India walking a diplomatic tightrope is dangerously close to recognising the Myanmar coup
On December 22, India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla embarked on a two-day visit to Myanmar.
During what was the first high-level state visit by an Indian government official to the eastern neighbour since the military coup on February 1, Shringla met with the Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) and leader of the coup regime, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, representatives from political parties, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, civil society members, and other foreign envoys.
The military junta denied his request to meet with former State Counsellor, Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest.
Three days later, on Christmas morning, the remains of at least 35 charred bodies, including that of a child less than five years old, were found in Myanmar’s eastern Kayah State.
The deposed civilian government of Myanmar, now known as the National Unity Government, and locals have accused the military of burning them alive.
Two Save The Children staffers, who were on a humanitarian visit to the area during the incident, were among those burned alive according to a statement by the international charity, which also clearly states that they were killed in an attack by the military.
Less than a fortnight before Shringla’s visit, in a similar incident, the Myanmar military tied together 11 civilians with ropes and burned them alive in Sagaing Region, which borders India.
Calling the incident “horrific”, United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric, noted that five children were amongst those burned to death.
Even as Shringla was touring Yangon and Naypyitaw, the Myanmar military conducted airstrikes and heavy artillery attacks on Lay Kay Kaw in eastern Karen State, bordering Thailand.
The Tatmadaw’s offensives on the town, which is controlled by the Karen National Liberation Army, began about a week before the Indian foreign secretary’s visit and have since forced more than 7,000 civilians to flee the area, including across the border to Thailand.
During the same time, in Sagaing region’s Kalay township, the military strafed a village with attack helicopters, later raiding it and setting several homes on fire.
According to one report, nine civilians were killed. On December 20, the military used five helicopters to attack another village in Sagaing, killing at least seven locals.
Just a day before Shringla landed in Myanmar, Hla Min Maung Aliyas, a Muslim middle-school teacher from Mandalay’s Lewe Township arrested by junta forces two days earlier, was murdered during interrogation.
On December 19, another 60-year old woman, Ma Htay, was shot dead in the neck right in front of her house by the junta’s police in Ayeyarwady region’s Pathein township.
According to the latest update by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma, 1,375 people have been killed and 11,202 arrested by the military junta since the coup on 1 February.
As of December 25, a total of 8254 people remain in detention.
These are only a few snippets of daily life under junta rule in Myanmar. But, you won’t find any mention of these grim incidents, statistics and names in most of the op-eds published in the Indian media during or after Shringla’s visit.
The bulk of these writings do not move an inch beyond “Indian interests” and the need to safeguard India’s national security, especially along the border. India is not to alienate the Tatmadaw at any cost, lest China cuddles it closer to its chest, goes the dominant view.
Hardcore realpolitik, sacrosanct as it always was and will be, remains the flavour of the times. At most, some of them talk about the Myanmar military’s “authoritarian tendencies”, as if the junta’s actions in the past ten months haven’t provided enough indications that its authoritarianism has moved far beyond “tendencies”.
In fact, a reading of the mainstream foreign policy commentariat in India might almost convince you that everything is right as a trivet in Myanmar.
Only few, such as foreign policy correspondent, Suhasini Haidar, have offered glimpses into the darker side of the story.
To be clear, it would be naïve to expect India to completely junk its national security or geopolitical interests with Myanmar.
As a major regional power sitting in a fiercely competitive and increasingly unpredictable neighbourhood, India is bound to fret over its influence in a strategically crucial country like Myanmar.
More importantly, India shares a 1,640-km long border with Myanmar, that too one that cuts across insurgent territory and transnational contraband routes.
In New Delhi’s view, the Tatmadaw, by virtue of being the dominant security actor in Myanmar, remains key to ensuring that the border doesn’t become a constant source for instability in Northeast India.
This is critical to also sustaining formal trade and connectivity regimes linking India’s Northeast to Myanmar and Southeast Asia within the Act East Policy framework.
India’s heightened concerns about border security in light of some recent events were unambiguously reflected in the press release put out by its ministry of external affairs after Shringla’s visit.
By mentioning the deadly ambush of an Assam Rifles convoy in Manipur’s Churachandpur district in November, Shringla made it clear to the Tatmadaw that the latter needs to get its act together on its side of the border to prevent such attacks in the future.Notably, after the ambush, which was claimed by Manipur’s People’s Liberation Army and the Manipur Naga People’s Front, Manipur Chief Minister, N Biren Singh, told the media that the militants had “infiltrated 4 kilometres into [India] from the border with Myanmar”.
Notwithstanding these concerns, which are unique to the regional political-security environment, India’s engagement with the junta in Myanmar is teetering dangerously close to recognition of the coup regime when seen in a broader context. There are more than one indications for this.
Towards legitimisation of coup?
First, Shringla’s visit places India in a tiny list of countries that have sent a high-level government official to Myanmar since the coup. In fact, only two other countries – China and Thailand – have sent senior officials to meet junta officials since the latter overthrew the elected government earlier this year.
The fact that India sent its foreign secretary to meet coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing, could in itself be read by some as a tacit recognition of the junta.
This is even more so when one looks at the elaborate front-page coverage that the junta propaganda mouthpiece, The Global New Light of Myanmar, gave to Shringla – complete with a picture of the Indian Foreign Secretary meeting the Commander-in-Chief in the latter’s lavish “parlour” at the Yangon Command Headquarters.
The report, which could be seen as the junta’s official press release on the visit, also talked about how both “frankly exchanged views” on “voting fraud in the 2020 general election, terror acts of terrorist groups in the country, efforts for counter-terrorism, response to terror acts against education and health staff” – all stock phrases that the regime has used over the past ten months to justify the coup and criminalise anti-military dissent.
Neither the The Global New Light of Myanmar report, nor the ministry of external affairs press release shed any light on how or whether at all the Indian foreign secretary responded to the junta’s dubious narratives on “voter fraud” or “terror acts”.
In essence, Min Aung Hlaing successfully used the visit to sell his story and fortify his own political credentials, while also telling the West (which continues to snub him) that he has powerful friends in the region.
One can say with some degree of certainty that New Delhi knew this would happen, and yet, went ahead with the visit.
Second, while the ministry of external affairs press release is cautiously worded and emphasises “India’s interest in seeing Myanmar’s return to democracy at the earliest; release of detainees and prisoners; resolution of issues through dialogue; and complete cessation of all violence”, it uses the term “Chairman, State Administration Council” to refer to the Myanmar military’s Commander-in-Chief.
By doing so, New Delhi appears to be reaffirming not just the coup leader’s self-established political authority, but also the coup regime’s overall administrative validity.
Notably, however, the Indian side stopped short of using the terms “caretaker government” for the regime or “Prime Minister” for Hlaing, which were announced by the junta in August.
Third, despite the coup and ensuing mass atrocities by the Myanmar military on civilians, India continues to actively cooperate with the Myanmar military on two specific aspects – sale of military hardware, and regional security initiatives.
According to reports by the international advocacy group, Justice For Myanmar, Indian state-owned defence manufacturer, Bharat Electronics Limited, has exported radar technology and Remote Controlled Weapon Systems, to the Myanmar military on two separate occasions since the February 1 coup.
Both hardware systems can be adapted for tactical and offensive use against anti-military rebels and by extension, non-combatant civilians, especially given the lack of end-user agreements in Indian arms sales to foreign militaries.
In October, I had filed a Right to Information application with Bharat Electronics Limited requesting details of past and future arms sales to Myanmar and any directives issued by the central government in light of the coup.
However, the defence firm dismissed the entire request based on the Right to Information Act’s national security and trade secret clauses.
It is a paradox that on one hand, the visiting Indian foreign secretary promised humanitarian support for the people of Myanmar while on the other, Indian firms continue to sell weapon systems that might contribute to the growing humanitarian crises in the country.
Further, a day before Shringla’s visit, representatives from the Myanmar military participated in Panex-21, a multi-agency exercise for Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation member countries at the College of Military Engineering in Pune.
On December 7, a senior Tatmadaw official was present at a curtain-raiser event for the same exercise in New Delhi, attended by all three service chiefs and former Chief of Defence Staff, the late General Bipin Rawat.
Finally, on December 21-22, India participated in the 12th Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting -Plus Experts’ Working Group on Counter-Terrorism, which was chaired by representatives from the Myanmar junta.
The irony of a military that routinely indulges in indiscriminate acts of violence against unarmed civilians chairing a counterterrorism working group isn’t lost on anyone.
Fourth, India continues to maintain economic linkages with junta-linked entities through bodies such as the India-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce.
Shringla, during his visit, inaugurated an “India Centre” at the former LIC building in Yangon, which also houses an India-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce business hub, indicating a “business-as-usual” approach under the coup regime.
India-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce representatives also reportedly physically met with the junta-appointed minister of investment and foreign economic relations, Aung Naing Oo, in Yangon on September 24.
Last week, Tin Tun Naing, the planning, finance and investment minister of the deposed National Unity Government, told Asia Times that foreign chambers engaging with the junta “helps it maintain its murderous grip.” New Delhi’s involvement on this front, very clearly, won’t be seen favourably by the elected civilian ministers in Myanmar.
Given that the junta has completely captured the state apparatus and most of its revenue sources, Indian commercial interests will ultimately end up contributing to the military’s revenues and possibly even fund mass atrocities across the country.
Walking on thin ice
The underhand validation of the coup regime’s authority in Myanmar by a constitutional democracy like India is troubling.
So far, several experts have deemed the military takeover as illegal, even by standards of emergency powers set by Myanmar’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution.
It is also to be recalled that the military, on the first day of the coup, threatened the now-deposed and detained civilian President, Win Myint, with “harm” if he refused to step down.
In principle, this is the same route that the gun-toting Taliban insurgents took to overthrow the civilian government in Kabul on August 15, 2021. But, New Delhi hasn’t sent any high-profile emissary on a public visit to meet Taliban leaders yet, and rightly so. Why has it done the same with the Tatmadaw then?
The answer to this is simple – India doesn’t view the Tatmadaw as a threat. In fact, it views the Myanmar military as a regional security partner that will keep its volatile frontiers manageable, if not completely stable. Whether that assessment holds in reality, is a different debate altogether.
New Delhi has so far walked the proverbial diplomatic tightrope on the Myanmar coup, not slamming the junta hard, but also constantly insisting on restoration of democracy.
This has helped preserve the general sense of goodwill that India has always enjoyed in Myanmar, including amongst its civilian political fraternity and civil society.
However, if India is seen to be growing too close to the junta through high-level visits and the likes, it might rapidly lose that public amenability next door.
The government in New Delhi might believe that careful wordplay in foreign ministry press releases would be enough to maintain its pro-democracy credentials amongst the people of Myanmar.
But, those living under the shadows of guns, artillery and attack helicopters hardly bother about the fine print of diplomacy. For them, the reality is black and white – those who stand with their oppressors, and those who don’t.