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Indian foreign secretary visits Myanmar as junta veers towards holding elections

Vinay Mohan Kwatra’s two-day visit to Myanmar comes at a time when the military regime is seeking to reassure the foreign audience that it is on the path to restoring democracy.

November 24, 2022 / 12:15 PM IST
Image: Twitter/@AmbVMKwatra

Image: Twitter/@AmbVMKwatra

Indian foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra’s two-day visit to Myanmar this week coincided with the ruling military regime’s decision to release more than 6,000 prisoners, including four foreign nationals, from custody to pave the way for elections in 2023.

The military junta’s attempt is to convince sections of those released from custody to contest the election and put in place a political system that will be more acceptable to the outside world.

The Myanmar government is trying to introduce a system with proportional representation along with direct elections—somewhat like the election system in Nepal.

In February 2021 the army chief Min Aung Hlaing plunged Myanmar into a major crisis when he seized power in a coup and arrested Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, and scores of her supporters, triggering mass protests and unrest throughout the country.

The junta’s ruthless methods of stifling the protesters, which included air attacks and the execution of four pro-democracy activists, outraged the world and led to demand for its political and economic isolation.

More than 2,000 people have been killed since the February coup.

International pressure on the junta grew as western countries imposed sanctions and excluded Myanmar from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Cambodia early this month.

Path to democracy

The ASEAN leadership had given Myanmar time until November to show progress on the political front towards the restoration of democracy.

The decision to release thousands of prisoners by the military rulers was aimed at the foreign audience whom it wanted to reassure that Myanmar was moving towards the path of restoring democracy.

Among the foreigners released from custody were former British ambassador to Myanmar Vicky Bowman, Australian economic adviser to Suu Kyi Sean Turnell, US citizen Kyaw Htay Oo and Japanese filmmaker Toru Kubota, according to the junta, officially known as the State Administration Council.

But it remains to be seen to what extent it can impress the sceptics about its attempt to restore democracy if it continues to deny Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD supporters to participate in the forthcoming elections.

However, unlike the west, India’s security and geopolitical compulsions are too important for it to ignore Myanmar.

Three insurgency-prone states in India’s North-Eastern region—Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram share their borders with Myanmar.

India needs Myanmar’s support and cooperation to keep its borders safe from cross-border insurgent activities in the Northeast region.

Moreover, China’s looming presence in Myanmar is another reason why India cannot afford to ignore the country and not engage with it.

Kwatra’s visit between November 20 and 21 was the first high-level Indian official to visit Myanmar in almost a year.

His predecessor, Harsh Shringla visited the country in December 2021.

The Indian foreign secretary’s visit indicates Delhi’s attempt to engage the military rulers in Myanmar despite attempts by the West to isolate it both politically and economically.

India has adopted a twin track in its outreach to Myanmar that balances engaging the junta while also nudging them towards the restoration of democracy.

But the Indian foreign ministry statement made no mention of any discussion towards the restoration of democracy.

Only a tweet by the MEA spokesman later added that India’s support for democratic transition in Myanmar was also discussed during the talks between the two sides.

The Ministry of External Affairs statement said Kwatra held discussions with the senior military leadership in Naypyitaw on the maintenance of security and stability in the border areas of India and Myanmar.

He also raised the issue of human trafficking by international crime syndicates in the Myawaddy area in which many Indian nationals were caught.

Nearly 200 Indians fell prey to the fake job racket run by the crime syndicate in the area.

Those who got the jobs were forced to work 15 hours a day and subject to electric shocks if they failed.

India took up the matter with the Myanmar government to stop the ongoing racket. The Indians were recruited for jobs in Thailand but they soon found themselves in Myanmar where they were subjected to inhuman conditions to work.

“We urge Indian nationals to exercise caution before taking up job offers there,” MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said.

Bilateral ties

The foreign secretary also reviewed the bilateral development projects—like the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project and Trilateral Highway.

India has made significant investments in Myanmar for enhancing its connectivity with the country and the Southeast Asian region.

In the past 10 years India has provided $1.4 billion as grant assistance to Myanmar and undertaken several Quick Impact Projects and many people-oriented programmes under the Rakhine State development Programme and in other parts of the country.

Historically, both China and India played a role in Myanmar.

But China is now Myanmar’s biggest investor and shares nearly 26 percent of the foreign direct investment with a cumulative amount of $ 20.24 billion during 1988-2018.

However, some Chinese projects like the Myitsone Hydropower Project or the Kyaukphyu Deep Sea Port and the Kyaukphyu-Kunming Railway have also evoked environmental degradation and debt trap concerns have led to protests from the local people.

In recent years, Myanmar has begun to reach out to India to expand its options beyond China.

The cultural connect

Indian diplomats said that apart from the political, economic, and military assistance that Myanmar expects from India, the cultural comfort through centuries of familiarity with ties of Buddhism is another reason that makes India attractive to the country.

Over 88 percent of Myanmar’s 54 million are Buddhist and they see India as the land of Buddha which they must visit at least once in their lifetime.

In addition, the English language link is another attraction as India offers the best modern technical, managerial, and liberal education in English in the region and also provides them access to the world beyond Myanmar.

India now holds the Chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, where Myanmar has become a dialogue partner.

An invitation to Myanmar for the SCO summit in Delhi in September 2023 will certainly give the military rulers in Naypyitaw the much-needed legitimacy that they are desperately looking for.
Pranay Sharma
first published: Nov 24, 2022 12:15 pm