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Diplomacy

Sanctioned Myanmar Minister Visited India to Study Aadhaar

The India visit by one of six sanctioned individuals is among the strongest indicators of India’s growing closeness to the junta, a far cry from the Biden-Modi joint statement of June 22, when the leaders had called for the transition of Myanmar toward an "inclusive federal democratic system.”

Chennai: In a sign of India’s increasing engagement with the Myanmar junta, the Myanmar minister for immigration and population, U Myint Kyaing, sanctioned by the US, EU and other countries, paid a quiet visit to Delhi and Bengaluru last month to acquaint himself with the Aadhaar Unique Identity system.

Myint Kyaing was sanctioned by the US Department of Treasury in July 2021 as part of the response to the February 2021 coup by several western democracies. Many other officials of Myanmar’s State Administrative Council and entities linked to it, including junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing have also been sanctioned by the US, Australia, Canada, EU and other countries in Europe.

On July 20, a week before he arrived in India, Myint Kyaing was among six individuals and one entity included in a seventh round of sanctions announced by the EU since the coup.

The reason for including him is stated in the Official Journal of the European Union.

“In his capacity as Union minister, he carries out duties in support of the military regime’s repressive immigration and population policy such as restrictions for citizens to travel within the country as well as the policy of the regime towards the minority of the Rohingya in violation of human rights. As Minister for Immigration and Population, he also participates in preparations for the elections announced by the military in order to legitimise the illegal coup of February 2021. Myint Kyaing is, therefore, responsible for undermining democracy and the rule of law in Myanmar/Burma and for providing support for actions that threaten the peace, security and stability in Myanmar/Burma.”

News outlets in Myanmar reported Myint Kyaing’s July 28 visit to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) Technology Centre in Bengaluru, where officials briefed him on the system. He also visited the International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) in the city, and flew back to Yangon via Chennai.

Myint Kyaing also visited the regional office of the Aadhaar Centre in New Delhi. During his visit, the officials in charge of the Aadhaar system briefed the visiting minister. Myanmar’s contentious and exclusionary citizenship laws based on race and ethnicity make any system of identity in that country a fraught issue.

It is not known if the Myanmar minister met any Indian leaders or officials. A Myanmar Ministry of Information statement dated July 27 said Myint Kyaing’s visit was on an invitation “from the Indian government.” 

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) did not respond to queries about the visit, and there was no coverage of it in the Indian media organisations.

India does not recognise the sanctions imposed by western countries on Myanmar officials, and has steadily increased contact with the regime in Nay Pyi Taw in the three years since the coup.

In November 2021, then foreign secretary Harsh Shringla was the first high ranking official to visit Myanmar after the coup. After a year, foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra’s visit indicated that India was prepared to downplay its stated commitment for the return to democracy in Myanmar. He discussed border management issues, and infrastructure projects. Human trafficking was also on the agenda as several Indians from Tamil Nadu were lured with promises of IT jobs, but found themselves in a scamming operation located in a remote area on the Thai-Myanmar border.

But unlike the previous year, when Shringla met with members of the overthrown National League for Democracy, Kwatra did not ask to meet any democratic leaders. The MEA spokesperson’s tweet mentioned Myanmar’s “democratic transition” but the official MEA press release made no mention of any discussion on the restoration of democracy, or the release of those detained.

This year has seen the two countries engage at high political levels. On July 16, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar met with the new Myanmar foreign minister Than Swe on the sidelines of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation Mechanism meeting in Bangkok. They appear to have discussed the violence in Manipur.

“Underlined the importance of ensuring peace and stability in our border areas. These have been seriously disturbed recently and any actions that aggravate the situation should be avoided. Flagged concerns about human and drug trafficking. Urged stronger cooperation among relevant parties for the early return of trafficked victims,” Jaishankar said in a tweet after the meeting.

Two weeks earlier, on June 30, defence secretary Giridhar Aramane visited Nay Pyi Taw. An official release said he met the junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in Nay Pyi Taw, and the Defence Minister of Myanmar Gen (Retd.) Mya Tun Oo . He also held meetings with Commander-in-Chief, Myanmar Navy Admiral Moe Aung, and Chief of Defence Industries Lt Gen Khan Myint Than.

“The visit provided an opportunity to raise matters relating to India’s security with the senior leadership of Myanmar. During the meetings, the two sides discussed issues related to maintenance of tranquillity in the border areas, illegal trans-border movements and transnational crimes such as drug trafficking and smuggling. Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to ensure that their respective territories would not be allowed to be used for any activities inimical to the other,” according to a statement from PIB.

A UN report in May revealed that since the 2021 coup, 22 India-based suppliers, including state-owned entities, sent $51 million in arms, raw material and other military supplies to the junta.

In May, Union minister for ports, shipping and waterways, Sarbananda Sonowal, attended the opening of Sittwe Port built by the Indian company Essar as part of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project. The project hopes to improve connectivity between the Indian mainland and the North East through Myanmar. Sittwe Port is one part. The other part of the project is to connect the port to Myanmar’s border with Mizoram at Paletwa via the Kaladan river, but this is proving difficult due to the ongoing conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine and Chin states.

In April, the Indian Council of World Affairs, a think tank funded by the Ministry of External Affairs, hosted a Thailand-initiated track 1.5 dialogue – others at the dialogue were Myanmar’s neighbours Bangladesh and China, and non-maritime ASEAN members Laos and Cambodia – to brainstorm over how to find “reconciliation” in Myanmar. The initiative has not found support from ASEAN’s maritime members, including chair Indonesia, who see it as a move to legitimise the junta. Representatives from the Myanmar government-funded Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies participated in the event.

In the Biden-Modi joint statement of June 22 during the Indian prime minister’s US visit, the two leaders “expressed deep concern about the deteriorating situation in Myanmar, and called for the release of all those arbitrarily detained, the establishment of constructive dialogue, and the transition of Myanmar toward an inclusive federal democratic system.”

Responding to a query about the India visit of Myint Kyaing, a spokesperson for the US embassy in New Delhi said: “We cannot comment on private diplomatic discussions. But, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, ‘The United States will continue to work with a broad coalition of international partners to promote accountability for coup leaders and those responsible for this violence. We will not waver in our support for the people of Burma.'”

Nirupama Subramanian is an independent journalist.