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Indian Foreign Secretary’s Visit to Myanmar

Dr. Udai Bhanu Singh is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 24, 2022

    Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla paid a working visit to Myanmar on 22–23 December 2021. His visit came at a time when the decade-long democratisation process in Myanmar stood derailed. Almost a year ago, the military, headed by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, staged a coup overthrowing the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on 1 February 2021—the very day the new Parliament was to meet. The Myanmar military now rules through a newly formed body—the State Administrative Council (SAC)—after annulling the November 2020 election results, as per which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 396 of the 476 (contested) parliamentary seats while the army’s party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), managed to secure only 33 seats. The military refused to accept the results. Even though a large number of ethnic minority voters were excluded, independent election observers did not find any systemic irregularities.1

    The National Unity Government (NUG) was set up as a government-in-exile and a Federal Democracy Charter was drafted keeping the ethnic minorities into consideration; it has also attempted to organise a People’s Defence Force with the support of some ethnic armed organisations.2 The Civil Disobedience Movement that followed the coup was brutally suppressed by the military, with reportedly over 1,480 people killed and about 11,583 arrested, as of 14 January 2022, according to a local human rights group called the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.3

    The coup and the COVID-19 pandemic have had a negative impact on Myanmar’s economy, which was on the path of reform since 2011. As per the estimates of The Economist Intelligence Unit, Myanmar will be among the worst economic performers in Southeast Asia in 2021–22, despite being one of the top performers before the coup.4

    While the West (United States, United Kingdom and the European Union) has resorted to targeted sanctions against Myanmar’s military officials, the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) approach has been somewhat ambivalent because of the lack of unity among its members. ASEAN works on the basis of the consensus principle and in that sense each member holds a sort of veto over any decision that has to be taken by the organisation. It may be recalled that the first time that ASEAN ended a meeting without issuing a joint statement was in July 2012 when Cambodia as ASEAN chair refused to allow any mention of the South China dispute under Chinese pressure.

    It is to be noted that only eight countries were represented at Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day Parade held on 27 March 2021.  These included the Russian Deputy Defence Minister, Defence Attaches of India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. India’s representation underlined the significance India attached to its relations with the Myanmar Government.

    Indian Stakes in Myanmar

    Given Myanmar’s geostrategic significance and the continuing insurgency threat, disturbances in Myanmar pose a direct and serious policy challenge to New Delhi. As such it constitutes a crucial element in the success of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’, ‘Act East’ and ‘Indo-Pacific’ policies.  It may be recalled that the joint visit of Foreign Secretary Shringla and Army Chief General Naravane in October 2020 was undertaken in the backdrop of the developments in Rakhine and to provide succour in the form of vaccine and other aid to help Myanmar tide over the pandemic.5

    Interestingly, Foreign Secretary Shringla’s December 2021 visit coincided with Senior General Hlaing’s announcement of plans to hold a fresh general election in the country in August 2023, after lifting the state of emergency.6 According to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Foreign Secretary Shringla’s visit was intended to convey to the military rulers the urgency to restore democracy in Myanmar at the earliest. He met not only the military rulers but also the representatives of the NLD, civil society representatives and foreign diplomats. He also reiterated New Delhi’s support for the ASEAN centrality and the Five-Point Consensus 7 that had been announced at the Jakarta Summit on 24 April 2021 (attended also by Senior General Hlaing).

    During his visit, Foreign Secretary Shringla handed over one million doses of “Made in India” COVID vaccines and announced a grant of 10,000 tonnes of rice and wheat to Myanmar. He expressed India’s continued support to development projects along the India–Myanmar border, and commitment to expedite ongoing connectivity projects such as the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project and the Trilateral Highway. The two countries also “reiterated their commitment to ensure that their respective territories would not be allowed to be used for any activities inimical to the other”.8

    There are serious security and related factors that need to be kept into consideration when it comes to India–Myanmar relations. The killing of the Commanding Officer of Assam Rifles, Col Viplav Tripathi together with his wife and child and four other security personnel in an ambush in Manipur in November 2021, signalled the revival of insurgent activity on India–Myanmar border in which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF) were reactivated.9

    The Arakan Army (AA) on the Myanmar side of the border continues to be a source of concern for India. It must be remembered that it was the coordinated operations of the Indian Army and the Tatmadaw under the Operation Sunrise I and II which helped in dealing with the Arakan Army in the period before the coup.10

    Another source of concern for the Centre has been the large-scale influx of refugees from Myanmar to the bordering states of Manipur and Mizoram in particular. New Delhi’s directive (10 March 2021) to the four Northeastern States to stem the tide, was countered by Mizoram Chief Minister’s request to the Prime Minister (18 March 2021) to allow Myanmar nationals belonging to the Chin community to be provided asylum on humanitarian ground. This instance once again highlights the need for close coordination among the central and state governments in the sensitive Northeastern region, in shaping our strategy with regard to the government in such an important neighbouring country.

    China uses Infrastructure Diplomacy as a powerful foreign policy tool. The China–Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) through Myanmar has only exacerbated India’s concerns regarding the influence of China in Myanmar and the region. Sanctions and boycott by the West could once again lead to the international isolation of Myanmar which would inevitably push it into further dependence on China.

    China shares a 2100-km long border with Myanmar and seeks access to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar. Its influence in Myanmar had steadily increased during the period of military rule (1962–2011). Chinese influence got a boost with the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Myanmar in January 2020, when over 30 important agreements were signed (including those relating to Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone and Kyaukphyu deep-sea port).11 Earlier in 2018, Myanmar and China had signed an MoU to establish the China–Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which is a 1700-km corridor meant to connect Kunming to Myanmar’s economic hubs, first to Mandalay and then east to Yangon and west to Kyaukphyu.12

    It is the security imperative that prompted India to deepen military-to-military ties, giving them a batter of field guns and building border roads for them. In future, India may consider providing them non-lethal equipment. Significantly, India had also given Myanmar its very first submarine, a Russian-built Project 877 Kilo class boat, in 2020.13 It was reported that Myanmar Navy had already got the submarine training from Pakistan as early as 2013 when it did not have submarines.14 It is to be noted that the very next day after Shringla’s visit, on 24 December 2021, on the 74th anniversary of Myanmar Navy, it commissioned a Type 035 or Ming-class diesel submarine (renamed UMS Minye Kyaw Htin) which it had received from Chinese PLA Navy. China has already sold two refurbished Type 035G submarines to Bangladesh and the newer S26T submarine to Thailand. China has emerged as a key arms supplier to Myanmar. Myanmar’s navy is equipped with a Chinese-made C-802 anti-ship missile, while its air force operates several Chinese-built aircraft (including the Chengdu JF-17 Thunder fighter jet and Shaanxi Y-8 transport).15 

    Summing Up

    India once again faces a dilemma on the approach it should take towards Myanmar. On the one hand, India is concerned that the democratic gains made by Myanmar over the previous decades should not be undermined,16 on the other, security interests militate against vitiating our understanding with the Tatmadaw. State Power remained concentrated in the Myanmar military for nearly half a century and hybrid democracy that began to emerge in the last decade (2011–2021) was constrained by the provisions of the 2008 Constitution which still gave considerable leeway to the Military. Myanmar’s ethnic conflict has remained unresolved since its independence in 1948. The ongoing Civil Disobedience Movement in the midst of the pandemic, and China’s growing influence, presents a scenario which appears to defy easy solution in the short term. A cautious approach while engaging other stakeholders at the second track level could possibly guide us to the light at the end of the tunnel. The bottom line is—a hard calculated realistic approach weighing the evolving ground situation alone will deliver the objectives of our foreign policy.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.