India’s reaction to Myanmar coup highlights cross-border interests

Min Aung Hlaing. Photo: Mil.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

India’s belated condemnation of the violence in Myanmar and its willingness to work with the military government have cast a spotlight on New Delhi’s interests in the country.

Editorial

As the new Myanmar junta continues its attacks on civilians, India’s decision to keep relations with the military government open has prompted major questions and raised eyebrows among observers. New Delhi’s ambivalence towards the junta has highlighted India’s strategic interests in Myanmar, from infrastructure projects to trade and geopolitics, which have for the most part been dwarfed by China’s patronage in the country.

Until the first week of April, India had failed to condemn the post-coup violence and was one of eight countries to send representatives to a military parade on Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day in March. To date, New Delhi’s rhetoric has focused on the need for stability and a “democratic transition” rather than any criticism of the military. India’s permanent representative to the UN did eventually condemn the violence and call for detained leaders to be released, leading some to speculate that New Delhi is facing pressure from the US or other allies to shift its position.

Within the “Quad” alliance of the US, Australia, Japan and India, New Delhi is the only one that appears to be pandering to Myanmar’s new junta. India has also so far denied protection to over 1,000 refugees who have now come over its northeastern border and their status remains uncertain.

India’s tepid response suggests its leadership has decided to continue cooperation with and support for Myanmar’s generals despite the mounting violence and international condemnation. During and after Myanmar’s 1988 pro-democracy uprising, India staunchly supported Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and condemned the military and the coup by the new junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). 

In the early 1990s however, New Delhi then began collaborating with the military in order to combat insurgencies in Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur. Part of India’s motivation in cooperating with the Myanmar military is that it needs continued support to secure its border and combat militant resistance in the area.

But India now appears to be doubling down on its commitment to “non-interference”, letting Myanmar’s generals do as they please in exchange for a strategic relationship. In particular, this stance has prompted a new level of scrutiny towards India’s interests along its northeastern border and within Myanmar. 

India is also seeking opportunities to check China’s increasing influence in Myanmar. Beijing has been able to capitalize on its relationship with Myanmar’s government to push strategic investments and economic projects. This has placed Naypyidaw firmly in China’s sphere of influence and left India with relatively little role inside Myanmar. 

As far as security cooperation however, China is reported to provide funding and support for multiple ethnic armed groups inside Myanmar—this is one factor behind junta leader Senior General Min Aung’s begrudging stance towards Beijing. The result is a slightly convoluted relationship between Myanmar’s military and the country’s biggest patron. India, on the other hand, has cultivated defense ties and cooperated with the Myanmar military for nearly 30 years.

Manipur, India. Photo: Sharada Prasad CS, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

India looks to secure plans for cross-border infrastructure and trade route

Compared to the armed resistance movements in India’s northeast, infrastructure, trade potential and economic development have received little media coverage. The geographical and political nature of India’s northeastern border is one reason—the states of Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland are not China’s Yunnan Province. Beijing is heavily invested in a list of development projects inside Myanmar under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including oil and gas pipelines and economic corridors in Yunnan.

By contrast, India’s northeast and the areas of Chin State and northern Sagaing Region over the border have seen comparatively little attention. India has directed a steady flow of funding to areas in its northeast where peace accords have been established, ending years of conflict with ethnic armed groups. But India has either been uninterested in or unable to make many major investments over the border.

Map showing details of the Kaladan project. Credit: RaviC, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One key initiative that India hopes to continue under Myanmar’s military government is the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Project, which would connect isolated Mizoram to Kolkata through a mix of road, river and maritime shipping. The project is built around the Kaladan River, which flows from Mizoram—the southernmost portion of northeast India—down through Chin and Rakhine states to Sittwe on the Bay of Bengal.

In addition to the Kaladan project and the economic potential of the border, India’s actions towards the Myanmar military are also casting light on the situation facing Rohingya refugees in India’s northeast.

India moves to deport Rohingya refugees in the wake of Myanmar’s coup

India hosts far fewer Rohingya refugees than Bangladesh, but their presence and the treatment of the refugees is now becoming a key piece of India’s relations with the new junta. According to the UN, there are at least 16,000 registered Rohingya inside India, but the government in New Delhi says it now hosts around 40,000 Rohingya refugees and is pushing authorities to deport them. India has declared the Rohingya to be a threat to national security, claiming they are tied to Muslim extremist groups, including the Islamic State.

In the Jammu and Kashmir region, Indian authorities have detained almost 200 Rohingya out of an estimated 6,000 in the area and have been pushing to deport them since at least early March.

On April 8th, the Supreme Court of India ruled against two refugees who brought a case that would have barred the Indian government from deporting the detainees. The chief justice noted in the ruling that India is not a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and therefore isn’t bound by the principle of non-refoulment, which says no one should be sent back to a country where they face “torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm.” 

The Ministry of Home Affairs has made similar claims that it doesn’t have the power to grant people refugee status. This effectively allows India to treat refugees as illegal immigrants regardless of the deteriorating situation inside Myanmar.

The most significant impact of India’s friendly stance towards Min Aung Hlaing is that it has raised the profile of India-Myanmar relations dramatically. Through Myanmar’s democratic transition, the international community and media had primarily focused on China’s influence in Myanmar, the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh and the ethnic armed groups and long-standing refugee issues on the Thai-Myanmar border. 

The attention to New Delhi’s potential embrace, or at least tolerance, of the Myanmar junta reveals an ugly consequence of geopolitical maneuvering and competition for influence in the region.

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