The ‘Ideal’ Indian Foreign Policy Against the Myanmar Military Coup by Anouska Jha
After suffering decades of military rule and economic/ethnic discrimination, the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar only solidified the lost hopes of democratic reform. The Tatmadaw coup under Senior General Ming Aung Hlaing was a hard-headed reaction against the military party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which suffered a blow in the February 2020 elections. After detaining the leader of the winning National League for Democracy (NLD), the military has committed brutal crackdowns on dissent and protest amongst civilians and members of the post-NLD group, the National Unity Government (NUG) and its armed People’s Defense Force (PDFs). Whilst there are well-documented geopolitical events, such as the United States’ Administration response to the coup, which includes limited protected status to Burmese Americans, sanctions on the military junta, and legitimization of the NUG, there is still much to be said on the impact of Myanmar’s politics on Indian national security. This article discusses the following; What is the current relation between the New Delhi government and the juntas? How does the Burmese refugee situation in the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur reveal about the fragmented internal and foreign policy of India? What may be the solution to this? By embedding current politics into historical contexts of Indian-Burmese diplomatic relations, I outline the faults and solutions to India’s policy vis-a-vis Myanmar.
The reign of Ashoka the Great from 304-232 BCE dawned the ‘idealism’ strand in Indian international political theory. After winning territorial conquests in South Asia, from Afghanistan to Bengal, King Ashoka was drawn to Buddhism. The philosophy of peaceful existence was a counterpoint to the many killings that led to the unification of the Indian lands, and this abandonment of war is said to have influenced India’s foreign policy towards neighbors to the modern day, including Myanmar. In 1948, both the recently independent India and Myanmar expressed a regional solidarity, signing the Treaty of Yangon pact in 1951. India’s pro- democracy stance was further evoked in the Myanmar military coups of 1962 and 1988, where India, under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, provided material support to democratic activists in Rangoon. At the end of 1988, the Government of India established refugee camps in the border states of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh, to aid students fighting for Burmese democracy.
Yet in 1992, India established its Look East Policy under PV Rao, which aims to extend India’s influence in the East. Thus, the days of King Ashoka’s ‘idealism’ shifted to a ‘neo-pragmatic engagement’, which focuses not on democratic means, but national security ends. The government of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance in the late 1990s realised that engaging with the Tatmadaw was significant in countering China’s influence in Myanmar. Following 2021, the conflict between the military juntas and the PDFs in the northwestern border near India resembles this uncertainty. Wanting to avoid isolation from the military regime, New Delhi has priorotised a partnership with the junta against the pro- democratic PDFs and Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs), who use guerilla tactics to capture military-owned territories. This has impeded on the military’s ability to support Indian counteroffensives against EAOs that operate from Myanmar. Moreover, India attended a military parade in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on 27 March 2021 to mark Tatmadaw Day, marking a two-month accession of the coup. the Modi government has also sold military weapons to Myanmar since the coup. Gone is the sentiment voiced in 1948, which claimed that ‘In the past and future, India will stand..with the Burmese..we will always share together’ (Zaw, 2001, p.89).
The United States Institute of Peace has also documented the post-coup attack impact of the Myanmar military regime on the treatment of Burmese refugees in India. Since 2021, 22,000 refugees from the bordering regions in Myanmar have settled in the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur. The refugee crisis reveals more than lack of humanitarian justice within the New Delhi government, however. These states contain ethnic kinship ties which straddle the border. For example, Myanmar’s Chin group shares ties with the Mizos and Kuku-Zomi group in Manipur. Naga villages also astride the borders, allowing the Tenyimi Students Union in Nagaland to condemn the overthrow of a democratically elected government. Beginning with India’s courting of the Tatmadaw generals in the 1990s, the central government views Manipur, Mizoram, and Nagaland’s welcoming of refugees as a threat to India’s national security and infrastructure policy. Importantly, India is not part of the 1951 Refugee Convention, 1967 Protocol, and the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner Refugee) is not permitted to set up asylum registration centers in India’s borders. Thus, the New Delhi government’s policy against Burmese refugees is politically counterpoised by the policies of its northeastern states, which have actively materialised their ethnic connections into a diplomatic stance on Burmese migration.
