South Asia

What Is Keeping India on the Wrong Side of History With Myanmar?

India’s recent track record does not inspire confidence that democratic or humanitarian considerations will outweigh MEA’s perception of geo-strategic rationale and increasingly independent business interests.

Why is India so defiantly indifferent to shaming to the point of attempting to deport a Rohingya girl child back to a Myanmar convulsed by violent turbulence?

And to compound that, the Supreme Court has legitimated Centre’s contentious directive of deporting the Rohingya refugees, holding inapplicable the legal principle of non-refoulement and turning its back on the genocide like situation in Myanmar.

What geo-economic and strategic compulsions are aligning democratic India on the wrong side of history with brutally repressive military dictators in Myanmar? 

At the Moreh border crossing, Rozya Akter (14), took halting steps, relentlessly moved forward by implacable Assam state police towards the check-gate on the international border. They were performing their procedural duty of deporting an ‘illegal foreigner’, a minor Rohingya Muslim girl as decreed by Indian state agencies, indifferent to the violent turbulence that had gripped neighbouring Myanmar following the February 1 military coup.

Ministry of External Affairs officials had turned a deaf ear to the desperate pleas of the girl to send her to her parents – reportedly in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh. How she got separated from her parents and orphaned in a third country in 2019, is mired in murky narratives of vulnerability and likely trafficking. 

Also read: Minor Rohingya Girl Gets Reprieve After Myanmar Refuses Indian Deportation Attempt

Across the border were the dreaded Myanmar security forces, from whom 800,000 of her persecuted ethnic community had fled surviving rape-torture and murder. Now, thousands more Myanmar nationals were fleeing the brutal military crackdown. What fate could Rozya, a minor and alone, expect?

Incredibly, though, in what became a surprising act of humanity, the Myanmar immigration authorities “refused to open the gate of the international border saying that the situation is not appropriate for any deportation, currently”.

Rozya Akter is back in the shelter home in Silchar.

Waiting, like 22 other Rohingya Muslims, most of them registered with the Delhi office of the refugee protection agency, UNHCR and randomly rounded up in detention centres in North East.

Earlier in 2018, unmoved by the international outcry at the flouting of the international humanitarian law’s jus cogens principle of non-refoulement, India had deported 40 Rohingya refugees to Myanmar

Three years later, Rozya, supposedly protected by multiple international and national human rights and humanitarian laws was to be the exemplary first deportation after the upheaval of the military coup in Myanmar. And to compound that, the Supreme Court on April 8 legitimated the Centre’s contentious directive of deporting Rohingya refugees, holding inapplicable the legal principle of non-refoulement, and turning its back on the genocide-like situation in Myanmar.

Also read: ‘How Can a Human Being Be Illegal?’: Lawyer for Rohingya Questions India’s Deportation Plans

Why is India, globally upheld for its contemporary history of democratic values and rule of law, so defiantly indifferent to shaming to the point of deporting a Rohingya child, and now some 12,000 persecuted Muslim refugees back to Myanmar where the situation now has become worse?

Why are government directives flouting settled jurisprudence about all peoples (citizens and foreigners) entitled to protection under constitutional guarantees of right to life (Article 21) and right to equality (Article 14). Why is India’s Central authority tying itself in federal contradictions, insisting on closing the North East border against “illegal influx”, but forced by public outcry to pause in pushing back the 1,500 and more Myanmar nationals, including policemen who are fleeing indiscriminate crackdown?

It overturns India’s acclaimed humanitarian tradition of opening its borders, as it did to the flood of nine million people fleeing military crackdown in East Pakistan/Bangladesh. It flies against India’s federal compact, especially with sensitive states Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, contiguous to Myanmar.

Mizoram Chief Minister Zormanthanga has been explicitly defiant about ethnic kin Mizos opening their hearts and homes to fleeing peoples.

His unusual defiance of the Centre and his refusal to seal the borders for Burmese refugees reflects the communal/tribal and familial relationship that transcends India’s north-eastern borders of postcolonial nation-state and its hand-drawn borders.

Mizos and Chin share a longstanding ethnic affinity within the broader Zo ethnic fold. According to Mizo oral tradition, both Mizo and Chin had migrated southward from China and settled in the Lushai Hills around the 18th century. The British colonial rulers had boxed them in to three different administrative regions — India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. But this hasn’t stopped the community, especially in India and Myanmar, from maintaining a shared existence through the ages, marked by blood relations and routine movements across the international border. Turning back Chin refugees and dismissing the Mizoram government’s concerns, New Delhi stands to jeopardise its much-touted Act East Policy (AEP).

Also read: Mizoram CM Speaks to Leader From Suu Kyi’s Party, Recognises Her as ‘Myanmar Foreign Minister’

When economic sanctions are being imposed by India’s democratic peer countries, and Myanmar’s Generals are ostracised, why is it business as usual with India and Myanmar? What geo-economic and strategic compulsions are aligning democratic India on the wrong side of history with brutally repressive military dictators? 

