Prime Minister Modi and Myanmar’s Military Junta

Is India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi a friend or foe of Myanmar’s military junta? Prior to the military coup on February 1, 2021, Modi and his senior officials expressed support for democratic reforms in Myanmar. Since the coup, however, the actions of Modi’s government appear to be designed to curry favor with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his military junta, the State Administrative Council (SAC).

On November 12, 2020, Modi sent a congratulatory tweet to Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party, the National League for Democracy, for its victory in Myanmar’s parliamentary elections. In his tweet, Modi wrote, “The successful conduct of polls is another step in the ongoing democratic transition in Myanmar.”

On the day of the coup, the Modi government gave out a more mixed message. A press statement issued by India’s Ministry of External Affairs stated, “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.” However, the ministry stopped short of condemning the coup, instead indicating that it had “noted the developments in Myanmar with deep concern.”

During the 10 months since Min Aung Hlaing and the military tossed out the civilian half of Myanmar’s hybrid civilian-military regime, Modi’s government has taken several actions to foster friendly relations with the new military junta while continuing to make statements in support of “the restoration of democracy in Myanmar” and condemning “any use of violence” in the country.

On March 18, 2021, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs instructed the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, and Nagaland to take “appropriate measures” to stop the inflow of Burmese refugees from neighboring Chin State. At the time, there were an estimated 1,000 Chin refugees in Mizoram. Since then, the number of Chin refugees in India has reportedly increased to more than 10,000 people, with another 30,000 trapped along the border.

Modi’s government has implemented various measures to minimize or obscure the growing humanitarian crisis along its border with Myanmar’s Chin State. International humanitarian organizations have been effectively barred from providing help to the Chin refugees in India, as well as the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Chin State. India’s Ministry of External Affairs has stalled the issuance of exit visas to Chin refugees who otherwise have the necessary documents to emigrate to the United States and other nations. Representatives of the Chin-American community indicate that the more than 40,000 refugees and IDPs are in desperate need of basic necessities such as shelter, clothing, food, and water, as well as Covid-19 vaccinations, but Modi’s government is blocking such aid.

In addition, India was among just eight nations to attend Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day on March 27, 2021, an annual military parade held to pay respect to Myanmar’s military. When asked, India’s Ministry of External Affairs confirmed that its embassy’s military attaché had attended the event. The only other nations to send official representatives to the military parade were Bangladesh, China, Laos, Pakistan, Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The military allegedly killed more than 90 protesters on the day of the parade, adding to the more than 500 protesters in the first two months after the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma.

Besides attending military parades, the Modi government has also sold military weapons to Myanmar since the coup. Indian arms manufacturer Bharat Electronics Ltd. reportedly exported a remote-controlled air-defense station to Myanmar in July 2021. The Indian government is the majority owner of Bharat Electronics and could have stopped the arms sales. Other major owners include U.S. investment firms Goldman Sachs Asset Management and the Vanguard Group. Only a month before, the UN General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution opposing the flow of weapons into Myanmar. India abstained on the resolution.

Modi has several reasons why he may want to maintain friendly relations with Myanmar’s military junta. India shares a 1,000-mile-long border with Myanmar, and it likely prefers that the border not become hostile such as those with China and Pakistan.

In addition, the border areas of Myanmar allegedly are being used by separatist groups, such as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), to stage attacks in India. Prior to the 2021 coup, the Indian and Myanmar militaries conducted joint operations to reportedly clear out militant groups operating in both India and Myanmar. India’s military may be concerned that the Chin National Defense Force may inspire a resurgence of a Naga independence movement, just a few months after signing a peace agreement with one faction of the NSCN. Many Chin see the Naga as part of the Chin ethnic community and as such may see themselves sharing a common struggle.

Finally, India has economic interests in maintaining cordial relations with Myanmar’s military. Myanmar has natural resources, including natural gas, petroleum, and rare earth metals, that would be useful for India’s high-tech industry. The restoration of a stable central government in Myanmar is also vital for the completion of India’s Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project (which runs through the Myanmar states of Chin and Rakhine) and the Trilateral Highway Project (which is supposed to extend from India to Thailand). Myanmar’s military may be willing to provide India greater access to those natural resources if India continues to provide weapons and opposes calls for sanctions on the SAC.

Siding with the SAC is not without its risks for the Modi government. UN special rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews and about 500 human rights organizations have warned that the Myanmar military’s current offensive in Chin State could lead to widespread atrocities and a mass exodus of Chin into India, similar to the flight of the Rohingya in 2017. India’s support for the Myanmar military could contribute to a major refugee crisis in India.

Also, most of the natural resources India seeks in Myanmar are located in the states of Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan, and in many cases are in areas controlled by ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). Control over those natural resources has been one of the driving forces behind Myanmar’s seven-decades-long civil war. The intensification of the civil war precludes access to these natural resources for now. Plus, the EAOs may not be willing to allow Indian companies to invest or buy natural resources from their ethnic states in the future.

In addition, it is uncertain if the Myanmar military will succeed in securing control of the country in the months ahead. The EAOs and the newly emerged People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) reportedly are inflicting heavy casualties on the Myanmar Army, not only in the ethnic states but also in central Burma, the heartland of the Burman majority. There are also periodic reports of officers and soldiers of the Myanmar military defecting to the EAOs and PDFs. The outcome of Myanmar’s civil war is far from certain.

Finally, Modi’s response to the military coup in Myanmar has generated tensions in relations with the Biden administration. One week after the coup, Biden and Modi were reportedly unable to come to a common view on the situation in Myanmar. The two governments continue to disagree on the best way to respond to the coup. This could hinder progress on other issues in bilateral relations.

Michael F. Martin is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Michael Martin
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program