Talks ahead of the polls
Security, economic and diplomatic issues were on the agenda during a visit by senior Indian officials to Myanmar, as the country heads for general elections. G. Parthasarathy reports
India’s Army Chief General Manoj Naravane and its Foreign Secretary paid an unprecedented joint visit to Myanmar on October 4-5. The visit took place ahead of the country’s forthcoming general elections, scheduled for November 8.A range of issues were raised for discussion, even as Myanmar’s government is tied up with domestic concerns. Most notable was a recent spurt in cases of coronavirus, which have been relatively small thus far. Aung San Suu Kyi, who did her university studies in India when her mother was Burma’s Ambassador in New Delhi, is a familiar face, widely respected in India. Moreover, even during years of military rule, India quietly kept Myanmar’s military rulers informed of the details and strengths of democratic governance and processes, without being obtrusive. India has long been persistent in extolling the merits of democracy, even in countries that are linguistically and ethnically diverse.
The Indian delegation focused attention largely on diplomatic and economic issues in discussions with Suu Kyi, while also covering matters of national security. There was an extensive exchange of views on security-related issues with military supremo Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. India and Myanmar share a 1643 land border, which has been marked by continuing armed insurgencies for decades. Administration of the areas along India’s borders with Myanmar has always been complex, given the fact that since its independence, Myanmar has faced serious problems of armed ethnic insurgencies along its frontiers with India, China and even Thailand. The largest of these armed ethnic groupings is the 25,000-strong, heavily armed United Wa State Army, which operates across Myanmar’s borders with China. There is also the 12,000-strong Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which operates across Myanmar’s borders with China, and close to its frontier with India.
A number of insurgents from separatist groups operating in India’s northeastern states have crossed the border with Myanmar and operated from areas within the country, which are controlled by Myanmar’s armed separatists like the Kachin Independence Army. But with the passage of time, this is becoming more difficult for them, as the Myanmar government is seeking to establish greater control of its border areas, along its frontiers with China’s Yunnan Province. These groups, which are banned in India, get their requirements of supplies, weapons and ammunition in China’s Yunnan Province. The Indian groups also have direct links with their counterparts in Myanmar’s armed separatist groups like the Arakan Army (AA), whose professed aim it to ‘gain the right to self-determination for the ethnic groups of Rakhine State’.
The Arakan Army recently abducted five Indian engineers who were working on a crucial ‘Kaladan Corridor’ road project, which is to link India’s landlocked northeastern states, such as Mizoram, to the Myanmar port of Sittwe, located in the Bay of Bengal. Sittwe is ideally located for trans-shipment of goods from to Kolkata, and the port has been built with Indian assistance. India has made no secret of its concerns about China’s long-standing links with separatist groups in its northeastern States. During a recent visit to Russia, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, made a pointed reference in a state-run TV interview to a ‘strong force’ backing the Arakan Army. His spokesman clarified and went on to add that the weapons used by the Arakan Army were made in China. This is now known across Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
The terrorist attack and kidnapping of the Indian engineers has necessitated a serious review of security arrangements for Indian experts and engineering staff operating across the India-Myanmar border. In the meantime, China is keen to invest $ 7.2 billion on building the Bay of Bengal Port of Kyaukphyu, together with oil and gas pipelines linking the port to its Yunnan Province. The Kyaukphyu port is located not too far from the Sittwe port, built by India. There are naturally concerns in Myanmar of facing a ‘debt trap’ situation vis-à-vis the Kyaukphyu Port project, akin to that faced by Sri Lanka over the Hambantota Port built by China.
The visit by India’s Army Chief and Foreign Secretary and their meetings with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the Chief of the Defence Services have laid the foundation for carrying forward existing political, economic and cultural ties between India and Myanmar. Indian companies have done offshore oil well exploration in Myanmar. Trade ties are growing steadily, though measures need to be taken to ensure that Myanmar’s exports of agricultural products continue to increase. India has invested in building two important institutions in Myanmar, establishing training institutions in Information Technology and Agricultural Research. Military cooperation with Myanmar is set to expand with the supply of a Kilo Class Submarine and torpedoes. Discussions are reportedly underway for the supply of 105 mm artillery guns, radars and sonars.
Relations between Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s military establishment have been strained due to inevitable differences arising from the sharing of power. The country has, however, done well to move ahead economically, while experimenting with an entirely new mode of power sharing under the constitution. But it has required a political leader of the stature of Aung San Suu Kyi to be able to assert civilian authority in a country long accustomed to decades of military rule. The indications are that, in the elections, the army may use its formidable powers to promote its favourite candidates from the Union Solidarity and Development Party to take on Suu Kyi. That would not be easy, though, given the stature and popularity of Aung San Suu. Kyi.
Even as these developments are occurring in Myanmar, amidst the rise of an assertive China, many in India are concerned that the Rohingya refugee crisis is posing huge challenges to Bangladesh and indeed to stability, across and along its eastern borders. This could inevitably lead to tensions and instability in the region. The time has surely come for the international community to work together with Myanmar and its immediate neighbours, to provide support and assistance which can enable the Rohingya refugees to return to their homes in dignity. Mere rhetoric and posturing in UN organisations are not the right ways to address the sufferings of the Rohingyas.
G. Parthasarathy, a career Foreign Service Officer, is currently Chancellor of the Central University of Jammu and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, as well as President of the India
Habitat Foundation. 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