There was no diplomatic soft talk in India’s response to the military coup in Myanmar. Among the first countries to react, India’s statement was crystal clear, expressing “deep concern” about the future of democracy and the rule of law.
Such harsh words are not just out of moral solidarity with Aung San Suu Kyi and other democrats detained. They reflect India’s long-held understanding that democracy is the only model for Myanmar to achieve political stability, internal security and sustainable development. This is why India went out of its way to support Myanmar’s democratic transition since 2011 with economic assistance and capacity-building programmes. And when National Security Adviser Ajit Doval visited Myanmar in 2015 to attend the signing of a peace deal with insurgent groups, he was also expressing India’s support for a democratic process to end the country’s many armed conflicts.
It may be often tempting to describe India’s Myanmar policy as suffering from a dilemma between values and interest. There is no such confusion in practice: India’s interest in Myanmar has always been guided strategically by the centrality of democracy to ensure deeper ties. However, as former diplomat IP Khosla observed, India has also learned to accept that “the liberal democratic paradigm will not automatically come about” in Myanmar, nor in any other part of India’s politically volatile neighbourhood.
So while Indian policymakers have always been clear about their democratic endgame in Myanmar, they also recognise that pragmatic adjustments are sometimes necessary to engage with the military, which remains the ultimate guarantor of internal stability and order. This is similar to 60 years ago, when the Burmese armed forces, also known as Tatmadaw, first took over power to end a decade of democratic reforms in the 1950s. The coup of March 1962 was a severe setback for India’s investment in a federal, democratic Burma under the leadership of Nehru’s great friend U Nu. However, with the democratic regime in deep crisis, it made sense to engage General Ne Win to protect Indian interests, including cross-border insurgencies, China’s influence and the safety of the larger Indian diaspora.
A young Indian diplomat then posted at the embassy in Yangon, Eric Gonsalves, recalls that “we were fairly confident that the Generals were going to remain and there would be no return to the democratic set-up.” Despite his personal distress at the imprisonment of his friend and the end of Burmese democracy, Nehru gave the green light for India to become one of the first countries to recognise the military regime, even before China.
Sixty years later, the situation is strikingly similar. It is likely that this week, the ministry of external affairs would have, at least internally, shared Gonsalves’ realistic assessment. For the time being, New Delhi will, therefore, say what it can and do what it must — in public, India will push for democracy but in private it will pivot to engage with Myanmar’s new military regime.
This marks a return to India’s dual policy of the 2000s, when it built a relationship of high-level trust with the Myanmar military while also nudging and supporting the Generals to embrace democratic reforms. This approach was first crafted in the late 1990s by Shyam Saran, then India’s ambassador in Yangon, and executed in 2000 with a rare display of successful defence diplomacy led by Army chief VP Malik.
This was no easy task. Western analysts criticised India for blindly engaging Myanmar. At the United Nations (UN), India came under attack for not supporting sanctions and condemnatory resolutions, especially during the failed 2007 democratic uprising. And in his 2010 address to the Indian Parliament, President Barack Obama openly expressed American disappointment that India had “shied away” from its democratic responsibility towards Myanmar. Despite such pressure, India stood firm and also paid a price for it. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for example, declined two invitations and only visited Myanmar in 2012, after the democratic opening.
The carefully calibrated policy of the 2000s will serve India well today, where circumstances are even more favourable. Thanks to the rise of China, the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) are now more wary of isolating Myanmar. Under the Act East and Neighbourhood First policies, India has deepened its relations with Myanmar across political, military, security, diplomatic and economic tracks. And the Tatmadaw is now also less enamoured of China and keen to deepen relations with India.
But New Delhi will still have to work hard to pursue its democratic realist policy in Myanmar. Two main challenges arise. The first will be to preserve trust with the Generals even while keeping up the pressure to restore a democratic order. Delhi will have to keep the relationship going at the highest level to ensure that the Generals respect India’s core concerns. This includes the Naga peace process, keeping an eye on China’s activities, and cross-border connectivity initiatives.
The second challenge will be for India to coordinate its position internationally and buy itself manoeuvring space to engage Myanmar. The US and the EU are still likely to be less understanding of India’s position than the Association of South-East Asian Nations and Japan. Especially at the UN Security Council, India could play an important role to bridge differences and develop a common platform to nudge Myanmar back on to the democratic track.
Constantino Xavier is a fellow at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal