India is better off concentrating on nation-building & securing its borders, than pretending to be holier than thou

‘How can India, the land of Buddha, sup with the army generals of Myanmar’, thundered a former Indian diplomat. ‘We should be an example for the world in upholding democratic values,’ intoned another Indian worthy. ‘If we behave the way we are, we have no right to be a member of the Quad’ — pontificated yet another ‘expert’. ‘Even so’, alleges a scion, ‘India is no longer a democracy!’

Let me contextualise.

The army junta in Myanmar, seeing their clout getting eroded and that of the NLD (National League for Democracy) led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi getting enhanced, decided to end the experiment of ‘supervised democracy’ initiated in 2011. The army had even re-written the Constitution in 2010, before partly relinquishing power, securing a minimum of 25 percent of the seats in the Parliament for its nominees. It also appropriated a veto on defence and interior matters, as well as an amendment of the Constitution.

Myanmar’s Internal Politics & Situation

Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi moderated her stance considerably to share power with the military, even at the cost of her own standing. Given the reality of the political arrangement, internal and external interlocutors, she liaised with both the civilian government and the Tatmadaw or the military. However, the November 2020 general elections, supposedly against the advice of the army, was too much for the men in uniform to stomach, especially when the NLD romped home with a thumping majority of 397 parliamentary seats out of 476. Despite safeguards in the Constitution, the army feared that Suu Kyi would use her majority to clip its wings.

Accusing the civilian government of multiple omissions and commissions and inter alia charging Suu Kyi of possessing illegal communication equipment, the army assumed direct power on 1 February, placing her under house arrest, in a replay of 1989. It is speculated that the army had secured the support of the Chinese army (PLA) well in advance. True to form, the Chinese termed the military takeover as a “major cabinet reshuffle”.

The western nations came down harshly on the junta. However, Myanmar’s neighbours, ASEAN and Japan, wiser since 1989, carefully calibrated their reaction. Japanese Deputy Defence Minister, Yasuhide Nakayama, was refreshingly candid: “If we do not approach this well, Myanmar could grow further away from politically free democratic nations and join the league of China.”

“We have noted the developments in Myanmar with deep concern. India has always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar. We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld. We are monitoring the situation closely” — read India’s statement.

Though history repeated itself in Myanmar, India was guided by enlightened national interest this time around, unlike 1989, when she practically burnt her bridges with the junta, compromising her security and leaving the field open to China. With Myanmar, India has a highly porous and sensitive 1643 km long border along four of her North-Eastern states, which have ethnic ties with inhabitants in adjoining areas in Myanmar.

A lot is riding on India-Myanmar ties. Besides vital civilizational, cultural, trade, investment, energy and people-to-people links, bilateral security and defence cooperation have grown remarkably in the last couple of decades. Our armed forces have a history of fighting insurgency together. We have assurances at the highest levels that Myanmar territory will not be allowed to be used for anti-India activity.

On 27 March, India participated in the annual military day parade in Myanmar's capital Naypyitaw along with 7 other nations, namely — China, Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. It is noteworthy that all countries having a land border with Myanmar were present.

Even Bangladesh, which has a serious dispute with Myanmar over the Rohingya refugees, deemed it important to participate. Critics have panned India’s decision to join the parade with little understanding of our compulsions and ground realities.

Massive protests and civil unrest have broken out in Myanmar consequent to the military takeover. The junta has come down with a heavy hand, resulting in a loss of over 500 lives, which cannot be condoned. Worried for their safety, people are fleeing into neighbouring countries, further aggravating the situation. Even though India is trying to stem the flow, over 1000 IDPs (internally displaced persons) have made their way to Mizoram. Some self-appointed human right activists have called upon India to open her doors to the IDPs, to set an example (that no one follows!).

During a similar crackdown on protesters in 1988, more than 360,000 people had reportedly fled Myanmar. Former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya has warned against a ‘refugee crisis’. In this scenario, is India's stand — of not wagging a finger at the junta publicly but trying to reason with it discreetly — appropriate? Unequivocally, yes!

Politics and diplomacy are all about choices, and often, one needs to opt for unappetising ones. After all, didn’t Suu Kyi defend the military for brutal action against the Rohingya in the International Court of Justice?

The junta had previously stated at the UN: “We are used to sanctions, and we survived... We have to learn to walk with only (a) few friends.”

No amount of public admonition is likely to force them to change course. However, patience and quiet diplomacy can, and that is the choice India has made. We have neither the need nor the desire to be the ‘conscience keeper’ of the world. Nations, like adults, need to take their own decisions — right or wrong. Nobody likes to be told what to do, and that applies to India too.

Given our aspirations and challenges, we are better off concentrating on nation-building and securing our borders, rather than pretending to be holier than thou; that is the preserve or pastime of the western world.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Canada, Ambassador to South Korea