states bordering Myanmar.
While foreign investment has been welcomed in Myanmar, it is China that has derived the maximum benefit from cross-border trade and investment. Private companies from ASEAN and East Asian countries, such as Singapore, Thailand, Japan and South Korea, are also making significant in roads. India and Japan have worked together in coordinating their polices on Myanmar, as they do in Sri Lanka, the Maldives and other South Asian countries. With the ‘Quad’ – comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India – increasingly cooperating on regional security issues, there is now confidence that the four powers can work with others to ensure the security of the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. Maritime exercises with Myanmar have been growing: India has recently supplied Myanmar with its first submarine.
Not surprisingly, Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in 2015,and was swept to power again at the November Parliamentary elections last year. The military was required to nominate 110 candidates to the Parliament. According to Myanmar’s Constitution, the Parliament was to be convened on February 1. The army, however – who declared the 2020 election result to be illegitimate – struck on that day, seizing power and placing the country’s President Win Myint, Suu Kyi, her ministers and her supporters under arrest. Quite predictably, this has been followed by a crackdown on the resistance to military rule, which has been spearheaded by demonstrations by healthcare workers, civil servants, workers, teachers and students. Despite the crackdown, the resistance continues, with growing civil disobedience, demonstrations and strikes across the country.
Amidst deep differences between France, Britain and the US on the one hand, and China and Russia on the other, India has quietly worked to promote constructive consensus in the UN Security Council, to call for early restoration of democratic freedoms in Myanmar. The UN Security Council has expressed ‘deep concern’ over the military takeover, and called for the immediate release of President Win Myint, and Aung San Suu Kyi. The Security Council has also called for the release of all political prisoners, and expressed support for a ‘democratic transition’ within Myanmar.
One of the important reasons why the pace of transition to democratic rule is going to be slow is that, apart from the firm rejection of any coercive action against Myanmar by China and Russia, many of Myanmar’s eastern neighbours, who are members of ASEAN, are not in favour of any coercive action against the Myanmar Government. While Indonesia and Malaysia have expressed support for the restoration of democracy, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines have noted that what has transpired is an ‘internal affair’ for Myanmar.
In these circumstances, India will continue to call for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners, and urge the Myanmar military to move towards restoration of democratic rule. New Delhi has assessed that any moves to ostracise the military regime would only lead to a greater Chinese presence and influence in Myanmar. India is convinced that there is widespread aversion in Myanmar, both within the military and the political establishment, to the increasingly intrusive Chinese presence in the country. India and Japan will continue to consult each other closely on developments in Myanmar and will urge the military to work for an early restoration of democratic rule. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is widely admired in India, graduated from the Lady Sriram College in New Delhi in 1964, with an Honours Degree in Political Science. Her mother was at that time Myanmar’s Ambassador to India.
G. Parthasarathy, a career Foreign Service Officer, is currently Chancellor of the Central University of Jammu and President of the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. He previously served as Ambassador of India to Myanmar, High Commissioner of India to Australia, Pakistan and Cyprus, and Spokesman of the Prime Minister’s Office