India is no doubt anguished by the military coup in Myanmar, but it has not outrightly condemned the development.
While most of the major countries of the world have condemned the military coup in Myanmar, there have been seemingly quite restrained reactions from China and India, with whom Myanmar shares borders.
One can understand the non-democratic China’s non-concern for the bolt to democracy in Naypyidaw, but what about India?
India is no doubt anguished, but it has not outrightly condemned the development.
“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”, said India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in a statement.
Qualitatively speaking, the MEA statement is not very different from the tenor in the statement of the Chinese foreign office spokesperson Wang Wenbin: “We have noted what has happened in Myanmar and are in the process of further understanding the situation. China is a friendly neighbor of Myanmar. We hope that all sides in Myanmar can appropriately handle their differences under the constitution and legal framework and safeguard political and social stability.”
The remarkable underplaying in the statements from both Delhi and Beijing may be explained, among others, by the fact that the coup leader, Myanmar’s Army Chief and “Senior General” Min Aung Hlaing has had close ties with both.
In fact, he has been considered closer to Delhi than Beijing. Not long ago, he had alleged that China was trying to use terror groups in Myanmar and arming them, particularly the Rohingyas, as a bargaining chip for smooth implementation of Belt and Road Initiative projects in his country.
He had not taken exactly China’s name openly in an interview to Russian state-run TV channel Zvezda (he had said of “strong forces” backing the rebels), but Myanmar’s military spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun later made it clear that his Chief was referring to Arakan Army (AA) and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), terrorist organizations active in the Rakhine State in western Myanmar that borders China.
In contrast, General Min Aung Hlaing has had excellent ties with Delhi, particularly the government of Narendra Modi. In fact, the defense and security cooperation between India and Myanmar has gone up considerably over the last 6 years. General Min Aung Hlaing visited India in July 2017 and in July 2019. The then Indian Army Chief (now Chief of Defence Staff) Bipin Rawat visited Myanmar in 2015 and 2017.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services of Myanmar called upon and interacted with General Bipin Rawat #COAS today. Discussed issues of mutual concern. pic.twitter.com/tck9gy1Ebb
— ADG PI – INDIAN ARMY (@adgpi) July 29, 2019
India had signed an MoU on defense cooperation during the visit of Gen Min Aung Hlaing in 2019, under which both sides are committed to peace and stability along the border areas and to not allow any negative elements to use their respective soil for hostile activities against the other side.
Besides, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh had a meeting with Gen Min Aung Hlaing in Moscow on June 25, 2020. And the latest interactions that Myanmar’s strongman had with Indian officials were during the high-powered two-day visit on October 4-5 of Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Chief of Army Staff General MM Naravane to Naypyidaw.
Both of them had a long meeting with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. General Navarane also met Vice Senior General Soe Win, Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Myanmar Armed Services.
Soon after these interactions, India on October 15 handed over INS Sindhuvir, a Kilo-class submarine in service with the Indian Navy since 1988, to Myanmar. India of late has been supplying military equipment to Myanmar. In 2017, India supplied lightweight torpedoes to the Myanmar Navy, paid for through a line of credit given to Myanmar by India.
Key to the Myanmar coup is army leader Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who was near forced retirement, had "no clear way to maintain his current level of" power and profit, and is "one of the most wanted men on the planet" for leading atrocities against the Rohingya. https://t.co/esVgraaTtI pic.twitter.com/ffgDYlIjFI
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) February 1, 2021
During the visit of Shringla and General Naravane, India agreed to supply more military equipment to Myanmar, including artillery guns, ammunition for T-72 tanks, sonars, and torpedoes.
“Transfer of the submarine is an indication of growing maritime cooperation between the two countries in the Bay of Bengal and an understanding of Naypyidaw’s threat perception arising out of Beijing’s close links with Bangladesh, which received two Ming-class submarines in a $200 million deal in 2017”, says Professor Baladas Ghosal, an expert on Southeast Asia.
It may also be noted that India and Myanmar have an MoU on Maritime Security Cooperation and Exchange of White Shipping Information that has institutionalized activities in the maritime domain, covering Maritime Domain Awareness.
The India-Myanmar Bilateral Army Exercise (IMBAX) builds and promotes closer relations with armies. And what is most important, in May 2020, as many as 22 Indian insurgents were handed over for the first time by Myanmar, a huge success for back-door diplomacy bringing Naypyidaw in sync with New Delhi on dealing with insurgents.
And all this was possible because of Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the most powerful leader of Myanmar even when the country was under civilian rule.
Of course, the booming security interactions between India and Myanmar have also been the reflection of the improvement in the overall bilateral relations. Since 2014, Prime Minister Modi has visited Myanmar twice. There have been two visits by Myanmar State Counsellor (now toppled but the country’s number one political leader Aung San Suu Kyi) to India.
Indian President has visited Myanmar and Myanmar’s President visited India three times in the last six years. There have been over 25 institutionalized mechanisms, including Joint Working Groups on power, oil & gas, science & technology, etc.
As Prof. Ghosal says, India’s bilateral interactions with Myanmar is generally based on six major planks or what can be called the 6Cs – Commerce; Connectivity; Capacity-building; Civilizational links; Community – the Indian Diaspora forging strong people-to-people relations, which in turn will enhance India’s cultural and civilizational linkages, and finally China, the Dragon in the room. The amalgamation of perspectives and values of both countries has helped broaden the horizons of the bilateral relationship over the last six years.
The Modi-government attaches considerable importance to Myanmar in accordance with India’s ‘Neighborhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policies. And here, these policies will not succeed by antagonizing the Myanmar Army, which, as in Pakistan, always keeps an upper hand even when the country is under civilian rule.
That being the reality, India is unlikely to stop business with Gen Min Aung Hlaing. Myanmar’s strategic location of being the buffer state between China and India and its proximity to the Malacca Strait makes it too significant for any government in Delhi to be ignored in the name of solidarity with the cause of democracy. And that too when India has a “friendly” General in Naypyidaw.