Myanmarese Generals better for India than Suu Kyi

Image result for pics of Myanmarese General Min Aung Hlaing in Russia
[Myanmar Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu]

India has sometimes treated its foreign policy as morality play when actually it is hard business involving national interests. The Indian government, especially under Manmohan Singh, often jumped on to the Western bandwagon any time a military in some country displaced a civilian regime charging human rights violation, etc. The Modi dispensation has to resist the impulse to side with the US now that Washington is embarked on its usual sanctions diplomacy vis a vis Myanmar — India’s valued neighbour and friend. India should affect a strictly hands-off policy, and do what Myanmar’s fellow ASEAN members have done — claim it is an internal matter that brooks no outside interference of any kind by any other country. But discreetely convey to the senior General in-charge, Min Aung Hlaing, that Delhi is in his corner and can depend on India for help and material assistance.

Aung San Suu Kyi had tremendous democratic credentials but over recent years had almost become a stalking horse for Xi’s China. She rode the Chinese Belt-Road-Initiative (BRI)-derived China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) in the hope of consolidating the hold of her party — the National League for Democracy (NLD), and her personal grip, on the government and country, win popular approval for the prospective prosperity the CMEC is suppoed to deliver and thus gradually to sideline the Generals.

The Myanmar military, it must be appreciated, has always been wary of Beijing and, to the extent the circumstances permitted, sought to keep the Chinese at the proverbial arm’s length. It is precisely the distance that the NLD was unable to maintain and on which subject the two sides were unable to compromise on that led to the Generals, having had enough of Suu Kyi’s prevarication, and simply taking over direct control of government. In real terms, things may not have changed much because, as many critics attest, the NLD was a democratic fig leaf for the Myanmar junta any way. This last contention, however, is not true. The Myanmarese military, under Western pressure, had transferred quite considerable power and authority to the NLD government, in the hope that its leader Suu Kyi would not rock the boat nor depart much from the line the Generals have always taken of prudently cultivating India and Russia as counterpoise to China. Despite many warnings she went off-script, signed numerous CMEC-related and other agreements with Beijing and compromised, in the junta’s view, the national interest.

India is the country the Myanmar Generals instinctively turn to when in doubt or in trouble. Indeed, the revolutionary founder of the Myanmar army General Aung San (yes, Suu Kyi’s father) was succeeded by U Nu and, fearful of China, the latter pleaded with Jawaharlal Nehru in the early 1950s for a security pact. This the Indian PM grandly dismissed as unnecessary and advised him to make peace with China! On other occasions since, for reasons of infirm will in Delhi and lack of clarity about where India’s national and strategic interests lay, Indian actions have confounded the Myanmariese Generals. Worse, the criminally tedious and tardy manner in which the Indian government has rolled out its promised infrastructure programmes — like the Kaladan project initiated more than 20 years ago, which is still not complete, is a case in point.

It contrasts with the record of Chinese construction companies executing complex infrastructure projects apparently in a jiffy, which hasn’t helped India’s cause. Indian strategic interests will be permitted to go down the drain but the Indian government — with MEA in the van — refuses to reform its overly bureaucratised way of doing things, providing other countries with a road map for how not to win freinds and influence neighbouring states. It merely firmed up the Myanmar military’s view that, while perhaps well meaning, India is just too thin a reed to lean on. And that Nyapyitaw (the new Myanmar capital) better rely on another more credible big power to secure its interests. This other power not surprisingly is Russia. Moscow understands that nothing so touches the hearts of the Mayanmar Generals as a bonafide military super power enthused with forging close links.

