India faces a no-win situation as Myanmar spins into civil war

As refugees pour into India for sanctuary, the Indian Government finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Pro-democracy forces in Myanmar are also objecting to Indian companies helping the junta

(Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
(Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
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Ashis Biswas

Human Rights organisation Justice for Myanmar (JFM) reported recently with disapproval the delivery of advanced surveillance equipment and other sensitive items produced by an Indian PSU to Myanmarese authorities. JFM spokesman Y. Maung complained that the equipment were being used against Myanmar’s own citizens and pro-democracy forces.

Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL), JFM release said, delivered electro-optic systems, radar radio extractor receivers, VHF communication systems, graphics processors, workstation hardware, server storage equipment and batteries etc. to the military Junta headed by General Min Hlaing. The despatches were made from Jaipur and Bangalore in March.

The deliveries were made even as most other countries/nations were suspending official dealings with the present administration in Myanmar following its illegal February coup.

The Adani Group had promised to stop work on a new container terminal project in Myanmar following protests by HR groups. Around $130 million had been invested in the construction and about 300 people were working on the site. However, two civil rights groups in Myanmar alleged that the Adanis had paid around $30 million to MEC company, hit by Western sanctions because of its alleged close ties with the Myanmar army.

As the controversy continued, the Adanis announced their pull-out decision in a statement, without clarifying the position on payments allegedly made to the MEC. Australian civil rights spokesmen, who have had a running battle with the Adani Group maintained that construction should not have started in the first place as sanctions had begun.

In the eyes of the pro-democracy groups in Myanmar and international liberal opinion, India’s private as well as its public sector seem keen to continue business as usual with the sanction-hit country.

With commercial interests taking precedence over all other considerations in international relations, such an approach puts India in the same category of countries with dubious HR records such as China whose leadership insist that they prefer not to lecture other countries on how to handle their internal affairs. In return, they would like others to keep away from commenting on China’s internal affairs.

India’s own ACT-EAST policy having stalled following the February coup, New Delhi is forced to do a tight-rope walking. India’s economy has been hit harder than China or Bangladesh because of the pandemic and India accounts for less than 4 per cent of Myanmar’s total imports as against 30 per cent plus from China.


While the Kaladan multimodal infra development project, which would significantly improve India’s connectivity through Myanmar to other South East Asian countries, is nearing completion, China has already invested billions of dollars in a range of projects as against India’s relatively minor investments.

Therefore, given this financial backlog vis-a-vis China, Japan or Thailand as investors in Myanmar, any further slippage in earnings from bilateral trade and business could only further marginalise India. This puts Delhi in a delicate position where it has to tread carefully and not react emotionally to the crisis in Myanmar, Indian diplomats explain.

But in Mizoram or Manipur, where people fleeing from Myanmar are still crossing over for safety, putting up in relief camps, with relatives or NGOs, Government of India’s insistence on discouraging further exodus from Myanmar has not been received well.

Unverified accounts suggest that the number people in India displaced from Myanmar is close to 20,000 and increasing. Despite official instruction from the highest levels in Delhi to dissuade such people from staying on Indian territory and not to treat them as refugees, it has proved difficult to turn away crowds of old men, women and children fleeing from army excesses.

The number of internally displaced persons within Myanmar, according to UN and other estimates, range from 150000 to 200000. During the height of the monsoon, some are reportedly without shelter and in urgent need of medical attention.

Mizoram chief minister Zoranthanga wrote to Prime Minister Modi explaining why states in the Northeast find it difficult not to shelter the fleeing Burmese people on their territory. Most local tribes are spread across both sides of the international border between India and Myanmar and are linked by marital and other ties.

As of now, such people are being looked after by state governments in Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland. A number of local NGOs and other agencies have come forward to help materially. Efforts are on to step up the scale and range of such voluntary assistance.

Increasing presence and activities within India of refugees and militants from Myanmar fighting against the military junta has created fresh security concerns in the sensitive region. Indian diplomats are praying for India to emerge unscathed from the tight spot and without burning its fingers. (IPA Service)

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