In First Visit to Myanmar After Coup, India’s Foreign Secretary Raises Manipur Ambush

According to sources, the military junta declined India's request for a meeting between Harsh Shringla and jailed leader and former premier Aung San Suu Kyi.

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New Delhi: Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla raised the security situation in northeastern states, including the ambush in Manipur, and emphasised the need for a “return to democracy” during his first visit to post-coup Myanmar.

According to sources, the military junta declined India’s request for a meeting between Shringla and jailed leader and former premier Aung San Suu Kyi.

Following the conclusion of Shringla’s two-day visit, the external affairs ministry issued a press release that underlined the unusual circumstances around the trip.

The media statement identified only one of Shringla’s government interlocutors by designation, while the rest were just collectively mentioned as “senior representatives”. 

The Indian readout also noted that he held meetings with “members of civil society and political parties, including the National League for Democracy”. There was, however, no names of opposition members provided in the list.

Shringla also met with Myanmar-based foreign ambassadors and United Nations officials – another list of uncommon interlocutors for the bilateral visit of an Indian foreign secretary. As per sources, Shringla met envoys from the US, Australia, Norway, Czech Republic, Cambodia, Thailand and Japan.

The tone of the press release was in sharp contrast to the last time that Shringla visited Myanmar in October 2020, accompanied by Indian army chief General M.M. Naravane. It had included a detailed listing of the designation and names of all the senior leaders, starting with Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

In February, Senior General Hlaing conducted a coup on the grounds of alleged election fraud, taking into custody the entire civilian government and triggering another round of violence and instability.

During Shringla’s latest visit, the political landscape has changed dramatically, with Suu Kyi behind bars and most NLD leaders jailed or underground.

China, along with Russia, has provided diplomatic cover to the military junta, which has largely defied the international community. The military junta has refused permission to the UN special envoy and the ASEAN special envoy to visit Myanmar, as both of them insisted on meetings with all stakeholders, including incarcerated opposition leaders.

Myanmar’s General Min Aung Hlaing. Photo: Reuters

India has remained wary of directly criticising the military regime. Following the February 1 coup, India had expressed “deep concern” and called for the democratic process to be upheld.

At a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, India had made it clear that it would not support any sanctions against Myanmar.

A month after the coup, India’s defence attaché was among representatives of eight countries that attended the Myanmar Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw.

After a Myanmar court sentenced Suu Kyi for four years for inciting dissent, India stated that it was “disturbed” by the verdicts but again refrained from explicitly condemning the regime.

While India does not want the Myanmar junta to surrender entirely to China’s open arms, it also has its domestic priorities that were visible during the foreign secretary’s visit.

As per the MEA’s press release, the two-day trip “provided an opportunity to raise matters relating to India’s security, especially in the light of the recent incident in Churachandpur district in southern Manipur”.

Last month, two banned Manipur-based insurgent groups, the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur (PLAM) and Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF), took responsibility for the fatal ambush near Sehkan village that killed an Assam Rifles commanding officer, his family and four other security personnel.

Shringla told the Myanmar regime representatives that it was essential “to put an end to any violence and maintain peace and stability in the border areas”.

“Both sides reiterated their commitment to ensure that their respective territories would not be allowed to be used for any activities inimical to the other,” said the MEA readout.

The reference to violence along the border could also apply to the security crackdown by Myanmar in the region, which has led to an exodus of thousands of refugees into India’s northeastern states. India, officially, does not encourage the arrival of Myanmarese refugees, but they find shelter at residences of members of fellow ethnic groups across the international border.

“India shares an approximately 1700 km long border with Myanmar. Any developments in that country have a direct impact on India’s bordering regions. Peace and stability in Myanmar remain of utmost importance to India, specifically to its North Eastern Region,” observed the Indian statement.

While there was a robust bilateral component to the trip, India also emphasised that a return to democracy was an important message conveyed to Myanmar’s military regime.

“During his meetings with all concerned, [the] foreign secretary emphasised India’s interest in seeing Myanmar’s return to democracy at the earliest; release of detainees and prisoners; resolution of issues through dialogue; and complete cessation of all violence,” said the MEA statement.

Recalling that India had been involved in the capacity building of democratic institutions, the statement noted that India “proposes to renew these efforts for Myanmar to emerge as a stable, democratic, federal union in accordance with the wishes of the people of Myanmar”.

Shringla also reiterated support for the ASEAN initiative and hoped that “progress would be made in a pragmatic and constructive manner, based on the five point consensus”.

In October, Myanmar was not represented at the last ASEAN summit after the junta leader was barred over the lack of cooperation in implementing the five-point consensus.

The Indian foreign secretary also handed over 1 million COVID-19 vaccines to the Red Cross society, some of which would also be distributed for communities along the India-Myanmar border. He also announced a grant of 10,000 tonnes of rice and wheat.