So in 2016, Russia and Myanmar signed an accord for long term military cooperation. The Putin government expects it to be the wedge in the door to establish itself as the prime supplier of military goods and services to Southeast Asian states. Those in the Indian government — and there are many in MEA and elsewhere who think this way, who believe that China has reversed the rank order and Russia is now its lapdog, have only to look at how assiduously it is building up its presence in the region to know that in the emerging geopolitics China has to contend as much with Russia as with the US. The reason why, I have long been arguing, that Prime Minister Modi’s ham-handed moves in the last few years to please Washington that have alienated Moscow, are the most imprudent thing he has done. Sure, it is a position from which his government is only now beginning to draw back, but damage has been done and requires urgent repairing.

The offshoot of Delhi’s bungling is that the bulk of Myanmar military officers, who used to come to Indian military institutions for training are these days going to Russia instead. General Hlaing has visited Russia more than he has done any other country and, in January this year, signed on for enlargement of security cooperation when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Naypyitaw. General Hlaing welcomed Shoigu in the most friendly terms, and confirmed Myanmar’s willingness to be the anchorage for Russian naval forces in the Indian Ocean — a very big developlment.

Delhi realizing it is on slippery slope, Foreign Secretary Shringla visited Myanmar in October 2020 and extended an invitation to Hlaing to again visit India, his first trip was in 2017. But with Russia and China both upping the ante, the Indian government will have to do a lots more than promising to take the General around to Darjeeling and loading him with packets of Seeyok tea he relishes. MEA-MOD will be well advised to offer him a slate of substantial hardware transfers. Why not lead with half a dozen of India’s very own and modern Tejas LCA — and a slew of advanced training schedules tailored to meet the Myanmarese military’s needs and otherwise build on the recent gift of an indigenously refurbished Russian Kilo SSK submarine along with crew training that has won India loads of goodwill?

Moreover, with CMEC seeking to connect Kunming to Kyaukpyu and Yangon, time for Delhi to propose to Hlaing jointly operated elint and radar stations on the Coco Islands offshore, and for the Modi government to take a whip to recalcitrant babus in various ministries who have stalled on petty financial grounds Indian development projects in the extended neighbourhood and, in this specific instance, are required to coordinate their activities with MEA, to deliver speedily on the Kaladan project before Naypyitaw loses all respect for India, and India loses its toehold in Myanmar.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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32 Responses to Myanmarese Generals better for India than Suu Kyi


    Another wonderful analysis of the current situation in Myanmar by Mr. Karnad sir. I have the following questions to you:

    1. Do you think that US singers’ Rehanna’s intervention in the farmers protests have been influenced by China to present a setback to India ?

    2. What are your thoughts on the recent Al Jazeera investigative report that puts the present pro-India government in Bangladesh in very negative light ? Do you think China will benefit from this in someways ?

    I will be eager for your well informed analysis.

    Thanks and best wishes

  2. Amit says:

    I don’t know much about Myanmar dynamics in our region, so this article was informative and useful! But the inefficiency of our project implementation does sound very familiar and it will probably take another crisis on the eastern borders for India to wake up.

  3. Rudra says:

    Hello Sir ,big fan
    1.we have alienated our friends, how to win them back ?
    2.Given our capital constraints how do we go about this issue (not just Myanmar but Africa too)?
    Please appear more on YouTube and explain why aren’t we going nuclear (in case of powerplants)

  4. Puneet says:

    Dear Sir
    Great points
    Senior General Min Aung Hliang is not the Defence minister, per 2008 constitution he appoints the Defence Minister ( usually a Lt Gen ) presently – post coup he appointed a full General – the incumbent CGS ( Army, Navy , Air ) and No 3 in military hierarchy

    Aung San was assasinated in 1947 in the run up to Burmese independence –not sure how he could have negotiated a pact with Nehru in 1950s

    Sergei Shoigu is the Russian Defence Minister not foreign minister — as regards training in India while small numbers trained in India — large numbers trained in Western Countries in 50 – 60s ( far more Burmese were Sandhurst Graduates than Indian);– the switch to Russian training happened only in early 2000s a combined result of western sanctions and the need to balance China

    But agree totally with what you say — India must stand with Myanmar

    • Thank you for pointing out the two errors. You are right on Aung San; my bad. It was his successor, U Nu, who asked Nehru for a muctual security pact. It is there in my first book — Future Imperilled: India’s Security in the 1990s and Beyond (1994). And Hlaing is not designated defence minister. Text corrected.

