Finally!” said the headline of Northeast Now, an Indian news organisation based in Guwahati, Assam, after it became clear that New Delhi had officially condemned the military violence against protesters seeking democracy in neighbouring Myanmar, following the coup in February.

India’s ambassador to the United Nations TS Tirumurti had, in a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council, made a number of remarks regarding developments in Myanmar, that he proceeded to tweet out afterwards:

The statement brought up not just the violence but the loss of lives – totaling more than 536 civilians protesting the military coup – and the detentions of leaders like former state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Until the statement, India’s official remarks had covered much less ground, only “noting” the developments on the day of the coup and reasserting its “steadfast support to the process of democratic transition”, which had quite evidently been halted and reversed.

In fact, the Indian government had begun to earn some criticism from both within the country and externally after it emerged that the Indian Embassy in Myanmar sent a representative to the Armed Forces Day military parade in Naypitaw last week, even as civilian protesters were being shot dead.

The questions about India’s stance on the coup and resultant human rights crises also came to the fore because of an order from the Manipur government telling local authorities in bordering district to “politely turn away” refugees attempting to escape military violence and ordering them not to provide food or shelter. The order was eventually withdrawn.

Tirumurti’s comments at the United Nations Security Council, however, is unlikely to signal any major change in India’s approach to the crisis next door, even as the UN envoy to Myanmar warned of a “bloodbath” and Western nations moved to impose further sanctions.

Border concerns

What lies behind India’s relatively more restrained position on the coup, despite its stated committment towards supporting a democratic transition?

For one, unlike many of the countries that have spoken out against the Myanmar military and imposed sanctions, India actually shares a border with the country.

That 1,643 km-long border is important for a number of reasons:

  • It is porous, making it hard to control refugees and migrants.
  • It cuts through conflict-ridden states of India’s North East, where insurgents have in the past based themselves on the Myanmarese side.
  • It divides communities that see each other as ethnically linked, including Nagas on both sides, Myanmar’s Chin and Mizoram’s Mizos, and so on.
  • It is a crucial part of India’s regional connectivity efforts, that have a big potential bearing on trade as well as the country’s strategic presence in the Bay of Bengal.

Each of these considerations cuts slightly differently when it comes to New Delhi’s foreign policy calculations, not counting other non-border based factors.

The porous border and insurgency aspect, for example, are reasons for India to be wary of angering the Myanmar military which, according to former Indian diplomat Vishnu Prakash, “has given assurances at the highest levels that Myanmar territory will not be allowed to be used for anti-India activity.” The UN has warned that the “the influx of refugees at the Indian and Thai borders and elsewhere is ominous and likely just the beginning.”

The cross-border ethnic connections, however, have driven some Indian politicians to take a different stance from the Centre. “If the people of Myanmar have to flee the military, Mizoram will welcome them with open arms, give them food and shelter,” Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga said, in the state assembly in February, reflecting the popular support and close ties of people on either side of the border.

But foreign policy decisions get made in New Delhi, and India’s centralised system gives little leeway to states in taking different positions, at least on paper. Despite Zoramthanga’s statement, the Ministry of Home Affairs last week asked the four states bordering Myanmar to maintain a strict vigil and prevent people from entering India, particularly after reports that more than 1,000 had already crossed over and were seeking refuge.

External balancing

The Centre has sought to convey that it is doing the right thing, via briefing journalists on how it is “pursuing a policy on Myanmar that balances humanitarian concerns vis-à-vis geo-political realities.”

This realist position, accommodating the Myanmar military and engaging in quiet diplomacy – a stance India has taken since the early 1990s after ditching a more openly pro-democracy position – has come in for some criticism and calls for re-evaluation.

The approach seemed to be working, particularly over the last decade, as the military made way for a bigger role for democratic activity. It also opened up to Indian efforts from the government – lowering fears of China dominating an Indian neighbour – as well as corporations like the Adani Group, which was allegedly paying millions of dollars to a military-controlled company as part of its port container terminal project in Yangon.

In the view of some, India’s consistent efforts to engage with the military ought to have led to some leverage on this front by now. This thread by Avinash Paliwal, an associate professor in international relations at SOAS, breaks down the question of whether India ought to be taking a different route, which is also summarised in these two tweets:

Indian academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta echoed this view:

“If we are relying only on cooperation with the Myanmar military, without support for the local population, we will once again be setting ourselves up for long-term problems,” he wrote. “A broadbased reputation for humanitarian concerns and the welfare of people is a strategic asset, not a liability if you are a long-term player... By sidelining even the most basic humanitarian impulses, under a myopically realist or xenophobic impulse, India will neither realise its ideals nor its strategic objectives.”