In my article,  Russian Lessons on Neighbourhood First I had highlighted that India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy has been floundering. China has made inroads into most of our neighbours; especially Myanmar which is in chaos – military rule, civil war situation, massacres, ethnic strife, refugees, drug and arms smuggling. A destabilised Myanmar under Chinese influence vs a Sino-Pak collusive threat is a case of a unknown devil vs the known devil. The unknown devil which is taking shape in our backyard will be lethal. To understand this unknown devil and  fundamentals of Myanmar, please go though the power point presentation embedded below. It will give you an idea about the background and events till Apr 2021.       

Ever since the Military Junta deposed Aung San Su Kyi and imprisoned her, over 1500 deaths have been reported in clashes between civilians and  rebel groups  on one side and the Tatmadaw on the other. The situation in Myanmar is worsening daily, with reports of massacres emerging. The Junta’s grip has further tightened  after a military court recently sentenced Aung San Su Kyi to four years in prison. While there are international and regional calls/efforts to for a return to peace, China is busy doing business with Tatmadaw and  giving it unconditional support to. Through Cambodia, which is close to China and is the current Chair of ASEAN, it is undermining the ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus peace plan, which calls (among other things) for an immediate cessation of violence and inclusive political dialogue including ‘all parties’ in Myanmar’s conflict. In a double game, China  also has also been arming and supporting armed groups along the Sino-Myanmar border.  SCMP recently reported that National Unity Government in exile is now seeking China’s help to pressurise the military Junta in Myanmar  to prevent a long drawn armed conflict. With both sides in Myanmar approaching China, it is obvious that its influence is growing steadily. China  is poised to be the kingmaker. That is bad news for India. Obviously our stance is not working.  


Myanmar is important to India since four states – Arunachal, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram have borders with Myanmar. Ethnicities either side of the border are overlapping. Instability in Myanmar is overflowing into the North East. Some domestic insurgent groups have bases across the border already and are operating from there. Some are also reportedly fighting for or against the Tatmadaw. All this is evident in the increasing number of incidents in the North East. In addition, the Kaladan multi-modal transit project connecting Kolkata to Mizoram though Sittwe which opens an alternate sea route to the North East is threatened. Myanmar is central to any Indo Pacific strategy. India’s Look East Policy and other geopolitical issues will unravel if Myanmar goes the China way. China is leaving no stone unturned to push the China Myanmar Economic Corridor through. Its ultimate goal is to get hold of the Kyaukpyu Port. This will give it a direct entry into the Indian Ocean to solve its Malacca dilemma. A PLAN presence in Kyaukpyu will give wings to Chinas Two Ocean strategy. Any such outcome poses a direct threat to India, especially to Andaman and Nicobar.  In the meanwhile, increased Chinese presence in Myanmar, will give it scope to indulge in gray zone warfare to bleed us in the North East. The communication links of CMEC will enable China pose a land threat to completely turn India’s defences. There is no way we can let Myanmar come under the Chinese influence.   

Drug menace emanating from the Golden Triangle – Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand is rapidly expanding. Narcotic seizures in the Northeast and international circles, since 2019, have been exponentially increasing. If Myanmar remains destabilized, rebel groups and insurgents will look to increased narco-funding of their operations. China will start using drugs as part of its gray zone tool kit if it has not already done so. In addition, there is a growing refugee problem. Around 20000 refugees have come into India (mostly into Mizoram). The drug mafia is using them to smuggle narcotics. Also, the insurgents/rebels of all hues will be  using this influx to serve their aims to complicate the situation. Worst of all, the policy of the Central and State governments are at variance in accepting or not accepting refugees.  Lack of a uniform policy or its implementation on ground is also messing up the equations with Myanmar. Overall there are domestic and international issues at stake. So far India has adopted a wait and watch policy which is being neither here nor there. From here on, unless we make some decisive moves, the unknown devil will put redemption beyond us.


At the outset, the fundamental problem with Myanmar is that it is ruled by a queen and a king, who have got divorced even before getting married to each other and are now violently settling scores. Issues are way beyond complicated. 


Myanmar has 135 officially recognised ethnicities. The  plains dwelling Bamars  (heartland Burmese) constitute more than 50 % of the population. They occupy most government and military posts. A lot of ethnic groups who live in the hill areas in the East, North and West are in conflict with the Bamars. This is the heart of the conflict.  Myanmar is the mirror image of North East India where tribal loyalties are higher than national consciousness. Myanmar is a magnified version of Manipur where there is long tussle between the plains dwelling Meiteis and hill dwelling Nagas. The complicating additionalities are that Myanmar has a long coast line and fertile poppy fields in the Golden Triangle area. 


