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India’s Disturbing Ties with Myanmar Junta

India's Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra meets Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyitaw on Monday. / Cincds

On November 22, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) put out a short, three-point press release announcing the working visit of foreign secretary, Vinay Mohan Kwatra, to Myanmar.

Without saying too many things, it revealed one thing very unambiguously – as far as the relationship between the Indian government and the junta is concerned, it is business as usual.

The press release notes that the two sides discussed “maintenance of security and stability in the border areas” and “bilateral development cooperation projects”. Kwatra also “raised the issue of human trafficking by international crime syndicates in the Myawaddy area of Myanmar in which many Indian nationals have been caught and reviewed”.

Going by the Indian tweets, the foreign secretary met all regime leaders, including chief Min Aung Hlaing and foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin. There were some photo ops where hands were shaken and polite smiles exchanged. The junta mouthpiece the Global New Light of Myanmar reported Kwatra’s meeting with Min Aung Hlaing on its front page.

What is notable is that the MEA and the Indian Embassy in Yangon publicized the meetings between the visiting foreign secretary and the junta leadership on Twitter, which wasn’t the case when former Indian foreign secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, visited Min Aung Hlaing in December 2021.

This suggests New Delhi is now more confident in engaging with the junta than before and doesn’t mind trumpeting it in the open. In other words, it is willing to give the regime the international legitimacy that it so desperately craves. In return, it expects fidelity and cooperation.

New language, new approach?

This time the Indian side referred to the junta as “the senior leadership of Myanmar”. The MEA press release after Shingla’s visit last year used the term State Administration Council, which is what the junta calls itself. This year’s phrase takes New Delhi one step closer to recognizing the regime as the legitimate government of Myanmar. This isn’t surprising. Since the early 1990s, India has unwaveringly maintained a policy of recognizing whoever is in effective control of Naypyitaw as the legitimate government of all of Myanmar – which may not reflect the reality on the ground.

Notably, this year’s press release was significantly shorter than last year’s, showing India’s narrowing approach towards post-coup Myanmar.

As opposed to Shringla, Kwatra only broached a very small set of issues with the junta leadership, at least publicly. These cover India’s own strategic and economic interests; initiatives that help New Delhi maintain its footprint in its eastern neighborhood.

Most prominently they relate to the resumption of work on the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project and the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway – both of which are New Delhi’s flagship connectivity projects in Myanmar. India’s engagement with the Border Area Development Programme and Rakhine State Development Programme was also brought up.

All of these were mentioned, in almost the same language, in last year’s press release.

But Shringla also raised India’s interest in seeing a democratic Myanmar, the release of political prisoners, cessation of violence, support for the ASEAN peace process and provision of humanitarian aid to the people. He also expressed hope to see Myanmar “emerge as a stable, democratic federal union in accordance with the wishes of the people of Myanmar”.

None of this was mentioned in the recent press release. Omissions are revealing.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government now seems more reluctant to publicly pressure the junta.

By dodging issues that the junta might find unpalatable, India hopes to appease the regime in return for full cooperation in securing its interests. As New Delhi’s tunnel-vision goes, poking the regime could result in India losing access in Naypyitaw and, as a result, ceding ground to China.

But one wonders what good is this “access” when it comes at the cost of losing goodwill amongst the majority in Myanmar and, ironically, ending up looking exactly like China.

Losing public goodwill

By now it should be clear that the junta is unpopular, including with the  Bamar majority from which previous regimes drew legitimacy.

To parley with this regime is to alienate mainstream civil society, political leaders and the majority of the people.

No diplomatic strategy can sustain for long without public support in the partner country and India is already losing out.

Social media responses to the MEA tweets reveal the surging anger and frustration towards India.

“We, the people of Myanmar, will never forget what India did to us during our most difficult times. India is writing a hideous history,” says one reply.

“A disgrace, India working with barbaric terrorists. If India really wishes to offer its ‘support to democratic transition in Myanmar’ then it should work with @NUGMyanmar rather than the repulsive and failing Min Aung Hlaing terror organization,” wrote one account titled Please Help Save Myanmar.

Earlier this year, the foreign minister of the National Unity Government (NUG), Daw Zin Mar Aung, told me in an interview that she feels India is not supporting the pro-democracy movement as it was expected to.

What she said reflected a broader sentiment in Myanmar that India is no longer living up to its positive image as the world’s largest democracy and a model of democratic federalism.

The people feel betrayed by India’s pro-junta diplomacy.

Short-sighted policy

India’s decision to move closer to the junta is confounding not just because of its moral vacuity but also its political and strategic myopia.

The junta is a pathologically unreliable actor that only cares about its predatory interests. It will always choose to preserve its networks of loyalty and profit over India’s interests. Recent developments have only reaffirmed this.

Over the last few months, Indian media reports have revealed how hundreds of young Indian IT specialists have been trafficked into a Chinese-run scam in the village of Shwe Kokko on the Thai border in Myawaddy Township. This mega-racket is protected by the Border Guard Force, a Karen militia led by the warlord Saw Chit Thu and allied to Myanmar’s junta.

The border force is able to operate in that area because the junta is allowing it to do so, in exchange for loyalty in the ongoing war with the Karen National Union.

The Indian press release does mention this but the story in the junta media does not.

So we don’t know whether the junta agreed to ensure the release of Indians who are still trapped in Shwe Kokko or direct the border militia to guarantee that no Indians will be trafficked into Myawaddy in the future.

One hopes that is the case but the reality is unsettling. Several Indians who have managed to escape have told horror stories of forced labor, physical deprivation and torture in Shwe Kokko.

While the Indian government has managed to rescue several of them, one escapee recently told me that the response from the Indian Embassy in facilitating their extraction had been painfully slow.

Earlier this year, several media reports indicated that the junta was recruiting anti-India militants from Assam and Manipur as mercenaries in its war against the resistance in Sagaing Region. In exchange, these militants were being given safe haven inside Myanmar and bases for attacks against Indian forces along the border.

Shringla raised this last December but there is no evidence the junta has stopped giving refuge to Indian insurgents.

A disturbing dissonance

Later this year India will officially take on the presidency of the G20. The official theme for the Indian presidency is “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, Sanskrit for “one earth, one family, one future”. While revealing the official logo of the presidency earlier in November, Modi said: “The world is going through the after-effects of a disruptive once-in-a-century pandemic, conflicts and a lot of economic uncertainty… The symbol of the lotus in the G20 logo is a representation of hope at this time. No matter how adverse the circumstances, the lotus still blooms. Even if the world is in a deep crisis, we can still progress and make the world a better place.”

India’s policy on Myanmar belies these grand assertions of hope, humanity and inclusion. By backing a regime which maims, displaces and deprives its citizens, India can hardly expect to position itself as a global leader fit to “make the world a better place”.

One may argue that in realpolitik diplomacy, there is little place for human rights and moralistic idealism. But to talk about “people-centric development” on one hand and shake hands with a brutal military leader at war with the people on the other isn’t diplomatic dexterity, it is a comprehensive foreign policy own goal.

Angshuman Choudhury is an associate fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.