India must prioritise stability in Myanmar
- In 2021, the military in Myanmar attempted to grab power from the elected civilian government in a dramatic coup.
- Subsequently, it installed a “caretaker government”, while the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, declared himself “Prime Minister”.
- The deposed elected lawmakers in November 2020 formed their own government - National Unity Government (NUG), which commands the support of the majority.
History of Political turmoil:
- The coup formed in 2021 faced popular resistance from the first day, with mass protests bringing the country to a halt.
- Thousands, including government officials, refused to go to work, spawning a civil disobedience movement.
- The junta swiftly responded with firing at unarmed protestors, conducting violent nighttime raids in residential areas, and blocking social media sites.
- Within about three months after the coup, a full-fledged armed rebellion erupted across Myanmar.
- Dozens of civilian militias, called People’s Defence Forces (PDF), now armed with more sophisticated weapons, mushroomed in nearly every region and state.
- The armed resistance gripped the whole country by midsummer.
- Today, the military has to fight on multiple fronts, as even powerful ethnic armed groups in the north, northwest and east have joined forces with the PDFs.
- There have been more than 6,675 clashes and attacks in Myanmar from February-December 2021 — more than Afghanistan and Yemen.
- The last three months alone saw 2,388 clashes – highest in the world, higher than even Syria.
- India has taken an arguably balanced diplomatic approach on Myanmar, calling for restraint, restoration of democracy and release of political prisoners, but also maintaining its lines of communication with the military.
- Delhi has also firmly stayed away from imposing sanctions on the junta.
- In December, India broke the diplomatic freeze with the Indian Foreign Minister visiting Myanmar and meeting Junta Chief.
- But Delhi must realise that the military is no longer a force for stability in Myanmar as it is incapable of providing political, economic and social stability.
What should India do?
- India should implement an unbiased and proactive “Neighbourhood First” strategy that facilitates the Act East policy crucial for India’s long-term security and economic interests.
- A recalibration exercise for developing a robust relationship with Naypyidaw is the need of the hour.
- India should find ways to support Naypyidaw for its critical requirements of systems and platforms like UAVs, surveillance systems and communication equipment.
- Also, dynamic economic engagement with Myanmar is required, to expedite the completion of earlier agreement on the operationalisation of Sittwe port, the establishment of an oil refinery and joint vaccine production facilities at a cost of $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 Northeast.
Advantage for India
- India has the singular advantage of acceptability from both factions in Myanmar.
- Therefore, it is imperative that it takes the lead in engaging with the ruling military leadership, to stop the highhandedness that is being exhibited by 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 proximate ties between the two armies.
Insurgency in North East India- a bone of contention
- For India, the Northeastern border with Myanmar remains on top of the bilateral agenda. However, even on this, military has damaged whatever stability was left.
- Sagaing region, which borders three Northeast Indian states, has seen the highest number of clashes so far.
- Chin state, bordering Mizoram and Manipur, has seen dramatic military offensives in civilian areas, which have forced thousands to flee into India.
- The Myanmar military has roped in Manipuri insurgents as mercenaries to attack anti-junta forces, in exchange for safe haven.
- At least four Indian insurgent groups have reestablished their camps inside Myanmar, which could act as staging posts for attacks inside India.
- The deadly ambush on an Assam Rifles convoy by two such groups in November was perhaps only a warning of worse things to come.
- Thus, New Delhi must reconsider its partnerships in Myanmar and invest in those entities that can provide a stable political environment overall, and secure its security interests along the border.
- It is time India rapidly expanded its links with NUG and PDFs, instead of playing by the old rules.
- New Delhi is worried that alienating junta will deepen China’s influence on the military, but even Beijing realises the new reality and has publicly communicated with pro-democracy forces in Myanmar.
- So, if India really wants to offset Chinese influence in Myanmar, it needs to take this opportunity to forge new friendships.
- For India, stability — not the military — should be the focus in Myanmar. 2021 has revealed that the two don’t go hand in hand.
- It is, therefore, of the utmost importance for India to positively engage Naypyidaw and stave off attempts to exploit Myanmar by countries inimical to India’s growth. Any ambiguity or delay in India’s constructive engagement with Myanmar would only serve the interests of anti-India forces.