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Why the visit of Myanmar’s military chief is important to New Delhi

LiveMint logoLiveMint 13-07-2017 Sanjay Pulipaka

The commander-in-chief of Myanmar defence forces, senior general Min Aung Hlaing, is currently on an eight-day tour of India. He is visiting numerous cities such as Gaya, Varanasi, Ahmedabad and Vishakhapatnam and will meet several military and civilian leaders. On 14 July in New Delhi, he is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, defence minister Arun Jaitley and national security adviser Ajit Doval, which indicate the importance that India is according to the visit.

Given the political transition in Myanmar and the emergence of a civilian leadership led by Aung San Suu Kyi, some may find the weight that India is giving to the visiting military chief to be unwarranted. However, such an assessment would be erroneous. In spite of the recent political changes, the Myanmar military (called Tatmadaw) as an institution and its chief continue to play a pre-eminent role. The constitution of Myanmar, in its basic principles, states that the Tatmadaw will “participate in the National political leadership role of the State.” Twenty-five percent of the seats in Union and provincial legislatures are reserved for the Tatmadaw. The Myanmar military chief appoints defence, interior (home) and border affairs ministers in the Union government. As a consequence of these institutional arrangements, the Tatmadaw and its chief retain considerable power in the political process.

Moreover, Hlaing has emerged as an astute political player. He was supposed to retire last year but has managed to get a five-year extension without disapproval from either his colleagues or from the civilian administration, which implies that he will play an important role in government formation after the 2020 general election. His working relationship with Suu Kyi also showed significant improvement. Initially, the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and the Tatmadaw were at loggerheads over the appointment of Suu Kyi as the state counsellor. Even at a personal level, the Myanmar military leaders and Suu Kyi shared frosty relationship not long ago. In a marked departure, in July last year, Hlaing reportedly visited Suu Kyi’s residence to take part in a Buddhist religious ceremony. The growing amiability between the two leaders is slowly translating into the policy realm as well. In the recent past, it appears that Suu Kyi and Hlaing share similar views on ethnic conflict in the country.

Hlaing, in comparison with earlier reclusive military generals, seems to be relatively more transparent and eager for greater public engagement. He even has a Facebook page that gives regular updates on his activities and has a considerable following on social media. Hlaing’s Facebook page has more than a million likes and is regularly updated. In fact, one can even see the photographs of his visit to Indian defence establishments a few days ago.

The Tatmadaw under Hlaing has been rapidly diversifying its defence procurement as well as military partnerships with other countries. For instance, Austria and Germany were on his itinerary in April, and in June he visited Russia to explore defence procurement and military-to-military cooperation. His visit to India is part of the effort to diversify and strengthen defence cooperation between Myanmar and other countries. India, on its part, has scaled up its defence cooperation by selling artillery guns, naval boats, road-building and other defence-related equipment. According to news reports, India has reportedly agreed to sell lightweight torpedoes as well. These modernisation efforts indicate that the Tatmadaw may retain its position as a powerful institution in domestic politics and may emerge as an important security player in the region.

There may be a temptation in India to look at the Myanmar military chief’s visit as an attempt at balancing China. It should be noted that China is a dominant player in Myanmar’s economic and political landscape. China is a leading investor in Myanmar, the largest trade partner and has been playing a proactive role in bringing various armed groups in Myanmar to negotiate with Suu Kyi’s government. To ensure China’s continued cooperation on ethnic issues, Myanmar has signalled its interest in participating in China’s One Belt One Road initiative. Given all these developments, Myanmar will be very reluctant to join hands with India against China. Neither is the Indian government approaching Myanmar solely through the lens of ‘containing China’.

Myanmar is critical for maintaining stability and peace in Northeast India. Some Northeast Indian insurgent groups operate out of bases across the border. Therefore, responding to the groups mandates cooperation and consent of the Myanmar army. In 2015, India conducted a cross-border strike on insurgent groups operating out of Myanmar. More than the strikes, the considerable publicity given by India generated disappointment in Myanmar. The current reception is also an attempt to assuage such concerns and ensure continued cooperation between the two militaries on counter-insurgency issues.

In addition to security issues, the fact that Myanmar is a fast growing economy and is a land bridge to Southeast Asia is prompting Indian leaders to reach out to the country. Given the general’s location at the apex of the political structure, his political skill-set and the Tatmadaw’s growing profile, it will not be surprising if he is accorded a warm reception and substantive engagement.

While there is a significant convergence between the two countries, probably Indian leaders will have a well-calibrated conversation on sectarian violence in Rakhine state in Myanmar. Technically, the sectarian violence in Myanmar is its internal matter. India disassociated itself from the resolution of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to send a fact-finding mission to study the alleged human rights violations in Rakhine. However, it should be recognised that violence in Rakhine state also has regional implications. Indian leaders, either civilian or military, will have to nudge the Myanmar leaders to adopt a more nuanced and humane approach in responding to sectarian conflict.

As global politics is increasingly becoming multipolar, India will have to strengthen its multi-alignment strategy involving major powers, middle powers and others such as Myanmar. In spite of its current economic and military status, Myanmar—located between China, India and Southeast Asian countries—can soon emerge as an important pillar in the Asian security architecture.

Sanjay Pulipaka is a senior consultant at ICRIER, New Delhi. The views expressed here are his own.

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