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South Asia

As Myanmar Returns to Crisis Mode, India Maintains Sanctions Are Not the Answer

With the Myanmar military showing no signs of backing down, India will likely not follow in Washington’s footsteps. Instead of adopting a punitive strategy, its strategy is likely to be akin to ASEAN’s under-the-radar engagement approach.

New Delhi: Two weeks after the military conducted a takeover in Myanmar, India’s position on the crisis in the south-east nation has become clearer – democracy has been dealt a blow, but sanctions championed by the United States are not the way to turn back the clock.

In the early hours of Monday, on February 1, the military swooped down and arrested all the elected leaders of the country – including state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. The ‘Tatmadaw’, as Myanmar’s military junta is called, had justified the takeover on grounds of electoral fraud at the 2020 elections in which the ruling National League of Democracy won a landslide mandate. 

Since the November elections, Myanmar’s military has claimed widespread electoral fraud after the ruling National League for Democracy won 83% of the seats. 

‘Deep concern’

The first response from India on February 1 was a brief one, expressing “deep concern” at developments. While India did not ‘condemn’ the coup like the US, there were notably two references to democracy in the short statement.

“India has always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar. We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld.”

New Delhi has repeatedly stated that it has “direct stake” in a stable, democratic federal Myanmar. The 1643-kilometre long land boundary means that Myanmar military is a stakeholder in northeast India’s security, even as New Delhi aspires to have the country act as a connectivity bridge between northeastern India and southeast Asia.

India’s statement fell in between clear condemnation and sanction warnings from the US and Beijing “noting” developments. In Myanmar’s immediate region, ASEAN is a divided house – with Singapore and Indonesia in the “concern” camp, while Cambodia and Thailand termed the military takeover “internal affairs” of Myanmar.

In the next few days, protests started to break out all over Yangon and Myanmar, as the military junta pressed charges against Suu Kyi and Win Myint on unrelated charges. Suu Kyi was accused of illegally possessing hand-held radios at her residence, while Win Myint was charged with not preventing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

With the Security Council discussing Myanmar in a closed-door meeting, the site for consultations within the international community shifted to New York. 

Also read: Myanmar: India ‘Balancing Factor’ Between West, China in Talks Over UNSC Press Statement

After two days after negotiation, the United Kingdom, council president for February, released a presidential statement that stopped short of condemning the coup but voiced “deep concern” at the state of emergency in Myanmar.

Indian sources had claimed that New Delhi had been the “balancing factor” in reaching the final statement, with both China and the western bloc willing to accept compromises in language to project a united front.

Meanwhile, as the streets protests gathered momentum and military cracked down with its might, the new US president Joe Biden was himself raising the pitch by threatening new sanctions against Myanmar.

India’s divergence from a key US position on sanctions was first indicated at the Ministry of External Affairs’ briefing on February 4. The foreign office spokesperson stated that India would continue to supply COVID-19 assistance, including vaccines, to Myanmar.

Police fire a water cannon at protesters rallying against the military coup and to demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, February 9, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

So far, India has supplied 3.7 million doses of vaccine to Myanmar – out of which two million are on a commercial basis and the rest delivered as a grant from the Indian government.

On February 11, the United States imposed targeted sanctions against 10 military leaders and three military-owned companies in a move that will freeze their assets in the United States, which amounts to around $1 billion.

Earlier in Brussels, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling on the European Union to impose sanctions on the Myanmar military. The EU foreign policy head Josep Borrell had stated that all options were being reviewed. But, he also warned against rushing to impose restrictions that would hurt Myanmar’s textile industry, but leave businesses of the military intact.

A day later, the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council’s special one-day session adopted a resolution that “strongly deplored” the removal of the elected government in Myanmar. It also called for the unconditional release of the political leaders, lifting the state of emergency and underlined the need for restraint from using violence against the protestors.

The resolution was approved without a vote, but four countries – China, Russia, Venezuela and Bolivia, disassociated themselves on the grounds that external pressure cannot be used to find a solution to a crisis in a sovereign nation. Myanmar had already called the resolution unacceptable.

