The Enigma of Myanmar: India needs to be cautious

May 12, 2021 11:31 AM

The G7 Foreign Ministers Meet in London conspicuously brought the Myanmar crisis – what the British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described it as a pressing geopolitical issue comparable to Russia, China, and Iran.

G7 Foreign Ministers Meet, Myanmar crisis, British Foreign Secretary, Quad summit, need to restore democracy in Myanmaar, post-Brexit avatar, formation of a government-in-exileMyanmar also perfectly falls into the US’s top agenda as the best way to confront China – not clear whether it is a part of Quad’s agenda. (Reuters Image)

By Amb P Stobdan

The G7 Foreign Ministers Meet in London conspicuously brought the Myanmar crisis – what the British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described it as a pressing geopolitical issue comparable to Russia, China, and Iran. The ministers watched a video update from recently formed Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUT) as also expressed solidarity with the exiled government through a joint communiqué, and announced targeted sanctions against the junta.

Earlier the Quad summit also discussed Myanmar though it issued a modulated statement “emphasized the urgent need to restore democracy”.

Such a high profile diplomatic campaign on Myanmar smacks of a bigger geopolitical game the dimension of which isn’t clear as yet. What is interesting is that the UK in its post-Brexit avatar is taking the mantle of this crisis as a big enchilada to demonstrate its past colonial dexterity and whip hand in Asia.

Myanmar also perfectly falls into the US’s top agenda as the best way to confront China – not clear whether it is a part of Quad’s agenda. But, clearly, a spate of preparatory work seems already underway, including the formation of a government-in-exile, its intention to form a Federal Union Army comprising defectors, rebel groups, and volunteers. An array of a coalition of ethnic armed groups seems emerging, besides reenergizing the Karen rebel group (a British proxy) to bleed the military, and on.

A new narrative is being set in the West for the birth of an inclusive nationalism and the creation of a Democratic State of Myanmar where non-Buddhists (Christian, Muslim, and others) do not face institutional discrimination.

The stage is certainly being set for bigger things. Is it meant for uprooting Myanmar’s junta or there is something beyond?

Minister S Jaishankar would have discussed the issue in London with Antony Blinken, Dominic Raab and Heiko Maas. But he knows well that Myanmar is of vital strategic importance to India as he once described the country’s unique importance to India because of its differential location. The country was once a part of Indic space Swarna Bhumi that has slid into seclusion to India’s detriment due to inescapable reasons.

India is fully also aware of the military’s paramount role in Myanmar’s polity, its geopolitical reality; a) sharing long borders with China and India; b) majority (73 percent) Burmans sways little control over 50 percent of the country’s territory inhabited by 135 ethnic minorities, and c) the legacy of multiple insurgencies inherited that was fueled earlier by monarchy and later by the British.

That Burmese suffered from an instinctive sense of paranoia of losing sovereignty and identity to China and India, as they also at times eschewed all contacts with the world outside.

We know how the China factor singularly sealed Myanmar’s destiny. All these decades, Beijing fully exploited Myanmar’s idiosyncratic behavior while also used every means, diplomatic and economic, as a sine qua non, to hold the country as the front rather than backyard door to prevent the entry of the Anglo-American lobby in Yangon that Beijing thought would pose a threat to its vulnerable southern underbelly.

True, Burmese leaders, military or civilian upheld Beijing’s interests in utmost respect; they also held xenophobic nationalist fervor against China. They are instinctive and deep-rooted.

It didn’t however automatically mean Burmese adored Indians. Ties with India remained even more controversial despite the Theravāda connect, mostly on account of racial animosity (Kala-Admi), exploiters (Chettiar, Marwari), communal due to Muslims (Bengalis/Rohingyas), and on account of Indians being too obsequious, dangerously subservient and servile to foreign powers – acting as motivators for missionary efforts – something Burmese abhorred.

Most Indians were driven out between 1930 and the 1960s. The Rohingya’s case apart, their outlook towards India hasn’t changed since.

Though, it is hard to imagine how Myanmar has fallen into China’s lap despite having shared cultural ties, a long border, and the common legacy of the British Raj with India.

Among the folly steps, New Delhi’s occasional pang for playing the pro-democracy card (1988), which received applause from the Western world, but earned strong antipathy among the Burmese to the extent they considered India a military threat to Myanmar. Annoyed Yangon once even looked to Islamabad for military aid, besides embracing a wide range of Chinese support.

Since the 1990s, the national security imperatives necessitated mending fences with the junta that actually paid a significant dividend. What stands today is a pragmatic Indian policy of a twin-track approach of maintaining constructive engagement with the junta while continuing a general normative support for the restoration of democracy.

At a time when Myanmar has started to loom large in critical areas of India’s ‘Act East’ policy, New Delhi should refrain from joining the Western bandwagon. India simply cannot afford to annoy another neighbor.

For one thing, the military’s role in Myanmar cannot be wished away, while China’s entrenched status in the country is backed even by democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The current military coup probably goes to reflect the internal balance of forces, an interplay needed to safeguard the country’s sovereignty.

Supporting democratic values howsoever desirable needn’t be India’s priority. New Delhi has lessons learned from its previous action. Its goals should be solely guided by the principal interest of ensuring stability along its borders in the Northeast.

India has every reason to counter China’s strategic foray in the Bay of Bengal. But the West may have other agendas than uprooting the junta. In fact, the real contestation in Myanmar seems more about expanding the Anglo-Saxon missionary cause that could belie India’s own objectives. Minus the shared interest for undermining China, the West may have less appetite to walk into the Myanmar quagmire akin to the Afghan chaos.

To underscore, Myanmar still follows a political system that is compatible with Asian cultural traditions in line with the virtues of Buddhism and Hinduism. Democracy for Burmese is not about relishing individual rights but bearing Dharmic obligation and sense of duty towards the state that the West dubs as undemocratic.

Make no mistake Myanmar’s politics is about defending Buddhism. The West is setting a new narrative that it is not so and that it can be altered. And, the current anti-coup resistance is a political cover to break the intrinsic interplay between the sangha community, politics, and the state. It is a renewed attempt, in the garb of democracy, to tear down the sangha from the state in order to promote the interests of Muslims, Christians, and others.

What is missing is India’s inability to exploit its own distinct edge, to find an out of the box way in addressing the conceptual deficiencies in policy thinking that could spur greater enthusiasm among the Burmese to seek closer affinity within India.

(The author is Senior Fellow at Delhi Policy Group, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Email:

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