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India faces dilemma as it recalibrates Myanmar policy

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Indian soldiers patrol along the Tiau River, a natural border between India and Myanamar, on March 12, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

India faces a conundrum in Myanmar.

On the one hand, New Delhi has had a longstanding policy of wooing the Myanmar military junta with an eye on countering Chinese expansionism in the neighbourhood. India sent a representative to last week's Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw.

But, on the other hand, the South Asian country has had to rethink its approach as the violent crackdown in Myanmar leaves hundreds of protesters dead and an influx of refugees, including police officials, across the border into India.

The Modi government initially said it would not allow any refugees into India, which shares a porous border with Myanmar, and issued a notification to northeastern states to deport them.

The state government in Manipur, a northeastern state, went so far as to say that it would not provide food and shelter to refugees but quickly reversed its stance after a strong public backlash. Federal home minister Amit Shah later said on television that refugees would be allowed food and medicines.

The flip flop comes on the back of sympathy for the refugees in India. The Northeast shares ethnic and cultural links with Myanmar. Myanmar's Chin ethnic group, for instance, share their ancestry with the Mizos in the Indian state of Mizoram.

Mizoram's chief minister Zoramthanga even sought a policy change to allow the refugees into India.

"I have told Home Minister Amit Shah that the people who came from Myanmar are our brothers and sisters. We have family ties with most of them. Once they enter Mizoram, we have to give them food and shelter from the humanitarian point of view," he told ANI last week.

The Modi government has not provided any fresh clarification on the refugee policy, but has moved beyond its mild censure of the military junta in what analysts said was reflective of a tweak to its policy based on developments on the ground.

The Ministry of External Affairs noted that India stood for the "restoration of democracy" and called for the release of political prisoners in Myanmar. India's representative in the UN urged maximum restraint and condemned the violence.

India, which shares a 1,643 km long border with Myanmar, has since the 90s built ties with the Myanmar military in a bid to counter the growing presence of China as well as to secure its border against insurgents.

Myanmar has helped India protect its border in the Northeast where insurgents who carry out attacks seek shelter across the frontier in Myanmar. In May last year, Myanmar handed over 22 militants to India.

Myanmar, with its oil and gas reserves, is also seen as important for India's energy security and also as an important gateway to Southeast Asia.

Analysts said the key challenge for New Delhi now is that it cannot afford to sanction the Myanmar generals like the West but, at the same time like China, cannot be soft in its response to the violent crackdown on protesters.

"The policy (of wooing the generals) has not changed. The fact is that it has paid dividends (over the years). The policy remains the same but, based on ground realities, certainly there is a calibrated approach," said Prof Harsh V. Pant at King's College London who is also director of studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

"India can't be seen to be favouring a regime killing its own people but will not go beyond that towards marginalisation of the military. As far as India is concerned... China should not become the only player (in Myanmar). They do want to retain the flexibility but the more the military junta remains adamant and violent that becomes a challenge."

Former Indian diplomat G Parthasarathy also said the policy of wooing the generals would not change.

"Let us be very very clear, our Army cooperates very locally on the border (with the Myanmar military). Irrespective of what India is going to say, the policy is not going to change much," he said.