India, globally upheld for its contemporary history of democratic values and rule of law, is neighboured by Myanmar, a country that has struggled to establish democracy. Sandwiched between China and India, two countries with which it shares a large border, Myanmar was until recently believed to be at the cusp of becoming a flourishing constitutional democracy. The democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won the 2020 election; however, the military rejected the results citing irregularities in polling and proceeded to take over the elected government after its claims were refuted by the Election Commission. The military, which had shared power with National League for Democracy (NLD) for five years, orchestrated the coup on February 1, hours before the country’s newly elected Parliament was set to convene. Subsequently, it detained Ms Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and several of the NLD’s other top leaders, meanwhile suspending the Internet, curbing social networks and warning the public of repercussions if they joined protests. Since then mass protests have erupted in different regions of the country and consequently, they have come under heavy crackdown from the military, leading to an estimated over 500 deaths and thousands of people fleeing the country seeking refuge in neighbouring countries including India.
Military vs Democracy
After its independence, Myanmar (previously known as Burma) had a democratic government for at least a decade but the military grew powerful and established a dictatorship between 1962 and 2010. Owing to civil wars, Myanmar’s economy is now entirely controlled by the military and even though in 2008, the military assented to a new Constitution, officially giving 75% of seats in Parliament to civilian politicians and reserving 25% for army representatives, it continued to run the nation as it controlled over all three ministries of Home, Defence, and Border Affairs. This reign saw the unbending repression of minority groups such as the Rohingya Muslims and the Karen. With the landslide victory of Aung San Suu’s NLD in the 2015 elections, things started to look hopeful. However, she was denied the presidential position because she was married to a British, as the Myanmar Constitution has a provision that prohibits such foreign element. To circumvent this provision, she created the position of State Counsellor, a position borrowed from the Chinese system of governance. However, she was unable to face the challenges posed largely by the ethnic politics in the country. A 2017 study by the California-based Asia Foundation, a non-profit international development organisation, stated that “almost one-quarter of Myanmar’s population hosts one or more ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) that challenges the authority of the central government.” Now, one of Asia’s poorest countries, Myanmar spends twice as much on defence as it does on education and health combined. With half a million soldiers, Myanmar has the world’s 38th strongest military, according to Global Fire Power, which ranks 140 nations on their capability to wage war. However, the immediate consequences of the coup have seen the imposition of international sanctions and condemnation of the Military. There is no easy way out for Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the Commander-in-Chief and the coup’s main architect, from the crisis he has put himself in, as the people of Myanmar continue to fight for democracy.
China has come forward and said that it plans to act as a mediator between Myanmar’s military junta and political parties alongside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations(ASEAN), which is pushing towards a return to democracy. Although, India’s Ministry of External Affairs has made a cautious statement concerning the developments in Myanmar stating “India has always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar. We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld,” it seems to maintain its silence by standing out as a reluctant neighbour with neither the heft nor the intent to play any role in the biggest ongoing crisis in the region. This could be credited to the fact that it does not want to rage any political war against the military junta which curbs the rebel action covering the northeast border areas of the country attached with Myanmar. Moreover, it is also being wary of the looming Chinese presence which could push its agenda through the Myanmar army if India chooses to act against the current controlling power.
Recently, India was among eight countries that attended a military parade in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on March 27 to mark Tatmadaw Day, including China, Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. This has sparked an interest on the global stage as along with India only Bangladesh is considered a major democracy among the nations that attended the parade.
India is already dealing with the Rohingyas seeking asylum after they fled the Rakhine province following the military crackdown a few years ago and the problem is elevated more by the oncoming of more refugees after the latest crackdown of the military junta in Myanmar as the Mizoram government has indirectly facilitated people fleeing to enter India, but the Centre is rigid in its stance to prevent the influx of more refugees by directing the Assam Rifles of the Army for the same purpose. It has good reasons to take such measures as according to the authorities, over 40,000 Rohingya refugees are currently living in the country. Although India isn’t a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is a signatory to the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugee and Migrants, thereby giving tacit recognition to the Principle of Non Refoulement (Article 33 of the Refugee Convention; Paragraph 24 of the New York Declaration), but the current refugee laws are ambiguous at best and it’s not feasible for a country like India to constantly intake refugees seeking asylum. Interestingly, Suu Kyi defended the military at the International Court of Justice(ICJ) earlier, over supposed religious persecution by Myanmar’s military.
India has its fair share of anti-India insurgencies in the northeast and that’s why it carefully treads in matters of interfering with neighbour countries alongside the region but its ‘Look East’ policy demands not only active attention but effective action as well, and for that, it needs the cooperation of the people in the northeast, and they are sensitive towards the situation with Myanmar. So it needs to develop a proper plan of action to deal with the tense situation persisting in Myanmar without major agitation, as the currently existing situation in Mizoram won’t take long to extend to the bordering state of Manipur and deeper. Moreover, to maintain its position as one of the frontrunners among democratic nations it needs to show its commitment in pushing for the restoration of democratic government in the country sharing its border and should not turn a blind eye to this humanitarian crisis unfolding right in front of us in country’s own backyard.
This article is authored by Basant Vijay Sagar, a first-year law student at National Law University, Delhi. Presently working as contributing author at The Blue Letters.