There are some 250 rebel groups in Myanmar, ranging from small urban underground cells to militias comprising thousands. The largest group is the Wa State Army which operates in the area bordering Yunnan province of China. It has a strength  of over 20,000. It has long been suspected of being funded and armed by the Chinese. It is well equipped with light tanks and artillery pieces. The other prominent groups are the Kachin Independence Army, Taang National Liberation Army, Arakkan Army, Karen National Union and the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army. The Rohingya crisis threw up the ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army). In large jungle tracts,  the writ of Myanmar does not run or is nebulous at best. The Tatmadaw has constantly fought with these groups to control the country and maintain the Myanmar’s. The situation is now even more complex with some ethnic armed organisations aligned with Aung San Su Kyi’s National Unity Government. Myanmar is being described as  country in a ‘balance of armed chaos’.  Both sides are involved in violence as the conflict continues. However the Tatmadaw has the big guns and is resorting to use unrestricted force. While the political fight is violent, there is a third side in the form of drug and arms smuggling rebel groups. The fourth dimension to the armed conflict is probably Chinese backed group(s) who are working entirely for China’s interests. It is as murky as it can get.  


Myanmar is part of ASEAN and has borders with China, Laos, Thailand and India. The  drugs from the golden triangle have always complicated Myanmar’s border issues with its neighbours less India. Myanmar’s borders with India are its most peaceful and least problematic. Myanmar has a legacy of understanding and dealing with India from the British Times. There is plenty of goodwill on a people to people, military to military and government to government basis. Amongst all its neighbours Myanmar trusts India the most. This is one factor which has not been used adequately.


While there is a cry for democracy and support for Aung San Su Kyi, it will do well to remember that her role in the Rohingya crisis was reprehensible enough to draw widespread international criticism. Moreover she was getting to be more pro Chinese in her dealings and was virtually inviting the CMEC into Myanmar. It will be a mistake to think that democracy will serve India’s interests. However people have tasted democracy and will not accept military rule.  In the same breath, democracy as per Western or Indian concepts has  not worked. The Tatmadaw has a long history of ruling the country and will never give up power. Military supremacy is a legacy issue which will continue in future. The Russian arms support only strengthens its hand. Myanmar will have to be probably assisted into peace and democracy eventually through a hybrid model which might fail as it did now. That is the best option. However the immediate need is to get all sides to shun violence and start talking. It will do well to remember that the Tatmadaw is not the only problem, but  part of every solution. Aung San Su Kyi or democracy is not the only solution but part of every problem.

There are other issues which need focus. Myanmar has a long history of living under sanctions. Hence no amount of international sanctions will work. Calls for democracy will not change the current situation. Isolating Myanmar will only drive it deep into China’s arms. China needs Myanmar for water and power from the Myitsone Project, energy from CMEC links and access to Indian Ocean through Kyaukpyu. It will do anything to achieve that. However the Tatmadaw has deep suspicions of China and has always sought to hedge its bets. That is why it has turned to Russia for arms and not China.  Given a chance it will lean on India. Despite the much publicised military support to Myanmar by way of giving some arms, India has played well short of the line. It is also doubtful if ASEAN’s outreach to broker a deal will succeed.  


India’s interest is to secure the North East in the immediate and long terms. More importantly, if China is to be kept at bay, Myanmar has to be on our side. If that is not possible, at least keep Myanmar firmly neutral. To achieve even a modicum of this status, India must get off the fence and start being proactive. The current policy of drift will only be detrimental to our interests. Our Foreign Minister has said recently in the QUAD meeting that sanctions against Myanmar are not an option. However inaction is also not an option anymore.  Presently, India is all set for a self-goal.


So what does India do? India has to start talking to all parties in Myanmar. This can be done along with ASEAN or independently. The first effort is to defuse the violence. Secondly, irrespective of who is in power, start talking to them. To a large extent, Tatmadaw plays a similar role in Myanmar which the Indian Army has played in the North East over seven decades – maintaining integrity and sovereignty in an ethnic mosaic where the highest concept of loyalty is to the tribe.  Hence, strengthen the Tatmadaw conditionally. The Tatmadaw is now in power, so start talking to them and work around that. India needs to take Myanmar into sustainable democracy where the people can prosper. The overall approach must be people centric. It will take time and one has to be patient. Eventually a democratic Myanmar has to be made strong to withstand internal and external onslaughts. Myanmar’s ‘go to’ friendly nation must be India and not China. A team of politicians/experts from the North East should be nominated to start dealing with Myanmar. Ethnic linkages of the North Eastern people must be brought into positive role play. There must be a joint action plan where-in the States and Centre act in concert. There is large scope to use religious links of Buddhism to ease affairs in the short and long term. Gaya, Nalanda, Sarnath and Sanchi are powerful but hugely underplayed cards. Get the Indian Army into the game. Military to military talks will go a long way. When the COAS and the Foreign Secretary went together to Myanmar, the results were positive. Thereafter, when the external affairs mandarins went alone , they were unable to achieve much. Most importantly, India must deliver on promises and deals. India has a reputation of talking more and doing less. The ‘Act East’ slogan has to be real. 


The canvas laid out above might not suit the taste buds of risk averse government mandarins, liberals and democrats. However, the taste will be poisonous if the North East is in disarray and China makes an entry into the Indian Ocean. The unknown devil has to be tackled. That is the bottom line. Let us start dealing with the devil.           



  1. A very well researched article which must make us revisit our Look East Policy.

  2. Opens the readers eyes to a lot of things in the neighborhood. Neighborhood first policy is in place 👍

  3. Excellent and thought-provoking. But I doubt the military-led approach suggested here to engage with Myanmar hunta and opposition could be digestible to our govt.

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