India needs to review ties with junta post-coup

Published on February 9, 2021

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen and Prasanna Kumar

Bangkok Post – February 9, 2021

As India’s gateway to Southeast Asia, Myanmar weighs high on New Delhi’s strategic calculations – especially following the military coup on Feb 1 – and its return to military rule has forced strategic thinkers in New Delhi back to the drawing board.

On one hand, India, which has invested heavily in Myanmar, can’t afford to directly antagonise the junta, as to not endanger or lose the strategic space completely to China. At the same time, given its democratic credentials, India definitely can’t give its unequivocal backing to military rule.

The statement issued by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs expressed “deep concern” over the developments in Myanmar. Although the statement did say that New Delhi has “always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar” and “believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld”, it didn’t contain any element which directly condemned the military’s actions.

This shows how high the stakes are for India, which meant there is a need for complex diplomatic manoeuvring to safeguard its strategic interests in Myanmar.

Because of its strategic location, Myanmar has attracted the attention of regional economic powers, such as China, Japan and India. But the conditions which followed the country’s transition from military rule to the semi-civilian government after the 2010 election, worked in India’s favour. Investments from other major economies, such as Japan, were intended mainly to balance China’s dominance in the country, so they were designed to complement the Indian projects.

India has initiated several projects which are intended to connect its landlocked northeastern regions with Southeast Asia. These include big-ticket projects like the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP) and the Delhi- Hanoi Railway Link, which are currently in different stages of development.

The speedy implementation of the US$484 million (14.5 billion baht) KMTTP project is especially essential, as it will provide an alternative route for goods to go from the port of Sittwe in Myanmar to northeast India, via Kolkata – thus easing the burden on the 22-kilometre-wide Siliguri Corridor in India’s West Bengal state.

With full control over the government, Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, may ramp up the government’s efforts to subdue ethnic armed groups and tighten requirements for peace negotiations.

The return to military rule, in turn, may embolden ethnic armed groups to intensify their fight, especially in areas dominated by ethnic minorities, further disrupting the peace process.

In Rakhine state, for instance, the clashes between the Myanmar army and the Arakan army may worsen. This could pose serious problems to the construction of the 109-km-long road from the Indian border town of Zorinpui in Mizoram state, to Paletwa in Myanmar’s Chin state. The Rohingya situation may also further deteriorate, which will pose more diplomatic challenges for New Delhi.

Another area which could be affected by the coup is the security cooperation between India and Myanmar. Many rebels from Assam, Nagaland and Manipur have built their camps in Myanmar and for decades, Myanmar’s military didn’t show much interest in rooting out anti-India forces on their soil. But in recent years, cooperation has been on the rise.

For instance, in 2019, both nations’ armies conducted a joint operation called “Operation Sunrise” along their border. And in May last year, the Myanmar army handed over 22 insurgents from various rebel groups from the Northeast to the Indian army.

Now, with Myanmar under military rule, it will be more difficult – at least for the foreseeable future – for New Delhi to maintain a healthy military- to-military relationship with Nay Pyi Taw, as this may potentially attract strong international reactions.

The global response to the coup will also have an impact on India’s interests in Myanmar. US President Joe Biden has initiated steps to impose sanctions on the country, which would have a spillover effect on Japanese investments which complement India’s projects.

For instance, the development of the Japan-sponsored East-West Economic Corridor, Southern Economic Corridor in the Mekong sub-region, and Myanmar’s Dawei port are meant to economically connect Southeast Asia with India.

While the junta may not necessarily be a hurdle in completing such mutually-beneficial projects, international economic sanctions and/or the escalation of armed conflict between the Myanmar army and the nation’s ethnic armed groups may hinder the projects’ completion.

China is another factor that could change the strategic equations in Myanmar. Sanctions from the West are expected to cement ties between Beijing and Nay Pyi Taw further. The official Chinese news agency Xinhua used the term “major cabinet reshuffle” to describe the coup, and China, along with Russia, blocked the UN Security Council’s effort to condemn the Myanmar coup on Feb 2. The council a couple of days later released a watered-down statement without mentioning the coup. While these may not necessarily mean that China is backing the coup, it gave a glimpse into the nuances in Beijing’s approach toward balancing its strategic interests in Myanmar.

Such acts help Beijing to convince the Myanmar military that only China can come to the defence of Myanmar in critical situations. Such a move can give more strategic space to China to steer its anti-India and or anti-West activities through its proxies in Myanmar.

Although Myanmar’s military generals have said that they will conduct a fresh election after a year, it is difficult to imagine what will happen a year from now, given the five-decade military rule after 1962. Even if Myanmar returns to a semi-civilian democratic rule, business may not be as usual for India, at least for sometime. Thus, New Delhi needs to strategise to safeguard its “Act East” policy objectives in Myanmar.

Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is an Executive Director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), OP Jindal Global University. Prasanna Kumar is a doctoral research scholar at JSIA.

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