New Delhi: India participated in the Myanmar government’s commemorative event to mark eight years of the Nationwide Ceasefire agreement on Sunday, October 25 – an event which is part of Nyay Pyi Taw’s charm offensive to bring back ethnic armed groups into a peace process which had been scuttled by the coup two years ago.
This is the first time that the Myanmar junta has hosted a public event with ethnic leaders since the military coup toppled the civilian government and imprisoned civilian leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi.
The ceasefire agreement was signed in October 2015 between the Myanmar government and eight ethnic armed groups. Indian NSA Ajit Doval had been one of the international observers at the signing ceremony. The other countries at the ceremony were China, United Nations, Japan, Thailand and European Union.
There was another signing ceremony in February 2018 for two other groups. To mark it, the MEA had issued a statement reiterating that India “supports the Myanmar peace process”.
Signifying the change in Myanmar’s international status since the coup, only three foreign countries who were international witnesses to the NCA took part in the commemorations this time – India, China and Thailand.
The Indian delegation was led by deputy National Security Advisor Vikram Misri, who is also a former Indian ambassador to the south-east Asian country.
There was no statement or press note from the Indian side, but the Myanmar government highlighted the participation from the foreign countries through their information ministry and state media.
India’s Misri told the gathering that the NCA could be the platform for political reforms to reflect the aspirations of Myanmar for a “democratic and federal republic” and a “more inclusive society”.
In his speech published in the state newspaper Global New Light for Myanmar, Misri said that the NCA had visualised a country where the “rich tapestry of ethnic voices and cultures is not just respected but celebrated, where every individual has the opportunity to flourish”.
Stating this spirit needed to be further strengthened, Misri noted, “India, as a federal democratic country, supports this path for Myanmar and has always lent a helping hand whenever needed through its initiatives like promoting dialogue on constitutionalism and federalism”.
While not referring to coup directly, he said, “There have been setbacks along the way, and the path forward remains challenging in view of the evolving political landscape in Myanmar”.
Noting that Myanmar was in the “midst of a political transition”, Misri said that the NCA framework could “provide a platform for political reforms that reflect the aspirations of the Myanmar people for a democratic and federal republic”.
“We call upon all stakeholders to strengthen this framework, abide by their commitments and initiate a serious dialogue to resolve the conflict politically to move towards the goal of a federal democratic republic where all its people live in peace, stability and prosperity,” he said on Sunday.
The Chinese representative said that the Myanmar peace process, based on “openness, inclusivity, flexibility and practicality,” will hold dialogues to achieve peace “through building mutual trust in the country”. Special Envoy for Asian Affairs of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Deng Xijun called for accelerating Chinese projects in Myanmar.
Speaking at the same forum, Thai vice-minister for Foreign Affairs, Sihasak Phuangketkeow urged “all parties in Myanmar to stay the course” of dialogue and engagement. “We urge all parties to persevere and overcome the challenges that lie ahead, in order to find a way forward for the benefit of the people of Myanmar”.
Three of the original NCA ethnic armed groups signatories Karen National Union, Chin National Front and All Burma Students’ Democratic Front boycotted Sunday’s ceremony. They have allied themselves with two other armed groups, Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), who have been fighting against the Junta.
Crucially, many of the pro-democracy forces have also joined hands with these ethnic groups and the Junta has been facing an armed resistance in major swathes of the country.
Since April 2022, the junta leadership has been meeting with members of various ethnic armed groups, including the remaining seven NCA signatories.
According to commentators, the Tatmadaw’s outreach could be a ‘divide and rule’ ploy and to stop them from aligning with the opposition’s National Unity Government (NUG). There were also reports that Junta was talking with the armed groups to hold elections in their territory.
Despite the military’s promises of general elections, pro-democracy activists remain sceptical, expressing concerns that such elections, even if conducted, would not be conducted in a free and fair manner.
India’s presence at the Junta’s NCA commemorative event is not surprising as New Delhi has remained engaged with Nyay Pyi Taw with regular high-level visits from Indian officials even after the February 2021 coup. This was a manifestation of New Delhi’s apprehension regarding the Tatmadaw’s growing ties with China, driven by their diplomatic isolation, and their need for collaboration with the Junta to ensure security in India’s north-eastern region.
A day earlier on Saturday, October 14, Vikram Misri had also called on Myanmar’s top military leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who brought up “cooperation with India in peace and stability measures in border regions”, as per a readout from Myanmar’s information ministry.
He expressed appreciation for India “assisting” in Myanmar’s peace process, while the government was striving to “restore internal peace”.