New Delhi has made a slow start in Myanmar, but it appears to be a steady one, say experts

What should be India’s role in Myanmar, the scene of a terrible, unfolding human tragedy? The country with which India shares a 1,600-km border is a deeply religious Buddhist society. As part of British India until 1937, the cultural connect between the two countries outflanks every other bilateral equation.

India was among eight countries that attended a military parade in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw on March 27 to mark Tatmadaw Day. Myanmar's military is called Tatmadaw.

The other countries which attended the Tatmadaw's annual parade were China, Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, the latter three are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN, along with India, has a crucial role to play as events and a human tragedy of epic proportions unfolds in Myanmar. An estimated 500 protestors have been killed by the military, which took power in a coup on February 1 this year, hours before a new Parliament was to convene following national elections in November 2020.

India's attendance at the annual military parade in Myanmar last week was significant; along with Bangladesh, it was the only major democracy to offer some validity to the military coup in that country.

New Delhi must play its cards adroitly in a predominantly Buddhist country that was part of British India till 1937 and with whom cultural ties and people-to-people contacts were the norm till the middle of the 20th century.

China, as can be expected, is busy trying to meddle in a country, where it is also the largest investor and can act as a bulwark against West-imposed sanctions. As a lender, it has proposed 38 projects under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and believes the small country is an important partner for President Xi Jinping's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.

Though nowhere near China, India’s approved investments in Myanmar, as of November 2019, stood at $771.488 million by 33 Indian enterprises and New Delhi has a role to play keeping in mind two critical considerations – one, she needs to keep Northeast rebels under watch and two, play up the deep religious connections that Myanmar has with India.

The Ministry of External Affairs has undertaken an ambitious programme to renovate 12 pagodas in Myanmar’s ancient city of Bagan that was damaged in an earthquake. The two countries have informally discussed a plan to connect Buddhist sites in India with those in Myanmar. This is in sync with the Indian government’s emphasis on utilising Buddhism for promoting Indian soft power and giving a boost to its Act East policy.

Four senior Indian diplomats chalk out the road map ahead, in a region that is dominated by volatile republics:

Kanwal Sibal, Former Foreign Secretary, India:

“It is important to keep the doors of engagement open with the military in Myanmar and India is doing just that. Given that country’s history and its propensity to stay isolated internationally, it serves no purpose to push them against the wall.

India has a role to play as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. It must act as some sort of a go-between the western powers trying to impose harsh sanctions on Myanmar and the military regime there.

It is undoubtedly a challenge for India to deal with the situation. Mizoram wants to offer help because of close kinship ties with people from Myanmar, but New Delhi must go along with well-laid down international laws on granting asylum to refugees. We also must keep the sensitivities of our own people in mind and avoid domestic strife of any kind. India cannot allow asylum seekers to establish permanent camps, etc. Let us also not forget that the military in Myanmar has no love lost for China. They know who is backing rebels against their regime; it is Beijing. So, we need to use this to our advantage. Of course, China will try to cement its own position in the region because it considers Myanmar strategically crucial.

Lastly, I would say that India needs to stay aligned with the ASEAN when it comes to dealing with Myanmar.”

G Parthasarathy, Veteran Diplomat, Former Indian High Commissioner To Pakistan:

“Basically, we have mishandled the Myanmar situation. By not allowing Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga to provide food and shelter to Myanmar refugees who sought asylum in India following the military coup in the country, is not the best thing to do. We have to take the sensitivities of our Northeast states into consideration. This is a decision, which is based on basic humanitarian principles, and India should respect it. The second point is that things are evolving. India needs to go along with the ASEAN and Japan. Both these sides, Japan and ASEAN, too, are keen to coordinate their strategy along with India.

India must be clear about the unfolding human tragedy in Myanmar. That must stop, and it needs to be condemned unequivocally. I don’t place too much faith in Aung San Suu Kyi (the deposed leader in Myanmar) being an old friend of India. She was more generous to the Chinese than to Indians, despite her sentimental attachment to India, having studied at New Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College.”

Vivek Katju, Former Secretary (West), Ministry of External Affairs, Ex-Indian Ambassador To Myanmar:

“While there is no doubt that there is terrible human tragedy playing out in Myanmar, the fact is that India must keep engaged with the military in that country. Indian interests demand that while regret be shown for the step taken by the military, a robust engagement continues with it and other sections of Myanmar opinion. A very heavy price was paid for the approach taken in 1988. That holds a lesson, which should be considered to protect Indian interests. The field cannot be left to China.

The consolidation of Chinese hegemony across Myanmar’s north-eastern and eastern borders cannot be a comfortable prospect for India. It has therefore to keep the engagement going with the generals and at the same time signal that in doing so it is not indifferent to what they have done. One way to achieve balance is by emphasising to the generals that the onus on preventing Myanmar people from crossing over to India. because of the fear of persecution and worse, lies squarely with them.”

Deepak Vohra, Former Indian Diplomat, Associate To Dharamshala-Based Government Of Tibet In Exile:

“Indian diplomacy is doing a fine job in Myanmar. It is always low key, but solid. We never make announcements. India has a stake in rehabilitation with a close neighbour like Myanmar. We have to ensure that the people of that country do not suffer in the eventuality of sanctions imposed by the West. Sanctions, if any should be targeted. Remember that sanctions do not hit governments. They only hit the people. I was Indian Ambassador to Sudan, and I saw what sanctions did to the people there. It is in India’s interest that an internal political solution is found in Myanmar.

Ultimately, I have faith in India’s efforts. It is, as I said, low key but fetches results. There were experts who said that Sri Lanka and Bangladesh had gone out of India’s hands, but as you can see, they are back in the Indian fold.”