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Monday Morning Meeting on Indian Foreign Secretary’s Visit to Myanmar: Prospects for India-Myanmar Relations

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  • January 03, 2022
    Monday Morning Meeting
    Open to all Members

    The Monday morning meeting on “Indian Foreign Secretary’s Visit to Myanmar: Prospects for India-Myanmar Relations” was conducted on 3 January, 2022. Dr. Udai Bhanu Singh, Coordinator, Southeast Asia & Oceania Centre, delivered a presentation on the topic and the session was chaired by Dr. Priyanka Singh. The panelists included Director-General Ambassador Sujan Chinoy, Deputy-Director General Maj. Gen (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi, Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha and Research Analyst Mr. Akash Sahu.

    Executive Summary

    The discussion brought forward sensitive strategic issues of India’s stance in the Myanmar crisis, and sought to weigh different options to find a path for cooperation. India may engage with Myanmar on different levels and seek to strengthen its position vis-à-vis economic and strategic bilateral relations. The Bay of Bengal may emerge as a new frontier for power rivalry, and India must be vigilant about naval activities taking place in the region.

    Detailed Report

    The session was commenced by the chair highlighting Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla’s visit to Myanmar. The visit could be seen as India’s outreach to Myanmar as the foreign secretary arrived there with one million doses of COVID vaccines. The chair posed some questions central to the discussion for the day, such as-

    • Why does India engage with the regime in Myanmar? Is the China factor a determinant in India’s actions regarding Myanmar?
    • How long can India keep engaging the regime, especially as most western nations have cut off ties with Myanmar and even imposed economic sanctions?

    Dr. Singh began his presentation by observing that the democratisation process in Myanmar has been derailed. He provided a background on the events that led to the military coup in Myanmar by the Armed forces or ‘Tatmadaw’ in early 2021. The election results, where popular leader Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory, were disputed by the Tatmadaw even though no substantial evidence of any electoral fraud could be found. The Tatmadaw under Min Aung Hlaing refused to accept the election outcomes and seized political power in the country. The regime has set August 2023 as a tentative time for upcoming elections, but, that has not stopped a popular outrage against the regime. The movement has been crushed by the military and hundreds of citizens have been put behind bars. Dr. Singh spoke about external relations of Myanmar and pointed out the regime’s closeness with Russia and China. China transferred a submarine to Myanmar, and China continues to supply arms to the regime. Japan has retained its close ties with the military administration in Naypyidaw. China developed close ties with the Myanmar regime during years of its boycott by the west. It has carefully cultivated strategic and economic dependencies for Myanmar which it may not be able to easily shrug off.

    But it does not end there. There have been reports of mistrust between China and the Tatmadaw as well. Even if this may have put strain on their relationship, China still maintains strong clout in Myanmar. That is particularly in context to its infrastructure projects such as oil and gas pipelines and highways. On Myanmar’s economy, Dr. Singh underlined its poor and declining state. He also said that influx of refugees to India may increasingly become a problem. In such matters, the centre and state governments in India have not always found agreement, but it may be useful to take the states into confidence as they are an important agency in negotiating with local insurgencies. India supports the ASEAN process and its five-point resolution. It may act in concert with other ASEAN partners like Vietnam to preserve its relationship with the regime, and even compel it to bring reformative changes in the polity of Myanmar.

    The Director-General shared his comments on the developing situation and observed that India’s Act East policy is contingent on good relations with Myanmar. India has had to tackle multiple fronts such as incoming refugees and the Rohingya situation. For India to join the bandwagon of countries demanding the regime to bring back democracy may not be very prudent. Given that it shares a long border with Myanmar and naturally has a much larger stake than western nations, India may weigh its options carefully before deciding to sanction the regime or break ties. The Indian government has dealt with monarchies on its periphery before, such as Nepal and Bhutan, and has established successful diplomacy in those cases. Acting in haste in case of Myanmar may only push the country deeper into the axis with China, which can be counterproductive for India. He also pointed out that the Tatmadaw is a structured and powerful organisation, therefore, it may be expected to remain in power for the foreseeable future. More importantly, the citizens of Myanmar must influence their own politics rather than an external power. The Deputy Director-General reiterated the view and added that Indian armed forces have had a cordial relationship with the Tatmadaw. Their involvement with the regime can be fruitful for India to maintain a presence in Myanmar.

    Vice Admiral Sinha supported the views expressed and spoke about Bay of Bengal as a new frontier for growing power rivalry. Given Myanmar’s island territories in the region and Beijing’s intention to use the waterways of Bay of Bengal, India must be cautious of China’s growing influence. India has trained Myanmar’s Navy for several years and this cooperation among the two armed forces may be utilised as an asset in diplomacy. Mr. Sahu asked a question on India’s economic policy regarding Myanmar, which may help to build confidence among Indian investors to continue operating in Myanmar and even expand their operations. In response to that, Dr. Singh noted that a detailed analysis of the working of different ministries in Myanmar may be of help in assessing where India must focus its outreach to safeguard its investors and business interests in Myanmar. Dr. Singh summed up the discussion and highlighted that China’s interaction with Myanmar may be closely monitored by India.

    Report prepared by Mr. Akash Sahu, Research Analyst at Centre for Southeast Asia and Oceania.