TODAY -

Navigating a fragile Myanmar : India's policy options for regional security

Dr Cchavi Vasisht *



The situation in Myanmar since February 2021 has been marked by political upheaval and violence following the military coup led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. The coup sparked widespread protests and civil disobedience movements, which met with harsh repression by the military, including the use of lethal force and airstrikes against civilians.

The National Unity Government (NUG) emerged as an Opposition force, forming its armed wing, the People’s Defence Force, to resist the military regime.

Despite international condemnation and sanctions, the military regime has persisted, resulting in escalating violence and human rights abuses. Since Operation 1027 by the Three Brotherhood Alliance in October 2023 and subsequent attacks by the ethnic armies, the Myanmar military has faced significant setbacks, leading to the capture of numerous bases and towns.

The conflict has spread to various regions, with ethnic armed groups gaining territory near the borders with China and India. Despite attempts at negotiation, including by China, clashes have persisted. On the other hand, the Myanmar military seems to be losing ground against the NUG and EAOs. It lacks the capacity to retake lost territory and faces internal divisions, defections, and recruitment issues.

Public perception, particularly among Bamar youth, is shif-ting away from the military. However, it must also be noted that the Opposition forces, the NUG and EAOs are coordinating attacks against the military, but their unity is fragile due to differing political goals and limited administrative and financial resources.

This disunity raises the possibility of future balkanization (fragmentation) of Myanmar, potentially benefiting China. A China-aligned Myanmar could pose stra-tegic challenges for India.

China maintains ties with both the military and some EAOs like MNDAA and TNLA. Its motivations are unclear; it could be annoyance with the military or a strategic play. China’s ceasefire attempts haven’t been successful. Even the US may be supporting the NUG and PDFs, is potentially creating a proxy conflict. But if Myanmar is balkanized, it could create instability on India’s borders.

In this backdrop, the most predictable scenario is that the stalemate will continue in Myanmar, a prolonged conflict with no clear victor. While few may argue that there could be a unified Opposition victory, where the NUG and EAOs would overcome their differences and establish a new, federal Government. But chances are bleak for the same.

And even if the Opposition forces unite for the moment to overthrow the military Government, the differences could persist within Opposition forces, which could eventually result in Myanmar frag- menting into separate entities, a potential balkani- zation.

Myanmar’s future is uncertain and therefore, India needs to carefully consider its response to the evolving situation and its implications for regional security. Myanmar holds strategic importance for India due to its geographical proximity, historical ties, and shared security concerns. The countries share a 1,643 km land border and a maritime boundary, acting as a bridge between India and Southeast Asia.

The close ethnic ties between Indian and Myanmar’s border communities further deepen the relationship, although historical border delineations have dispersed ethnic groups across international boundaries. But the relations between the two sides have remained stagnant since the military coup in February 2021.

While Indian officials have made visits aimed at border security and regional stability, there’s a perception that more attention should be given to Myanmar due to its significance as a neighbor.

However, security concerns arise from Myanmar’s internal conflicts and the presence of armed groups, particularly in India’s North Eastern States. The Golden Triangle’s opium production poses a threat, with law enforcement agencies seizing significant amounts of drugs and contraband items. Indian insurgent groups operating from Myanmar add to security challenges, as does the refugee influx resulting from Myanmar’s conflict.

Since Operation 1027, many Myanmar soldiers have crossed into Indian borders, with ethnic armies gaining control over significant portions. The Arakan Army’s control over Paletwa town signifies the spread of ethnic armies’ influence.

India’s engagement with Myanmar needs to adapt to these evolving dynamics for regional stability and project success. Additionally, China’s expanding presence in Myanmar, aimed at accessing the Indian Ocean region, raises additional concerns. Chinese infrastructure projects and border control measures, along with alleged surveillance activities, have strategic implications for India’s security.

Therefore, India’s policy recommendations for addressing the crisis in Myanmar include expanding relations with stake- holders, particularly engaging with the NUG and EAOs controlling border areas.

This engagement should prioritize maintaining ties with key ethnic groups like Kachins, Nagas, Chins, and Rakhine. And to facilitate communication and cooperation with stakeholders, appointing an experienced interlocutor or special envoy to is crucial, involving various Government departments, bordering State Governments, and non-governmental agencies.

India must also encourage North Eastern States to collaborate with the Central Government to address instability in Myanmar, leveraging existing people-to-people ties. For the border management, India should reconsider its decision about removing the FMR.

To maintain border security, temporary fencing in troubled areas could be implemented and modern surveillance technology like drones could be utilized. Further, development assistance should be recalibrated towards capacity-building and socio- economic development.

Finally, at the regional level, India should explore dialogue formats like ASEAN-QUAD and Neighbour Plus Countries for peace-building initiatives and consider financial support for peace efforts. India’s involvement is crucial for Myanmar’s Constitution-building and federal institutionalization, preventing further influence from other actors, particularly China.


* Dr Cchavi Vasisht wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on June 06 2024.



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