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India's Concerns Over Myanmar Drive Policy, Analysts Say

By Anjana Pasricha April 11, 2021

Analysts say India's concern that isolating Myanmar's military, which staged the country's February 1 coup, will drive it closer to China, and fears of instability in a country with a long common border are driving a desire by New Delhi to engage the regime to resolve the crisis there.

The United States and other Western democracies are imposing economic sanctions to put pressure on Myanmar's military, which has mounted a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests, resulting in hundreds of deaths since it ousted de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Critics have questioned why India, the world's largest democracy, has not denounced the junta more strongly, but analysts say New Delhi believes sanctions may not be the way to defuse the crisis.

"From India's perspective, keeping a channel of communication open with Myanmar's military is very important," said Harsh Pant, head of the Strategic Studies Program at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

"We don't want a situation where China is the only country talking to them and see another country in India's neighborhood go into the Chinese orbit," he said.

India's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, K. Nagaraj Naidu, told a U.N. Security Council meeting on Myanmar Friday that "lack of engagement will only create a vacuum which will be counterproductive."

He said that "we therefore support all initiatives to engage with Myanmar and resolve issues peacefully without further bloodshed," even as he condemned the use of violence.

After its initial cautious response, India has taken a stronger stance in recent days as the crisis in Myanmar has mounted, calling for an end to the violence and urging the military to release the hundreds of political prisoners now being held in Myanmar.

"We stand for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar," Arindam Bagchi, the External Affairs Ministry spokesman, told reporters in New Delhi this month.

"India is ready to play a balanced and constructive role to resolve the crisis," he said.

India's more emphatic response came days after the presence of its military attaché at an Armed Forces Day parade in Myanmar raised questions about New Delhi's attendance and drew condemnation from Myanmar's pro-democracy Civil Disobedience Movement. The March 27 celebrations coincided with a savage crackdown that saw at least 100 protesters killed.

Calling India "one of the greatest democracies in the world," the movement asked on Twitter "why do you shake hands with the generals whose hands are soaked with our blood."

India was the only major democracy among the eight countries that sent representatives to the celebration. The others were China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand and Russia.

"I don't think India's presence was meant to send a message of support or validate the coup," Gautam Mukhopadhaya, India's former ambassador to Myanmar, said.

"I find it difficult to believe that India would lean on the side of the military in the current context when it is very clearly against its own people," he said.

He said, though, that India and Southeast Asia countries have taken a more nuanced approach to the situation in Myanmar because of worries about large-scale instability in a neighboring country and would prefer to seek a negotiated solution.

"We have security stakes different from powers in the West. My expectation is that India will use whatever equities it has with the military to try and talk the generals back," he said.

India has built ties with the Myanmar government during the past decade as it has sought to offset China's influence in the country that provides it with an overland route to the Indian Ocean, a strategic waterway where Beijing has steadily increased its footprint.

Myanmar's army has cooperated with New Delhi in destroying hideouts of insurgents who operated in India's northeastern states and sought sanctuary across the border in Myanmar. New Delhi has also increased defense and economic ties with the country in recent years.

There have been missteps in India's approach in the wake of the recent coup, say analysts. As refugees from Myanmar escaping the junta's harsh crackdown fled into India, the federal government asked local authorities to stop their influx and deport those who had crossed over.

However, northeastern states have called for a "humanitarian" response to the refugees, with whom they share ethnic ties, and are providing shelter to an estimated 700 who have crossed over.

Mukhopadhaya, who was India's ambassador between 2013 and 2016, said he believes Myanmar's military has made a "serious miscalculation" and will find it difficult to suppress the growing civilian protests. He said he is optimistic that India will make "pro-people" choices as the situation evolves in the neighboring country in the coming weeks.

However, most agree that isolating Myanmar is not a choice for New Delhi in a changing geopolitical situation where many now view China as a threat.

"If the objective of the United States in particular and Western powers in general is to manage China's rise, then you have to look at countries through a more complex prism," Pant said. "Wherever the West has isolated countries, China has filled the void."

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