By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
Indian Foreign Minister Harsh Vardhan Shringla recently paid a two-day visit to Myanmar, his first since the February coup. As India and Myanmar share a border of nearly 1,700 kilometers, “peace and stability in Myanmar” is important to India, especially to adjacent northeast India. A press release issued by the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MEA) underlined this, saying that “any development in this country has a direct impact on the border regions of India”.
Shringla met with the Chairman of the State Administrative Council, General Min Aung Hlaing, and other senior officials, as well as representatives of civil society and political parties, including the National League for Democracy (NLD). New Delhi says that during these meetings, Shringla reiterated India’s interest in “Myanmar’s return to democracy as soon as possible; release of detainees and prisoners; problem solving through dialogue; and the complete cessation of all violence.
While stability in the country is important to India, New Delhi’s position appears to focus on supporting the larger ASEAN position. ASEAN, at its leaders’ meeting in Jakarta in April, reached agreement on five points concerning Myanmar: an end to violence, a constructive dialogue among all parties, an ASEAN special envoy to facilitate dialogue, acceptance of aid and a visit by the envoy to Burma. The Indian MEA responded by saying it “welcome[d] ASEAN Initiative on Myanmar… Our diplomatic engagement with Myanmar will be aimed at strengthening these efforts. The Quad meeting in September with the leaders of Australia, Japan and the United States also called for the ASEAN initiative and called for “the urgent implementation of the five-point consensus. ASEAN ”.
Meanwhile, India continued its humanitarian support to Myanmar, including in its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. During his visit, Shringla donated over one million doses of “Made in India” vaccines to the Myanmar Red Cross Society. India also announced a subsidy of 10,000 tonnes of rice and wheat to Myanmar.
Shringla also raised issues that relate more directly to India’s security. Myanmar’s role is critical in relation to the recent militant ambush in the Churachandpur district of the Indian state of Manipur, the worst in recent memory. The ambush killed an Assam Rifles (AR) commander, as well as his wife and young son, as well as four other AR members. There have also been other difficulties in the region, including the violence of the mob that left four dead and more than a dozen injured during local protests demanding interior line permits (ILP). ILPs are Indian government restrictions on non-locals traveling to the area; neighboring Indian states like Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh have ILP restrictions. The demand for such ILPs has also periodically increased in Manipur. All these disturbances worry New Delhi. India and Myanmar “reiterated their commitment to ensure that their respective territories are not allowed to be used for activities hostile to each other.”
While Shringla may have returned satisfied with the visit, having conveyed India’s wish list such as the need to return to democracy, it is not clear that General Min Aung Hlaing’s ruling regime shares the same point of view. For example, regarding India’s call for a return to democracy, Myanmar’s official media reportedly stated that the two leaders had spoken of “the exercise of state responsibilities by the ‘Tatmadaw’. [military] under the constitution (2008) due to voter fraud in the 2020 general election, terrorist acts of terrorist groups in the country, counterterrorism efforts, response to terrorist acts against personnel of the education and health and efforts to ensure peace and stability in the border regions of the two countries.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD won the 2020 general election, securing another term, but the military called the election result fraudulent, saying “it was not free and fair“, well that this accusation has not yet been substantiated. Meanwhile, the Indian delegation’s request to meet Suu Kyi has been rejected by the Burmese authorities. Suu Kyi is currently serving a four-year prison sentence and is awaiting another trial which may impose harsher sentences. India was not alone in being denied a meeting – special envoys from Japan and China, as well as ASEAN and the UN were also denied permission to meet with Suu Kyi.
India’s options are limited and somewhat bleak than the rest of the international community. However, as the West isolated Myanmar following the military takeover earlier this year, New Delhi feels more limited. For India, Myanmar is a neighbor with which it shares a long border through a turbulent region. Moreover, India is also concerned that China will profit from the situation if Myanmar is further isolated. Thus, New Delhi believes that it does not have the possibility of cutting off Myanmar, as the West did.
Indrani Bagchi, a prominent Indian foreign policy correspondent, noted in her recent column that India is taking a ‘two-track’ approach, ‘striking the right balance between engaging the immediate eastern neighbor while pushing it towards restoration of the democracy “. For example, in international platforms such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, India has advocated against sanctions even as it continues to express concern over developments in Myanmar.
Given geopolitical and security interests, India cannot afford to ignore or isolate Myanmar. As a result of these pressures India has carefully maintained certain ties with the military junta and is likely to continue to do so.
This commentary originally appeared in The Diplomat.