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The political instability in Myanmar and its impact on the India-Myanmar Relations

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By: Ambreen Yousuf

Myanmar (formerly Burma), a Southeast Asian nation of more than 100 ethnic groups, bordering India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand long considered a pariah state has seen many ups and downs, internationally and locally, while under the rule of an “oppressive” military junta from 1962 to 2011. The Buddhist-majority country’s internal situation deteriorated and its relations with its neighbours soured following the military coup by General Ne Win in 1962, which led to the abolishment of the 1947 constitution, while another military regime abolished the 1974 constitution after a coup d’état in 1988. In 2017, a deadly military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims forced more than half a million of them to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh, in what the United Nations called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The so-called “army operation” against alleged terrorists in the state of Rakhine drew global condemnation with the World community and rights groups accusing the Myanmar government of ethnic cleansing Rohingya Muslims.

However, the holding of free elections in 2015 and the installation of a democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party in 2016 showed some encouraging signs of liberalisation after half a century of a military-dominated rule. But again, four years down the line, the military remains as powerful and relevant as ever, and the same got highlighted when Aung San Suu Kyi and her government were overthrown in a military coup in February 2021. This outrageous act amid a political crisis has damaged the country’s international reputation and also prompted condemnations and sanctions.

Geostrategic significance of India-Myanmar Relations

Myanmar’s geostrategic location holds significance for India as it acts as a bridge between the latter and the rest of its South Asian and Southeast Asian neighbours. The country also serves as an essential link for India’s regional diplomacy and “Look East Policy”. Moreover, Myanmar’s political stability is crucial for India to bolster its bilateral relation with the former; besides, both countries, which also share land borders, are committed members of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) – a bridge between seven nations of South Asia and Southeast Asia.

India and Myanmar have signed agreements to enhance border trade and control drug trafficking as Myanmar is the second-largest producer of narcotics after Afghanistan and highly vulnerable to criminal activities. Due to the highly porous border between India and Myanmar, drug supplies get easy passage. Illicit drugs like heroin get trafficked into India and drugs like codeine, corex, phensedyl, buprenorphine, and spasmoporxyvon are smuggled into Myanmar from India. This illicit trade of narcotics threatens the social fabric of both countries and poses a serious challenge to the regional security in the north-eastern part of India.

India-Myanmar border remains one of the threats to the national security of India. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, border security has become a major concern for security policymakers in India. An analysis of available data estimates that around 15 to 20 groups of insurgents originating from Indian insurgent groups continue to operate from Myanmar. Insurgents in northeastern states of India have set up close ties with insurgent groups operating in Myanmar and receive training and shelter which is detrimental to Indian national security.

In 1994, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to Maintain Border Tranquillity was signed between India and Myanmar. The MoU not only enhanced bilateral relations between India and Myanmar but also covered various important unresolved issues which were later resolved diplomatically by the two countries.

India and Myanmar are also conducting joint military exercises and the former is providing training to Myanmar Army. The joint military exercises IMBAX-2017 and IMBEX 2108-2019 have been conducted to prepare the Myanmar Army to participate in UN Peacekeeping Operations.

Economic significance of India-Myanmar Relations

India sees Myanmar as being vital to achieving Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream of becoming a $5 trillion economy by 2025. India-Myanmar future projects such as India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport (KMMTT) are highly important to fulfil this dream. India has also developed Sittwe Port in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. Recently, India announced the import of 150,000 tonnes of pulses from Myanmar. Besides, $2 million grant for building a bridge at Byanyu-Sarsichauk in Chin state, construction of $6 billion petroleum refinery in Thanlyn area are some of the recently proposed projects. Also, Indian oil and gas companies like ONGC Videsh and Gail are operating in Myanmar. There are thirteen Indian Public Sector Undertakings that have a presence in Myanmar in different sectors.

What is coming up for India-Myanmar relations in the few years?

The relations between India and Myanmar was on the verge of achieving something remarkable, but the Rohingya issue battered relations between India-Myanmar and Bangladesh; distracting their focus from bilateral, regional, religious and economic diplomacy.

India has always extended its support to Myanmar to help it deal with internal insurgency and militancy, and is fully committed to strengthening its bilateral ties with the country. India had also supported Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of National League for Democracy (NLD) when she began her democratic movement in Myanmar. It also supported the anti-Slorc movement (stop doing business with Burma’s ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council) and provided sanctuary to activists from Myanmar.

After 1998, relations between India and Myanmar improved to a certain level followed by exchange visits by officials. However, there has always been a continuous shift in Indian policy towards Myanmar due to the ever-present political instability and now increasing Chinese influence in the country, and internal security threats in India’s north-eastern states. India has pursued a policy of engagement to nurture friendly relation with Myanmar and assist the country in its democratic struggles. However, the onset of military takeovers has always worsened the internal situation in the country, therefore, distancing it from its neighbour ― India.

The recent military coup evoked criticism both in Myanmar and abroad. The world leaders condemned the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and urged the military to establish a democratic process for resolving issues. For the United Nations, the declaration of transfer of powers to the military represents a serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar.

The Ministry of External Affairs of India has also stated that it had, “noted the developments in Myanmar with deep concerns”. It has released a press note quoting, “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.”

The military coup has once again driven the two countries apart and being the largest democracy in the world India is duty-bound to support democratic forces in Myanmar. However, due to political instability concerning military coups in Myanmar, India prefers to take a middle path in its foreign policy towards Myanmar.

Myanmar, home to more than 100 ethnic groups, is an ethnically diverse country and the military takeover has opened up a new battleground in the ethnic conflicts. The ethnic groups in Myanmar often turn to rebellion for self-determination, autonomy and federalization of the country. Similarly, the military rule will be coupled with dire economic structure, financial instability, destruction of tourism and commerce. Therefore, widespread violence may take the future of the country at stake.

It remains to be seen whether India, a role model of democracy for its neighbouring countries particularly Myanmar, will choose to walk the middle path between democratic and military governments in Myanmar. And how will India try to safeguard the political and social stability in Myanmar as a ‘big brother’ and ‘big proponent of democracy’ and how will it balance its relations with Myanmar after the latter’s transition of power to the military/Junta?

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