Myanmar’s army seized control of the nation after placing the National League for Democracy (NLD) Chairperson and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest on 1 February 2021. All authority now resides with the top army commander, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and a one-year state of emergency has been declared. The army cited fraud during the elections as a reason for seizing power. The NLD had won the elections held on 8 November 2020. Still, the largest opposition party Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is supported by the army, did not take the defeat recumbently. Soon after the elections, the military and USDP continued to pressure the President and the Union Election Commission (UEC) to solve the alleged ‘fraud’ during the elections. Acting on the threats, the army seized power right before the Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives) was scheduled to hold its first session on 1 February 2021.
While countries across the world have criticized the move, India has chosen to remain silent. The Ministry of External Affairs, India, issued a simple statement that they are keeping a close watch on the developments and express deep concern on the happenings in Myanmar. There was no criticism of the coup or the military junta. Minister of State, Ministry Of External Affairs, Muraleedharan repeated the same lines when asked about India’s stand on the military coup in Myanmar during the question hour in the Rajya Sabha. This stance is in complete contrast with the one taken by the Indian government in 1988 when the military junta seized power in Myanmar. India, like the US, Japan, and many other nations, cut ties with the military junta.
India’s choice to maintain such strategic silence on the military coup is representative of the new upswing achieved in India-Myanmar relations during the latter’s democratic transition and the very fact that its previous political isolation has increased Myanmar’s dependence on China. Within a decade after 1989, Chinese investment in the country in military hardware, trade, and investment grew from US$ 15 million to US$ 800 million. It has successfully created Myanmar as an ally in the international arena and a buffer state with India. However, the China-Myanmar relationship was not void of suspicions. Myanmar’s junta was constantly apprehensive of Beijing’s leadership and its continuous support to rebel groups in Northern Myanmar. In 1997, With Myanmar’s full membership in ASEAN, it looked for an opportunity to reduce its dependency on China. India also started to make overtures to Myanmar under its ‘Look East Policy’ that were gladly accepted. This also coincided with the United States’ reversal of its isolation policy towards Myanmar in 2009. The deep-rooted Chinese influence in Myanmar did not decline, but it certainly had given India a short window of opportunity to expand its influence in Myanmar. India grabbed this opportunity as Myanmar is increasingly seen as India’s gateway to South-East Asia and has become an essential partner in destroying insurgent activities along India’s northeast border.
Myanmar shares a long 1,643 km geographical land border (4 Indian states – Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh) and maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal with India. India is currently building the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport, a road-river-port cargo transport project to link Kolkata to Sittwe in Myanmar and then from Myanmar’s Kaladan river to India’s northeast. It is also planning the Asian Trilateral Highway with Myanmar and Thailand to connect India to ASEAN. This project is expected to boost trade and commerce in the ASEAN–India Free Trade Area and the rest of Southeast Asia. The Bilateral trade between the two has grown from $12.4 million in 1980-81 to $2.18 billion in 2016-17. India also cooperates with the Myanmar military along the shared highly porous border to monitor insurgents’ activities and the influx of Rohingyas from Myanmar’s Rakhine state. In 2019, India conducted a joint operation called Operation Sunrise, in which the militant camps of the Arakan Army on the Indo-Myanmar border were destroyed. The militant outfits, including the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), the United Liberation Front of Assam (I) and, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, were also targeted during the operation.
India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh V. Shringla and Army Chief Gen M.M. Naravane recently handed over a consignment of drugs to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to treat COVID patients. It also announced the import of 150,000 tonnes of pulses from Myanmar till March 2021 and a grant of $2 million for building a bridge at Byanyu-Sarsichauk in Chin state to ramp up economic connectivity between the north-eastern Indian State of Mizoram and Myanmar. Moreover, the Indian side proposed the construction of a $ 6 billion petroleum refinery in the Thanlyn area near Yangon. The two sides also discussed a coastal-shipping agreement that will allow Indian ships to reach Mizoram via Sittwe Port on the Bay of Bengal and through the Kaladan river multimodal link. India has also recognized the importance of Myanmar for the Quad and the importance of coastal shipping agreement. It also became one of the few countries to attend the annual military parade in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on 27 March 2021.
Thus, India’s strategic silence is on account of its domestic and diplomatic concerns. India does not want a break in ties with Myanmar wherein it is unable to seek the Myanmar army’s help to counter-insurgency operations to secure India’s Northeast. Strategically, India has built slowly on its ties with Myanmar, and it does not want to give China a free hand in Myanmar again. Statistically speaking, Myanmar was the most favoured destination of the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in 2020, highlighting the importance of Myanmar in the region.
The question remains as to how long can India maintain this strategic silence when the army’s acts of violence against the protestors are constantly rising? If the suppression in Myanmar escalates, then India runs a real risk of its people turning against it, as the states in Northeast India share ethnic links to the population in Myanmar.
Namrata Hasija is a Research Fellow at Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, New Delhi, India.