Also watch: How the Myanmar Military Coup is Being Resisted by the People

India joined in the consensus, but its statement also made it clear that it will not support coercive steps against Myanmar. “Restoring democratic order should be the priority of all stakeholders in Myanmar. The international community must lend its constructive support to the people of Myanmar at this critical juncture,” said India’s permanent representative to Geneva, Indra Mani Pandey.

Sources stated that India’s views on sanctions are well known to all countries, including United States, who have been holding consultations at the highest level with each other about Myanmar’s future.

“We propose to continue with our developmental efforts so that people on the ground do not suffer,” Pandey added in Geneva.

The statement in Geneva, as per official sources, had “fleshed out” the Indian position. “It was more explicit… more thrashed out”.

India, of course, never joined in the sanction regime imposed by the United States over the last couple of decades. The US had imposed sanctions since the 1990s, which were finally lifted in 2016 after the National League of Democracy won the 2015 general elections. 

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi shake hands after their joint press conference in the Presidential Palace in Naypyitaw, Myanmar September 6, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi shake hands after their joint press conference in the Presidential Palace in Naypyitaw, Myanmar September 6, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

The Trump administration had also enforced targeted sanctions against nine military leaders and two military units for human rights violations triggered by the Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh after a security “clearance operation” in Rakhine state in 2017.

When Myanmar started to open up in 2011, western countries had commented that it was perhaps a result of the sanctions regime. However, as India – and most observers felt – the imperative to reform was not due to sanctions, but rather internal.

Even during the last few years, the civilian leadership had warned the rest of the international community that sanctions will always be counterproductive. “A civilian leader had told us that sanctions and the external pressure have been unhelpful,” said a former Indian ambassador. 

Also read: Myanmar Coup: Junta Blocks Facebook, Messaging Services as West Mounts Pressure

As the International Crisis Group had mentioned in several of its reports, the long-standing sanctions had fostered a “siege mentality” among the military leadership. “The value placed on standing up to the West is very high; it is a matter of both personal face and national pride,” said a 2004 report.

The sanctions had actually led Myanmar to diversify its trading partners, which acted as shock absorbers. When sanctions hit the garment industry, Myanmar’s textiles’ largest export destination moved from the United States in 2001 to Japan in 2015. The top three trading partners for Myanmar at the time when the military junta was slowly opening up in 2011 were China, Thailand and India.

Whither democracy?

India’s statement last week emphasised that New Delhi had invested with all stakeholders to “facilitate” the establishment of multi-party democracy in Myanmar, with focus on training in constitutionalism, parliamentary and electoral procedures.  

Noting that Myanmar’s progress towards democracy had been “impressive”, India stated it was unfortunate that “hopes and aspirations of the people of Myanmar have been dealt a blow by the latest developments”.

“We strongly believe that the rule of law and democratic processes must be upheld and the detained political leaders released. The right to protest peacefully is an integral part of the democratic ethos,” said India at UNHRC.

Demonstrators hold up signs during a protest against the military coup and demanding the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in Yangon, Myanmar, February 13, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

The language is unambiguous in describing the February 1 military takeover in negative terms.

However, Indian officials and external observers reiterated that there has been no shift from the initial reaction in the tenor of India’s position on democratic aspirations. Rather, the February 12 statement only adds more details.

The stress on democracy is also a way for India to distinguish itself from China – which has extended its full support to the military and is facing the wrath of pro-democracy protesters on the streets of Yangon. Indian government sources pointed out that India’s first response, which was issued much before the street protests broke out, had referred to the democratic process.

Also read: ‘We Want Democracy’: In Myanmar, Thousands Continue Protests Against Military Coup

After decades of supporting the pro-democracy NLD, India has pursued a pragmatic policy since the early 1990s by engaging with the Tatmadaw. Since Aung San Suu Kyi came to power, India had also built-up trust with the NLD leader, who had faced a barrage of international criticism for doing very little to solve the Rohingya issue.

With the Myanmar military showing no signs yet of backing down, India will likely navigate the situation quietly. New Delhi’s style will more likely resemble ASEAN’s slightly aloof middle path of engagement, rather than Washington’s punitive strategy.