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Unpacking the Myanmar Commander-in-Chief’s Grand India Visit

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The Pulse

Unpacking the Myanmar Commander-in-Chief’s Grand India Visit

India is deepening military engagement with Myanmar in the hopes of heading off Chinese influence.

Unpacking the Myanmar Commander-in-Chief’s Grand India Visit
Credit: Indian Ministry of Defense

On July 7, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces, embarked on a rare, eight-day state visit to India. Personally ushered in by the Indian army’s chief, General Bipin Rawat, at the Buddhist shrine in Bodh Gaya, Myanmar’s top general toured several crucial military and nonmilitary facilities around the country before meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defense Minister Arun Jaitley, and National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval on July 14. Earlier in July, both sides had met at the 7th Delhi Dialogue, where they promised to scale up counterinsurgency and trade cooperation.

A week-long tour by a top Burmese military official certainly stands out in the basket of India’s diplomatic overtures. It’s a far cry from the status quo ante in 2014 when the previous president of Myanmar, Thein Sein, was not invited to Modi’s inauguration. Obviously a lot has changed since then.

Since the visit, coincidentally or otherwise, came at a peculiar time of extremely tense relations between India and China, wherein the armies of both countries remain locked in a taut standoff at the Doklam triboundary in Bhutan, it must be seen in the dual context of evolving bilateral between New Delhi and Naypyidaw and the shape-shifting geopolitics of the extended South Asian region.

Why Is New Delhi Rolling out the Red Carpet for Myanmar’s Top General?

For starters, the current Indian government, much unlike its predecessor, sees real potential in Myanmar as a strategic “land bridge” to the tiger economies of Southeast Asia, and, with little doubt, a counterbalancing entity against Beijing’s fast growing clout in the extended South Asian region. While the former is manifest in India’s Act East policy, the latter remains a diplomatic subtext.

Over the past three years, New Delhi has made an active effort to reach out to Myanmar along various modalities of bilateral cooperation, with military-to-military cooperation occupying the frontline. The renewed military-to-military framework, which extends to both the territorial and maritime fronts, was laid down during the first India-Myanmar Joint Consultative Commission (JCC) meeting in July 2015, where India stated its commitment to support the modernization of Myanmar’s armed forces and to build a “professional and capable Myanmar Navy.”

Since then, New Delhi has slowly ratcheted up defense sales to Myanmar. The basket of arms that India has sold to the Myanmar army and navy so far is inarguably bulky: 105mm light artillery guns, rocket launchers, rifles, radars, mortars, bailey bridges, communication gear, night-vision devices, war-gaming software, road construction equipment, naval gunboats, sonars, acoustic domes, and directing gear. What’s more, India recently inked a $37.9 million deal to supply Myanmar with lightweight torpedoes.

The naval forces of both countries have also made port calls on each other and conducted joint maritime patrols several times in the past three years. Additionally, the Indian navy, during a visit by its Burmese counterpart earlier this year, extended a proposal to construct meteorological facilities for the latter.

What’s Behind New Delhi’s Investment in Myanmar’s Armed Forces?

At the outset, the key driver for this engagement is securing the India-Myanmar border regions, both the maritime frontier and the 1,624-kilometer-long land border. While several insurgent groups from India’s northeast routinely use the land border to enter western Myanmar (a safe haven for them), the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal hold common economic and strategic interests for both countries. Furthermore, in the recent past, some news reports have pointed at Rohingya refugees using the land border to cross over into India – something that has triggered alarm bells in New Delhi.

However, the question that glares straight at Indian policymakers at the moment is: will investing in the Tatmadaw accrue proportionate returns? The answer, which depends on the kind of “returns” India is looking for, is far from clear.

India hopes that the Myanmar army will now play a greater role in keeping the Indian insurgents in its northwestern Sagaing Division at bay, thus fortifying the otherwise unguarded border. New Delhi particularly began to emphasize this point after the June 2015 ambush in Moreh, Manipur, which killed 18 Indian soldiers. However, it remains unclear if the Tatmadaw will actually do so for three key reasons.

First, since 2012, the Myanmar army has maintained an informal ceasefire arrangement with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) (NSCN-K), the biggest anti-India insurgent group in Sagaing and the de facto leader of the rest (including the United Liberation Front of Asom and National Democratic Front of Bodoland). Thus, while NSCN-K has not signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) so far, it maintains a peaceful status quo with the Myanmar army. The recent demise of its iconic leader, SS Khaplang, opens up space for second-generation leaders to step in, thus consolidating possibilities for further rapprochement with the Myanmar army.

Second, the Tatmadaw is already engaged in a violent war in the northern states of Kachin and Shan, where it is fighting a set of powerful ethnic rebel groups like the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). The ultimate aim of the army is to steadily erode the capacities of these non-ceasefire rebel groups through a battle of attrition. In this context, it is highly unlikely that the Tatmadaw would open a fresh battlefront on the west. Rather, it might use the newly acquired gear from India in its northern battlefronts, which in a military sense, remain a greater priority.

