Snubbing Myanmar’s military rulers by India under pressure to create more complications

How is India going to pursue its much vaunted Act East Policy or tackle north-eastern insurgency after alienating Naypyidaw’s all-powerful, unforgiving generals?

Myanmar junta- Representative image
Myanmar junta- Representative image

SNM Abdi

New Delhi’s decision to exclude Myanmar military junta’s representative from the India-Association of South East Asian Nations Foreign Ministers Meeting on June 16-17 begs the question: how is India going to pursue its much vaunted Act East Policy or tackle north-eastern insurgency after alienating Naypyidaw’s all-powerful, unforgiving generals?

Myanmar and Bangladesh, which share land boundaries with India, are our two gateways to ASEAN with whom we want to integrate our landlocked, underdeveloped north-east. It seems that India now has no option but to fall back on Bangladesh which would obviously negotiate new concessions. Be that as it may, snubbing Myanmar’s military rulers is not a sound decision. It is certainly not in our national interest to alienate them. It shows up the Narendra Modi government as incapable of looking the United States right in the eye and saying ‘no’. It also exposes our foreign policy as erratic and instable – and shows that even in our neighbourhood we are dictated by Washington.

At one level, Bangladesh is a tried and trusted neighbour and an excellent alternative to Myanmar as a strategic corridor to South East Asia. And Bangladesh would relish India’s dependence because of its strained relations with Myanmar which has used every conceivable excuse, besides plain obduracy and cockiness, not to take back nearly one million Rohingya refugees straining Bangladeshi economy.

Importantly, Bangladesh has just burnished its credentials as India’s loyal ally. To New Delhi’s great relief, unlike 16 other Muslim countries, the Sheikh Hasina government hasn’t summoned India’s High Commissioner in Dhaka or issued a demarche to protest against the vile remarks of two Bharatiya Janata Party leaders about Prophet Muhammad. Bangladesh hasn’t uttered a word at a time when Gulf nations are loudly and angrily demanding a public apology from the Indian government. There are two main reasons for Dhaka’s deafening silence. Firstly, any protest by the Hasina government would clear the decks for countrywide anti-India and anti-BJP demonstrations not only by Hasina’s Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party but by fringe elements endangering the lives and properties of Hindus who have nothing to do with the criminal remarks of the suspended-expelled BJP duo. Secondly, parliamentary elections are just 18 months away and Hasina simply can’t afford to be on India’s wrong side. All said and done, we yield more influence in Bangladesh than even the US. We are not Big Brother but Biggest Brother, thank you.

The India-ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting is fixed for June 16-17 and will be preceded by Senior Officials Meeting on June 15. Ruling out Wunna Maung Lwin, Myanmar’s military junta’s Foreign Minister, New Delhi has extended an invitation to “non-political”, “non-military” Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, U Chan Aye, a career diplomat, for the two meetings. As Naypyidaw has already conveyed its displeasure to the Indian government, a total boycott by Myanmar is inevitable in the circumstances.

Clearly, Washington wants to fix Myanmar generals. And it’s shooting off India’s shoulders. There is no denying that Joe Biden exerted pressure on Modi during last month’s Quad Leaders’ Summit in Tokyo to needle and insult the military junta. But by keeping out Wunna Maung Lwin at US behest we are only exhibiting how inconsistent India’s Foreign policy is. In December 2021, then Foreign Secretary Harshvardhan Shringla travelled to Yangon and Naypyidaw for engagements with military rulers. He held long meetings with General Min Aung Hlaing. And in March 2022, the same Lwin we are keeping at an arm’s length today, attended virtually a Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) meeting also attended by Modi and Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar. At that time, Washington had publicly conveyed its displeasure to New Delhi and BIMSTEC host Colombo and probably extracted an assurance from our Ministry of External Affairs and Prime Minister’s Office of “good behaviour” in future.

Government’s apologists are pushing the line that there is so much chaos and anarchy because of battles being fought between the junta Army and the People’s Defence Force (PDF) that Myanmar is no longer a safe and viable gateway to ASEAN. If it is so, we should then simply write off the US$484 million Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project. And we should forget about conducting joint operations with the Myanmar military against United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and other Indian insurgent outfits which have camps in Sagaing Division and Chin State. Alienating Myanmar at a time when anti-India groups are being passionately wooed by China - is all the more worrisome.

I’m sure Bangladesh will make a great gateway to ASEAN. Recently, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, spoke eloquently of “fifty riverine systems between India and Bangladesh which beautifully weave into one another” to create a “buzzing future”. This is a great beginning for onward connectivity with ASEAN. But by alienating Myanmar, New Delhi is repeating its folly of spoiling its relations with Iran to be in Washington’s good books.

(S.N.M. Abdi is former Deputy Editor of 'Outlook' magazine and one of the targets of Pegasus spyware attack on journalists. Views are personal)

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