Rather than 'setback', Myanmar coup leaves India on firmer geopolitical footing with Tatmadaw

Sreemoy Talukdar
·12-min read

Foreign policy may be occasionally influenced by idealism, but it is definitely shaped by self-interest. The coup in Myanmar presents a complex mosaic of threats and opportunities for India. As we witness the unravelling of the delicate power-sharing deal between Myanmar's military (Tatmadaw) and civilian leadership led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the immediate temptation is to interpret the developments as a 'setback' for India, or at the very least a tension between New Delhi's democratic values and strategic interests. This fear (expressed here or here, for instance) is premature.

There was never any real tension between idealism and realpolitik for democratic nations in their terms of engagement with Myanmar. The West's abandonment of Suu Kyi carried with it a sense of betrayal and a conviction that Myanmar's democratic veneer was nominal and never based on liberal values. The 'backsliding' of democracy here isn't a tectonic shift.

If anything, the developments on 1 February €" when the Tatmadaw detained Suu Kyi, President Win Myint along with other senior political leaders of the ruling National League for Democracy party (NLD) and slapped a 'state of emergency' for one year in a power grab €" flips Myanmar's politics formally back to the template India is accustomed to for decades, and this time New Delhi may even hold a marginal leverage over Beijing.

One of the key questions around Monday's power grab by the military €" a few months after its proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) suffered a poll drubbing at the hands of NLD in November €" centres on the reason behind the coup. Tatmadaw's official position is "election fraud" but the likely answers €" as scholars and analysts have assessed €" exemplify how little difference there was politically between the civilian and military leadership. In fact, the power struggle that led to the coup stemmed from the fact that Suu Kyi was increasingly eating into the military's political space with her anti-minority politics and soaring popularity among the Bamar-Buddhist majority, leading Tatmadaw to fear that its structural control over Myanmar's political system may wane.

The more Suu Kyi received flak from the West for her authoritarian ways, justifying of ethnic cleansing and xenophobic politics, the more she made nationalism a key plank of her political appeal and cultivated closer ties with China to stave off pressure from the West. Her stout defence at the ICJ of Tatmadaw's bloody crackdown on Rohingya minorities in 2017 instead of endearing her to the military, made the conservative faction of Tatmadaw led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing €" who seized power through the coup €" feel threatened and insecure.

The final straw, perhaps, was an unhappy coincidence that occurred due to Tatmadaw commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing's approaching retirement and Suu Kyi's audacious attempts to bring "Constitutional amendments that would have gradually shrunk the military's share of Parliament from 25 percent as mandated by the 2008 Constitution to five percent." It may have ended up convincing the Tatmadaw that it had to move now or risk getting permanently marginalised.

Champa Patel, director of the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House in London, explains that "it was always a risk that the military would step in to try and shore up their power€¦ Their insecurity has deepened as (Suu Kyi) consolidated her power within the country and deepened ties with countries such as China" in comments to the Associated Press.

The issue of Myanmar-China ties under Suu Kyi is a complicated one. In order to protect its considerable interests in the field of gas and oil, to extend the BRI infrastructural network and also to protect China's interests as Myanmar's biggest trading partner, Beijing sought stability in bilateral ties and developed a close relationship with Suu Kyi while its relationship with the Tatmadaw remained fractious. Part of the reason why the Myanmar military decided to enter into a power-sharing agreement with a civilian leadership was that it wanted to hedge against exclusive dependence on China in the spheres of economy and external affairs having been boxed into a corner by sanctions imposed by the United States.

Washington imposed waves of sanctions in 1988, 1997 and in 2010 while trying to force Myanmar's generals into sharing power with Suu Kyi's party, and yielding strategic space to Beijing in the process. China's shielding of Myanmar, however, came at a price.

While Beijing gave Naypyidaw cushion from Western sanctions, it remained entrenched into Myanmar's ethnic insurgency movements €" providing rebel groups such as Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and United Wa State Army €" with arms and logistical support to safeguard own strategic interests, and sometimes to play both sides.

In July last year, army chief General Min Aung Hlaing accused China of arming the Arakan Army and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army rebels, whom Myanmar calls "terrorist organisations" that are active in the Rakhine State in western Myanmar bordering China.

As a USIP report on China's role in Myanmar's internal conflicts points out, "the PLA and actors with possible links to the PLA are supplying weapons to ethnic armed groups in Myanmar, and may even have tried to pressure the Tatmadaw to stop offensives against ethnic armed groups. Retired PLA also continue to engage in lucrative business deals and even serve as mercenaries for ethnic armed groups in Myanmar." https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/2018-09/ssg-report-chinas-role-in-myanmars-internal-conflicts.pdf

University of London scholar Avinash Paliwal also notes China's role in 2011, "when the ceasefire between the KIO and Tatmadaw broke down". The Kachin outfit wanted India's help but with New Delhi refusing to play ball it was Beijing that "enabled the KIO to mount serious resistance to the Tatmadaw, while simultaneously promising Naypyidaw to 'deliver' the group to the negotiations table".

For all these reasons, the Myanmar military's relationship with Beijing remains marked by a lack of trust. Bilahari Kausikan observes in Asia Nikkei that "the Tatmadaw is strongly nationalist and has no intrinsic affinity with China. Historically and up to the present day, the Tatmadaw has viewed Beijing's support for the Burmese Communist Party and ethnic insurgencies with grave suspicion. Given other options, the Tatmadaw will not want to be overly dependent on China."

Looking at China's reaction €" the fact that it blocked the UN Security Council from issuing a joint condemnation of the coup, or its State media's description of the event as a "Cabinet reshuffle", along with the fact that three weeks before Hlaing grabbed power he may have tipped off the visiting Wang Yi, China's state counsellor, about the turn of events €" many have speculated that China is backing the coup or could even be behind it.

That doesn't fully explain China's need for stability in bilateral ties. It had reached a comfortable position with Suu Kyi who visited China several times and laid out support, albeit gingerly, for Beijing's range of projects covering infrastructure, energy, mining industry despite strong local opposition. Wang Yi's recent visit, in fact, was interpreted as Beijing's tacit support for NLD's election win and an indication from Beijing that it would like to see stability and faster advancement on projects that it needs to develop for access to the Bay of Bengal.

In fact, as Paliwal has written in Hindustan Times, the Tatmadaw perceived Suu Kyi's "perceived tilt towards Beijing" as a "Machiavellian attempt to carve out more political support for herself when the West had abandoned Suu Kyi."

Reuters reports that the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily newspaper has recently stated that "as a neighbour on China's southern border, a split Myanmar in turmoil is obviously not what China wants to see." It ties with what Zhao Gancheng of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies told AP. "As a neighbouring country, I can't see anything good for China, given that all of China's investments and infrastructure construction need a stable environment€¦ China is concerned about this development."

India does have to sort out the complex calculus of promoting democratic values and securing strategic interests but unlike China, its relationship with the Tatmadaw is not marked by distrust and suspicion. From its overtly 'pro-democracy' position in the end of 1980s and early 1990s, New Delhi's position towards the Tatmadaw €" which has never relinquished its grip over Myanmar despite erecting a political front €" gradually became of critical importance as India invested heavily in building trust with the generals driven by an urgent need to secure its northeastern border and blunt the extremist threats from Mizo insurgency and Naga separatist groups.

Unlike Beijing, New Delhi is on firmer geopolitical footing here because China's meddling in Myanmar's ethnic politics and links with militia forces that operate on their common border have made the Tatmadaw wary of Beijing.

For its part, India has expressed its "deep concern" with the developments in Nay Pyi Taw. The MEA release states "India has always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar. We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld. We are monitoring the situation closely."

This is the farthest that New Delhi may go in publicly condemning the coup in Myanmar unlike its Quad partners such as the US and Australia, as Abhijnan Rej has pointed out in The Diplomat.

