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Absence of any Tangible Response to Myanmar Development Has Yet Again Exposed the Hollowness of India’s Act East Policy

It is already three weeks since the atrocious military coup in Myanmar brutally overturned the landslide victory by the country’s popular political party the National League for Democracy, NLD, in the November 2020 election. The international response has also been somewhat muted, except for New Zealand which was quick in announcing severance of ties with the new military government. It does also seem the US and the EU are considering calibrated sanctions, such as freezing of certain accounts of the Myanmar government, in the hope these measures would amount to a surgical strike aimed to hurt the military junta only without heaping any more unnecessary distress on the Myanmar people, a great percentage of whom are already severely burdened by poverty. In a very depressing way, this is only to be expected. Myanmar for much of the rest of the world, especially Western world, is a backwater state still largely untouched by modernity and therefore institutions of a modern state are still either missing or else half built and functional. From this vantage of Myanmar as an area of darkness, the collapse of civilised rule of law, or tragedies of political misadventures, are therefore still seen as nothing to be very surprised about, for these were always waiting to happen. From this geopolitical outlook, Myanmar is an insignificant player on its own, and its importance is tied to the interest other major players, in particular China, take in it. Hence, everybody seems to be waiting for China’s move so they can formulate their own policies.

China so far has not made any overt statement on the coup, and although there are plenty in the rumour mills alleging China of lending its support to the coup, there is nothing official yet on this count. But it is anybody’s guess China will ultimately try and befriend whichever side in the Myanmar struggle emerges the victor and forms a stable government, regardless of whether it is the Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw) or Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy. For the moment however, it does seem the coup is going to hold. The fact is, Myanmar is vitally important for China as its alternate access route to the Indian Ocean, and the latter would do anything to not antagonise the country. But right now it must be weighing its options, for befriending the military government can result in earning the ire of an overwhelming majority of Myanmar people. China’s dilemma is therefore understandable. There are many other nations in Myanmar’s neighbourhood who too considers Myanmar important, and in the past, their approaches too have been rather similar to China’s. During the last spell of military dictatorship, while America, EU and their allies sanctioned the Myanmar government, the ASEAN for instance, like China, remained more or less open to trade and investment in the country. In all likelihood, the scenario will be similar this time as well. On the other hand, countries which has Myanmar low on the priorities of their national interests, and therefore compelled to respond to events in the country only on humanitarian considerations, will remain hesitant in sticking their necks out too quickly to respond to the Myanmar coup.

More immediately and importantly, the question which remains to be asked is, what is India’s position on the Myanmar turmoil? Nothing much has come out on the matter officially or even as anything that can be called strong public opinion. As much as New Delhi seems not eager to make its official position known, there is a reciprocal silence in the Indian media, including the screaming studios of many satellite TV channels. Unlike in much of the rest of the Western world, where the game seems to be to wait for China’s move so as to formulate a countermove, in the case of India’s seeming lack of interest, it is more likely to be a case of cluelessness. It is imaginable what India’s reaction, both in the official as well as the TV studios would have been had Myanmar’s fate been that of Pakistan. Indeed, the current Myanmar crisis is exposing yet again the hollowness of India 30 year old “Look/Act East Policy”, for even today India does not seem to have formulated any other layered Myanmar policy other than its soft peacetime Plan-A of promoting people-to-people contacts and friendly theatrics of periodic car rallies. Now that its Plan-A is likely to be rendered redundant, the country does not seem to have a Plan-B or Plan-C to adopt as a resort to the new and emergent challenge of a military takeover in Myanmar.

The other truth is, it is not in India’s DNA to look east. It has always been a westward looking country and this continues to this day, probably a consequence of the predominance of the Aryan heritage of what has been termed as “mainstream India” in matters of national identity, history and culture. Hence, while even those of us in the backwater Northeast region have fairly good cognizance of the Indus valley, Hindukush mountain ranges or the Khyber Pass which left a passage into subcontinental India from the landmass of Eurasia, it is unlikely even well-educated people in “mainstream India” would have any credible clue about the places and people of the Northeast, not to talk about any place beyond it such as Myanmar. An interesting fact about this is also that Myanmar was, between 1885 and 1937 a part of British India. The Irrawaddy delta area as well as the Arakan region adjoining East Bengal (now Bangladesh) came under the British even earlier. Yet in 1937 when Myanmar (then Burma) was separated from India as per the provision of the Government of India Act 1935, few in India even noticed the bifurcation of administration. Incidentally, 1937 was when India’s Freedom Struggle was peaking. By contrast, ten years later, when Pakistan was separated from India, and all of us have read or else heard of the mayhem that resulted. It is quite visible that much of the sense of betrayal from the 1947 Partition trauma are still ingrained into India’s official policies, as well as “mainstream India’s” psychology, making any meaningful reconciliation between the two sibling countries next to impossible. This is what India’s westward looking political DNA is about – an obsession with its western neighbours and an almost complete unconcern of developments, even very grave ones, on its eastern front. In the absence of any sustained interest or a determined push to understand and reach out to Myanmar in good times as well as bad, it is unlikely there will also ever be a willingness on the part of Myanmar to accept India as no more than a fair-weather friend.

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