India’s tightrope walk in Myanmar is becoming increasingly difficult.
With the Myanmar junta’s crackdown on pro-democracy activists growing in intensity in recent weeks – more than 300 protestors have been killed so far, including dozens of teenagers – a steady stream of people are fleeing across the border into the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram. Among them are policemen who refused to obey the junta’s orders to shoot activists protesting the February 1 military coup.
The junta has asked India to repatriate the policemen back to Myanmar. India has not yet deported them.
However, New Delhi has also signaled that Myanmar nationals fleeing into India are not welcome. It has sealed its border with Myanmar, and the paramilitary Assam Rifles, which guards the India-Myanmar border, is on heightened vigil. India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has written to the governments of four northeastern states – Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram – to “check illegal influx from Myanmar into India.”
New Delhi’s measures to prevent Myanmar nationals from entering India have angered people in the northeastern states. The central government “does not want to offend” the Myanmar junta, Hminga Liana, a Mizo political activist, told The Diplomat. The arrival of thousands of asylum seekers at the Indian border, he said, is a “damning indictment” of military rule. By “preventing their accounts from being heard by the world” India is appeasing the Tatmadaw, he charged.
India has adopted a cautious approach to events unfolding in Myanmar. While it has clearly expressed its “support” to the “democratic transition” in Myanmar, it has avoided criticizing the military.
Its “stated position has been that the political situation in Myanmar needs to return to normalcy,” Shankari Sundararaman, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told The Diplomat. It wants “political stability in the region.”
In its first statement following the coup, New Delhi expressed concern over the “political turmoil” in Myanmar, “without making comments on the coup itself,” she said, pointing out that unlike the United States and European countries, India has been “careful not to openly condemn the coup.”
This caution stems from the fact that unlike Western countries, India is Myanmar’s neighbor; the two share a 1,643-kilometer-long border. Besides, since 1993, India has been engaging the Tatmadaw, “particularly in the light of insurgency issues in Northeast India,” Sundararaman said.
Indeed, it was to secure the support of Myanmar’s generals in its counterinsurgency operations in the conflict-wracked northeast that India shifted away from its policy of overtly backing the movement for democracy, as it did from 1988 to 1993, to reach out to the generals. In particular, India needed the Myanmar military’s support to fight anti-India insurgents, whose bases were located in Myanmar’s jungles.
Additionally, India has had concerns over China’s considerable presence in Myanmar, which has implications for India’s security. Distancing itself from Myanmar’s rulers would provide space for China’s influence to grow further; hence, New Delhi has been willing to engage with all regimes in Myanmar – whether democratic, quasi-military, or military – in recent decades.
It is in this context that India’s current caution must be seen. While it supports Myanmar’s democratization, it has been careful to avoid drawing the ire of the generals by issuing statements criticizing their actions. It does not want to undermine the relationship with the Tatmadaw that it carefully built up over the past 25 years.
Its careful balancing act is now being tested.
Deporting the police officials to Myanmar will be appreciated by the Tatmadaw as it will have a chilling effect on others fleeing the military crackdown. However, this would come at a cost. It would deal yet another blow to India’s claims to being a democracy. It would also damage relations with Myanmar at the grassroots level.
“India enjoys considerable goodwill in Myanmar,” Sundararaman said, “particularly at the ground level.”
According to Liana, deporting the police officials or preventing the entry of Myanmar nationals fleeing the junta would anger Myanmar’s masses. India could therefore lose the popular goodwill it enjoys in Myanmar.
So far, India’s strategy has been to balance between the military and the democratic activists in Myanmar. Now it faces challenges closer home.
The restive Northeast is up in arms over New Delhi’s unsympathetic policy toward their ethnic kin, who are fleeing into India for sanctuary.
Four Indian states – Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh – abut Myanmar. Ethnic groups straddle the porous border; Myanmar’s Chin ethnic group, for instance, shares kinship ties with the Mizos of Mizoram and the Kuki-Zomi group in Manipur. Nagas live on both sides of the India-Myanmar border; there are Naga villages that sit astride the border.
The coup in Myanmar and the junta’s crackdown have evoked a strong emotional response in India’s northeastern states; the plight of their ethnic kin has triggered sympathy among ethnic communities here. Organizations in Mizoram, Nagaland, and Manipur have expressed solidarity with Myanmar’s protestors.
Responding to public sentiment, the Mizoram government issued a Standard Operating Procedure (SoP) to officials regarding “facilitation of refugees and migrants from Myanmar in connection with the political developments” there. However, a week later, under instructions from the central government, it “revoked” the SoP with “immediate effect.”
New Delhi’s order to governments in the Northeast to identify migrants from Myanmar and deport them has triggered mass protests in the region. The surge of mass support to Myanmar nationals fleeing the junta has prompted the Mizoram government to speak up against the central government’s orders.
On March 18, Mizoram’s Chief Minister Zoramthanga wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Mizoram cannot just remain indifferent to their [Myanmar nationals] sufferings today,” he said stressing that “India cannot turn a blind eye to this humanitarian crisis unfolding right in front of us in our own backyard.”
Zoramthanga has also held a virtual meeting with Myanmar Foreign Minister-in-exile Zin Mar Aung of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won a landslide victory at national elections held in November. U.S.-based Mizo leaders are said to have participated in the meeting.
India “cannot ignore the mood in the Northeast,” Laina said, drawing attention to “rumbles of discontent” in the region. The possibility of “anti-India feelings” in the northeastern states could grow in the coming weeks and months, he said.
Since independence in 1947, India has been faced with dozens of powerful separatist and pro-independence insurgencies in its rugged northeast provinces. It is only after decades of difficult counterinsurgency operations, tortuous talks, and development initiatives that India has been able to quell the unrest somewhat.
Underlying several of these insurgencies are distinct identities and importantly, strong feelings of alienation from “mainstream” India. The people from the northeastern states feel that the Indian state and even most Indians have little understanding or empathy for their situation and suffering.
Such feelings are now bound to surge with the Indian government prioritizing its strategic concerns over the suffering and sentiments of the northeastern people.
There are growing calls for India to show more emphatic support to the democracy in Myanmar. “India needs to articulate its stand supporting the restoration of the elected NLD government more clearly,” Sundararaman said.
Decisions regarding foreign policy may be made in New Delhi, but recent developments underscore the need for India’s Ministry of External Affairs to listen to voices from the country’s border states, the Indian Express said in a recent editorial.
Although India has “much at stake in Myanmar, in security and strategic terms,” New Delhi cannot expect its “Look East” policy to gather momentum if it is reluctant to take on board the sentiments of people in its northeast, the editorial warns. “If the situation in Myanmar does not improve, what is happening today in Mizoram, could well spread to Manipur and the other states as well.”
It was to secure the cooperation of Myanmar’s military in fighting the northeast insurgencies that India began courting the generals in the 1990s. That cooperation could cost it dearly now. New Delhi’s appeasement of the Tatmadaw in recent months could trigger angry protests, and perhaps provide a fresh lease of life to anti-India insurgencies in the northeast.