A few months ago, in response to China and Russia blocking a UN national security council resolution on the Myanmar crisis, Burmese pro-democracy activists took to the streets to burn Russian and Chinese flags. What is interesting to note, is that while these two countries may be the most vocal supporters of the military junta, they are by no means the only ones. One country that has been silent on the issues effecting the country is its close neighbour and the world’s largest democracy India. Recently, the online newspaper The Print described the Modi government’s response to the ongoing civil unrest as “strangely silent”. With the article going on to state that:
“India’s Ministry of External Affairs, in its first and only statement after the 1 February…. ‘India has always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar. We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld.’”
While an official stance of neutrality has commonly been deployed by Indian governments in times of crisis, what has flown under the radar is the substantial shipments of weapons sent both recently and in the past by India to the Myanmar military. These weapons have helped enable the country’s military, otherwise known as the Tatmadaw, to maintain control both historically and currently. This article will seek to highlight the narrative of Indian arms shipments to Myanmar. For the purposes of proving that Indian neutrality is not viable in a situation that they are partially responsible for, and that supplying weapons to the Tatmadaw will not succeed in getting the Modi government what it wants.
It is worth noting, for the sake of fairness, India is not the largest arms exporter to the Burmese military. According to Indepth News it is third largest exporting around $145 million dollars’ worth of equipment. This is comparatively little when contextualised with Russia and China, who combined ship around 2 Billion Dollars’ worth of weapons to Myanmar. India is, however, the only democratic nation that still chooses to sell arms to the country, with South Korea halting their arms sales in March, and as a democratic nation it should be held to higher standards than the aforementioned dictatorships. It is also worth noting that the Sino-Russo influence in this conflict, as stated in introduction, is well known by protestors and the rest of the world, while India’s role seems to be relatively unknown. All of these facts add up to make a compelling case for why more attention needs to be paid to the role of India in this conflict.
While we could begin our story much earlier, the first major export of Indian weapons to the Junta, in the 21st century, occurred in 2006. In 2006 the Singh government, seeking to work with the Tatmadaw in expelling the Naga separatists ,who are based in the bordering region of Nagaland, sold an unknow number of advanced reconnaissance scout helicopters as well as T55 tanks and 75 inch artillery pieces. These helicopters and weapons while used in dealing with aforementioned separatist were, most likely, used against democratic protestors during the Saffron revolution, which took place around the time of the sale. Furthermore, despite knowing about the atrocities of saffron revolution, weapons sales by successive Singh governments continued. In 2012, during the horrendous Rakhine state riots, Sweden publicly launched an inquiry into how Swedish made portable rocket launchers ,sold to the Indian government, ended up being seen used by Burmese troops in photographs.
In more recent years not much has changed in the relationship between the two countries. In late 2020, despite well-known human rights abuses, the Modi government announced the gifting of the submarine INS Sindhivur to the Tatmadaw for free. In addition, two months after the recent military coup, as a show of support, Modi was one of only eight world leaders to send representatives to the Burmese annual military parade. Furthermore, noted academic Muang Zarni ,in a March 2021 article, described India as having “played a vital role as trainers of ….military officers in various military sciences including weapons engineering, intelligence.”
The primary purposes of these weapon transfers and officer training programs have stemmed from a desire to both court the Burmese government away from Sino influence, and to combat Nagan separatist rebels operating out of Myanmar and Nagaland. In fact, according to a recent article published by The Print, sources within the Modi government stated that:
“The Narendra Modi government…has taken a decision that it will be making a serious effort in presenting itself as an ‘alternative to China’ when it comes to providing quality defence items.”
The problem with this approach is that it assumes that the current military governments rule will continue indefinitely, as we have seen in recent events this not a safe assumption. If rule by the Tatmadaw comes to an end than the replacement revolutionary government is certainly not going to buy weapons from a country that supplied its oppressors. Also, in regards to the separatist operating in Nagaland, several journalists have often called into question the Tatmadaw’s commitment to actually fighting those rebels. With noted journalist Subir Bhaumik stating that:
“The Tatmadaw has traditionally avoided any major action against Northeast Indian rebels because it has had to focus on more powerful insurgencies challenging Burmese authority over regions populated by ethnic minorities. Only in the last few years has it resorted to some action, primarily as a quid pro quo for Indian military action”
In conclusion, it should be seen as self-evident that the India cannot remain diplomatically neutral, while paradoxically supplying the Burmese military junta with weapons and training. Even if we ignore the recent weapons deals, the weight of historical arms transactions to the Tatmadaw, when they were conducting past genocides, means that inaction from Modi is in effect tacit support. In addition to the above statements, it is also clear that the traditional reasons justifying the selling of arms are illogical in the current geopolitical climate. It is also worth mentioning that now, more than ever, the Tatmadaw is dependent on foreign arms imports. This is because a large number of workers from state owned weapon factories have just gone on strike, drastically reducing domestic arms production in the country.
Written by Evan Robert Miller
Evan Robert Miller is a columnist at DecipherGrey.
Photograph: Adam Jones|Flickr.com