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28 September 2017, Gateway House

Modi in Myanmar: not a time to be preachy

Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Myanmar gave the bilateral a substantive boost, but the exodus of over half a million Rohingya refugees dominated the discourse. India’s response has shown a balancing of compulsions, both humanitarian and strategic

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar (September 5-7) produced a substantive and positive outcome for bilateral relations. But the disturbed situation in Rakhine state during the fortnight that followed, resulting in the exodus of well over half a million Muslims to Bangladesh, and its international impact, dominated the discourse on Myanmar. The PM’s visit cannot be viewed in isolation from what followed.

Earlier visits by Indian prime ministers have had mixed outcomes too. Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in December 1987 proved a non-event due to the negative attitude of Ne Win, the Burmese dictator who was swept away later by popular unrest. After a gap of 25 years, Dr Manmohan Singh undertook a successful visit in May 2012, connecting well with the first ‘civilian’ president – Thein Sein – and Aung San Suu Kyi, then an opposition MP. PM Modi reached comprehensive agreement with Myanmar’s de facto leader, State Counsellor Suu Kyi, which was anchored in “a shared commitment to set an example of good neighbourliness in the region.”[1]

One prominent feature of the Modi visit was New Delhi’s recognition that peace and stability in Myanmar are of “the highest priority”, with India registering its continued support for consolidation of democratic institutions in Myanmar and for “the emergence of a democratic Federal Republic.”[2] That the nation appeared quite distant from this goal must have been evident to both the hosts and visitors.

India’s (initial) readiness to view the tragic developments, impacting the minority Muslim community in Rakhine state, as largely a terrorism-related issue was a striking element of the joint statement, issued on September 6. Perhaps impelled by the desire to be nice to the hosts, the Indian side condemned recent attacks on Myanmar’s security forces without making any reference to the grave conditions that had triggered the exodus, a situation that was depicted by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”[3]

Yet, India did recognise that the Rakhine state issue had both developmental and security dimensions, and promised to extend assistance for its socio-economic projects. New Delhi took further corrective measures soon after the visit. In its press release of September 9, issued following a demarche by Bangladesh, the Ministry of External Affairs expressed deep concern over the outflow of refugees from Rakhine and urged Myanmar to show “restraint and maturity, focusing on the welfare of the civilian population alongside those of the security forces.”[4] It also began sending emergency relief assistance to Bangladesh.

The motivations behind the policy of balancing a variety of compulsions are easy to fathom. Given the strategic importance of Myanmar, which borders four of our North Eastern states, India prefers to show understanding and support for Naypyitaw’s internal political imperatives. Geopolitical factors too, particularly the need to curb China’s rising hold on Myanmar, impose limits on Delhi’s ability to be preachy, a luxury that only distant western countries can afford.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi, cleverly contrasting her past remarks extolling the virtues of human rights and justice with her (apparent) inaction to end violence against Muslims, could never have been written by an Indian prime minister. Yet, many in India, and even perhaps in South Block, would readily agree with Trudeau when he wrote: “The responsibility for resolving the crisis falls squarely upon you and upon the military leadership of Myanmar, including Commander-in Chief Min Aung Hlaing.”[5]

A word here about her role is indispensable. Of all the living leaders in the world today, Daw Suu Kyi has perhaps received the most adulation and awards for her long and courageous struggle to promote freedom, human rights and democracy. In recent months, she has also received condemnation for her alleged failures. It seems that the world loves its heroes – and loves to hate them! It simply cannot grasp the inescapable fact that she has limits on her power, imposed by the Constitution of 2008, and her country is not yet a democracy fully. On September 19, when she addressed the international community and her own people, she said, “Burma is a complex nation” and its complexities are compounded by people’s expectations of its government to overcome all its challenges” in as short a time as possible”.[6] Maybe it is best to let history be the judge.

Finally, on the Rohingya issue, is there a way out? The answer is yes. The roadmap is all laid out very clearly in the 64-page report, ably produced by the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission,[7] a notable majority of whose members belonged to Myanmar. Suu Kyi’s government has committed itself to the implementation of the report (with a few caveats). But will its partner, the military – and the dominant sentiment in the Buddhist Burman community – permit any progress on this?

As for the controversial presence of 40,000 Rohingya Muslims already in India, it is now a matter of law, not policy or politics alone. The Supreme Court shall have the last word.

Meanwhile, the heart-rending condition of Muslim refugees in Bangladesh and elsewhere is an urgent problem staring us in the face. Their return must be facilitated through a direct agreement between Naypyitaw and Dhaka or through the UN’s endeavours. Alternatively, India and a few like-minded ASEAN countries (Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore, for instance) should mount a quiet diplomatic initiative to help resolve the vexed issue.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House, former ambassador to Myanmar and author of ‘India-Myanmar Relations: Changing contours’ (Routledge 2016).

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[1] India-Myanmar Joint Statement issued on the occasion of the State Visit of Prime Minister of India to Myanmar (September 5-7, 2017), <>

[2] Ibid

[3] The Hindu, 11 September 2017

[4] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Situation in Rakhine State of Myanmar, (New Delhi: 2017), <>

[5] Letter sent by Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau to Aung San Suu Kyi, <>

[6] Kyi, Aung San Suu, ‘Government’s efforts with regard to National Reconciliation and Peace’, speech delivered at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nay Pyi Taw, 19 September 2017, <>

[7] Kofi Annan Foundation, Towards a Peaceful Fair and Prosperous Future for the People of Rakhine: Final Report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, (Geneva: 2017), <>

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