India has a history of involvement in its neighbours’ affairs. Why has it not condemned the Myanmar coup?
- Policymakers in New Delhi have long maintained their policy of non-interference, but over the years they have tried to facilitate change from Nepal to the Maldives and Sri Lanka
- When it comes to Myanmar, the hesitance comes from concerns over impinging strategic military interests, and a worry criticism will move Naypyidaw closer to China
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Despite this stated policy of non-interference, India has on a number of occasions – both historically and recently – sought to bring about changes in the internal features of various states, especially those in its immediate neighbourhood.
Historically, for compelling ethical reasons, India was at the forefront of opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa. To that end, it kept that country at an arm’s length, ending trade relations early and routinely bringing up the issue of apartheid in various international forums ranging from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the United Nations general assembly.
India’s willingness to step into the domestic affairs of its neighbours has also cut across the political orientations of the government in power in New Delhi. Like its more secular-minded predecessors, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has displayed few qualms about using its clout against smaller neighbours when it has perceived that its interests are at stake.
So when it comes to relations with Myanmar, the most powerful democratic nation in South Asia should obviously not hesitate to call out the termination of democracy in a friendly, neighbouring country. Instead New Delhi has reacted with considerable circumspection, with the Ministry of External Affairs releasing the following 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.”
What explains India’s unwillingness to step up to the plate and condemn the military coup? At least three factors are at play. At the outset, unlike in the other cases where New Delhi chose to intervene or speak out, it has limited leverage over the military in Myanmar. If it chooses to actively isolate the military, there is a very real danger that Naypyidaw could move even closer to India’s principal rival, China. This concern has been a constant in India’s foreign policy toward Myanmar ever since it started to engage the then military regime in the 1990s.
India is also aware that harsh criticism of, let alone sanctions on, Myanmar could seriously impinge on its critical strategic interests. In the past few years, the Myanmar military has cooperated with its Indian counterpart to deny sanctuary to and flush out rebels from India’s troubled northeast. This military-to-military cooperation has been critical to the success of New Delhi’s counter-insurgency efforts in that region, and pressing Myanmar at this crucial moment could easily lead to a termination of these arrangements.
Finally, Indian interlocutors are also wont to argue that their considered stance is far more likely to sustain whatever leverage New Delhi possesses in Naypyidaw than the use of diplomatic or material cudgels. So while the new administration of President Joe Biden in the US is considering the imposition of sanctions and the European Union has unequivocally condemned the coup, India is unlikely to join that chorus any time soon.