The nights have been endless in the Rohingya camp in Delhi since the Myanmarese military overthrew the country’s democratically-elected government on February 1. Watching the images of the violence on their tiny phone screens, the 360 residents in the camp testify that their decision to flee their home was justified. “The world never believed the Rohingyas,’’ said a young man who left Myanmar nine years ago. “Now, the truth is out for everyone to see.”
The unprecedented brutality shown by the military junta in crushing civilian protests continues to make headlines. Two months after the coup, violence continues unabated, with more than 700 people dead. The bloodiest day so far has been March 27, observed as the 76th armed forces day of Myanmar. Although nearly 100 people were killed, it did not stop the junta from organising a grand military parade with diplomats from India, Pakistan, China, Russia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand in attendance.
The presence of the Indian defence attaché caused outrage among the pro-democracy activists in Myanmar and beyond. The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) of Myanmar asked on Twitter why India—“one of the greatest democracies in the world”—chose to “shake hands with the generals whose hands are soaked with our blood”. The spokesperson of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH)—government in exile formed by the lawmakers belonging to the National League of Democracy—said: “The foreign diplomats who attended this shameful armed forces day are a disgrace to their own people, their governments and to the international community.”
On April 16, the ousted lawmakers announced the formation of a national unity government (NUG), bringing together pro-democracy activists and ethnic minorities. It has promised equality for all, including the Rohingya. The NUG has urged ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to facilitate its representation in the April 24 summit on Myanmar hosted by Indonesia. The ASEAN summit will be the first foreign engagement for junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing after the coup. “It is important that the military council is not recognised. This needs to be handled carefully,” said Moe Zaw Oo, the NUG's deputy minister of foreign affairs. As of now, however, the chances of the NUG participating in the summit appears to be remote.
In India, the discomfort about the coup is being felt domestically, too, as the diplomatic crisis turns into a humanitarian one. More than 3,000 refugees have crossed over to India. But India has been less than welcoming. For instance, an order issued on March 26 by H. Gyan Prakash, special secretary (home) of the Manipur government, asked deputy commissioners of districts bordering Myanmar to “politely turn away'' refugees who tried to enter. The order, which also stated that no camps were to be opened and no food or shelter was to be provided, was withdrawn the next day. But it gave a clear indication about the line of thinking in New Delhi. “The reversal of the order is just an eyewash,’’ said social activist and lawyer Alana Golmei, founder of the Burma Centre in Delhi. “India is actually washing its hands of supporting the democracy movement.” On April 8, the Supreme Court allowed Rohingya refugees detained in holding cells in Jammu to be deported as long as due process was followed.
India is reluctant to antagonise the junta and thereby cede space to China. Unlike the United States and most other western countries which have strongly criticised the coup and have imposed sanctions against the military regime, India has made it clear to the junta that it can be counted as a friend. “We believe that rule of law should prevail,’’ said Arindam Bagchi, the new spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs at a press briefing last month. “We condemn any use of violence. We stand for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. We have urged the release of political prisoners and supported attempts at resolving the current situation, including through the efforts of ASEAN. We remain engaged on this issue with international interlocutors and at the UN Security Council in an effort to play a balanced and constructive role.”
After a closed-door meeting of the UNSC, India’s permanent representative T.S. Tirumurti emphasised the need to resolve the situation peacefully. “India and Japan will find a way to keep the windows of communication open,’’ said K. Yhome, a scholar based in the northeast who monitors India-Myanmar relations.
India’s track record in supporting the democracy movement in Myanmar has been dismal, except for the courage shown by former defence minister George Fernandes, who sheltered refugees in his Delhi residence. But, unlike in the past when the brutality of the junta was kept firmly under wraps, today it is being tweeted live for the world to see, making it all the more difficult for India to ignore the demand for democracy.
“Given India’s historical, civilisational, developmental, strategic and security interests in Myanmar, and the presence of an estimated two million Myanmar citizens of Indian origin and the shadow of 1988 when the Tatmadaw (the armed forces of Myanmar) crushed the democratic movement and gave us the cold shoulder, India’s caution is understandable,’’ said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, former Indian ambassador to Myanmar. “But 2021 is not 1988. The justification for the military takeover and the arrest of pro-democracy leaders and activists including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is spurious; the nature and scale of state violence against a peaceful movement for the restoration of democratic rule is open, vengeful and unacceptable; and the chances of them prevailing and restoring any level of governance are very low.”
In the past few years, India has stepped up its engagement with Myanmar and its military. India has sold Myanmar HMS-X2 sonars and gifted it a diesel-electric submarine, which helped consolidate ties with the Tatmadaw. Two years ago, India built and handed over 250 houses for displaced Rohingyans in the restive Rakhine state. It was a symbolic gesture, but it showed India’s clout to mediate with Myanmar on a touchy topic. Last October, India sent foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Army chief General M.M. Naravane to signal the continuing growth in bilateral ties.
As the crisis worsens, there will be more quiet diplomacy and India will certainly try and emphasise the need for restraint. But with the body count growing each day, it is facing considerable pressure to act morally and more decisively. “India should give regional and bilateral diplomacy one more chance so that the generals can walk back,’’ said Mukhopadhaya. “But if that fails, India should shed its hesitation and come out in support of the CDM and the CRPH and should take steps like providing temporary shelter to the persecuted. This is both on grounds of principle and realpolitik. None of our objectives in Myanmar can be met by pursuing a ‘China lite’ policy. Otherwise, there will be no short-term gains, but there will be huge long-term losses to India’s position in Myanmar.”