Between the ‘Regional’ and the ‘West’: Enhancing Indian engagement in Myanmar

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One year on from the coup in Myanmar, Monalisa Adhikari and K. Yhome examine the limits of India’s response and how India’s domestically held principles of democracy and inclusive governance could be pragmatically deployed to reach out to a broader constituency in Myanmar.

A year ago, on 01 February 2021, on grounds of unverified account of electoral fraud, Myanmar military took power, derailing the country’s decade long efforts for peace and democracy. The last one year has seen both sides – the military junta – Tatmadaw, who formed the State Administration Council (SAC) to govern, and the National Unity Government (NUG), formed as an alternative for the military government largely by democratically elected candidates of the National League for Democracy (NLD) but also assimilating varied ethnic leaders – seeking to consolidate their domestic position while seeking international legitimacy and recognition. Compounding this picture, is the scale of humanitarian crisis has emerged marked by a record-level displacement of people, and shortages of  food and medicine – fuelled by the continued violent crackdown by the military, and re-emergence of conflicts in different parts of the country.

Mirroring the internal fragmentation in Myanmar, a notable feature that has largely persisted is an absence of international consensus on how to engage Myanmar after the coup. Here, a clear divide is evident between Western states, who have condemned, critiqued, and slapped sanctions, while regional actors, have preferred continued engagement, while calling for dialogue and negotiation. And, in this drive for continued engagement, we see actors as diverse as China, India, Thailand – all of whom share Myanmar’s borders – broadly align in their strategies, despite differences in intensity, and scale of their engagement. For instance, when it came to discussing the ‘coup, Thailand called it ‘internal affair’, Chinese state media Global Times – ‘cabinet reshuffle’, while India called for upholding rule of law but fell short of calling it a coup. Similarly, in March 2021 as the junta shot dead unarmed civilians, each of these countries sent representatives, to the military parade held to mark Armed Forces Day.

Among these regional countries, Indian position is often questioned – why despite its democratic credentials has India failed to even lobby for democracy, if not actively promote it. The answers, have been equally predictable, all of which highlight India’s pragmatic needs and interests, ranging from: the need to leverage Myanmar’s position as gateway to rest of Southeast Asia; gaining access to Myanmar’s gas fields; push through regional connectivity projects such as Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project and the Trilateral Highway project; need for the Myanmar military’s cooperation to deal with the ethnic insurgencies in its Northeast region bordering Myanmar; and warding off competition from China (Haacke 2006; Singh 2021). With so much at stake, should India abandon its domestically-held principles of democracy and inclusive governance, and how, if at all can India balance between its political values and national interests have been subjects of a thriving discussion (Gurjar 2021). In essence, the dilemma India faces within regards to its options of engagement with Myanmar, is often phrased as one of ‘principles vs pragmatism’.

Outlining the limits of India’s current engagement, this brief argues that India’s domestically held principles of democracy and inclusive governance could be pragmatically deployed to reach out to a broader constituency in Myanmar. In doing so, India would carve a unique policy space, that not only distinguishes it from other regional actors, like China, and other Western states, but also positions it as a ‘responsible’ rising power capable of guaranteeing regional security.

Limitations of the Approach

India’s engagement with Myanmar since the coup can be described as risk-averse and driven by short-term vision that is underpinned by its long-held adherence to the policy of ‘non-interference’ in the domestic affairs of another country. It is also informed by the policy discourse that frames India’s values and interests as irreconcilable and that it has no choice but to balance the two in its engagement. Accordingly, India despite stated ‘concerns about democracy in Myanmar being undermined’ has continued to court the military, providing it with defense cooperation, high level visits, aid – all of which directly and indirectly provides it a form of legitimacy, if not formal recognition, and sustains the junta’s grip on power (Martin 2021). This approach, however, has neither brought an end to violence in Myanmar nor helped secure India’s interests in any significant way.

