Myanmar coup: New Delhi reacts with concern and pragmatism

India has fostered ties with the Myanmar junta since the 1990s. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - India, the world's largest democracy, reacted quickly but cautiously to the unfolding crisis in Myanmar this week, expressing "deep concern" with developments there and stressing the importance of upholding "the rule of law and the democratic process".

Yet behind the concern in New Delhi is also hard-nosed pragmatism, an acknowledgement that the country needs to continue to do business with Myanmar's generals to further the security, energy and overall strategic interests of India.

India has fostered ties with the Myanmar junta since the 1990s at the expense of, critics say, upholding democratic traditions.

It is unlikely that New Delhi will change tack on what has been a double-layered policy of upholding democratic traditions while pursuing national interest goals.

"This is the road India has faced before. This is a dilemma India has been confronted with before. Therefore, there is abundant expertise in the Ministry of External Affairs to deal with it," said Mr Rajiv Bhatia, a distinguished fellow at the think tank, Gateway House, and a former ambassador to Myanmar.

"It is dealt with on two levels. Naturally, when democracy suffers or is overthrown, India, as the largest democracy of the world, feels deep anxiety. But, at a second level, India's policy has become very pragmatic. It's driven by its national interest. Even if the army is in power (in Myanmar), India will deal with them in normal business-like fashion."

Sharing a 1,643 km border with its neighbour, India was once a vocal supporter of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi but reversed its opposition to the Myanmar military in the 1990s and began to build ties with the ruling junta in part to counter the growing influence of China.

Myanmar has occupied an important spot in India's policy in its neighbourhood. The South Asian giant, which needs energy to power its ambitions as a burgeoning economy, sees Myanmar with its oil and gas reserves as crucial to India's energy security.

The country is also important for India to secure its borders in the remote north-east. Myanmar has helped India protect the area where insurgents usually carry out attacks and then seek shelter across the border.

In May last year, Myanmar handed over 22 militants to India, cooperation that has become even more crucial with an upsurge in violence along the border after insurgent groups in Nagaland walked away from peace talks.

Defence has also emerged lately as a key area of cooperation between the two countries with India supplying military hardware, including torpedoes, to Myanmar.

In October last year, Indian foreign secretary Harsh Shringla, accompanied by Army Chief General M.M. Naravane, visited Myanmar to present as a gift a Kilo-class submarine to the Myanmar Navy. India also focused on Myanmar in its Covid-19 diplomacy, offering it 1.5 million vaccine doses.

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"I think on the strategic front, Myanmar is extremely important. Myanmar is a country that lies between India and China. It is our land link to the South-east Asian region," said Professor Shankari Sundararaman at the Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

"Both from a territorial and maritime perspective, it is extremely important for India. It is equally important for us in terms of where Myanmar is located strategically in the Bay of Bengal, connecting it to the larger context of the Indo Pacific."

But India has also had a long association with Ms Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who spent her formative years in school and college across the border. Nonetheless, Ms Suu Kyi keenly felt the shift in Indian policy during the 90s.

"India will take a more nuanced approach. It has already said that it is concerned about the military coup and political instability, but given the stable relations we currently have, India will continue to engage with whichever government is in place in Naypyitaw," said Prof Sundararaman.

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