Spiralling violence and loss of lives, fanned by the military junta, will force New Delhi to examine its position with its neighbouring state, given that prolonged uncertainty and an administrative breakdown could harm its strategic interests.
Myanmar has been an important focal point for India due to the geographical, historical, cultural and economic links that bind the two nations over centuries and this is particularly relevant to the North-Eastern Indian states.
The military sponsored coup on February 1, by the Tatmadaw (junta), has once again thrown peace and stability into disarray and the tension shows no signs of abating. India has always opted for a balanced and measured approach vis its foreign policy position – by calling for the restoration of democracy and condemning the violence - towards its neighbour in an approach which serves the interests of the free world. But as refugees pour across Indian borders, due to the intensity of the violence between the military regime and insurgents, it appears that this could pose a dilemma for the Indian government which could be torn between values (upholding democracy) and interests (working with the tatmadaw).
India and Myanmar share acomplicated relationship. Myanmar is the gateway to Southeast Asia - a vital trade partner for India and the only neighbour with which India shares both a land and sea border. It is the focal point of India’s Act East policy and a crucialpartner in combating extremism and insurgency. With the junta’s presence New Delhi’s ties become knotty given that the tatmadaw, also keeps Beijing on its list of close friends as well.
The current cycle of violence in Myanmar puts India’s strategic interests in the spotlight and this includes matters pertaining to business, connectivity and security. Indian public and private sector entities have made significant investments in Myanmar.
New Delhi has been proactive with its outreach towards Myanmar. The past three decades have recorded a lot of activity in the space of anti-insurgency, trade deals and infrastructure financing and building. Members of Myanmar’s ruling establishment – civilian and military – have made visits to India and been feted by the Indian administration. New Delhi made a concerted effort to include Myanmar into ASEAN in 1997 showing at that time that it was willing to work collaboratively with a civilian or military government in that country.
Given the social and cultural links that the two countries share, specially close to the north-east borders, a unique scheme – called the Free Movement Regime permits residents to enter 16km on either side of the border and stay there for 14 days without a visa. Myanmar citizens visit India for purposes of employment and medical care and children cross the borders unrestricted to attend school.
Sentiments play a large role in shaping policies across boundaries which are porous and open. Citizens from Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland are emotionally invested in the developments in Myanmar and are monitoring events as they unfold which makes the issue of refugees crossing over into India a tricky and delicate one for the Indian administration.
At last count nearly 15,000 people from Myanmar entered India since February. More are expected to cross over if the conflict between the insurgents and the regime intensifies and spirals into a civil war.
For the Tatmadaw, the China factor is an ace up their sleeve. According to reports in the Irrawaddy, in a move that shows closeness of Myanmar's military regime with China, Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) last Tuesday reorganized three crucial committees to move ahead with plans to implement giant infrastructure projects that are a key part of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The Irrawaddy reported that despite the political crisis caused by the junta's February 1 coup and protests against China over its suspected support for the regime, the Myanmar's military is pursuing to implement BRI-related bilateral economic development projects. Anti-China sentiment has risen sharply in Myanmar since the junta's coup. Pro-democracy protesters have called for people to oppose all Chinese projects and to boycott Chinese products, after China and Russia blocked efforts by the United Nations Security Council to condemn the military takeover.
But with international investors shunning the military regime, China is one of the few countries willing to do business with the coup leaders and invest heavily in the country.
Reports further stated that official government gazettes revealed revealed that the junta ousted all civilian government members of the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) Joint Committee in March and replaced them with its own appointees.
The Irrawaddy wrote that Beijing signed an agreement on CMEC in 2018 with the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government. The estimated 1,700-kilometer-long CMEC is a crucial part of the BRI and will connect Kunming, the capital of Yunnan in southwest China, with Myanmar's major economic hubs - first to Mandalay in central Myanmar, then east to Yangon and west to the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Rakhine State.
Despite China’s proactivity it is only winning friends in government and not with the people on the ground given that they have failed to condemn the violence in Myanmar. Given the extent of its interests it is widely believed that Beijing, under Xi Jinping, is supporting the coup in Myanmar as, strategically and economically, China has much to gain if the Tatmadaw administer the country.
India’s approach is more stable even though it also walks the diplomatic tightrope. It is focused on Myanmar’s economic and social development but not at the cost of violence and the endangering of civilian lives.
For New Delhi, the Act East Policy is about curbing Chinese influence, but it is also about developing strong ties and economic links with southeast Asia. For that, it would need to put in the hard yards by ensuring that violence is curtailed - not just for Myanmar’s interests, but for the stability of the region as a whole.