Within weeks after the military flattened Myanmar’s quasi-democratic structure and unleashed a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters calling for restoration of democracy, on the annual Tatamadaw (military) Day in the capital Naypyidaw on March 27, India was among eight nations that attended the commemorative military parade. Whereas EU, UK, Australia and USA condemned the military for excessive use of force against protesters, representatives of India, Russia, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand graced the military annual day. 

According to a senior Ministry of External Affairs official quoted by NDTV, “We have a functioning embassy in Myanmar. Our ambassador, defence attaché and other diplomatic officers continue to discharge their regular diplomatic responsibilities.”.  

The Foreign Ministry’s position as articulated on the day of the coup was “deep concern”, support for “democratic transition” and “rule of law”. Sharp criticism at home and abroad has prodded a shift in MEA’s non-committal rhetoric of “concern”, towards condemning the violence, and urging maximum restraint as figures spiralled of more than 550 killed, and 3,500 arrested.

Ambassador T.S, Tirumati, India’s permanent representative to the UN, in a social media post following a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council on April 1, iterated support for a peaceful resolution that “meet(s) the hope and aspiration of the people”. But that is still a long way off from denouncing perpetrators of the violence or disengaging diplomatically, economically and militarily with Myanmar.  

Increasingly, the geo-strategic politics of the China-Myanmar-India tri-junction have driven India’s transactional relations and not democratic values and human rights considerations.

Moving away from its historic foreign policy of actively supporting the then persecuted democratic forces, towards realpolitik pragmatism, India has steadily expanded diplomatic, economic and military relations with the Myanmar military junta since 1993, a decade and half before Myanmar’s democratic reform interregnum of 2010-2021. This volte face was propelled by the isolationist military junta’s opening up to China in the face of intense international criticism of the Tatmadaw’s authoritarianism, following 1988 military crackdown on student protesters, and 1990 military coup d’etat.

Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: Ye Aung Thu/Pool via Reuters

Since then Myanmar’s dependence on China has intensified. Senior Counsel Suu Kyi, the democracy icon, facing a battery of international criticism for her anti-minority and majoritarian Buddhist-Burman nationalist position, turned to China and in 2018 signed an MoU to establish the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC).

Accordingly, China flanked by new ally Russia in the UN Security Council has scuttled efforts to issue a sharp condemnatory statement, with new entrant India, as non-permanent seat member, playing a bridging role between the two opposing camps counselling dialogue and reconciliation.

India’s relations with Myanmar have been driven by the strategic rationale of developing a counterweight to China’s dominance in Myanmar. It is competing with China in deepening economic ties, infrastructural development and in transfers of significant lethal military equipment and cooperation in military training. Alongside this, in 2014, the two countries signed an agreement on coordinated patrolling and intelligence sharing sealing insurgent access to sanctuaries across the border.

The Tatmadaw’s support has helped India steadily degrade its North-East insurgencies. Myanmar’s importance has grown as the land-bridge in India’s “Look East policy” initiative towards South East Asia. Riding on Myanmar military junta’s neo-liberal commercial opening up, Indian state-owned and private corporations have developed huge business stakes in Myanmar civilian and military economy. 

According to UN and independent Burma rights and accountability campaigners, India’s state and private enterprises are deeply entangled in commercial relations with the structure and network of the military’s main holding companies: Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). Together, they own at least 120 businesses across almost every sector in Myanmar’s economy. The companies are led by current and former senior-level military officials, including the Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Such commercial partnerships have strengthened the financial autonomy of the military and its clout. The UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, in the report, “The Economic Interests of the Myanmar Military,” 2019, emphasises that MEHL and MEC are able to generate enormous revenues, insulating themselves from effective civilian oversight.  This has given the Tatmadaw the financial heft required to dominate politics in Myanmar and also sustain its totalitarian regimes without depending on foreign aid. 

The FMM in successive reports in 2018 and 2019 has called for the financial isolation Myanmar military and its business partners, targeted sanctions against the senior generals and military companies, and arms embargoes.

The FFM warned: “[F]oreign companies involved with the Tatmadaw and its conglomerates MEHL and MEC should sever their relationships with these enterprises and ensure that they are fulfilling their corporate responsibility to respect human rights. Those in commercial relationships with MEHL or MEC may find themselves complicit, in law, fact or the eyes of the broader public, in contributing to the resources available to the Tatmadaw to continue its involvement in gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

India figures among the list of foreign companies from seven countries (including those that have provided arms and related equipment to the Myanmar military since 2016, even after the Myanmar military’s brutal human rights record was widely and publicly known. State-owned enterprises Bharat Dynamics Limited, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Hindustan Shipyard Limited (HSL) have manufactured (or refitted) military-wares for the Tatmadaw, including Shyena lightweight torpedoes, helicopters, and a submarine. Among the private companies, Tata Group and Larsen and Toubro (L&T) have built troop carrier vehicles and torpedoes for the Tatmadaw, respectively.

