As the Myanmar armed forces (known as the Tatmadaw) unleashed deadly terror on the streets late last month, eight countries – including India, China, Russia and Pakistan – attended a military parade in the country, on the occasion of the annual Myanmar Armed Forces Day.
This was the ugliest rendition yet of New Delhi’s adoption of a so-called middle path between engaging with the Tatmadaw as a strategic ally and calling for the restoration of democracy in the country. And soon enough, Indian analysts began debating aloud about whether India’s approach still had merits.
Some analysts in New Delhi believe that India should continue to stick with its engagement with the Tatmadaw. Memories from three decades ago are still fresh on their minds. Back then, as the Tatmadaw put pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in detention and took over the government, India had launched an aggressive campaign to support democracy. But that soon backfired, as China strengthened ties with the Tatmadaw and turned Myanmar into a useful gateway into Southeast Asia.
Today, the Tatmadaw is a helpful ally to New Delhi in fighting against insurgents in India’s northeastern states, and its cooperation is also vital to the success of many of India’s ambitious infrastructure projects which pave its path to Southeast Asia. The stakes for continued engagement are therefore much higher than they were three decades ago.
But in the aftermath of the coup, the Tatmadaw has turned into a liability for New Delhi rather than a promising strategic ally. By continuing to engage with it, even as it commits crimes against humanity in Myanmar, India is risking its own goodwill and influence.
India has already stood as the odd one out within the Quad for its relatively softer statements on the coup, even as the U.S. looks to engage with partners in the Indo-Pacific to push for an end to the violence. But India’s bigger credibility challenge is not with the West but with those on the ground in Myanmar itself, where angry protestors are eyeing the Tatmadaw’s external allies with vengeance.
In what should be a lesson to New Delhi, China is already feeling the heat for its own open and unabashed support for the Tatmadaw. As the coup triggered protests in February, pro-democracy demonstrators began directing their ire at Chinese factories and facilities, driven by Beijing’s diplomatic support for the Tatmadaw in the United Nations Security Council. The attacks prompted the Chinese embassy to release a statement, calling on the junta to “ensure the safety of life and property of Chinese companies and personnel in Myanmar.”
The Tatmadaw’s aggression has also sparked a refugee crisis on India’s borders, coinciding with many sensitive state elections in the country. According to reports, the influx of refugees into India doubled over the past week, with over 700 of them now seeking protection.
New Delhi’s handling of the crisis so far has already made some unflattering headlines around the world. For weeks, India has been deporting persecuted Rohingya back to Myanmar, including a 14-year-old girl whose family lives in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Recently, the Indian state of Manipur ordered officials to “politely turn away” refugees and even prohibited civil society organizations from providing them any food or shelter. The order was later withdrawn, following an outcry.
If India’s biggest strategic interest is to counter Chinese influence across South Asia and the Indo-Pacific, such actions are disastrous. India needs to demonstrate a brand of regional leadership that stands in contrast to Beijing’s – more humanitarian, more proactive in the defense of basic human rights, and more sensitive to democratic aspirations.
India already has sufficient leverage over the Tatmadaw, and if New Delhi decides to coerce the junta to end the violence, it has many levers to use. As two researchers recently pointed out in Foreign Policy, “[Over] the past few years, Myanmar’s military has relied almost as much on India as it has on China.” India has supplied some critical military equipment to the Tatmadaw in recent times and New Delhi’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines to Myanmar is also a crucial lever by which to exert influence.
But soft words on the coup and harsh treatment of refugees fleeing the violence will not help New Delhi’s cause at all – either in bolstering its credibility as a regional leader, or in pushing the Tatmadaw to restore democracy.
India needs to hold the Myanmar military junta accountable to human rights much more proactively. New Delhi’s warm engagement with the Myanmar army will prove costly to India’s own interests.