Over a year has passed since the military takeover in Myanmar. The putsch taking place just days before the newly elected democratic government was to be sworn in, stymied Myanmar’s tenuous transition to democracy, for which a beginning had been made in 2015. The purported reason for the coup d’état was that the elections were rigged, in which the National League for Democracy, under the stewardship of Aung Sung Suu Kyi had secured a majority for another term. However, the motivations were most likely the dissonances that existed between the democratic polity and the Myanmar army, as well as China’s covert incitement of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who was to shortly superannuate. After all, it cannot be denied, that the Myanmar army is the most important stakeholder in the country and has a proverbial finger in every pie in the country. The growing popularity of Suu Kyi raised its worst fears about losing legitimacy, triggering, thereby a seizure of power.
However, notwithstanding the unfortunate developments that have come to pass in Myanmar since 1 February 2021 when the Tatmadaw took over the reins of power, India should implement an unbiased and proactive “Neighbourhood First” strategy, that facilitate the pivotal “Act East Policy”, crucial for India’s long term security and economic interests. To that end, a recalibration exercise for developing a robust relationship with Naypyidaw is the need of the hour. Such a policy should take into account the measures that China has taken to arm the Tatmadaw. India, in all its wisdom, should find ways to support Naypyidaw for its critical requirements of systems and platforms like Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and communication equipment that would provide teeth to its forces in order to address the existing security challenges effectively. In addition, there is a need for dynamic economic engagement with Myanmar, to expedite completion of the earlier agreement on operationalisation of the Sittwe Port and the establishment of an oil refinery and joint vaccine production facilities at a cost of USD 6 Billion. Myanmar—regardless of who governs its polity—is not only the decisive lynchpin for India’s “Act East Policy”, but critical for the economic development and security of India’s North East. The latter aspect has become even more imperative as earlier operations that were conducted against the Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) by way of Op Sunrise-I and II has experienced a reversal with many valley-based insurgent groups of Manipur forging an agreement with the Myanmar army.
The coup triggered the current political crisis, setting off spontaneous riots within the country/ This has since metamorphosed into a large scale civil disobedience movement and is being brutally suppressed by the security forces. The unfolding tragedy has been criticised globally and has tarnished the image of the Tatmadaw that had already been discredited due to the military excesses committed against the Rohingyas. The timing of the two day visit by India’s Foreign Secretary to Myanmar in the last week of December 2021, therefore, gains in significance. It has loud hailed India’s pragmatic approach in its Myanmar policy and has conveyed the message that India, notwithstanding its commitment to democracy, is amenable to conduct business with the country regardless of who is in the seat of power in Naypyidaw. It was also, the first visit by a senior official from the liberal world and to that end, it has set the stage for rapprochement and dialogue with the junta.
India has the singular advantage of acceptability by both factions in Myanmar and it is, therefore, imperative that India takes the lead in engaging with the ruling military leadership, aid stop the highhandedness that is being exhibited by the security forces against the civilian population and also kick start the process of peace and stability in the country. India also needs to proactively employ the existing “people to people” goodwill and the existing proximate ties between the two armies. The shared idiom that has been shaped the two militaries over the years by way of joint operations that were undertaken by the security forces to flush out the Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) billeted in Myanmar’s Sagaing division attests to the fact. Indeed, one of the considerations that should be mulled over by the policy makers in New Delhi is whether it would be in the fitness of things to send an envoy to Myanmar from a military background. The author, during the course of his research, has been able to zero on to a few seasoned former three star generals of the Indian army who are extremely well versed with both the North East and Myanmar. It could be worth India’s while to experiment with military diplomacy in the future, especially as the mandarins of the diplomatic corps have not been able to deliver.
Reports that have suggested that the military junta has come into an accord with the IIGs, in order to use them to quell the internal strife, are disturbing. Although the agreement seems to be a marriage of convenience, it seems to have emboldened the IIGs and the attack on the Assam Rifles, in Manipur’s Churachandpur, could in all probability be a manifestation of such a development. Also, the humiliation which China had faced in Eastern Ladakh has driven it to adopt a different modus operandi in the North East and to that end active Chinese interest seems to be gearing itself towards fuelling insurgency in the North East. Indeed, an inimical China could in collusion with its all-weather ally, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, fish in trouble waters and even sow seeds of discord in a milieu that is gradually transforming itself into India’s growth engine. To that end, ill-fated episodes, such as the Mon incident of 4 December 2021 could be raked up, in order to stymie the integration process that is actively underway in the region and one that has been painstakingly nurtured over the years. It is, therefore, of utmost importance for India to positively engage Naypyidaw and stave off attempts to exploit Myanmar by countries inimical to India’s growth. Any indistinctness or postponement in India’s constructive engagement with Naypyidaw would only serve the interests of forces inimical to India.
[Jaideep Saikia is a well known conflict analyst and celebrated author of several books on security and strategy]