India hosts dialogue, seeks to play a role to ease Myanmar crisis which complements Asean’s efforts

The latest discussions centred on an expedited delivery of humanitarian aid to Myanmar, a regional coordinated approach to combat transnational crimes and seeking political space for dialogue and reducing violence.

Nirmala Ganapathy

Nirmala Ganapathy

The Straits Times


Members of ethnic rebel group Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) taking part in a training exercise at their base camp in the forest in Myanmar's northern Shan State. PHOTO: AFP

May 3, 2023

NEW DELHI – India is seeking to play a role in helping to formulate a plan for crisis-hit Myanmar by recently hosting the second meeting of a Track 1.5 dialogue involving mid-level officials, including those from Myanmar, and academics.

While the back-channel diplomatic dialogue is a Thai-led initiative, India is seeking, through these semi-official talks, to be part of a regional solution, with the crisis in Myanmar having the potential to bring instability along the border with India, said analysts.

Track 1.5 dialogues typically include government officials and non-governmental representatives. This kind of back-channel diplomacy is seen as a way to address challenging diplomatic situations.

Hosted by Indian think-tank the Indian Council for World Affairs, participants were able to have a free exchange of views, something not always possible in official talks, said sources, with the aim to come up with an action plan by the next meeting in Laos soon.

Besides Indian officials and representatives of Myanmar’s military regime, the meeting also saw representation from Bangladesh and five Asean countries, namely Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia, which is the chair of Asean for 2023.

“This meeting, at least on paper, is a way to collaborate with other countries in South and South-east Asia that share borders with Myanmar to contain the cross-border spillover of the instability,” said Mr Angshuman Choudhury, associate fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.

India is concerned by Myanmar’s military bombing areas close to the border between the two countries in the fight against insurgents.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees, a majority of them from the Chin ethnic group, have also crossed over into Mizoram, India, to escape the violence.

Mr Choudhury added that India is keen to project itself “as a key regional player that enjoys diplomatic convening power and has the ability to get stakeholders to work together towards resolving a crisis”.

The Track 1.5 dialogue, which was held on April 25, was a follow-up meeting to the first one held in Bangkok in March.

The latest discussions centred on an expedited delivery of humanitarian aid to Myanmar, a regional coordinated approach to combat transnational crimes and seeking political space for dialogue and reducing violence, the sources said.

The Track 1.5 dialogue comes amid Asean’s stalled “five-point consensus” – its road map for peace in Myanmar drawn up in April 2021 – and the sources maintained that the meeting was to add to Asean’s efforts.

Participants agreed countries needed to support Asean efforts in Myanmar, the sources added.

The junta has refused to honour the five-point peace plan, which calls for an immediate end to violence in the country; dialogue among all parties concerned; allowing a special envoy to facilitate mediation of the dialogue process; provision of humanitarian assistance by Asean; and allowing the bloc’s special envoy and delegation to visit Myanmar to meet all parties concerned.

Thai PBS World, an online English news website of the Thai Public Broadcasting Service, said that the Track 1.5 dialogue “was initiated by Thailand, as a way of opening additional channels for dialogue among stakeholders affected by the Myanmar crisis”. It further said the dialogue is focusing on issues related to the Asean five-point consensus to move the peace process forward.

Myanmar has been in crisis since 2021, after the military’s ouster of the elected government led by civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, leading to an outbreak of widespread violence.

Seeking to consolidate power, the junta has been fighting ethnic minority insurgents and the pro-democracy movement.

Amid all this, India has stuck to its longstanding policy, dating back to the nineties, of engaging with the junta due to a combination of factors related to national security.

The junta has helped India protect its border in the north-east, where Indian insurgents carry out attacks in India while sheltering in Myanmar’s border areas.

India also does not want unfettered Chinese influence in Myanmar, with which it shares a 1,600km-long border.

“It is not surprising that some of the conversations (around Myanmar) are happening in India… Of course, one of the things India has been most worried about is that as America and the West continue with their unidimensional policy of sanctions and pressure on the junta, China has extended its reach in Myanmar,” said Professor Harsh V. Pant, vice-president for studies and foreign policy at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

“China has pushed its projects and has become an important economic partner.”

United Kingdom-based Chatham House noted in a recent paper that China’s presence in Myanmar was a potential threat for India. There was “growing evidence” that the military coup had “increased Beijing’s influence in the country”, the Chatham House paper said.

Chinese companies are building major infrastructure projects, including ports like the Kyaukpyu port in western Myanmar, which is believed to allow China another access point into the Indian Ocean.

There has also been much speculation that military upgrading on Myanmar’s Great Coco Island is actually related to China building a listening post close to India’s strategically important Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Amid these considerations, India, apart from China and Russia, abstained from the United Nations Security Council resolution calling for the release of all “arbitrarily detained” prisoners, including Ms Suu Kyi.

But some are questioning whether India needs to take a fresh look at its Myanmar policy amid growing focus among pro-democracy groups on India’s links with the junta, particularly military ties amid an upsurge in violence.

More than 100 people were killed on April 11 in an air strike by the military on a village, according to reports.

India was Myanmar’s third-largest arms supplier after Russia and China, accounting for 14 per cent between 2018 and 2022, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

“The ground realities in Myanmar are changing very rapidly,” said Prof Pant, who noted India had also kept lines of communication open with the opposition.

He noted India may have to reassess its policy as “repression increases and as the military’s ability to shape ground realities come under question”.

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