  5. Puneet says:

    Senior General Min Aung Hliang is not the Defence Minister he appoints the Defence minister per 2008 constitution usually a Lt Gen- post coup the No 3 – a full Gen -CGS ( Army , Navy , Air ) has been appointed .
    Aung San was assasinated in 1947 in the run up to Burmese independence – so no question of him approaching Nehru for Defence pact in 1950s.
    Shoigu is the Defence Minister — Burmese officers traditionally went to Western Academies (in 1950s more Burmese graduated from Sandhurst than the total that went from. India – the Burmese even attended CGSC in US and Australia — the shift to Russia in 2000s happened due Western sanctions ( post 1988 ) and the need to balance China — Myanmar pays for this and is not gratis like the US Mil End game. But agree that India must be a true friend and stand with Myanmar.


    Off topic
    What do you think of the new CATS system shown at Aero India 2021 ??

  7. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    Indian establishment as well as media should report/highlight this issue;

  8. Bharat kumar says:

    COAS bajwa saying time for peace .. 1)should we take our bilateral trade to pre balakot saga and even more like passing 10 billion dollar mark in fy2020-11 is it possible??
    2)tejas mk2 prototype to fly next year and IAF to order 100 plus than why is bhadoria talking about 114 fighter tender? Is it to send mk2 like the marut??

  9. krishna soni says:

    “Modi Govt To Induct More Private Sector Specialists As JS, Directors In Central Ministries Via Lateral Entry”(2021),”Narendra Modi government Wednesday launched the ‘Karmayogi Yojana’ or the National Programme for Civil Services Capacity Building (NPCSCB), in a bid to transform status-quoist and rule-obsessed civil servants working in silos into “experts”(2020) “,”Modi govt has forcibly retired officers, pushed for lateral entry & sought to break IAS stranglehold, earning both praise & flak for tinkering of civil service”(2019).Sir @ProfessorKarnad do you see such steps in the right direction to reform the civil services.

      • Sankar says:

        @Professor Karnad:
        Sir, I beg to differ from you on this matter. Remember President De Gaulle of France? His motto was he would like to be surrounded by officials who at every stage would warn him of the pitfalls and mistakes he would make before he decided on any policy in a certain direction if there is any. In other words, he detested being surrounded by ‘yes-men’ and sycophants. Public servants are a-political and must have their employments secured. Otherwise, they could not give the Government independent advice in the interest of the nation. This is the case in central Europe, and to large extent in Britain to date.

        The US does not operate on this principle simply because it has been a superpower to date, and if a mistake is there it can reverse it by muscle power in the international world. Indian public servants (external affairs) took part in the UN team for the peace settlement when the Korean war ended (1949-50?). It is recorded that they advised the political leadership in Delhi time and again not to believe the Chinese in every single statement they made since they had experience in dealing with them as part of the UN team negotiating. In contrast, ambassador Panikkar (in China) was advising Delhi right the contrary that the Chinese were trustworthy and meant no harm. Incidentally, Panikkar was not a public servant and lacked the grueling training the public servants undergo in their careers. The PM Nehru fell into the trap of believing the naive Panikkar and went ahead with Panchsheel in dealing with Chou-en-Lai and Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai. In the end, it was a disaster for the nation for not taking into confidence the well trained and experienced public servants of India. This is not to say that there are no “bad apples” in the public service, but they need to be dealt with in accordance with procedures as in the manuals of the public service.

  10. krishna soni says:

    Sir this question too is off topic I hope you reply to both of the comments please make your wonderful analysis on the recent kisan bills and the ongoing protests,in your 2018 interview with swarajya you criticised the government of not fulfilling its promises of 2014 on the reforms it promised,now it had began to introduce reforms there is widespread protest what is the best way to tackle such situations.

