On June 18, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution on the “situation in Myanmar” with a vote of 119-1. Although not legally binding on member states, the document carries significant political heft.

Among other things, the resolution calls on the Myanmar military to end the state of emergency, reopen the “democratically elected parliament”, release detained civilian leaders “immediately and unconditionally”, “swiftly implement” the five-point consensus reached at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in April, cooperate with the ASEAN Chair’s Special Envoy, end “all violence” against peaceful protestors, and allow the UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Myanmar to visit the country.

It also calls on all member states to “prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar” while recalling last year’s UN Security Council resolution demanding a global ceasefire in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In total, 36 countries – including India – abstained from voting. Belarus, which requested the vote, was the only country to vote against the resolution. The full voting record was published by Canada’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Bob Rae, on his Twitter account.

What did India say?

In its explanatory remarks, delivered by the Indian Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador TS Tirumurti, India said that it has “direct stakes in the maintenance of peace and stability in Myanmar.”

In fact, despite its abstention, it made several arguments that overlap with the contents of the resolution – such as welcoming the ASEAN’s five-point consensus, reaffirming the UN Security Council’s call for an “early visit of the ASEAN Special Envoy”, condemning the “use of violence” and expressing “steadfast” support for the process of democratic transition (“there can be no turning back on this”). It also recognised that the instability in Myanmar could spill over beyond its borders, and called for “greater engagement” to “peacefully resolve all issues”.

These are largely the same points that India had made earlier in April, following a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council.

On the Rohingya refugee crisis, India said that as the only country to share a border with both Bangladesh and Myanmar, it has the “highest stakes in resolving this issue at the earliest”. In line with its policy so far, Tirumurti used the phrase “displaced persons from Rakhine State” instead of “Rohingya” – which is also how the former Aung San Suu Kyi-led civilian government and the Myanmar military referred to the community.

While the military continues to avoid the term “Rohingya” in its public statements, deposed civilian lawmakers who recently formed a parallel civilian government called National Unity Government of Myanmar have started using the term openly. In fact, the NUG formalised its usage of the term in a landmark position paper on the Rohingya issue released on June 3. But, India remains more cognisant of the military regime’s position on the issue than of the civilian lawmakers’, which goes back to the simple fact that New Delhi has not yet recognised the NUG.

Further, while commending Bangladesh for hosting the refugees, India said that it has been supporting “people on the ground” in both Bangladesh and Rakhine State, in a reference to the limited humanitarian aid that New Delhi has extended to the refugees in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh and the development assistance it has given to Myanmar under the Rakhine State Development Programme. But there is little evidence that the RSDP has done any good to the Rohingya currently living in northern Rakhine State.

Notably, India called for the process of “safe, speedy and sustainable repatriation” of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Rakhine State to be “expedited”. This is somewhat different from the phrasing used in the UN General Assembly resolution and by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in general – “voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation”. Even the NUG has formally stated that it would support the repatriation only when it is done “voluntarily, safely and with dignity”.

India’s insistence on the “speedy” repatriation of Rohingya refugees is not new and matches the position of Bangladesh, which too has called for early return of refugees to Rakhine State. Dhaka remains wary of the pressures of hosting nearly a million refugees in its territory, something that New Delhi understands. Only last December, the Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh reaffirmed this convergence of positions between New Delhi and Dhaka.

But, India’s proposition of “speedy repatriation” is problematic. In general, sending refugees back to their home countries without ensuring that conditions on the ground are safe could put them at further risk of violence, persecution and re-displacement. That is certainly the case with the Rohingya, whose home country of Myanmar still does not recognise them as citizens and is currently being ruled by the same military that committed serious war crimes against them just four years ago. Hasty repatriation also often leads to a bypassing of the ‘voluntary’ aspect of the process, as authorities may fail to take informed consent from refugees in the rush to return them.

Why did India abstain?

The reason that India gave for abstaining is that its “views [had] not been reflected” in the draft that was considered for adoption. It reiterated that a “consultative and constructive approach involving the neighbouring countries and the region remains important” in peacefully resolving the issue.

Ambassador Tirumurti then went on to say, without mincing words: “The fact that there is lack of support from all neighbouring countries and from several countries in the region itself should hopefully serve as an eye-opener to those who chose to pursue a hasty course of action.”

