India walks a fine line on Myanmar, where a military coup in February has posed a diplomatic challenge to New Delhi and triggered a refugee crisis that has directly impacted the North-East.
Even as India, in its measured responses, has maintained that it is “deeply concerned” and “monitoring the situation closely”, the China factor weighs heavily on its mind. With the military junta seizing control, protesters on the streets have alleged Beijing’s role in the coup. India will not like another country in its neighbourhood with China’s influence writ large.
Not only that, a working relationship with the military establishment in Myanmar is key to India’s efforts to crack down on insurgents from the North-East escaping to the neighbouring country.
On Wednesday, TS Tirumurti, India’s ambassador to the United Nations, condoled the loss of lives in protests triggered by the coup that overthrew civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and sought maximum restraint in a closed session in New York. The UN, for its part, once again condemned the violence that has erupted in Myanmar. According to a local monitoring group, over 500 people have died till March-end in a crackdown on protesters.
Back home, India faces the refugee question with hundreds fleeing the violence in Myanmar and undertaking risky journeys to India’s borders. Some among them are policemen, who have refused military orders to open fire on civilians holding protests.
THE REFUGEE CRISIS
The Manipur home department has withdrawn a controversial order not to provide shelter to those reaching there. A circular dated March 26 had stated that the “district administration should not open any camps to provide food and shelter”, directed the civil society and NGOs to do the same, and mentioned that those seeking refuge should be “politely turned away”.
The order triggered a backlash on social media against what critics termed an inhumane act in complete contrast to India’s long-standing tradition of providing refuge to those persecuted. The revised circular, however, said the contents of the original one had been “misconstrued and interpreted differently”.
The government maintains that India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. It says the standard operating procedures (SOPs) issued in 2011 will be followed in matters involving those claiming to be refugees.
For Rohingya Muslims — who are denied citizenship by Myanmar — leaving the country over the years, India has maintained the same. Relevant government entities have reiterated that India is under no obligation to provide refuge to those fleeing persecution at the cost of its own national security.
But those arriving from Chin state in Myanmar by crossing the Tiau river present a different challenge. They are ethnically related to the dominant Mizo community in Mizoram. They have familial relations on the Indian side — and that is making it tough to pressure the community to abandon these refugees.
Myanmar’s border authorities recently sent a letter to the Champhai administration in Mizoram to hand over at least eight policemen, who escaped to India after flouting military orders. The letter said this should be done in “order to uphold friendly relations between the two neighbour countries”.
This posed a tricky situation for India, which doesn’t wish to upset ties with the military junta even as it condemns the violence there.
There have been widespread speculations over China’s possible support to the military coup, as Beijing failed to condemn it outright despite global outcry.
Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, who has served in Myanmar, said military junta in Myanmar would have known that if “they were to make this move (coup), there would be considerable international condemnation and sanctions. So only if China were ready to give an assurance that it would act as a kind of shield against these international pressures and make certain that these sanctions do not really affect Myanmar — as they are still supported by China, they would have taken this step”. He said this would make the military establishment “beholden” to China and its influence would significantly increase. That is something New Delhi will not want.
To be sure, China has denied backing the coup amidst protests in front of its Yangon embassy.
Apart from the China factor looming large, India has also been concerned about the serious risk of insurgents in the North-East finding a safe haven across the border in Myanmar.
In 2015, India carried out targeted strikes against such insurgents in Myanmar with the help of the military there. Last year, at the height of the pandemic (when international flights were not operating), Myanmar sent back 22 insurgents on a special flight.
India was able to maintain a working relationship with the military junta during its rule in the past as well (before 2011).
On the day of the military coup in Myanmar, India said: “We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld. We are monitoring the situation closely.”
And on February 26, at a UNGA (United Nations General Assembly) briefing, the government maintained that “India shares a land and maritime border with Myanmar and has direct stakes in the maintenance of peace and stability. The recent developments in Myanmar are therefore being closely monitored by India. We remain deeply concerned that the gains made by Myanmar over the last decades on the path towards democracy should not get undermined”.