UPSC IAS Prelims 2021: India-Myanmar Bilateral Relations & Latest Developments At A Glance

In a turn of events, the Myanmar military seized power in a coup and declared a state of emergency in Myanmar. In this article, read about India’s relation with Myanmar and reaction towards the Myanmar Military coup.

Sakshi Saroha
Feb 26, 2021, 13:37 IST
India-Myanmar Bilateral Relations At A Glance
India-Myanmar Bilateral Relations At A Glance

In a turn of events, the Myanmar military seized power in a coup and declared a state of emergency in Myanmar.

Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and some other members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, were detained as the military declared their landslide victory at the polls void.

Causes behind the Myanmar Military Coup

There were two reasons

  1. Aung San Suu Kyi intent that when she comes to power, she’ll amend the Constitution and will progressively reduce the Army’s guaranteed seats in Parliament
  2. Army chief Min Aung Hlaing’s 65-year-retirement deadline was also nearing and he was afraid that if he gave up power and retired, he would be put on trial for his actions against the Rohingyas including human rights abuses in the Rakhine state of Myanmar.

India’s diplomatic response

Image Source: The Diplomat

India expressed "deep concern" on the developments in Myanmar and hoped that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld.

MEA in guarded statement said "We have noted the developments in Myanmar with deep concern. 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. We are monitoring the situation closely," 

India’s previous response to military coups

Image Source:

When General Ne Win staged a coup in 1962, the military junta snapped ties with the world including India-and relations went into a deep freeze. 

Later in 1988, in Myanmar, demonstrations erupted and soon snowballed into a pro-democracy mass movement. The generals unleashed extreme violence to quell the protests and were condemned worldwide.

Decades earlier, with oppressive and military regimes in its neighborhood, India was uncomfortable. It sponsored democratic movements in neighboring nations, itself a democracy.

In the case of Myanmar, there were other reasons too for India’s pro-democracy policies. 

India went on to honor Aung San Suu Kyi, who was leading Myanmar’s struggle for democracy, with the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding but there was a section in the Indian government that was opposed to conferring the award and there was growing concern in India over the implications of supporting the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar.

Drawing the military ruler’s anger was seen to be counterproductive to India’s economic and security interests in Myanmar and it happened.

The Myanmar army, alienated internationally by its repression, turned to China for political, economic, and military support. Like Chinese investment and supplies of arms to Myanmar, bilateral trade soared.

It resulted in a strong relationship, but with Myanmar’s deep dependence on China and growing alienation with India.

The Chinese presence in Myanmar and the clout Beijing wielded over the military had grave implications for India’s security. 

India needed to rethink the “idealistic” pro-democracy policy towards Myanmar.

  1. The success of India’s counter-insurgency operations in its Northeast required the cooperation of Myanmar’s military regime as anti-India insurgents were taking sanctuary across the border. 
  2. Besides, India’s “Look East” policy required India to engage Myanmar, its “land-bridge” to Southeast Asia.

Pragmatic Politics 

From 1993 and on, India set in motion a realpolitik or pragmatic policy toward Myanmar that saw the initiation of a rapprochement with the military.

India’s present stand 

  1. Although India has always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar and called on Myanmar to uphold “the rule of law and the democratic process. India issued a statement that was not “condemnatory.”
  2. India’s statement after the coup and its role at the UNSC suggest that India will adopt a cautious approach toward Myanmar. While it can be expected to call for dialogue and reconciliation, it will avoid criticizing the military. 

Reasons behind Indian Approach

India’s different reaction is different because of changed geostrategic realities and a willingness to have a different strategic engagement

  1. Indian government sees the military exercising real power in the country. This was particularly significant because of the stakes India has in the region in port building, oil exploration, fighting insurgency, etc.
  2. Many insurgent groups from the Northeast have set up base in Myanmar. Myanmar has let India reach out and carry out raids against Indian insurgent groups across the border which India has to continue and also, India is now selling Myanmar quite a bit of military hardware,”
  3. India has a large stake is in Sittwe in the Rakhine province where India has built a large, deep seaport. The location of the port will play a major role in connecting the Northeast region to the sea, 
  4. To counter China’s string of pearls policy.
  5. Besides, India has also initiated numerous infrastructure and development projects with Myanmar. India sees these infrastructure projects as the “gateway to the East” and ASEAN countries. For example, the India Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport network.
  6. India wants to resolve the issue of Rohingya refugees that fled to Bangladesh and some still live in India for which constant support of the regime in power will be needed
  7. Of late, the image of Ms. Suu Kyi as a democratic icon and Nobel peace laureate has been damaged because of her failure in stopping the Army’s pogrom against Rohingya and to top it she defended the Army’s action.
  8. Moreover, there was a public uproar for India in 1990, to take a strong stand against Myanmar in the past. This is not the case in the present scenario.

Latest Developments

Image Source: CNN

Myanmar and the country’s Generals by toppling its democratically elected government, are struggling to retain their grip on power in the face of growing pro-democracy mass protests.

The Military power has now deployed the familiar repressive tactics to quell opposition to the latest coup.

One of the most persistent opponents of democracy has been Myanmar's military. In the past, violent crackdowns have faced challenges to Myanmar's military, but today the junta has to face popular opposition.

Even before, when the coup took place, the military leaders placated the people offering them a new Constitution as a compromise as in 2008. This Constitution was the basis of the partial transition to democracy in 2015. This experiment did not last more than five years and in five years, The Myanmarese people had tasted democracy after decades of repressive dictatorship, 

Now the protesters are calling for civil disobedience, stoppage of work, sit-ins, and mass demonstrations. The strike has already paralyzed the banking system at a time when the economy, hit hard by COVID-19, is struggling to stand on its feet. 

The military is also facing international sanctions and condemnation. 

Years of repression have not killed Myanmar’s aspirations for democracy and what was done in 1988 or 2007 does not seem to be getting repeated. 

A democratic form is always desirable, where the election results are respected, jailed leaders are release, and power is handed back to the elected government.

Possible Questions For Mains

  1. India-Myanmar ties are on the cusp of a remarkable transformation. In the light of the statement discuss the geostrategic importance of Myanmar for India’s foreign policy.
  2. What has been the genesis of the recent crisis in Myanmar and India’s response to it. To what extent do you think, India’s stand is pragmatic and foresighted.


About the Author

K Siddhartha is a renowned Civil Services Preparation Mentor and Thought Leader. He has more than 20 years of experience and has mentored over 1550+ civil servants, film personalities, entrepreneurs and policymakers. Mr K Siddhartha is the author of 43 books & 116 research articles. He is frequently invited as a speaker on global platforms. (Views are personal)

Also Read: UPSC Civil Services Exam 2021: India-China Relations at a Glance

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