The internal conflict lies in the divisions between the New Delhi and northeastern governments. The refugee influx undermines India’s geostrategic projects planned through Myanmar. This includes the Indian Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project and Kaladan Multi-modal Transit project, which are core projects in the Look East/Act East Policy. For this to be affected, India must maintain cooperation with the Tatmadaw government, especially as the agenda runs through the Manipur and Mizoram regions. Yet, this entails a further recession from democratic promotion, and a rejection of the ethnic ties between Myanmar and the northeastern Indian states. Whilst the central Indian government has expressed ‘support’ for Burmese democracy, it has not condemned the military juntas, which are necessary for its ‘political stability’. The watery rhetoric of its support is undercut by India’s engagement with the Tatmadaw in 1993, andits conflict with northeastern governments over the rights of Burmese refugees. Is this ‘realism’ of national security of value?
I propose that it is not. There are two primary reasons for this; firstly, whilst it is true that the military dictatorship in Myanmar is supported by Chinese businesses with strategic interests in the region, the dictatorship itself is unstable. The recent execution of pro-democracy activists was not an act of power, but of ‘survival’. The killings of a young child in northeast Myanmar, two village elders and an ex-NLD member who supported the resistance, only emphasise the illegitimacy of the dictatorship in the eyes of the citizens, who have consistently fought for their democratic rights. It may be a hard-hit to the political genes of Indian policy, considering the provisional agenda and history of Indian-Myanmar relations. For example, India is building a USD 484 million Kaladan Multimodal Transit project to connect Kolkata’s port with Myanmar’s Sittwe port, to create employment opportunities in the conflict-ridden Chin and Rakhine provinces. India has also acted under the G-20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative to economically bolster Myanmar’s arms imports from India. Yet India must recognise that to sacrifice liberal democracy for realism is of little value, especially as the military dictatorship has ‘lost touch with reality’. Attacks by groups such as the PDFs and Kachin Independence Army in the Sagaing State on July 26, suggest that building ‘connections’ in the short term with the junta is a baseless investment in India’s economic future.
Secondly, national security does not only imply protection from external factors, but the New Delhi government must align with the state governments of Manipur and Mizoram, to avoid domestic conflict. In 2021, the central Indian government’s Ministry of Home Affairs demanded that the northeastern states should ‘check the illegal influx’ of Burmese refugees, along with assigning Assam rifles to guard the borders. However, as mentioned, these northeastern states have welcomed and expressed solidarity with refugees, condemning the New Delhi government for ignoring this ethnic connection. As Jawaharlal Nehru University Professor Shankari Sundararaman notes, India’s ‘Look East’ policy cannot gather momentum if it does not consider the needs of its northeastern states of Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh. It may even trigger anti-India insurgencies in the northeast, with consequences reverberating both to Indian internal policy, and the safety of asylum-seeking Burmese citizens. India must work with the NUG and PDFs, especially as China is increasing its support for the military juntas.
Both solutions contain a common element, namely winning the trust of the pro-democracy Burmese citizens. This includes not only ‘supporting’ but acting on humanitarian initiatives targeted towards those oppressed by the military regime. It must recognise that the juntas are an impermanent feature of a civilisation, and that it must morally and politically invest in the stability of south-east Asia. This does not mean neglecting the rise of ‘realism’ in geopolitics. With the conflict in Eastern Europe and exposed actions of large governments, retreating from realism would be dangerous. Yet, it does mean re-adopting the ‘idealism’ of King Ashoka, to a degree- the philosophy of collective security, national sovereignty and accountability are workable ‘ideals’ that can draw stable returns for Asia, and India’s policies are determinant of the outcome.