Popular resentment at China’s involvement in Myanmar and attacks on Chinese businesses there has intensified since the Feb. 1 coup that ousted the elected National League for Democracy government. India, another friendly neighbor of Myanmar, has not drawn the ire of protesters in the way that China has. But New Delhi’s policy paralysis on Myanmar was reflected in its abstention on June 19 in a U.N. General Assembly vote that condemned the military takeover.
India’s statement that the “hastily-tabled resolution is not conducive to aiding our efforts toward strengthening the democratic process” in Myanmar sounded lame. It is high time for New Delhi to take a more active role in pushing for the restoration of democracy.
Attacks on Chinese businesses and scenes of Myanmar protesters burning the flag of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations should serve as a warning to India. Anti-China and anti-ASEAN resentment soared after their representatives met military regime leaders in Yangon in early June while ignoring those of the anti-military regime National Unity Government.
Myriad homegrown resistance groups have emerged in Myanmar, including the self-proclaimed Federal Army and People’s Defense Force. Many feature hard-line activists keen to avenge the indiscriminate killing of peaceful protesters by the military, also known as the Tatmadaw.
India may not want to go as far as pushing for more sanctions, but it could play a stronger mediation role, using its access to Myanmar’s multiple stakeholders to promote a dialogue for the restoration of democracy. India’s military has strong ties with the Tatmadaw, while its political parties have connections to the anti-military regime forces, including the ousted NLD, the related NUG and some ethnic armed organizations.
The NLD government under Aung San Suu Kyi had drawn closer to China after strong Western condemnation of military attacks on the minority Rohingya population. But Beijing was displeased by the NLD’s refusal to resume the Chinese-financed Myitsone Dam project and its plans to reduce investments in the Chinese-backed Kyaukphyu Port-Special Economic Zone project.
China’s support for the military regime increased after the generals approved 15 major investment proposals, most of them Chinese. This is why protesters are attacking Chinese businesses, with 37 Chinese factories burned down so far. There is an undeclared boycott of Chinese goods by neighborhood committees, a bastion of anti-military regime forces. Threats to blow up the Kyaukphyu-Yunnan oil and gas pipeline have also unnerved the Chinese.
If the military repression does not stop, armed urban insurgency such as that recently seen in Mandalay will grow, and more attacks on key China-funded infrastructure will be likely. This would seriously threaten the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, one of China’s two key Belt and Road Initiative projects.
China faces a similar predicament in other countries. Attacks by Baloch separatists on projects linked to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor have already forced Beijing to push for stronger security measures with Pakistan. The view that China is an emerging neocolonial power, hungry for resources and unmindful of local concerns, has gained ground globally.
For India, which seeks to provide a benign alternative to China in Southeast Asia, the lessons are clear. Its policy toward Myanmar, based on fears of driving the military regime into Beijing’s arms, is flawed. While some argue that the military regime has already drawn closer to China, others believe that the growing attacks on Chinese interests may soon force Beijing to reconsider its unstinted support for the military regime. India should use this opportunity in Myanmar, where a boycott of Chinese goods opens a possibility for Indian businesses.
If India wants to assert itself as a regional power, it will have to play a mediation role, perhaps in tandem with Japan. Tokyo and New Delhi have already been quietly working on an alternative to China’s BRI projects, but India has a possible mediator in Zoramthanga, a former rebel leader and chief minister of Mizoram state, who has endeared himself to Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement by his open-door to refugees. He has wide contacts in Myanmar’s many ethnic rebel armies, and also in the military. And he is willing to take the peacemaking role.
The Tatmadaw needs the Indian army to help curb the Arakan Army, a Rakhine military organization, as much as India needs Myanmar to deny the use of jungle bases in Sagaing to northeast Indian rebel groups. But the Arakan Army’s current cease-fire with the Tatmadaw and the reported use of northeast Indian rebels by the Myanmar military against refugees and local resistance forces is a reason for New Delhi to look beyond a limited counter-insurgency role.
Many in Myanmar believe Indian democracy and federalism constitute the best model for a future Myanmar. The Bodh Gaya Temple in India’s Bihar state, where Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment, is a holy pilgrimage destination for Burmese Buddhists. Former Myanmar general Maung Aye once told me: “For arms, we go to China; for the salvation of our soul, we go to India.”
It is time for Indian diplomacy to break out of its self-imposed limbo and use the country’s enormous goodwill in Myanmar to play a strong, proactive role in attempts to end the conflict there.
Global pressure is making the Tatmadaw commanders realize the impossibility of continuing their brutal repression. The military is facing a rebellion from within its ranks, with one report suggesting 800 soldiers and officers have already joined the pro-democracy movement. Fissures in its top echelons cannot be ruled out.
The challenge for India is to engage all stakeholders in Myanmar and work for a solution. Such action may not lead to instant results, but India’s peace diplomacy could surely gain substantial political mileage for New Delhi, befitting an aspiring regional power.