  11. Amit says:

    Mr. Karnad, what do you think about the recently held Indian ocean region defence ministers’ conclave? Green shoots of Indian leadership? More potential for middle power collaboration that you have talked about?

  12. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    This is a tragic accident;

    In the comments section of the aforesaid link someone mentioned about an earthquake causing machine. I googled it and found the following;

    Isn’t it possible that the Chinese have developed an advanced version of the above machine.

    They can use it to create seemingly natural appearing calamities on the Indian side.

  13. Sankar says:

    @Professor Karnad:
    Further to my previous post, is it true that in the past the public servants (external affairs ICS officers) had advised the Government not to sign the Indus Water Treaty (IWT 1953?) with Pakistan under the purview of the World Bank, but the political dispensation in that era, the PM Nehru and Co, went ahead in spite and signed up ignoring that sound advice by the Public Servants? Pak would have thought twice before launching Jihadis in Kashmir if IWT were not there. In my view, Modi’s destabilizing the Public Service would have disastrous consequences in the future for the Indian State.

    • Have heard that story too but can’t recall any evidence for it.

      • Sankar says:

        Thanks for in a sense confirming. I guess, in such state policy matters all communications between the political masters and their executives are highly classified and are often verbal. The only pointers given out are by the relevant officers leaking out after their retirement. Unlikely, there will be written advice in the MEA archive. Even then, as the former secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon publicly said some time ago that there is no institutional memory mechanism for records built-in the Indian public service which is detrimental to the state. In my view, the Indian public service system needs urgent overhauling and needs to be brought in line with the western European.

  14. krishna soni says:

    Sir,the questions are off topic I hope you would give your wonderful analysis on them,
    1) Ukraine looking for defense purchases from India,India too willing to give ,do you see this development a good and bold reply to the russians as they too are increasing their co-operation with the pakistanis and chinese.As you had discussed in your articles and books India should not be over inclined to a great power,is this step worth appreciating.
    2)Though the vaccine diplomacy is not as such a big geopolitical win,but India focusing on its neighbourhood first and act east policy,had so far fared against the chinese,shipping millions of doses to Nepal,Bangladesh,Bhutan,Myanmar,Brazil,maldives,seychelles and many other countries,whereas even the bangladesh is reluctant to give approval to the chinese vaccine due to their greedy motives of bearing the costs of trials,quality,etc.Is the development praisable as India had used its soft power here wisely.
    I hope for a DETAILED and wonderful analysis by you.

  15. krishna soni says:

    India Transgressed Along LAC More Than China, Beijing Media Doesn’t Cover it: Union Minister VK Singh,former chief of army staff , “Let me assure you, if China has transgressed 10 times, we must have done it at least 50 times,” Singh added ,Sir please give your analysis on the comment made by former chief of army staff Gen. VK Singh and current minister of state, from my point of view it is not a political statement, it has truth.

    • If he said it, it must be so.

      • Gaurav Tyagi says:

        Professor Karnad, if you agree to V.K. Singh’s statement, I mean what else is left to say…

        He is a greedy man, who fought the government for some forgery done on his or his family’s part in his educational certificates.

        The fact that he joined BJP and is a minister in the Modi cabinet shows his true colors.

        If V.K.Singh has so much talent/caliber, why didn’t Modi made him the Defence Minister?

        As per this logic of this BJP Sycophant, if India is also intruding into so called Chinese LAC then, I would say that my Chinese contacts are right, India is the aggressor.

        India doesn’t hold any moral high grounds to preach to China, then..,

  16. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    The statement of V.K. Singh portrays China as the victim of Indian aggression.

    With politicians like Modi and this Singh chap, India doesn’t need any external enemies.

    The internal ones in power are doing an excellent job of weakening the nation;

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