Indeed, the entire South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation area, with the exception of the Maldives, abstained from voting, almost as a single bloc. This includes even Pakistan, which often differs with India at UN forums. Amongst Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbours, four out of ten ASEAN members – Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Brunei Darussalam – abstained.

India’s abstention is not surprising. Since the first day, New Delhi has taken a cautious position on the putsch, condemning the violence and stressing on the importance of the democratic transition without pointing fingers at the military or talking about any kind of sanctions. It has also, at least in official policy, refused to welcome asylum seekers fleeing the military regime’s brutal crackdown through the Northeastern border.

This tightrope strategy is tied to two things – the importance of Myanmar in India’s regional calculus; and New Delhi’s desire to preserve its channels of communication with the Burmese generals and as a corollary, prevent them from moving further into China’s lap. In short, India firmly believes in working with whoever is in power in Naypyitaw – which currently happens to be the military – to protect its own bilateral and regional interests.

Beyond this, there is a broader subtext to Tirumurthi’s remarks.

India believes that the solution to the crisis in Myanmar needs to come from the region. It wants Myanmar’s neighbours in South and Southeast Asia, rather than countries seven seas away, to take the lead in resolving the fix. This particular resolution was predominantly spearheaded by the Western bloc, including the US, UK, France and Germany. Very evidently, this approach did not sit well with New Delhi. It might have felt that a bunch of extra-regional powers were trying to set the terms of engagement on an issue that demands the involvement of regional stakeholders.

Further, India, in all likelihood, was not comfortable with certain provisions of the resolution. For instance, it might not have wanted to vote for a resolution that uses the term “Rohingya Muslim minority” or talks about their citizenship rights – both sticking points in India’s Myanmar policy. The draft also condemned “the excessive and lethal violence by the Myanmar armed forces” in the “strongest terms”, a “name-and-shame” position that New Delhi has categorically dodged so far.

Moreover, India may not have favoured the resolution’s call to “prevent the flow of arms to Myanmar”, which Naypyitaw could interpret as New Delhi’s endorsement of an informal arms embargo. Here, it is interesting to note that India has signed a series of defence deals with the Myanmar military in recent years. In fact, in a report published on 14 June, advocacy group, Justice For Myanmar, revealed that Indian state-owned defence manufacturer, Bharat Electronics Limited, transferred military hardware to Myanmar between February 27 and March 29.

The need for a proactive approach

While India had its own reasons for abstaining, it needs to start thinking of ways to move beyond a static realpolitik-heavy foreign policy on Myanmar. If it has a problem with the Western bloc taking the lead on resolving the crisis, then it must step up and provide a meaningful and creative alternative. Merely insisting on a “consultative and constructive” regional solution or extending normative support to ASEAN won’t be enough – it must proactively facilitate that regional solution.

India must also realise the serious paradox of its position in the region with respect to Myanmar. On one hand, it refuses to take a stronger stand on the military regime next door out of fears that doing so could alienate the Burmese generals and nudge them closer to China. But on the other hand, by insisting on a regional solution at the UN while doing nothing on the ground, India only ends up acting like a wing man to China.

China, after all, is the most influential power in the region today and already enjoys considerable influence over not just the regime in Naypyitaw, but also the ASEAN bloc. Much like India, it believes that the Western approach of sanctions and condemnation is counterproductive – except that China also has the power to shield the military regime from serious punitive action at the UN Security Council through its veto, which India doesn’t. For the Burmese military junta, this makes Beijing the most effective regional partner.

In comparison, India remains a mere fly on the wall for now – a silent spectator stuck in an awkward midpoint, grasping on to its realpolitik vestiges in a hope that the time-tested strategic neutrality will pay off decently in some distant future.

But the government in New Delhi must remember that times have changed. The popular appetite for democracy in Myanmar today has no parallels in modern history, and neither does the people’s disdain for the military. There is a new generation of activists that is far more vehement in its demand for freedom than its predecessors, and certainly more connected to the rest of the world than their parents. They are also more unsparing of those who back the agents of unfreedom in their country. It is for these precise reasons that China, as the staunchest backer of the generals in the region, has become wildly unpopular in the country.

But, India still enjoys a sense of goodwill amongst the people of Myanmar – one remarkable advantage that Beijing doesn’t have. And abstentions at the United Nations won’t fortify this popular rapport. India must shake off its diplomatic ennui, get creative and provide an alternative regional framework of resolution that foregrounds the aspirations of Myanmar’s people.

Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Delhi, and a former visiting fellow to the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin.