India’s response to Sri Lanka and Myanmar crises is a study in contrast. It shouldn’t be

August 1 marked 18 months of the military coup in Myanmar. According to UN human rights monitors, over 2,000 people have been killed, around 14,000 are in prison, including 90 lawmakers, over 7,00,000 are refugees and half a million internally displaced. Humanitarian aid to coup opponents is blocked. The economy is in free fall.Yet we in India appear to have resigned ourselves to the suffering in that country, along with the rest of the world. Even the Tatmadaw’s recent execution of four democracy activists received only a pro forma expression of “deep concern” from the Ministry of External Affairs.The contrast between the Indian response to the crisis in Sri Lanka and the dawning civil war in Myanmar could not be starker. For Sri Lanka, the Modi administration extended $3.5 billion in credits and supplied essential fuel. When it came to Myanmar, Home Minister Shah ordered that refugees be refused entry. Mizoram’s Chief Minister Zoramthanga was brave enough to refuse, and the state hosts several thousand democracy activists who were forced to flee. But there is no support from the Union administration for Mizoram’s aid effort, and apparently there is no Indian policy vis a vis the coup either, apart from an anodyne statement of support for democracy that is clearly meaningless in the current conditions.True, it is ASEAN which shouldered the responsibility to mediate in Myanmar, whereas India took the initiative with Sri Lanka. But ASEAN has been largely unsuccessful. The five-point consensus that the junta agreed on with the regional grouping included an immediate end to violence and resumption of negotiations between the ousted administration and the Tatmadaw. The latter immediately postponed implementation of the agreement, and has since consistently violated it.ASEAN’s reaction has been weak at best. The US, EU, Australia and Canada announced targeted sanctions on the junta, and the EU imposed an embargo on arms sales to the country. ASEAN did not. ASEAN members’ state-owned enterprises continue to trade with the junta. In an Asian reverberation of the renewed conflict between autocracy and democracy, Russia and China are now the top arms exporters to the Tatmadaw post-coup. India’s Bharat Electronics Limited is also reportedly supplying the junta with remote air defence and coastal surveillance equipment.Given our land and sea borders with Myanmar, and the troubled history of cross-border insurgencies between our two countries, the Modi administration’s inertia is alarming, though not entirely surprising. Successive Indian administrations maintained relations with the junta in the hope that they would cooperate against cross-border Indian armed groups. But these insurgencies have mostly petered out. In fact, over the 10 years of Myanmar’s partial democracy, from 2011 to 2021, cross-border support for Indian insurgents dipped sharply. In other words, we have a direct security interest in the restoration of our neighbour’s democracy.Security is not the only or even chief reason for us to do more than express concern. Mizos are as distressed by the junta’s attack on Myanmar’s elected administration as Tamils are over Sri Lanka’s meltdown. Most Mizos wish the Modi administration would not only show compassion for Myanmar’s people in this dark hour of their need, but actively support the National Unity Government that formed post-coup.Though the international community has not accepted the junta or its nominees as official representatives of Myanmar, it has not recognised the unity government as the legitimate successor of the pre-coup elected administration either. Its armed wing, the recently-formed People’s Defence Force (PDF), exists in a shadowy limbo. If it is too weak to impose significant costs on the junta, one root cause is the lack of support from neighbours.As against Europe’s military support for Ukraine’s defence, no Asian country has stepped up to support the unity government and PDF. Even when they find funds to buy arms, their access is blocked. Bangladesh and Thailand do not allow arms to cross to the resistance. Rumour has it that Indian security forces recently intercepted an arms shipment to the PDF too.The UN Security Council’s statement condemning the executions has added another layer of complexity. The call for an arms embargo is laudable on the face of it, but in practice works mostly against the unity government and the PDF. Even if China and Russia stop arming the Tatmadaw — which is a big if — the most that can be expected is a return to some kind of limited power-sharing. The 2008 Myanmar constitution tried that, with 20 per cent of legislative seats reserved for the military. As we now see, the experiment did not work. Voters naturally resented the curtailment of their freedom to elect, and democrats found the subordination of civil to military authority intolerable. When its front parties failed to win the seats required for military control, the Tatmadaw took the country by force.Members of Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement believe that the only way for Myanmar to regain democracy is if the junta is defeated. General Hlaing, they say, is willing to let the country go North Korea’s way so long as the military can remain in power.But there are many ways to bell the cat, and they have not been exhausted. Sanctions that will starve the junta are a first step that Myanmar’s neighbours are yet to try. While ASEAN has the initiative, all Myanmar’s neighbours need to unite on sanctions, especially nations such as Japan, Australia and India that are members of the Quad along with the US. Myanmar ought to have topped the recent Quad summit’s agenda and it is shameful that it did not. It is still not too late to call a virtual emergency meeting of Quad heads of state, along with ASEAN heads of state, to agree to stringent sanctions. That would show intent and might galvanise sorely-needed pressure on the junta to retreat.Our neighbourhood is more unstable today than it has been for decades. Four of our bordering countries are in free fall, while China’s grip comes closer to our shores by the hour. Can the Modi administration afford to fiddle while wildfires ignite around us?

Source: India express


  • Pazdin Dalal

    A marketing expert from Mumbai takes interest in covering defence and geopolitical issues. He has also been active in covering growth of private defence sector in India.

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