Third, the Tatmadaw maintains an awkwardly precarious relationship with the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi. This is hardly unknown to the Indian establishment. In fact, a key reason why New Delhi lays great emphasis on engaging with the Tatmadaw is precisely because it is a distinct political entity in Myanmar and still enjoys a strong influence over policymaking. Despite the coming of a parliamentary democracy, the military still calls the shots in matters relating to security and border management. However, this peculiar dynamic could be hinder India’s diplomatic outreach to Myanmar, as the Tatmadaw could operate on its own accord beyond, and perhaps in contravention of, the New Delhi-Naypyidaw diplomatic rubric.

The above is notwithstanding the fact that Naypyidaw has begun to pay more attention to its western borders with India in light of mounting diplomatic pressure from New Delhi and the westward flight of Rohingya refugees of northern Rakhine after October 2016. However, it would be naive to expect a broad-spectrum counterinsurgency design by the Tatmadaw in Sagaing.

Should India Empower the Tatmadaw?

India’s current diplomatic template for Myanmar remains bereft of human security concerns. The Indian establishment appears apathetic about the humanitarian ramifications of emboldening an army that has been widely accused of serious human rights violations and subversion of democracy. This is particularly relevant within the current security situation in Rakhine, Shan, and Kachin states where some of the Tatmadaw’s actions have come under intense scrutiny of international organizations and advocacy groups, including the United Nations.

Furthermore, the army’s unilateral offensives against certain rebel groups in the north have caused much damage to Myanmar’s peace process. These offensives have only pushed non-ceasefire groups further away from the dialogue process and triggered retaliatory attacks. There is little quest for accountability from the civilian government insofar as the Tatmadaw’s arbitrary actions are concerned.

Indian policymakers need to weigh in as to what consequences their support to the Tatmadaw – which is already heavily armed – may have within Myanmar. There can be little doubt in the fact that greater support from a neighboring military power is bound to bolster its ranks and push it further away from peaceful reconciliation.

Where Does China Come in?

India’s hiked-up defense diplomacy with Myanmar may not be seen in isolation from the “China factor.” Since the democratization of Myanmar commenced last year, Beijing has reached out to the Suu Kyi-led administration to revive its long-standing ties after a period of retrenchment during Thein Sein’s regime. In this lies the decisive conflict of interests between India and China, wherein both are now (and long have been) competing for greater geostrategic space in the Greater Sub-Mekong Region. This is manifest in China’s corresponding arms sales to both Myanmar and Bangladesh, wherein both the countries, along with Pakistan, now buy 71 percent of China’s total arms exports.

What more, China has made significant inroads into Myanmar in the past two years, both economic and political. Myanmar now features solidly in Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with a series of major infrastructural projects being planned in Myanmar. The most critical of these is the $7.3 billion deep-sea port in southern Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu, which China recently began using as the source point for a cross-country oil pipeline to Yunnan Province. In May, Reuters reported that Beijing now seeks a staggering 85 percent stake (as opposed to the earlier-stated 50 percent) in the port project — a clear indication that it wants to develop the facility into a future strategic base for power projection into the Bay of Bengal region, much like Gwadar Port’s role in the Arabian Sea.

China has also won for itself a key role in Myanmar’s internal peace process, wherein it now regularly mediates between Naypyidaw and the various non-ceasefire rebel groups in the north. This has given the Chinese far greater political leverage over the Myanmar government than India would like. In a way, Beijing now steers some important organs of the dialogue process, largely through its dependable proxy in Shan State, the United Wa State Army (UWSA). Without its mediation, the peace process would all but collapse. In that sense, New Delhi is miles away from gaining similar political advantage with the Myanmar government.

Needless to say, India remains apprehensive of the fast-expanding Chinese sway in Myanmar. If seen in conjunction with the latter’s decisive inroads into Pakistan and the elaborate infrastructure that it has constructed in the country, this expansion not only spurs a two-front threat to India, but could also act as a spoiler in its far-flung desires to become a net security guarantor for the Bay of Bengal region.

Yet at the same time, India must be cautious of not fueling an arms race in the region that, in the longer term, might spin out of control and destabilize the whole of South Asia.

The Myanmar army chief’s India visit sends a signal from New Delhi: the land of jade is now a core partner in India’s regional agenda, rather than a third-tier subregional entity. A more important message for China, perhaps, is that Beijing’s traditional allies may now be slowly gravitating toward India in more ways than the central party leadership in Beijing could fathom.

Yet an impending question looms large over the Indian establishment: Is Myanmar truly postured to cede its time-honored relations with China in return for greater diplomatic engagement with India?

Angshuman Choudhury is a researcher and coordinator at the South East Asia Research Programme of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) in New Delhi.