Finding the balance between India’s democratic ideals and security interests has always proven to be unusually hard when it comes to Myanmar. This was more than evident during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to India’s easternmost neighbour. New Delhi skirted the issue of Myanmar’s horrific treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority but was able to persuade Naypyidaw to allow India to launch a large-scale aid programme in Rakhine province, the home of the Rohingya and the epicentre of the present violence.
There will be many who feel India has said and done far too little on behalf of the Rohingyas. However, this is probably the best that can be expected given the overriding security and geopolitical interests India has with Myanmar. New Delhi, in any case, is hardly in a position to give lectures on humanitarianism when it has rhetorically spoken of expelling of Rohingyan refugees and passed the matter to the Supreme Court.
India’s primary interests in Myanmar can roughly be summed up in the following order. One, to build an economic and security relationship that prevent Myanmar from inexorably slipping into the orbit of China. Part of this strategy requires Naypyidaw’s cooperation in building road, port and other transport links between the two countries. Two, ensure the Myanmar military’s continuing cooperation in preventing various Northeastern militants, most notably Naga insurgents, from using Myanmar as a safe haven.
Three, preserve and support the country’s stuttering transition into a full-fledged federal democracy. Four, seek to ameliorate the plight of the Rohingyas as well as ensure the already tense relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar do not spiral out of control. Each of these is an ambitious policy goal. And each of them has to be pursued recognising that the dominant ethnic Burmese are extremely sensitive to any external pressure.
It helps to see Myanmar as a novice nation-state as far as international norms are concerned. The combination of its decades-long self-imposed isolation from the outside world, its unresolved constitutional structure, hybrid civilian-military political structure and a streak of xenophobia present throughout much of its elite make it very unlike the other Southeast Asian states.
Myanmar thought nothing of expelling almost its entire Indian-origin population and, more recently, doing the same to smaller groups of ethnic Chinese — and when Beijing protested, raining shells on Chinese soil.
India should seek to make Myanmar think increasingly like most other countries and hope that as it becomes more economically integrated, more democratic and less suspicious of the world it will become more accepting of international norms regarding its internal affairs.
Hindustan Times, September 8, 2017