New Delhi, May 24 India has taken a measured stance on the situation in Myanmar since the military took over power in February 2021. This stance is necessitated by the need to keep in mind the China factor in ties with Myanmar and continue to keep that nation at the centre of its Act East policy.
These considerations remain paramount even today. India needs to step up humanitarian assistance to Myanmar, where over 9 million people remain internally displaced. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recently hosted a meeting attended by high level representatives from the region, Myanmar, UN specialised agencies and other international organisations to discuss the humanitarian situation. The May 6 meeting held in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh aimed to revive the five-point consensus reached by ASEAN in April 2021, one part of which dealt with the provision of humanitarian aid to the people of Myanmar. The issue is: Can India take a lead in this direction?
According to the UN Refugee Agency, some 9,24,800 people remain displaced across Myanmar as of April 25, including 5,78,200 people who have fled their homes as a result of conflict and insecurity since the military takeover.
Consequently, humanitarian access to conflict-affected and displaced people remains restricted and significant gaps remain in assistance to these communities despite continued efforts by humanitarian partners and local organisations. In the Chin state alone, for example, nearly one-fifth of the population have fled their homes. Estimate indicates that more than 50,000 people are currently internally displaced across the nine townships of Chin State, while at least 40,000 may have crossed the border to become refugees in Mizoram.
India realises that refugees will continue to come as long as there is instability in Myanmar. The humanitarian agencies and institutional donors must find further ways to directly provide funds and resources to local groups doing this important work. Perhaps the leaf can be taken out of the Afghanistan example, where organisations like the World Food Programme and other UN organisations are distributing aid directly to the people of Myanmar. Recall that India’s vaccine diplomacy was also conducted through the good offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, the need of the hour in this regard is actually bilateral cooperation. Remember that India had provided vaccine doses to the people of Myanmar and earlier, had provided education, healthcare and infrastructure development assistance. This indicates that the present Myanmar government is not averse to seeking India’s assistance when needed.
The best illustration of this is the gift of one million vaccine doses by former Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla when he visited Myanmar in end-December 2021. During the visit, he also held substantive discussions with military leader General Min Aung Hlaing. This has to be capitalised on. Just as India extended development assistance to Myanmar some years ago for the construction of houses in the Rakhine state, India could look at extending assistance to meet the immediate humanitarian crisis. Specifics can always be worked out diplomatically. The major benefit of such an understanding will be that India will be seen as having reached out to the people of Myanmar. Challenges however will remain for both countries in practical terms. These are not insurmountable and should be creatively handled. While the direct route of connecting with the people through Naypyidaw is always there, India could also going the Japan route, which has challenged aid and assistance, in cooperation with international organisations and the ASEAN Secretariat, taking into account the local situation and humanitarian needs and urgency.
India is best placed geographically and has the diplomatic advantage of being able to reach out to the military government. Therefore, one option would be for donor governments and international agencies to immediately offer their help to India, and to the local groups trying to reach local communities in Myanmar. The only catch here will be for India to be willing and able to undertake such an initiative. Past experience shows that India has the capacity to engage with Myanmar to provide aid and assistance. A similar story has unfolded in Sri Lanka where India became the first responder to the island nation’s call for assistance with fuel and medicines. The narrative of support is positive and provides reassurance that India is willing to take the first step to help.
Addressing this issue will require deft diplomatic strategies entailing both direct and indirect connects to the government, NGOs and others in Myanmar. What is immediately needed is raising awareness of the problem and giving solutions, both bilateral and regional. At some stage, consensus will have to be reached on the way forward. There is much to be learnt from the experience of bilateral cooperation. Engagement with the military government as well as others concerned about the well-being of the people of Myanmar is the first step. For this, an invitation could be sent for Myanmar’s Foreign Secretary to visit India at an opportune time to discuss matters. The long-term view is ready, what is needed is action on the ground.