Jaishankar U Than Shwe
India's concerns were aired by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar (fourth left) last week during an interaction with his Myanmar counterpart U Than Shwe (third left) in New Delhi. Image: X:@DrSJaishankar

As Myanmar army loses control, what options does India have?

India has to urgently shed its pro-Myanmar army tilt and start serious engagement with democratic forces in the neighbouring nation to prevent its balkanisation

The prolonged violence and instability in Myanmar have seriously begun to worry India. The two countries share a 1,700-km-long border and, in recent months, India has been impacted by the instability in Myanmar.

India has invested over $1.75 billion in various projects in Myanmar. New Delhi worries that the upheaval in that country could put its investment at risk.

Setback to military

The military rulers who took power after dismissing the democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her government in February 2021 were initially confident of suppressing the disquiet among her followers.

But though the military intensified after the coup its offensive against its opponents and air bombing innocents in rebel-controlled areas, the junta’s control over the country has shrunk alarmingly.

It has steadily lost ground to the armed ethnic groups and the army of democratic forces in recent years.

India’s border states

Four states in India’s Northeast Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur share a border with Myanmar. The people across the international border share cultural heritage and kinship ties.

Any prolonged period of violence and instability in Myanmar impacts these Indian states. Natural sympathy for the well-being of their brethren across the border has often led people in India’s Northeast to give refuge to those fleeing the violence in Myanmar.

But this has also allowed criminal elements to take advantage of the turmoil and cross over. According to some experts, much of the violence in Manipur in recent months can be attributed to those who have taken shelter from Myanmar in India.

India’s concerns

The Indian concerns were aired by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar last week during an interaction with his Myanmar counterpart U Than Shwe in New Delhi.

India expressed “deep concern” over the “continuing violence” in areas close to India. Jaishankar sought “credible security protection for India-funded ongoing projects in Myanmar”. He also called for an early return to the path of democratic transition in that country.

The Indian development assistance portfolio in Myanmar is mostly grant-funded. But those like the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project or the Trilateral Highway projects, which is an East-West corridor that proposes to link the Northeastern states with Myanmar and Thailand, are in areas controlled by ethnic insurgents.

India has a number of other projects here, like the laying of an optical fibre link between Moreh and Mandalay, railway projects in Myanmar as well as renovation of the Thanlyin oil refinery.

Myanmar’s importance

India’s policy towards Myanmar is dictated by its economic, security and strategic interests. Before the coup, India, like many regional countries, maintained a policy of engaging both the army generals and the democratic forces including leaders like Suu Kyi.

In the November 2020 elections, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won an overwhelming majority over the army’s proxies and formed a government.

Myanmar plays a key role in India’s Act East Policy, which allows Delhi access to the vast Southeast Asian market. A key reason for India’s engagement with the Myanmar army is to offer it an alternative to the looming presence of China in that country.

India has supplied $51 million worth of arms and related materials to the Myanmar army since the 2021 coup, according to a UN report.

Indian policy attacked

The Myanmar army needs India as an option against China — the country’s main investor and backer. India also needs the army’s support to safeguard its economic and strategic interests in Myanmar.

However, experts have raised doubts about the efficacy of India’s policy and its over-reliance on the Myanmar army to serve its interests in the country.

In recent months, pressure has been mounting from rights groups and the Myanmar opposition for India to move away from the army and start supporting the democratic forces.

Opposition’s argument

When India said it was "disturbed" by the army's airstrike on civilians in a village that killed 170 people in April last year and asked all parties to resolve their differences through dialogue, the democratic forces in Myanmar were dismayed.

The Opposition argues that since the army is not in control of most areas, particularly those bordering India, Delhi’s interests will be better served by the opposition and insurgent groups fighting the junta.

During Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the United States, the Myanmar opposition campaigned with the Joe Biden administration to convince India to drop its support to the army.

Failed initiative

But the US refused to pressurise India as it did not want to jeopardise Indian support in dealing with the more pressing challenge of China in the region.

Recently, an Indian government-sponsored think-tank organised a gathering in New Delhi of all stakeholders in Myanmar to find a peaceful solution to the current crisis.

But the effort failed to create a mechanism for engagement between the contending parties.

Unapologetic junta

The Myanmar army has continued its hardline stance, including air strikes, against the opposition bases. Many of these strikes have been in the areas bordering India, and the spill-over effect is felt increasingly in the Indian states.

The army’s action is aimed at marginalising the opposition and pacifying the country before it can hold and win an election in Myanmar.

The Myanmar army, locally known as the Tatmadaw, was apprehensive that Suu Kyi’s party would use its overwhelming majority in parliament to change the Constitution and bar the army from participating in politics. This led army chief General Min Aung Hlaing to dismiss the elected government and put the democratic leaders in jail.

But some estimates now say that the army controls as little as 17 per cent of Myanmar, while the rest of the country under the control of the armed rebels.

Insurgents’ sway

Even if the Myanmar army manages to hold elections and get elected General Min Aung Hlaing, the army supremo, it is unlikely to be accepted as a legitimate verdict.

Though the pro-media junta’s claim about a state of “normality”, the military is said to be in a deepening crisis. It has lost vast swathes of territory in northern Shan as well as Rakhine, Karen, Chin and Karenni (Kayah) states to ethnic armed groups over the past four months.

China, which has invested heavily in the country, has kept the ethnic armed groups happy to ensure its key projects in Myanmar are not hurt.

End pro-army tilt

India has an advantage over China. It can use its influence over the Myanmar army and ethnic groups to showcase the success of the Indian model to bring the warring factions together for peace and stability in Myanmar.

But India urgently needs to shed its pro-army tilt in Myanmar and start serious engagement with the democratic forces to prevent a balkanisation of the country. The latter situation, if it arises, could gravely threaten India’s security.
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