Under the hood, however, the effort to further consolidate the relationship with the Tatmadaw while nudging the military to reopen the democratic process shall go on. The thing to note here is that India has always maintained a robust rapport with Myanmar's defence and security edifice based on a realist approach to foreign policy, need to safeguard national security and an acknowledgement that New Delhi lacks the toolkit or the power to force Myanmar military to relinquish control or initiate a vigorous democratic process.

In the past few years, officials from the defence and security establishment have made several reciprocal visits to underline the closeness of ties. The 2017 visit by Gen Hlaing was an indication that the Tatmadaw was eager to diversify its defence cooperation with India and it also presented a chance for New Delhi to balance its interests in a country that was seen to be ensconced firmly in China's sphere of influence. India had offered to sell artillery guns, naval boats, road-building and other defence-related equipment, and some lightweight torpedoes as well. Hlaing's visit two years later in 2019 resulted in both nations signing a new memorandum of understanding on bilateral defence cooperation. On that occasion, Tatmadaw's top commander had met senior Indian leaders, including the chief of all three major Indian armed services: Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat, and Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Karambir Singh.

The visit came shortly after both countries carried out a coordinated border security operation against militia groups along the shared border, and New Delhi supplied an initial batch of indigenously built torpedoes for the Myanmar Navy at an estimated cost of $37.9 million.

A release by India's defence ministry covering that visit had called Myanmar a "key pillar of India's Act East Policy" and stated that the talks between both sides were aimed at "enhancing defence co-operation, review joint exercises and training provided to Myanmar Defence Services, strengthen maritime security by joint surveillance and capacity building, medical co-operation, pollution response and for developing new infrastructure."

India gave Myanmar a Soviet-era Kilo-class submarine last year and that announcement came shortly after India's politico-military visit to Myanmar on 4-5 October when Indian Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla met Suu Kyi and Hlaing during their visit to Myanmar. "During the visit, the two sides agreed to strengthen their partnership in connectivity projects, capacity-building and trade, and to broaden their defence exchanges across all three services €" army, navy and air force," reported The Financial Times.

On the Tatmadaw's side, this burgeoning security cooperation, apart from being a hedge against China, also stems from a belief India won't play a destabilising or outsized role in its ethnic politics. Paliwal has shown how the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), "who control pockets of territory near the India-China-Myanmar trijunction can generate critical intelligence for India€¦ and even empower India's so-called 'Tibet card" but he also points out that "New Delhi has shied away from strengthening such a relationship out of fear of upsetting Naypyidaw, and because of a complicated history of failed outreach."

On the much-discussed dilemma between India's need for promoting democracy in the neighbourhood, India will take the road it has always taken €" engage with the military establishment to secure its core interests and gently raise the issue in closed-door discussions, as scholar Constantino Xavier has explained.

This would also indicate a remarkable continuity in India's approach. In 2006, India's then foreign secretary Shyam Saran during an MEA press briefing had called Myanmar India's "bridgehead to Southeast Asia". To a question on India's engagement with a military-ruled state, he had said: "there are various reasons for which it is important for India and Myanmar to remain engaged. Now, while we remain engaged, does it mean that we do not care about democracy in Myanmar? No. As I just explained to you, in the meetings that our leaders have had with leaders of Myanmar, as a friend we have made known also our view on the current situation."

Five years later, Ambassador Vishnu Prakash, on Myanmar president Thein Sein's visit to India, had stated during an MEA press briefing that India deals "with the Government of the day which is in power. Regardless of the complexion of the Government in our neighbourhood, it is for the people of a country to decide what kind of a government they want, we deal with the Government of the day."

This realist calculus will again be at play, and due to the Tatmadaw's wariness of Beijing as well as New Delhi's close strategic partnership with the United States, India should be in a good position to deal with the eventualities. India's strategic perspective now appears firmer.

Also See: Myanmar’s military coup has pulled the plug on its much-touted democratic transition

Aung San Suu Kyi and other Myanmar leaders detained as military imposes year-long state of emergency

India is deeply concerned over military coup in Myanmar, detention of top political leaders, says MEA

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