A demonstrator in Yangon protests against the Myanmar military coup on February 23. Photo: EPA
Sumit Ganguly
Sumit Ganguly

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
India is faced with a conundrum in its relations with neighbouring Myanmar, following the February 1 military coup that ousted the fledgling civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi. New Delhi’s policymakers have long maintained that they do not believe in commenting on, let alone interfering in, the internal affairs of other states. To that end, for example, New Delhi refrained from criticising the brutal Tiananmen Square events in 1989, and it has also maintained a studious silence on the plight of the Uygurs in Xinjiang province.
More recently, even as Russia has incarcerated political activist and opposition leader Alexei Navalny, India has carefully refrained from commenting on the declining state of political freedoms in that country. At a broader level, it has also been quite hesitant to embrace efforts, fitfully spearheaded by the United States, to promote democracy globally. When pressed on the matter, its diplomats argue that states should find their own paths to democracy, free of external interference.

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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.

The administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has yet to condemn the coup in Myanmar. Photo: AFP
More recently, in the late 1980s, India became deeply involved in the domestic politics of Sri Lanka as it sought to protect the rights of the country’s Tamil minority. In its efforts to guarantee these rights, New Delhi even went to the extent of sending a peacekeeping force there, and over time it became embroiled in the civil war that was roiling Sri Lanka. That same decade, it acted with considerable alacrity to forestall a coup attempt against the friendly government of President Abdul Gayoom in the Maldives.

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.

To that end, when Nepal drafted a new constitution that potentially impinged on the rights of the Madheshis, a minority ethnic group who straddle the porous border with India, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed an informal blockade of petroleum supplies to the country in 2015. The purpose of this embargo was to induce the Nepalese political leadership to make suitable changes to the draft constitution. The effort backfired, but it nevertheless underscored India’s willingness to use its weight to influence the political choices of a neighbour.
Nepalese security personnel gather on a bridge close to the Nepal-India border in 2015 amid India’s informal blockade of petroleum supplies. Photo: AFP

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.

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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.