Reading India’s silence on the execution of pro-democracy activists in Myanmar

While MEA believes it is India’s interest to remain neutral on Myanmar, not everyone is convinced the country cannot even condemn the executions of pro-democracy activists or issue a statement

Protests against the military junta in Myanmar
Protests against the military junta in Myanmar

Nilova Roychaudhury

In the 18 months since they quashed Myanmar’s fledgling democracy, the military junta there led by General Min Aung Hlaing, has been lucky to escape harsher international censure. Other global crises including the collapse of Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, thrust the plight of Myanmar’s people into the shadows.

However, luck may have run out for the generals after July 25, when the world learnt of the execution of four pro-democracy activists, the country’s first such killings in three decades. Myanmar’s last recorded execution was in 1988. The decision is interpreted largely as a desperate ploy to ensure a chilling effect by a junta which has not probably succeeded in silencing the people.

The executions at the infamous Insein prison in Yangon led to international outrage and criticism of the military junta, including from close ally China, which urged a resolution of the conflict within the bounds of the country’s constitution. India has not added its voice, yet, to the volley of global censure the junta has received since the four men were killed.

Reading India’s silence on the execution of pro-democracy activists in Myanmar

The executions were clearly intended to instil fear into the resistance movement battling the junta ever since it grabbed power in a coup on February 1, 2021. Despite the junta’s repressive efforts, the resistance to the coup has continued countrywide, simmering just below the surface. It is unlikely that the executions will stop the resistance movement. Instead, the anti-junta protesters are likely to use these killings to garner international support and spur the flagging resistance to regroup and re-energise, though the international community is unlikely to provide them with weaponry.

The four slain democracy activists had been sentenced to death in secret trials held in January and April. Accused by the junta of committing “acts of terror”, the four men executed were Kyaw Min Yu, former parliamentarian and hip-hop artist Phyo Zeya Thaw (a close associate of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and better known as ‘Ko Jimmy’), Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw.

While the junta have kept up the pace of repression against pro-democracy activists, including Buddhist monks, through trumped up charges in closed courts, they had not actually carried out death sentences, fearing global censure. According to informed sources, the trigger for the generals to actually carry out the executions was the setback at the International Court of Justice on July 22.

The ICJ dismissed all the objections raised by Myanmar to a case initiated by African nation The Gambia in November 2019, on behalf of the Rohingya minority community, seeking proceedings to be initiated against Myanmar for perpetrating genocide. Although the case was filed before the coup of February 2021, the generals and the then government of Myanmar were accused of committing genocide against the Muslim-majority Rohingya population of the country.

Now that Myanmar’s objections to the court’s jurisdiction and to The Gambia’s locus standi have been dismissed, formal legal proceedings can be launched for perpetrating the crime of genocide against Myanmar which, like The Gambia, is a party to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

India is among the very few countries which has not come out with a statement condemning the execution of the democracy activists of Myanmar, although officials claim they were angered by the act.

India has continued to maintain its presence in Myanmar and has an envoy there despite the coup, for critical strategic reasons, as Myanmar is an immediate neighbour. The looming Chinese presence in Myanmar is another reason India felt it had to remain engaged there.

For New Delhi, keeping insurgency at bay and maintaining law and order in the Indian North-East is crucially dependent on Myanmar and, while India has been urging an early return to democracy there, unlike the West, it does not believe in imposing sanctions on any country, except under the multilateral consensus and umbrella of the United Nations. It has, broadly, supported the ASEAN approach of engaging with Myanmar, which is a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations.

India was caught unawares by last year’s military takeover in Myanmar, shortly after it assumed its presence in the UN Security Council, but maintained its diplomatic channels because it has considerable investments there, beyond just its key strategic interests.

Reading India’s silence on the execution of pro-democracy activists in Myanmar

As New Delhi mulled over how best to react to the changed circumstances in Myanmar, with which India shares a land border of over 1,600 km and a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal, officials claim they continued to urge a return to democracy and the freeing of prisoners.

Former Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Myanmar last December, in New Delhi’s first and most high level outreach to the isolated junta and urged a “return of democracy at the earliest” and a “complete cessation of all violence”. Despite being allowed to hold meetings with other diplomats, members of civil society and political parties, Shringla was denied access to Suu Kyi.

There have been several low key visits between the two countries since then, mostly for updates on the infrastructure projects with which India is involved, including the Kaladan MultiModal transport corridor and the trilateral India-Myanmar-Thailand highway project.

However, although India is clear that its foreign policy is primarily intended to uphold its national interests, for the MEA to not have made a statement condemning the executions would whittle down its democratic credentials with many of its partners.

It remains unclear whether the executions will be a threshold for change in the bilateral relationship.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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