Foreign secretary’s Myanmar trip shows India won't allow China to use northeast to its advantage

MYANMAR-POLITICS/ Power position: Myanmar's junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, during a parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw this March | Reuters

It is a small step, but a strong signal that India is still in the game in Myanmar. On December 22, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla made a two-day visit to Naypyidaw and Yangon. This is India’s first high-level engagement with Myanmar after the coup in February 2021. On board Shringla’s aircraft were a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, a Christmas gift for Myanmar and a message that China is not the only friend it has. During the visit, India also announced a grant of 10,000 tonnes of rice and wheat.

On board Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s aircraft were a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, a Christmas gift for Myanmar and a message that China is not the only friend it has.

The visit was carefully structured—the humanitarian angle was played up, but it also indicated a reachout to the junta. The Myanmar military handed over five insurgents to India recently. This is the second time it has helped India with insurgents in the northeast in the past two years. Shringla’s visit was aimed at acknowledging the military’s help and keeping it on India’s side. “The visit was focused primarily on security incidents in the northeast, Myanmar’s military operations in Chin State and western Myanmar and the resulting refugee spillover into India and a calibrated engagement with the Tatmadaw (official name of the Myanmar armed forces), which is the power behind the ruling State Administrative Council (SAC),’’ said former ambassador to Myanmar Gautam Mukhopadhaya. “It was also an opportunity for broad-based consultations on and support for the restoration of democracy, the need for a humanitarian response in general and especially on Covid and the preservation of longer-term development and strategic interests.”

India will need the Myanmar military to tackle the security crisis in the northeast and also for dealing with the refugee spillover. Shringla’s visit has come at a time when the US is mulling more sanctions against Myanmar, in an attempt to get the junta to stand down. But the tactic has failed to work so far.

“The China factor is very important and it cannot be marginalised, especially as the west has taken a unidimensional view of the problem,” said Harsh V. Pant, director, studies and head of the strategic studies programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. “India will need to make an independent assessment and that is what it seems to be doing at the moment.”

India is not the only country that has been reaching out to Myanmar. China has signalled that it is business as usual by sending Sun Guoxiang, special envoy of Asian affairs, for a surprise visit in August. Japan has made overtures, too. Cambodia, which will take over as the chair of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), has also increased its interaction with the junta. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has made it clear that he sees little merit in the hardline position adopted by ASEAN in October, when the organisation kept General Min Aung Hlaing, who has ruled Myanmar as the chairman of the SAC after the coup, out of its annual summit. Hun Sen, instead, announced his intention to visit Myanmar in the first week of January, and met with the junta’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wunna Maung Lwin, on December 7.

Harsh Vardhan Shringla Harsh Vardhan Shringla

Pant said India could not afford to keep away from the rulers of Myanmar forever. “We know how China’s footprint is expanding and how China can use the border in the northeast to its advantage. We have already seen indications that the Assam Rifles convoy was attacked by insurgents with China’s aid,” said Pant. “Clearly, India wants to rein in various actors along the border who may find this an opportune moment to destabilise India’s territory in the northeast. While democracy in Myanmar is certainly of importance, it cannot be the only interest India has. The Myanmar military is not going away anytime soon, the reality India confronts is that some level of engagement has to be there.”

This is not the first time that India has walked the tightrope of engaging the military to pursue its geostrategic objectives. And the junta’s response has been effusive. In a departure from established protocol, Min Aung Hlaing personally received Shringla in Yangon and held discussions. In the past, foreign secretaries were never accorded this respect. The military’s willingness to help India with security related issues, too, points towards improved relations.

Shringla’s request to meet detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi was, however, denied. Suu Kyi is serving a two-year prison term for inciting public unrest and breaching Covid-19 protocols. She is awaiting verdict on nine more charges that could keep her locked up for the rest of her life. The request to meet Suu Kyi was meant as a political signal to the pro-democracy camp and the denial was on expected lines. Shringla, however, met members of the civil society and political parties, including the National League for Democracy, according to a statement by the ministry of external affairs. He also met ambassadors and representatives of the United Nations based in Myanmar.

During the visit, Shringla guaranteed “expeditious implementation of ongoing connectivity initiatives” including the Kaladan transit project and the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway. He reiterated India’s commitment to continue with the projects under the Rakhine State Development Programme and the Border Area Development Programme.

Interestingly, Myanmar chose to put a spin on Shringla’s visit by portraying it as an endorsement of the junta regime. The state-run Myanmar News Agency said Shringla and Min Aung Hlaing referred to the National Unity Government (the government in exile formed by elected lawmakers and members of parliament ousted in the coup), as a “terrorist group’’ and agreed that the junta was forced to take over because of voting fraud in the 2020 general elections. This was contradictory to the statement issued by the MEA that emphasised “India’s interest in seeing Myanmar’s return to democracy at the earliest; release of detainees and prisoners; resolution of issues through dialogue; and complete cessation of all violence.”

Mukhopadhaya said it was expected that the junta would project Shringla’s visit as an acknowledgement of its view that the coup was a response to electoral malpractices. “Anticipating that, the Indian statement is much more forceful on democracy and consultations with various protagonists. Although our statement refers to the Myanmar side as the SAC, I don’t think it amounts to recognition. Rather it is a pragmatic engagement on issues of concern as an affected neighbour while continuing to stress a return to democracy.”