Myanmar occupies a pivotal position in India’s strategic calculus as New Delhi establishes a connection with Southeast Asia through its “Look East” or “Act East” policy. The region has received the highest level of patronage under different Indian administrations. This was intensified under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his “Neighborhood First” policy with an active focus on improving ties with India’s immediate neighbors.
This intensification hinges on three simple facts. First, Myanmar constitutes the only physical gateway for India to connect with Southeast Asia and beyond; second, Myanmar is seen as a key partner in the fight to end insurgency in India’s northeast; and third, with access to Myanmar and beyond, India can hold back the larger security implications emanating from the presence of China in Southeast Asia.
Against this backdrop, India and Myanmar are preserving bilateral relations, keeping in view the importance and significance of each other in the changing globalized system. Their bilateral relations were expected to be elevated further when the National League for Democracy (NLD), which had been the main party of opposition in the decades of military rule, won a landslide mandate to govern Myanmar in the historic election of 2015.
Many scholars and analysts initially claimed that the NLD triumph meant victory for India over China, both of which had been Myanmar’s longtime investment and trade partners. Many further articulated that with the close connection that NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi had with India given her childhood memories in that country, political ties between the two countries could strengthen in areas including economic relations, connectivity and defense cooperation.
In addition, it was stressed that the new Myanmar could model itself on India by learning to establish strong institutions and the principles of stable democracy.
All in all, the NLD victory was seen as presaging a period of rigorous engagement and cooperation between Myanmar and India.
But just as it looked as though everything was going smoothly between the neighbors, the Myanmar military (also known as Tatmadaw) conducted a brutal crackdown on the Rohingya in northern Rakhine state after a deadly coordinated attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on August 25, 2017.
Rohingya crackdown poses challenge for Indian policy
During the crackdown, soldiers were accused of atrocities including torture and rape, driving more than 600,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh. This brought about a series of criticisms of Myanmar and its leaders from various international organizations including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who described Myanmar’s actions as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
During this grave humanitarian crisis, when the whole international community spoke with one voice in condemning the violence and human-rights abuses committed by the Myanmar security forces, India was caught in a dilemma
During this grave humanitarian crisis, when the international community spoke with one voice in condemning the violence and human-rights abuses committed by the Myanmar security forces, India was caught in a dilemma. It had to choose its priorities, but instead stayed tight-lipped.
This silence by New Delhi emanates from the simple fact that it was trying to engage with the new government of Myanmar and striving not to repeat the mistakes it made in the 1990s when it heavily criticized the military junta for its suppression of the democracy movement. India also felt that amid the growing Chinese presence in many theaters including Southeast Asia, upsetting the Myanmar government would be a strategic mistake.
As such, on his official trip to Myanmar, Prime Minister Modi didn’t make any mention of the alleged atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims. He instead praised the leaders of the state for countering the violence and offered India-led development initiatives and projects in Rakhine province.
Apart from the geo-strategic concern, there is a real security interest in remaining tight-lipped on the Rohingya issue. To put it simply, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal there are more than 90 insurgent groups operating on and across the porous borders of northeast India, and in many cases they have conducted deadly cross-border terror activity, including the June 4, 2015, Manipur ambush where more than 20 Indian security personnel lost their lives.
Given this security situation, New Delhi fears that the Northeast insurgent groups might get further leverage from Rohingya who have staged similar kinds of attacks against Myanmar government forces. This would make the security situation qualitatively different from anything in recent decades and threaten the prospects of stability and development along the India-Myanmar border.
China sees its chance
On the other hand, the Rohingya issue provided the opportunity for a comeback by China, another longtime strategic player in Myanmar that shares a significant border with the Southeast Asian country and which until now, had shied away from involving itself in the internal politics of another country.
Beijing saw in the Rohingya issue a unique opportunity to regain its lost opportunity in Myanmar and once again bring the country into its orbit of influence
In fact, until the Rohingya crisis flared up, Beijing had been forced to pivot its position because of Myanmar’s recent democratization and the gradual transformation of power. However, Beijing saw in the Rohingya issue a unique opportunity to regain its lost opportunity in Myanmar and once again bring the country into its orbit.
Playing this card, Beijing expressed support for the Myanmar government on the Rohingya issue, including at the UN Security Council. This support to Suu Kyi’s government in the face of widespread international condemnation gave Beijing a chance to regain lost glory.
In another instance, China offered to play a mediator role between Myanmar and Bangladesh and proposed a three-stage approach suitable to the Suu Kyi government for ending the crisis. Faced with international criticism, Suu Kyi and military commander Senior General Min Aung Hlaing made a trip to Beijing to express their gratitude and seek support.
Beijing’s interest in throwing its weight behind Naypyidaw stems from the simple fact that Myanmar occupies a pivotal part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with Rakhine state being an important corridor. Rakhine also has a significant importance for Beijing as it fulfills some of its energy-security needs, giving a few Chinese-owned oil and gas companies access to the Kyaukpyu deep sea port project.
Apart from access to Rakhine’s own petroleum resources, China can also secure an alternative energy route and reduce its dependence on the Strait of Malacca. Moreover, by developing deep-water seaports and naval bases in the area, China can secure an advantageous position in terms of strategic influence in the Bay of Bengal, as well as getting access to the wider Indian Ocean region and beyond.
And the Rohingya crisis mirrors a real internal security concern to China. This stems from the separatist movement in China’s far-western Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, whose predominant Uyghur Muslims claim that the region is not a part of China but was illegally incorporated into the People’s Republic in 1949. In the midst of the Rohingya crisis, Beijing fears that Islamic radicalization might get even further infused, within the Uyghur community leading to the development of more separatist agitation in Xinjiang.
China vs India in Myanmar
Both India and China are competing in Myanmar. This creates a worrying situation.
When we look at India’s position vis-a-vis Myanmar in the immediate aftermath of the Rohingya crisis, New Delhi failed to come up with any policy or solution apart from supporting the Myanmar leadership. New Delhi was heavily criticized within the international community when it decided to deport some Rohingya residing in India. All this raises questions the responsibility and credibility of India’s status as a rising power when it comes to resolving such crises in the future.
New Delhi’s inability to deal with the Rohingya issue opened the gate for Beijing to capitalize on the Rohingya issue as a comeback strategy in Myanmar. It has used all the resources and strategies at its disposal in taking this relationship to new heights. And this time, the rise of China in Myanmar is solely to be blamed on India.
Although it now looks evident that Beijing is playing a long game in Myanmar , there is still some space for India to make amends. New Delhi should craft a new Myanmar policy, while keeping in mind its own status in the international community.
This can start from re-examining the Rohingya issue and forming a constructive policy incorporating the ethos of democratic values respecting human rights.