The Narendra Modi government’s ‘Act East’ policy could be collateral damage of the ongoing civil war in Myanmar. The flagship policy seeks to strengthen India’s ties with Southeast Asia, and counter China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Myanmar shares a 1,643-km porous border with India’s Northeast. The largest Southeast Asian nation is key to India’s Act East policy, which was originally launched as ‘Look East’ way back in 1991 by the then-P.V. Narasimha Rao government.
However, the protracted political unrest triggered by the February 1 military coup in Myanmar has posed a huge challenge before India, which has been involved in several key projects in the region.
On February 1, Myanmar’s armed forces or Tatmadaw, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, staged a coup overthrowing a democratically elected government. The military has accused Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) of large-scale voting fraud in the elections held last year. The NLD had swept to power, winning more than 80% of parliamentary seats.
It sparked a nation-wide civil disobedience movement, and hundreds of thousands of people took to streets protesting against the military regime. The junta forces began a campaign of brutal crackdown on civilian protesters, killing nearly 850 people and detaining more than 4,000, including elected leaders, election commissioners, doctors, journalists, writers, and artists, among others, in the past four months.
The country is currently witnessing a full-blown civil war as ethnic rebel outfits such as Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Karenni Army, and civilian resistance groups are fighting the junta troops across the country.
The situation has almost spiralled out of control of the junta regime as Gen. Min Aung Hlaing reportedly admitted that he didn’t expect such an uprising and popular opposition to his rule.
Ambiguous stand or strategic move?
The problem is further compounded by what is seen as New Delhi’s ambiguous position on the military coup. India, the world’s largest democracy, has also drawn criticism from various quarters for not doing enough to restore democracy in the neighbouring country.
For its part, the Modi government has been treading very cautiously ever since the military generals seized power on February 1. In fact, India’s position has undergone some changes - from initial silence to selective condemnation – in the past four months.
In April, India’s permanent representative at United Nations, T.S. Tirumurti, condemned the violence and demanded the release of detained leaders, including Suu Kyi, but refrained from making any remark about the military coup. This view was echoed, very recently, by foreign minister S. Jaishankar during a bilateral meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
There are strategic reasons behind what is seen as India’s measured approach to one of the biggest crises in its neighbourhood in recent times. First, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has maintained a good rapport with New Delhi in the past. In July 2019, Min Aung Hlaing visited India and signed a defence cooperation pact. India also depends on the Myanmar army to flush out Northeastern rebels operating from its soil.
Second, India is very much aware of Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s anti-China stance. Despite the friendly ties between China and Myanmar, the latter is upset over Beijing’s tacit support to Rohingya militants who operate in the country’s restive Rakhine state.
There were reports of China providing funds and weapons to the Rohingya militant outfits—Arakan Army (AA) and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Armys (ARSA)—both of which have been designated as terrorist organizations by Myanmar.
China has also faced a massive backlash for its reluctance to openly condemn the military coup in Myanmar. Chinese products have been boycotted and Chinese factories burned recently. And India, which is keeping a close tab on these developments, would definitely want to use the anti-China sentiments prevailing among the military brass and civilians alike to its advantage.
Needless to say, India wants to keep China in check in its neighbourhood even as the latter has made huge investments in the resource-rich Southeast Asian country. The strategy is part of the Act East policy, which seeks to expand India’s footprint in the Asia-Pacific.
‘Act East’ policy in limbo
Notwithstanding India’s cautious approach, it has to make sure that democracy is restored in Myanmar at the earliest. Peace and stability in Myanmar are essential for smooth execution of infrastructure and connectivity projects that India has been undertaking in the neighbouring nation.
The Sittwe deep-water port constructed by India in Myanmar’s Rakhine state is ready for operation. The strategic port in the Bay of Bengal is part of the $484-million Kaladan multimodal project that is expected to create a sea, river and road corridor for cargo shipment from Kolkata to Mizoram through Sittwe port and Paletwa inland water terminal in Myanmar’s Chin state.
The road component – an 87-km highway connecting Lawngtlai in south Mizoram with Zorinpui on the India-Myanmar border – has missed several deadlines. A Rohingya militant group, Arakan Army, has also put roadblocks in the past by kidnapping Indian workers involved in the project in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and demanding ransom.
Apart from this, the ambitious India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway that had already faced hurdles will get delayed further because of the present unrest in Myanmar. India has undertaken two projects under the 1,360-km highway project that starts from Moreh in Manipur and goes up to Mae Sot in Thailand through Myanmar.
“The Act East policy has recognized the centrality of Northeast to (the) achievement of India’s national interests and objectives in this region and beyond,” Prakash Nanda, veteran foreign policy analyst and author of Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look East Policy, told Moneycontrol.
“The Northeast sits in the hub of a geographical space which is home to nearly a billion people comprising the population of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, Southwestern China and ASEAN. Its strategic location and natural resources make it a potential powerhouse of India.
“Flora, fauna, natural scenic beauty, arts and crafts act as magnet for international tourism which can be intertwined with the ASEAN due to many commonalities. Proximity to markets of Southeast Asia and in tandem with Act East policy, it can lock into markets of the SAARC and other destinations. This is a game changer of immense proportions,” maintained Nanda, who also edits a monthly magazine, Geopolitics.
The ongoing turmoil would definitely impact India’s Act East policy, Nanda said, adding “a secure and stable Myanmar is in India’s interest”.