India’s guarded response

Coup in Myanmar

By Dr. DK. Giri

(Prof. International Relations, JIMMC)

For the third time since gaining independence in 1948, Myanmar politics became a victim of a military coup d’état. For a long period of 49 years between 1962 and 2011, Myanmar was under direct military rule. In 1990, elections were held and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was overwhelmingly victorious. The military (Tatmadaw) disregarded that election and continued their control of Myanmar politics. Under various pressures, the military once again called for elections in 2011 that led to a massive victory of NLD. This time around, the military did concede power to civilian rule. On 1st of February, the Myanmar military took over the government, arrested Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. It has declared an emergency for one year.
Curiously, the Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who was to retire from service in a few months, took over the administration of the country and ensconced himself in an unchallenged position of power. There have been massive countrywide protests against the imposition of military rule. There has also been varying degree of reactions from different corners of the world. The Embassy of USA and 15 other Missions in Yangon have issued statement, the import of which is, “Opposing any attempt to alter the outcome of the elections held in November 2020 and impede Myanmar’s democratic transition”. New Delhi, as perhaps expected, has been cautiously balanced in its reaction to the coup although the international perception is that Indian response along with that of Japan will determine the course of events in Myanmar and will arrest their domino effect.
The provocation for the latest coup is the nature of the last elections which is being questioned by the military as unfair and non-transparent. Some nine million votes are in question. The military demanded that the electoral body of Myanmar, United Elections Commission (UEC) proves that elections were conducted fairly. The Election Commission rejected this demand as unnecessary. While this was the stated reason for the military action, the other was the attempt by NLD to reform the Constitution, mainly the role and privilege of the military incorporated in the Constitution.
To recall, the present Constitution was drafted by the military junta in 2008, and it was approved in a questionable referendum. According to Article 147, the military could take over the governance in an emergency. Apparently, they have invoked this Article. Furthermore, in this Constitution, the military had a provision of 25 per cent of seats reserved and the control over internal security, defence and border affairs. That is how, although there was a civilian government for about last ten years, the military had considerable unedifying influence over the governance process.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the supreme political leader of Myanmar was conscious of the stranglehold of the military over the government. She had to do a tight ropewalk in balancing the military and the civilian forces in governance and that is why perhaps she supported the military action against Rohingyas in Rakhine state and defended them in the International Criminal Court. Many world leaders went up in arms and demanded that the Noble Peace Prize conferred on her should be taken back. Little did they realise the complexity of Myanmar politics; the nexus between the military and the corporate, the low rate of growth, ethnic fragmentation, emasculation of civilian institutions and the economic slowdown. She wanted, in a way, to push the army back in the barracks.
In fact, the economy was the main weapon used by the military with promulgation of Investment Law in 2017 and New Company Law in 2018. The West did not invest much. Somewhat like Indonesia, Myanmar had a guided political system with a clear role of arm forces, which also protected their economic interest. What was worse was that after the pogrom in Rakhine state displacing around one million Rohingya Muslims; the West, led by Donald Trump imposed sanctions, condemned the military actions as genocide and so on.
Be that as it may, to nullify a popular election and to prevent victors from entering Parliament and forming the government, by a military crackdown, is not maintainable. At the time of writing, the military has promised that their intervention is only temporary and civilian rule will be restored sooner than later. The new administration in US under Joe Biden has already threatened and imposed sanctions and is demanding restoration of parliamentary democracy.
The other strategic perspective is to leverage the goodwill enjoyed by countries like India and Japan with both Myanmar civilian leadership and military junta. Both India and Japan could perhaps give a gentle nudging instead of condemnations or sanctions. The third possible scenario which is worrying the democratic world is that Myanmar military might join the Chinese camp in desperation.
Talking of India’s immediate response to the coup, it has been balanced and calibrated. New Delhi did not mention the coup, but said that it was deeply concerned with the developments in Myanmar. The statement read, “India has always been steadfast in its support of the process of democratic transition in Myanmar. We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld”. New Delhi has maintained equally good relations with civilian leadership as well as military junta. It counts on Myanmar military for controlling the insurgence operating in the North-East of India. In May last year, 22 insurgents were handed over by Myanmar to India.
Admittedly, India has strategic interests in Myanmar. It conducts bilateral army exercise around Rakhine state bordering Mizoram. New Delhi has to continue the development activities as Myanmar is the bridge between India and South-East Asia. It has invested up to US$1.4 billion in connectivity running through Myanmar, a trilateral road running between India, Myanmar and Thailand. The project KMMTTP (Kaladan Multi-Model Transport Transit Project) connects Eastern India with Myanmar. The East-West Economic Corridor connects India to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam through Myanmar. Finally, New Delhi is wary of Chinese growing influence in Myanmar.
Thus, India’s relations with Myanmar is based on six Cs – commerce, connectivity, capacity building, civilisational links, community interaction (India has a large diaspora in Myanmar) and China, the dragon in the room. Given these inter-dependent linkages, New Delhi had to be cautious. Many democracy watchers perhaps do not endorse India’s restraint. They would expect New Delhi to be agenda-setting not fence-setting. Even former American President Barack Obama gently ticked off India in his address to its Parliament in 2010 for not speaking up for Myanmar. India has an inherent responsibility as the largest democracy to stand up for defending civil and human rights.
To conclude, foreign policy of a country conventionally is the articulation of its national interest. The moot point, however, is how one defines national interest, in the short, medium or long term, as a visionary. India’s interests consist mainly of protecting and projecting its core strengths, that is the diversity and pluralism constituting its democracy. Across the world, majoritarianism tramples upon values and entitlements protected by an independent judiciary, free press and a vibrant civil society. India’s long term interest lies in defending these institutions within and beyond its borders. That is a defining realisation which should determine our response to the crises in Myanmar. — INFA