As police and soldiers from Myanmar defect across India’s border, Modi’s government can’t continue with its tepid response to Myanmar’s coup and ongoing violence. India’s next moves will have impacts far beyond bilateral relations—on competition with China, on India’s geopolitical status and on attempts to economically and politically integrate its northeastern states.
Myanmar’s increasingly violent military regime is pushing relations with India into a new phase, as refugees force New Delhi to establish a clear position and figure out how exactly to protect its growing interests on the northeastern border.
At least 1,000 people have crossed from Myanmar into the Indian state of Mizoram fleeing the military’s violence, including many police and some soldiers who are now asking for humanitarian asylum.
“The military was giving orders to kill innocent people, who are like my own mother and father. Why should I kill my own people?” said one man from Chin State, which borders Mizoram, who is a former member of the military. He told reporters he was ordered to attack Chin civilians.
Police officers now in Mizoram said that soldiers ordered them to “arrest, beat, torture the protesters”, according to the Associated Press.
“I want democracy back,” one police officer from Chin State told AFP. “Even though we are the police, we are still citizens like the people. I didn’t want to listen to those kinds of orders, and I did not dare to shoot.”
Many people who fled were forced to leave their families behind, though some later learned family members were harassed or arrested.
The Myanmar military, in turn, has asked for its police officers back, initially as a matter between local district officials on the border, but the issue soon swelled as people continued to cross.
The growing attention to the refugees and India’s border with Myanmar means New Delhi has to take a much more proactive approach to Myanmar’s crisis than it had intended. India’s response will have impacts far beyond bilateral relations—on competition with China, on India’s geopolitical status and on attempts to economically and politically integrate its northeastern states.
Myanmar police and other refugees prompt tension between New Delhi and Mizoram
India’s policy towards the refugees has now prompted friction between the government of Mizoram and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in New Delhi. India’s Ministry of Home Affairs ordered state governments to stop people from coming over their border and to find and deport those who already had.
When people first began crossing in to Mizoram, state Chief Minister Zoramthanga offered protection, saying “From the humanitarian point of view, we have to give them food, we have to give them shelter.” At the time, Indian state officials estimated that the number of refugees crossing over was 100 or fewer.
“As common sense dictates, when there is a political problem in one country and when there is a fear for one’s life, if they cross over to the neighboring countries, then normally they were not sent back,” said Zoramthanga.
The Ministry of Home Affairs claimed it had to send the refugees back, as they “have no powers to grant ‘refugee’ status to any foreigner and that India is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol.”
Chief Minister Zoramthanga has since held a virtual meeting with the foreign minister of Myanmar’s ousted civilian government, Zin Mar Aung, and continues to push New Delhi on its refugee policy. He also emphasized that the people of Mizoram share ethnic ties with those coming over the border from Chin State.
Modi’s reaction to the situation in Mizoram will shape the course of economic and political integration in the northeast, but the domestic tension may also influence India’s approach at the geopolitical level.
India finds itself forced to the front of the Quad
The violence in Myanmar and the arrival of refugees have forced India to quickly clarify its policies towards its neighbor but the process has been far from clear and doesn’t bode well for Myanmar’s ousted civilian government.
India’s initial reaction to the coup was “politically ambivalent and strategically cautious”, as Lt Gen Prakash Menon, former military adviser to India’s National Security Council Secretariat, wrote.
On March 9, India joined China, Russia and Vietnam in making amendments to a draft UN Security Council resolution on Myanmar, effectively blocking a statement that would have condemned the coup, called for an end to the “use of violence against peaceful protesters” and threatened further UN action. Though the Indian embassy in Yangon denied it had opposed any such effort, many inside Myanmar and abroad saw this as complicit neutrality on the part of New Delhi.
But India also faces pressure to serve as a counterpoint to China and to set itself apart from Beijing’s foreign policy. India’s foreign secretary said on March 12 after a meeting of the new “Quad” alliance—India, the US, Australia and Japan—that the group would push to restore democracy in Myanmar.
“The leaders felt, given the strong democratic credentials of each of the four members, it was important to work towards the restoration of democracy in the country,” said Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, adding that Modi “attaches great value to democracy, peace and stability” in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s ousted civilian government and its military have far closer ties to Beijing than New Delhi—for context, see Thant Myint-U’s “Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia.”
India’s emphasis on “peace and stability” in Myanmar and its reticence to take any real stance suggests Modi wants to avoid making enemies with either side or pushing them towards China. In a statement in early March, India’s envoy to the UN said, “We are deeply concerned and saddened by the loss of lives in Yangon and other cities of Myanmar. We have urged all parties to exercise maximum restraint. We call on the Myanmar leadership to work together to resolve their differences in a peaceful and constructive manner.”
As Prakash wrote, “What is left unsaid is that the people of Myanmar cannot expect any meaningful support in their fight against [the] Tatmadaw from India,” referring to the Myanmar military.
The Myanmar military’s coup and violent attacks on civilians have elicited surprisingly mixed and muted reactions from the international community as a whole, as authoritarian governments give the generals a nod and signal their willingness to work with whoever can establish stability. Amid their hand wringing, advocates of democracy abroad are grasping for ways to pressure the military, who they now admit never really conceded power to the “democratic transition”.
While India may want to wait-and-see, this in itself is a clear stance, with Modi refusing to condemn the coup for what it is. As Jayanta Kalita, a New Delhi-based veteran journalist, writes in The Irrawaddy, “Perhaps it’s time that India, as the largest democracy in the world, called a spade a spade.”