"Modi refuses to criticize Myanmar, shares concern over Rohingya unrest," read the headline in leading Indian newspaper The Times of India on its story about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's talks with Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in Nay Pyi Daw on September 6. More than anything else, the headline encapsulates India's challenge and long-standing policy towards Myanmar for close to four decades from years of military rule in that country when Suu Kyi had remained behind the bars for her pro-democracy movement till today when she is the de facto top leader under a politically-reformed system in her country.
Modi undertook his first-ever bilateral state visit to Myanmar on Sept 5-7 at the height of fresh outbreak of the Rohingya refugee crisis. The visit was a challenge to New Delhi's Myanmar policy as it needed to juggle between its national interests and ideological impulses of empathizing with victims of persecution in Rakhine province of Myanmar, which sparked a huge exodus of Rohingyas to Bangladesh.
This is a challenge India has faced successfully by backing Suu Kyi's democracy agitation in principle without allowing its ideological position to come in the way of its engagement with the then military junta in Myanmar. Since early 1980s, India had resisted calls from the Western countries to impose economic sanctions on Myanmar in a bid to pressure the junta to free Suu Kyi and allow democracy. India has always believed that sanctions prove counter-productive as it is the ordinary people who ultimately bear the brunt of such punitive measures and that sustained engagement with the powers that be is the best way out.
Over the years, India had repeatedly nudged the military junta to release Suu Kyi from jail and facilitate political reforms and free and fair elections in Myanmar. A country's foreign policy is an extension of its national interests. India's national interests lie even today in a robust security and economic relationship primarily for two reasons: (1) to ensure Myanmar's assistance in containing the activities of northeastern Indian insurgents from Myanmar and (2) to contain China's huge presence in Myanmar's economic development.
On this, there has been a consistency in India's position irrespective of the party in power-Congress or Bharatiya Janata Party. Given its vital security and economic interests at stake in good relations with Myanmar, New Delhi finds it unwise to prod Nay Pyi Taw beyond a point whether be it political reforms or Rohingya issue which, though, has impacted India with an estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees' presence across different Indian states .
By all accounts, the Rohingya issue figured in Modi's talks with the Myanmar's top leadership. Publicly at least, the Indian Prime Minister did not join the world-wide chorus of outright condemnation of Myanmar government for alleged persecution of Rohingyas but at the same time said that India shared Myanmar's concern over extremist violence in Rakhine. Without going into details, he also commended Suu Kyi's leadership to take forward the overall peace process in Myanmar.
That signalled New Delhi's firm support of Myanmar government, a support that New Delhi left none in doubt about when Indian Ministry of External Affairs promptly issued a formal statement denouncing the attack by a Rohingya insurgent group on military posts in Rakhine on August 26. The implications of violence in Rakhine and exodus of Rohingya refugees from there go beyond the borders of Myanmar and a lot of countries, including India, have been impacted by it.
India's articulation of its latest stand on the Rohingya issue comes at a time when Myanmar has come under growing international pressure over the matter. Suu Kyi, for her part, acknowledged India's strong stand on extremist violence in Rakhine. The remarks by Modi and Suu Kyi came at a joint media conference after their talks. The convergence of views on the bilateral ties in security came out most tellingly when Modi and Suu Kyi discussed the situation prevailing along their borders and expressed concern at various incidents of terrorism and extremist-inspired violence that have taken place in their respective territories.
They agreed that terrorism remains one of the most significant threats to peace and stability in the region. The unstated reference to India's concern over northeastern Indian insurgents finding shelter in Myanmar and Rohingya insurgency issue for Myanmar is unmistakable in this. A joint statement issued after Modi-Suu Kyi talks, said Myanmar reaffirmed its respect of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India and steadfastly upheld the policy of not allowing any insurgent group to utilise Myanmar's soil to undertake hostile acts against Indian government.
It may be recalled that Indian troops had carried out an operation against a Naga insurgent group's camp in Myanmar territory in 2016 after the group had killed 18 ambushed Indian army men in an ambush in northeastern state of Manipur. Such an action would not have been possible without cooperation from Myanmar authorities, much like the arrest of a number of top ULFA leaders would not have been possible without Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina government's help in 2008.
Rohingya insurgency notwithstanding, New Delhi, as a joint statement issued after Modi's visit makes it amply clear, did not look at the problems in Rakhine merely from a security prism but opted for a holistic approach combining the economic and humanitarian aspects. The joint statement is quite big in India's bid for promoting developmental assistance in Myanmar at large and in Rakhine, the most impoverished and least connected region, in particular. It said India would help bring infrastructure and socio-economic projects in Rakhine in a vast array of areas education, health, agriculture and allied activities, agro-processing, community development, construction of small bridges, upgrade of roads, small power projects, livelihood activity, setting up of training centers, promotion of household crafts, conservation of environment and cultural heritage.
All these projects have a direct bearing on the ordinary people of the area. Myanmar welcomed India's offer of assistance under the Rakhine State Development Program and the two sides agreed to finalize the implementation modalities within the next few months. India is of the view that boosting economic development in Rakhine could help reduce tensions there and has been consistently trying to encourage Myanmar government to find ways to stimulate some socio economic development there.
India has given one million dollar humanitarian assistance to Myanmar in the past, which was mainly used to re-build schools destroyed in previous bouts of violence in the area. India's largest development project in Myanmar - the multi-modal connectivity project on Kaladan river- starts in Rakhine state and will connect it with northeastern Indian state of Mizoram. The only worry for both India and Myanmar is that the pace of progress in the work on the project has far from been satisfactory. India believes that Myanmar government must be given time and space to draw up plans for development and should not brought under pressure.
The writer is a senior Indian journalist based in Delhi
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