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Myanmar coup | What does it mean for New Delhi, the neighbourhood and other questions answered 

India’s challenge in Myanmar is much the same as in South Asia: how best to counter China’s growing influence on its traditional allies.    

February 07, 2021 / 11:51 AM IST
Protesters flash the three-fingered salute while they march Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, in Yangon, Myanmar after the social media ban. (Image:AP)

Protesters flash the three-fingered salute while they march Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, in Yangon, Myanmar after the social media ban. (Image:AP)

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Roughly six decades ago, in 1962, when the military staged its first coup ending a decade of experiments with democracy in what was then Burma, India’s quandary was typical of a nation surrounded by volatile neighbours.

While policymakers in New Delhi were clear about their commitment to restoring democracy in Burma, with which the country shares a 1,600-km border, there was also a realisation that pragmatic adjustments were necessary to engage with the military, which remains the pivot of several political systems in Asia.

Despite Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s disappointment with the setback to his deposed friend and Burma’s first Prime Minister, U Nu, the Indian leader, sensibly decided to engage with coup leader Gen Ne Win to protect Indian interests, including cross-border insurgencies, China’s influence and the safety of the larger Indian diaspora.

Except the name, which has since changed from Burma to Myanmar, and the capital that has shifted from Yangon (Rangoon) to Naypyidaw, much else remains the same.

The junta is back


Early last week, the Myanmar military staged yet another coup, hours before a new parliament was to convene following national elections in November 2020. As is with such takeovers, the country’s civilian leadership, including its foremost leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, is in custody. The military has declared a state of emergency for a year.

The reasons for the coup are entirely predictable: Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD), the party in power, had swept the election. The army, which never really trusted her, was apprehensive that buoyed by her win, she would seek to curb its power, even though it sounded like a bad ruse, given the military’s history of domination of the country.

Myanmar’s constitution reserves 25 percent seats in parliament for the military. It also decrees that its nominees be the ministers of defence, border areas and home affairs, thus retaining full control of the state’s security apparatus.

Also watch: Myanmar | Anti-coup protests grow as army broadens internet crackdown

Made for China 

Such a cloak-and-dagger scenario is tailor-made for China to make its move and Beijing is doing just that. As it has demonstrated in the past, its ability to “buy” influence in Asian nations, particularly among India’s traditional allies, is formidable.

Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal admits as much. “China has strong strategic strength in Myanmar. It has capacities to offer and act as a cushion against western sanctions on the country.”

China is Myanmar's largest investor and lender and has proposed 38 projects under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

During President Xi Jinping's visit to Myanmar in January 2020, the two sides signed 33 agreements, including the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone, a deep-water port in Rakhine state and a new city project in Yangon.

Myanmar is an important partner for Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing has been pushing to implement strategic projects like plans to connect China's southern Yunnan province with Myanmar's second-largest city, Mandalay and then stretch further south to Yangon and southwest to Kyaukpyu.

However, not all is hunky-dory between the two countries, despite Beijing holding the trump cards in the Southeast Asian country.

Myanmar has been unable to reach a compromise with its rebel groups even after several rounds of talks. Many of them are based along its northern and northeastern border with China. The inability to reach an accord has been largely fashioned by the big dragon pulling invisible strings.

Last year, a Myanmar deputy government minister accused Beijing of interfering in the country's peace efforts by controlling the rebel alliance, the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), which includes the two largest and strongest insurgent groups.

“The military in Myanmar (also known as the Tatmadaw) is suspicious of China, despite its dependence, ’’ said Sibal, one of the architects of India’s Act East policy during his tenure as Foreign Secretary in 2002-2003.

New Delhi’s fine-balancing act

Under the “Act East and Neighbourhood First” policies, India has deepened its relations with Myanmar across political, military, diplomatic, security and economic spectrums.

Though nowhere near China, India’s approved investments in Myanmar, as of November 2019, stood at $771.488 million by 33 Indian enterprises.

Thirteen Indian public sector undertakings have a presence in Myanmar, including oil and gas players like the ONGC Videsh and GAIL. Banks such as the SBI and the Exim Bank of India have representative offices in the country.

Constantino Xavier, Fellow at New Delhi’s Centre for Social and Economic Progress, summed it up pithily in the Hindustan Times, “New Delhi will say what it can and do what it must. Expect public support for democracy and private engagement with the military regime.”

In October 2020, India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Army Chief Gen MM Naravane’s visits were well received. The visitors handed over to Suu Kyi, an alumnus of Delhi’s LSR College, a consignment of drugs for COVID-19 patients.

India also announced the import of 1,50,000 tonnes of pulses from Myanmar till March 2021, $2 million for building a bridge to ramp up economic connectivity between Mizoram and Myanmar and a proposal to construct a $6 billion petroleum refinery near Yangon.

Officials say 1.5 million doses of Covishield vaccine reached Yangon on January 22.

New Delhi’s dual policy–that Xavier referred to–is paying dividends, particularly in the context of insurgents in the Northeast. Myanmar’s powerful military, too, is keen to reciprocate.

Under the terms of the military agreement signed between the two countries in July 2019 and the resultant strategic cooperation since then, the Myanmar army first drove out ethnic Naga rebels from their country. India responded favourably by supplying the Tatmadaw with weapons that have helped Myanmar’s military in its fights with various insurgent groups, some of which are China-backed. The bilateral equation has worked out perfectly: in May 2020, the Myanmar government handed over 22 ethnic Assam rebels to India.

India has been seemingly tactful in discussing the issue of displaced Rohingyas in Bangladesh. While sympathising with the government, New Delhi has nudged Myanmar to secure a position for the displaced people within the country and to start the repatriation process soon in consultation with Bangladesh.

New Delhi needs to play its card adroitly in a land that was part of British India till 1937 and with whom cultural ties and people-to-people contacts were the norm till the middle of the twentieth century but which is now increasingly under Chinese sway.

Former Indian ambassador to Myanmar Vivek Katju touched upon this dilemma. “The main question is how will China act? More than three decades ago the Myanmar army had junked an election result and western countries and India strongly condemned the move. China saw it as an opening and cemented its ties with the Myanmar military and ensured that the country kept afloat,” Katju said.

Despite some resentment among Myanmar’s elite, including the military, at China’s all-pervasive influence, “If now the Myanmar military is made an international pariah again, it will have no alternative but to go further into the Chinese embrace,” he said. Hopefully, India would have its flanks covered in such a scenario.
Ranjit Bhushan is an independent journalist and former Nehru Fellow at Jamia Millia University. In a career spanning more than three decades, he has worked with Outlook, The Times of India, The Indian Express, the Press Trust of India, Associated Press, Financial Chronicle, and DNA.
first published: Feb 7, 2021 11:48 am
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