The logic of non-interference has meant that India has not been able to push itself to play any meaningful role as to promote dialogue between various groups, or even to call upon the military to refrain from repression. India’s default position has been that it would only take in such a role if it is invited by key stakeholders, which has not happened in the Myanmar crisis. Hence, its domestic policy constraint and the absence of any invitation from Myanmar to mediate has left India with very little room to maneuver. More so, despite being frequently cited, India’s regional engagement has barely upheld the norm of non-interference as evidenced by its deployment of the Indian Peacekeeping Force in the Sri Lankan civil war; and facilitating of the 12-point agreement between the Maoist rebels and democratic forces in Nepal – outlining the selectivity, and the difference between the rhetoric and reality in its stated foreign policy pronouncements.

Similarly, the framing of ‘interests versus values’ in the policy debates has constricted India’s view of its engagement to manage the immediate crisis by restoring peace and stability. Hence, the approach is not designed to find long-term solution to the problem as it leave no room to rethink, re-design and re-imagine India’s engagement but rather propagates a ‘business as usual’ model unfit for purpose in the shifting sands of Myanmar’s political transition

It is also arguable that the Indian approach has not been able to achieve any tangible results in securing its geopolitical interests. It is true that the approach has been able to keep an open channel of communication with the Myanmar regime, but that has been far from protecting of India’s strategic and security interests. First, the claim that India requires cooperation of the Myanmar military regime to tackle ethnic insurgency issues posing security challenges in its Northeast region that shares land border with Myanmar needs closer investigation. Recent events suggest that despite the repeated assurances, the Tatmadaw has been playing both ends to leverage the situation to its advantage. Last month, a unit of the Chin National Arrny, the armed wing of the Chin National Front, attacked a base run by Indian insurgents of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from Manipur that has reportedly been collaborating with the Tatmadaw (Davis 2022). This was not the first time that the Tatmadaw has used Indian insurgents to attack anti-coup camps and units of the People’s Defense Force (PDF) camps (Lintner 2021), but the recent events again underscore the importance of reassessing the notion that the Tatmadaw is indispensable in dealing with the security situation in India-Myanmar border region. Rather the fragmented nature of governance in Myanmar, with ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) commanding large parts of the borderlands, and now local-based PDF, often operating autonomously, ensures that talking to all parties of the anti-military coalition is urgent to ensure even a basic semblance of cross-border security.

Second, the assertion that India’s strategy of engagement has been driven by its desire not to push Myanmar further into China’s embrace also needs to be reassessed. Since the coup, China reached out and kept its links with key actors in Myanmar not at the cost of weakening its ties with the Tatmadaw. It needs noting that even historically, China has simultaneously engaged with some of the most powerful EAOs, like the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), in the Northern borderlands, as well as with the military government in Yangon/ Naypyidaw at the centre (Li and Lye, 2009). India’s engagement with the Myanmar regime has not constricted China’s influence and presence in Myanmar. Rather, continued engagement, fixated by the rivalry with China, might have allowed the Myanmar junta to reach out to all regional partners and hedge its bets. India’s policymakers need to acquiesce those aspects like China’s permanent seat in the Security Council, and the diplomatic protection it can offer to keep Myanmar off the international radar, will mean that China has the incentivizing power that India does not. This also calls for India to craft a unique approach, rather than competing with China, by following its suit on Myanmar.

Re-imagining the Approach

While India’s approach has its limitations, the engagement modalities of Western states to ‘isolate’ the junta has also not paid off. Between the two approaches, there is a space, which  India is well placed to fill. This space will need India to deploying ‘principles’ of inclusive governance and democracy that has often been marginalized. However, India would need to re-imagine its role to leverage the opportunity to its advantage. As a rising power with a desire to play a leading role in restructuring global governance as a responsible power, India’s ability to carve out a space for itself in regional governance would boost its image of a stabilizing force.

