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View: Why India needs to closely monitor the situation in Myanmar

Myanmar could easily fall into greater Chinese influence. India ought to be vigilant.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Jan 26, 2020, 09.48 AM IST
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Aung San Suu Kyi​
Chinese President Xi Jinping with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi
"Paukphaw”, which literally means born together, implying not only a shared destiny but racial kinship, was reinforced through strong political and economic bonds between Myanmar and China last week. Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader to visit Nay Pyi Taw on a hugely significant state visit ( January 17-18) since Jiang Zemin back in 2001. The event received not more than a modicum of interest here, but it could have a serious geopolitical impact on India.

If India is concerned about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, it now has more reason to worry about CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor) that just moved from being a concept to reality. The CMEC is less about oil and gas — there are pipelines running through Myanmar already — and more about reducing dependence on the Malacca Straits and access to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean.

The CMEC includes the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port in the troubled Rakhine state along with a special economic zone (SEZ), the China-Myanmar border economic zone (the two countries share a 2,200 km-long border) and the newly announced Yangon urban development project (which is still at MoU stage).

Kyaukphyu is literally a stone’s throw from Sittwe port that is being developed by India, not to speak of the fact that India’s Myanmar has conceded the “shared future” to China. The joint statement talked about “…promoting comprehensive strategic cooperation and building a Myanmar-China Community with a Shared Future based on the aims of mutual benefits, equality and win-win cooperation”.

“Win-win” is China-speak for you-followus-you-win-we-win, or, in other words, an acceptance that Myanmar would find its place in the Chinese sphere of influence. China gave Myanmar huge diplomatic space that had been robbed by the West, saying it “firmly supports Myanmar in its aim to adopt a development path that is in line with its national conditions, the safeguarding of its legitimate rights and interests, as well as national dignity, on the international stage, and to maintain the momentum of development and stability.”

Translated, it means China will block multilateral attempts to isolate or sanction Myanmar on human rights violations and other issues. Myanmar needs this protection from a P-5 member to escape international sanctions particularly in 2020, which is an election year in the country, and when Gambia has taken Myanmar to the International Court of Justice on the Rohingya crisis.

To be fair to Myanmar, this hasn’t been easy, but despite having virtually the entire deck stacked against it, Myanmar has stood up to its biggest trading partner and benefactor. Kyaukphyu port has been downgraded from a $7.2 billion project to a $1.3 billion one, due to Myanmar’s fears of a debt trap. China has not been able to convince Myanmar yet about resurrecting the Myitsone Dam, which Myanmar stopped under local pressure. Neither of these issues made an appearance during Xi’s visit, which signals Myanmar’s determination.

Myanmar’s defence chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, even got Xi to commit to not supplying weapons to ethnic armies that continue to fight the Myanmar state — a huge cache of weapons seized from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), operating on the Chinese border, a couple of months ago were found to be Chinese. China is also accused of arming the Wa army as well as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDA). China denies all of these, but evidence on the ground shows otherwise.

India has been watching closely, acutely aware that Myanmar’s moving deeper into the Chinese sphere would put paid to its Indo-Pacific strategy as well as its regional connectivity initiatives. It is aggravated by the relentless campaign against Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi by the West and the Islamic world on the Rohingya issue.

India, along with Japan and China, are Myanmar’s steady allies, but with India and Japan on one side and China on the other. The balance currently is skewed in favour of Beijing, but both Japan and India are helping to prevent Myanmar from becoming a pushover.

Japan is not only playing a strong role in the peace process with the ethnic groups but, as the only power with deep pockets and ability to create infrastructure, is building an SEZ in Thilawa outside Yangon as well as a Yangon-Mandalay railway project. India is working more quietly, given other regional considerations, both with China and Bangladesh.

From assistance to the Rakhine State, aid to Rohingya refugees as well as training of the Myanmar army, India is nurturing this important eastern neighbour. But India’s equity as a balancing power comes from both its economic and political heft. Economically, India’s leverage is modest. Politically, India can do more.

Myanmar’s Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE), headed by former Philippine foreign minister Rosario Manalo, on January 21, acknowledged crimes and killings by security forces in Rakhine in 2017, but stopped short of accusing them of “genocidal intent”. Japan has openly endorsed the ICOE findings. India’s support will be very important.

The ICJ’s provisional ruling on January 23 was tough, asking Myanmar to implement “all measures within its power to prevent genocide”. ICJ, as Bertil Lintner, a Myanmar expert, observes, cannot enforce its ruling except through the UNSC, where it will be blocked by China and Russia. The final ruling is years away. In the meantime, Myanmar, he says, will feel pressured further and won’t be able to build a meaningful relationship with the West. Nor will Myanmar feel the need to repatriate any Rohingya refugee from Bangladesh.

Indian officials have tried to impress upon their US counterparts the importance of cutting Nay Pyi Taw some slack for the larger goals of rehabilitating the Rohingya refugees or keeping Myanmar out of China’s ambit.

None of this is pretty but hard geopolitics rarely is.

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