The FMM report also named Infosys and Adani Group as companies that have contractual and commercial ties with the Tatmadaw. Adani Group is jointly developing the new Ahlone International Port Terminal with Myanmar Economic Corporation, which is owned by the Burmese military. MEC owns the land the port is being built on.

In a May 2019 statement, Adani Australia denied any problem with this commercial deal worth $290million. Australian Centre for International Justice (ACIJ) quotes the Adani Group stating that although there are arms embargoes and travel restrictions on key members of the military “this does not preclude investment in the nation or business dealings with corporations such as MEC”.

Also, “The land where the port is proposed to be built has been leased from Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) following extensive due diligence”. Strategists argue that the Adani built container port on the Yangon river gives India a geo-political counter to Chinese investments in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota and Colombo ports and Pakistan’s Gwadar port as Beijing encircles the region with its Belt and Road initiative (BRI).

Infosys, the software giant has been working with Myawaddy Bank, a subsidiary of Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, which is controlled by the military. EdgeVerve Systems, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Infosys established a relationship with the bank in May 2018, just a few months after the military launched an “ethnic cleansing” operation against the Rohingya population in Rakhine state. Its 2018 press statement, Infosys makes no mention of any military connection. According to Deccan Herald, Infosys clarified, “EdgeVerve Systems began its relationship with Myawaddy Bank as a response to international calls to help Myanmar integrate with the global economy after the US lifted sanctions against the bank in 2016″.

Myanmar’s Ministry of Defence at a press conference in June 2020 claimed that MEC was privatised and was “concerned only with the military”. Activists associated with ACIJ and Justice for Myanmar contend that there was no evidence of privatisation. Corroborating this, Amnesty International’s report on September 2020 claims MEHL has financed “military units that are implicated in crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations.”

Following the coup, both Adani Group and Infosys have said that they are “watching the situation in Myanmar carefully” and “reviewing the international community’s response,” but are yet to take any concrete action. Already, three major foreign companies – Japan’s Kirin Holdings and Suzuki Motors, as well as Thailand’s Amata – have suspended their commercial relationships with Tatmadaw-linked subsidiaries.  USA, UK and Canada have snapped military ties and imposed sanctions. 

India’s recent track record does not inspire confidence that democratic, humanitarian or human rights considerations will outweigh MEA’s perception of geo-strategic rationale and increasingly independent business interests. While the UN condemned the “ethnic cleansing” and horrific violence against the Rohingya Muslims, it left India not only unmoved but the country compounded matters by deporting Rohingya who had sought refuge in India. Many of India’s transfers of military equipment took place in 2019 when the process of investigating the Tatmadaw leadership for serious war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) was initiated under the “universal jurisdiction” clause.

An Indian flag in a Rohingya camp in Delhi. Photo: Ismat Ara

Additionally, at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), The Gambia filed a case accusing Myanmar of violating the Genocide Convention. Myanmar has already conceded before the ICJ that its security forces did commit “mass killings” against the Rohingya.

India’s harsh response towards a few thousand desperate Rohingya refugees and its contradictory directives to North East border states to prevent influx of people from Myanmar, has further reduced India’s international standing as the “world’s largest democracy”.

Apart from losing its position in the eyes of the international community, New Delhi risks losing the support of its own border people. By closing the borders and throwing asylum-seeking Chin and Rohingya refugees back into the hands of Myanmar army, India stands to jeopardise its Act East Policy.

The simmering anger on the ground against its directive to seal the border for Chin refugees is hardly a good sign. New Delhi needs the support of the people in Mizoram if it wants to keep its border connectivity projects up and running. India needs to keep in mind that while it is the military that is in power in Myanmar today, eventually a civilian government elected by the people will come to power in Myanmar. When that happens, India, to its own detriment, might find itself in a vortex of negative public opinion, particularly in Chin state, which is of particular importance for India. 

One of the key nodal points of New Delhi’s flagship Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project (KMMTTP) – an inland river terminal – sits along the Kaladan river in the Chin capital of Paletwa. Much like Chin State in Myanmar, Mizoram is especially central to the policy. The 110 km-long road from Zorinpui to Lawntlai – passes through Mizoram. 

Tapan Bose was secretary-general of South Asia Forum for Human Rights based in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Rita Manchanda is a researcher, writer and human rights advocate specialising on conflicts and peace building in South Asia with particular attention to vulnerable and marginalised groups. Her latest publication is Women and the Politics of Peace: Narratives of Militarisation, Power and Justice (Sage, 2017).