First, if pragmatism has driven India to engage, and not isolate the military, development on the ground, with regards to the military’s ability to govern attests that India needs to diversify its dependency. Centering its engagement on the military which has been weakened by war on multiple fronts has and will not serve its interests. The military’s own apparatus has admitted of the regime losing control many townships because of attacks from the people’s defense forces in some areas, while the scale of defections signals that the edifice of the Tatmadaw is shaking, if not already crumbling (The Irrawaddy 2022a). It might be argued that such opposition to the junta is barely new, and that like the last six decades, the military may triumph again. After all, one factor that led to India’s policy reversal on Myanmar in the 1990s, was the realization that the former policy on engaging with the democratic opposition had failed, and the military was there to stay (Saran 2011). However, the anti-regime opposition and resistance since 2021 are markedly different to anything before in Myanmar. A collapsing economy, the sheer increase in the number of locally dispersed people’s defense forces using guerrilla warfare, a technologically savvy younger generation who can outsmart the junta’s curb on communication, and the formation a broad-based anti-regime coalitions like the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) – all diluted the centrality and power of the military (Davis 2021). As security experts have commented the military’s overt use of air raids signals that they can longer win on the ground, and even these air raids might be futile in light of the nature of guerrilla warfare with soldiers constantly moving (The Irrawaddy 2022b). More realistically, the continued repression of the Tatmadaw, and the increase in armed opposition, has not only destabilized the environment for Indian investments and infrastructure projects, but India’s outreach to the military has been instrumentalized by the regime to portray it as a ‘quasi-recognition of the government’ (Haider 2021). A foreign policy position, centered on the junta also raises questions about India’s ability to maintain close ties to the varied constituencies of the anti-military opposition in the long run (Purayil 2021).

Second, seemingly blurring differences between Chinese and Indian engagement, as it stands, also eliminates what could have India’s greatest soft power weapon. Beyond the values of democracy, EAOs in Myanmar for decades have campaigned and taken up arms for their quest of ‘federalism’. Indian federalism has been a model that many EAOs want to learn from and apply in Myanmar.[1] Throughout the decade of the peace process, this learning from the ‘Indian experience’ was a priority for some EAOs who had signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. The Federal Democratic Charter promulgated by the NUG, in its guiding principles, reinforces and elaborates on issues of power-sharing through federalism. India’s domestic experiment of federalism and democratic governance – institutional frameworks that the entire anti-military coalition aims for – can be a foundation for India’s broad-based engagement. Highlighting the importance of democratic governance to break the current impasse in its diplomatic statements and initiatives, pronouncing federalism as an institutional form for accommodation of diverse ethnic groups, as well as offering capacity building support as the NUG discusses institutions modalities to operationalise the Federal Democracy Charter based on its own experience are few steps India could embark on. Rather than competing with China, with similar strategies at play, India needs to harness these peculiarities. India’s approach of ‘not being able to avoid the military’ is realistic assessment, however, opening all these channels of communication – something India is uniquely positioned to do – is not only pragmatic but also futuristic given the prospects of having to prepare for a post-SAC rule.

Third, handling the case in Myanmar by reaching out to the NUG, and even playing a key role in pushing the Tatmadaw to restrain, accomplishes a bigger foreign policy goal. Not only does it convey that India would not abandon its principles to curry favor ‘rogue regimes’ which distinguishes it from China, but also reaching out to all sides would also differentiate it from Western states who have sought to marginalize the military. In harnessing this unique space between the ‘regional actors’, and the ‘West’, India could also evade the limitations that have characterized its engagement so far.

The Way Forward

To leverage its principles and interests simultaneously, India urgently needs a roadmap to reconfigure its policies considering a fast-changing situation in Myanmar. In this roadmap, a priority needs to be to reach out to all the key stakeholders in Myanmar with the primary aim to activate channels for humanitarian relief, call for cessation of repression by the military, and sequentially advocate for all sides to end violence. For this, India needs to think beyond its current ties with the military and establish channels of communication with all key stakeholders including the NUG, EAOs, civil society coalitions within and outside Myanmar. For this mission, a special envoy or an emissary may be appointed to keep the policy focus on Myanmar.

Next, India’s need to prepare to recalibrate its foreign policy to be able to engage in a radically new Myanmar. So far it has urged for the restoration of peace and democracy, and domestic stakeholders finding solution based on dialogue in Myanmar. However, merely restoring the old order would not resolve the deep-seated inter-ethnic hostilities and the structural anomalies including the 2008 Constitution and the 1982 Citizenship Law of the country. As evident by the NUG’s abolition of the 2008 Constitution, if the anti-military opposition is to succeed, Myanmar is headed for a radically new state structure. Further, while dialogue might seem pertinent, both the military and the broad anti-military opposition have categorically denied prospects of dialogue. In such a context pushing anti-military opposition for dialogue with the military might backfire. Rather, a new Myanmar, with or without SAC, might emerge, for which India must prepare.

Relatedly, in absence of such prospects, rather than banking on ‘dialogue’ based strategies, India should endeavour to strengthen, engage, and support capacity building of institutions like the NUCC – which comprises of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), Ethnic Armed Organizations, political parties, and wider civil society groups – by sharing its own experience of democratic governance, federalism, and pathways for inclusion like the quotas. Given that issues of inclusive democracy are a rallying force that brings diverse sections of Myanmar’s society together, and has the potential to guarantee peace and stability, promotion of these values is both pragmatic and principled.

This roadmap should also invest in international coalition building to support democratic strengthening and federal transition in Myanmar. By raising these issues at the UN, working with UN agencies in the region, as well as engaging with ASEAN, India should also avail of multilateral platforms to promote its engagement on Myanmar.

 

Authors

Monalisa Adhikari is a Lecturer in International Relations at Keele University, UK.  Her research is focused on Indian and Chinese engagement in the global peace and security agenda, with a specific focus on Nepal and Myanmar.

K. Yhome is a researcher who has been following political developments in Myanmar and the regional dynamics for over a decade. He is currently working on a book project on subregionalism based out in Nagaland.

 

References

Davis, Anthony. (2022) India’s Ties With Myanmar Junta in Focus After Chin Group’s Attack on Manipur Rebels. The Irrawaddy. Available at: https://www.irrawaddy.com/opinion/guest-column/indias-ties-with-myanmar-junta-in-focus-after-chin-groups-attack-on-manipur-rebels.html.

Davis, Anthony. (2021) Myanmar Military Offensives Lose Momentum. Janes. Available at: https://www.janes.com/defence-news/news-detail/myanmar-military-offensives-lose-momentum.

Gurjar, Sankalp. (2021) India’s Tough Choices in Myanmar. Deccan Herald. Available at: https://www.deccanherald.com/opinion/india-s-tough-choices-in-myanmar-948992.html.

Haacke, Jürgen. (2006) Myanmar’s Foreign Policy towards China and India. The Adelphi Papers 46: 25–39.

Haider, Suhasini. (2021) Myanmar Statement on Shringla Visit Differs from Indian Line on Restoring Democracy. The Hindu. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/myanmar-statement-on-shringla-visit-differs-from-indian-line-on-restoring-democracy/article38030897.ece.

Li, Chenyang, and Liang Lye. (2009) China’s Policies towards Myanmar: A Successful Model for Dealing with the Myanmar Issue? China 7: 255–287.

LINTNER, BERTIL. (2021) Myanmar Military joining hands with Indian rebels. Asia Times. Available at https://asiatimes.com/2021/12/myanmar-military-joining-hands-with-indian-rebels/.

Martin, Michael. (2021) Prime Minister Modi and Myanmar’s Military Junta. Available at: https://www.csis.org/analysis/prime-minister-modi-and-myanmars-military-junta.

Purayil, Muhsin Puthan. (2021) India’s Approach to the Myanmar Crisis and Public Diplomacy. Available at: https://southasianvoices.org/indias-approach-to-the-myanmar-crisis-and-public-diplomacy/.

Saran, Shyam. (2011) India’s Strategic Interests in Myanmar. Available at: http://www.ipcs.org/issue_briefs/issue_brief_pdf/SR98-ShyamSaranInterview.pdf.

Singh, Udai Bhanu. (2021) Post-Coup Myanmar and India’s Response. Available at: https://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/post-coup-myanmar-indias-response-ubsingh-210521.

The Irrawaddy. (2022a) Myanmar Junta Security Minister Admits Defeat Across Region. Available at: https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-junta-security-minister-admits-defeat-across-region.html.

The Irrawaddy. (2022b) Myanmar Regime’s Reliance on Air Power a Sign of Weakness: US Security Expert. Available at: https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-regimes-reliance-on-air-power-a-sign-of-weakness-us-security-expert.html.

 

[1] Interview with the author, 2017-2018, Yangon, Myanmar

Image: Protest against military coup (9 Feb 2021, Hpa-An, Kayin State, Myanmar) by Ninjastrikers, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons