Perhaps one of the most endearing duels in establishment politics is that between morality and ‘the national interest’. Since the creation of the Westphalian state and the many machinations of realist politics that it entailed, governments have struggled to balance both.
History, however, is testament to a blatantly disproportionate tilt: from the devastating World Wars to the pinprick civil conflicts of the Cold War theatres, nation-states have mostly chosen their national interests over morality. In the process, they have either wholly rebooted the very ipso facto definition of ‘morality’ by synonymising it with national interest, or falsely distinguished it from ‘national interest’ as one having no bearing on the other. The outcome has been a cold decoupling of both concepts.
Today, we see this enduring tension play out in India’s foreign policy on Myanmar, specifically its contentious military, the Tatmadaw.
India-Myanmar military cooperation
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi formed a government in 2014, bilateral cooperation between India and its strategically-placed eastern neighbour, Myanmar, has surged. This renewed intimacy, which is a core part of Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy, coincides with Myanmar’s historic transition from a military state to an electoral democracy ruled by a civilian government.
A key component of the upward bilateral between both countries is military-to-military cooperation. Amongst others, the collaboration has entailed sale of Indian-made defence hardware to Myanmar (including heavy weapons), joint border defence mechanisms and maritime patrols, and production of naval infrastructure for Tatmadaw’s naval forces. For India, the key idea is to invest into the Tatmadaw and modernise it to create long-term, mutually-beneficial modalities of strategic cooperation.
Both armies have also conducted joint military exercises in the past, and plan to conduct many more in the future. In November 2017, the Indian Army conducted a UN Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKO) training exercise for the Burmese army called IMBAX 2017 in Meghalaya. The aim was to share the experience gained by Indian forces in overseas UNPKO deployments with the Tatmadaw. Furthermore, according to some news reports, the Indian Home Affairs ministry is mulling the creation of a joint border force with Myanmar’s border guards to secure the 1640 km long porous land border between both countries.
The growing intimacy between both militaries was put on red carpet display last year when New Delhi hosted the Tatmadaw’s Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Hlaing Ming, on a rare eight-day tour. Ming was personally received by India’s Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, at the holy Buddhist town of Bodh Gaya. The visit was a sparkling manifestation of the growing intimacy between the defence establishments of both countries.
India’s direct outreach to the Tatmadaw has a two-pronged logic: one, to ensure that its land border with Myanmar, which is infested by a milieu of Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) and contraband traffickers, remains secure; and two, to create strategic depth in Myanmar so as to push China’s ever-growing clout back and in the longer term, project power into vital extra-regional domains like Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia.
These are legitimate geo-strategic drivers that every rational state actor within a realist global order, particularly sitting next to a revisionist, territorial power like China, would pursue. After all, in a world of rapidly rising defence budgets, hard power networking remains an effective foreign policy force multiplier.
However, is it morally right for India to assist and bolster an army that has been widely accused of serious human rights violations to the tune of ethnic cleansing and even, genocide?
The Tatmadaw’s track record
The Tatmadaw, established as it is today in the 1950s, is a hugely powerful institution in Myanmar. It ruled over the country with an iron fist for sixty long years, successfully keeping the lid fastened over the two dozens odd ethnic armies that have been locked in a bloody separatist war with the Burmese state since 1948. Naturally, the protracted conflict has rendered the Tatmadaw one of the most battle-hardened armed forces in the non-Western world.
However, six long decades of closed-door, totalitarian, and centralised rule also gave a ruthless tenor to the Tatmadaw. It is known for its brutal battlefield conduct - marked by a ruthless result-oriented tactical design, scant regard for humanitarian law, disdain for minority ethnic constituencies, and a running penchant for extrajudicial action. All of these can be traced back to the prolonged absence of internal oversight and accountability mechanisms, which spurred a deeply internalised culture of impunity over the years.
During military rule, most of Tatmadaw’s actions went either unnoticed or unquestioned by the so-called international community, thanks to Myanmar’s severe diplomatic isolation, prevalence of a surveillance state, and the resultant lack of information flow to the outside world. However, with the initiation of democratisation by President Thein Sein in 2011 and then later by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016, the world has begun to take greater notice of the Tatmadaw.
Thereafter, the Tatmadaw has had to confront accusations of gross human rights abuse over its brutal ‘counterinsurgency’ operations in northern Rakhine State. These offensive drives, initiated in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents in October 2016 and August 2017, arguably failed to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, resulting in heavy civilian casualties and displacement. However, the Tatmadaw’s (mis)conduct goes beyond the domain of ‘collateral damage.’
The spectrum of damning allegations that the Tatmadaw today faces over its Rakhine operations include rape, mass murder, arson, summary killings, and torture. As of January 2017, its violent drives, allegedly carried out in cahoots with ethnic Rakhine vigilantes, has forced close to 655,000 Rohingyas to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. While analysis of satellite imagery has shown that it has extensively used arson to eliminate Rohingya settlements, first-hand testimonies of refugees in Bangladesh have hinted that it has also routinely used rape as a weapon of war and shot at non-combatant civilians without any restraint.
The accusations are damning, and the narratives horrifying. Thanks to the information whirlpool that Myanmar’s democratisation has heralded, the world has taken quick notice this time.
The UN has termed the Tatmadaw’s actions in northern Rakhine as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing.’ Its Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has said that the operations bear the “hallmarks of a genocide.” On 31 January 2018, Associated Press released a detailed report of hitherto unidentified mass graves in a Rohingya village, bearing signs of a pre-planned mass murder of unarmed Rohingya civilians by Tatmadaw personnel.
But, the Myanmar government continues to deny access to independent investigators into the country, despite the establishment of an international fact-finding mission by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017. The military has repeatedly denied all allegations of abuse, only self-exonerating itself through shoddy internal investigations. The only rare exception was made earlier in January when the Tatmadaw admitted to killing 10 Rohingyas without trial.
Northern Rakhine is not the only conflict theatre where the Tatmadaw faces accusations of human rights abuse. Even in the north of the country where it is fighting non-ceasefire Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) like the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), it has been widely accused of attacking civilian areas and deliberately pushing civilian lives over the edge.
Analysts have pointed out how the Tatmadaw’s patent ‘four cuts strategy’ that involves cutting off food, funds, intelligence and popular support of EAOs, directly targets civilian populations. The latest example is an ongoing offensive in Kachin State’s Tanai Township where the fighting has trapped close to 3000 civilians in gold and amber mines.
Should India continue assisting the Tatmadaw?
Today, the dominant line of argument driving India’s foreign policy on Myanmar is that national interest must be kept away from moral concerns. Geo-strategic apprehensions about China’s rapidly-growing influence in Myanmar continue to push New Delhi to relegate ethical concerns over collaborating with a military that stands accused of serious battlefield misconduct and breach of international humanitarian law.
But, in light of the unprecedented accusations that the Tatmadaw faces today, India must re-evaluate its agenda to bolster its eastern military partners. If the idea is to consolidate India’s position as a responsible regional power with strong credibility, then New Delhi cannot afford to bypass some critical questions.
Are Indian-made weapons being deployed indiscriminately to main civilians in Myanmar? To what extent can peacekeeping training in its current scope alter the Tatmadaw’s longstanding battlefield behaviour? What can cooperating with sanctioned Generals entail in the longer term?
Agreed, it would be unwise for the Modi government to wholly isolate the Tatmadaw - one of Myanmar’s two real power centres, the other being Suu Kyi’s administration. Without engagement with the military, reconciliation over crucial matters would be impossible. But, we are not really talking about mere diplomatic engagement here: New Delhi is literally boosting the Tatmadaw’s armoury right now with the clear agenda of force modernisation and little worry about where the weapons and training are ultimately going.
But, to what end?
For India, one of the key motivations behind supplying weapons to the Tatmadaw is to ensure that its northeastern borders with Myanmar remains secure. However, there is little possibility of the Tatmadaw using any of those weapons against anti-India militants in this region (covering Sagaing on Myanmar’s side) in the near future.
This is because the Nationalist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), which is the dominant EAO in Sagaing and commands even the IIGs, maintains a ceasefire arrangement with the Myanmar government. In fact, it governs over an autonomous territory inside Sagaing. Since the Tatmadaw is already waging a violent battle higher up in Kachin, chances are that it would deploy most of its resources and ordinances there, rather than Sagaing.
Moreover, while India can (and has) contributed significantly in equipping the Tatmadaw for UN peacekeeping missions, it must inquire as to whether the training has achieved anything significant at home. If Tatmadaw personnel continue to loot, maraude, and shoot at will even after best practices training, then clearly, annual peacekeeping lessons from a neighbouring army aren’t enough to change anything within a force that is so used to operating with impunity.
The Indian establishment must also pay close attention to how exactly the Tatmadaw is placed within Myanmar’s reformed political setup. More than half a decade after the commencement of the democratic transition, Myanmar’s military continues to enjoy significant hegemonic clout in state affairs, in ways that even supersede the elected civilian government.
Direct engagement with such an overwhelming institution can have its own drawbacks: New Delhi might have to choose between the Generals and Suu Kyi in the days to come on critical matters where both project contravening policies. In such a case, formulating a coherent policy framework on Myanmar would be a herculean task for India, more so in the face of Beijing’s sharp diplomacy in the country.
New Delhi must urgently consider options for end-user clauses and exceptions in its agenda to boost the Tatmadaw. ‘National interest’ cannot be seen in isolation; after all, it is a precipitate of multiple components - state practice, values, and choices. To divorce its pursuit from corresponding moral bearings would be to set a regressive and counterproductive precedent for future.
This is even more so because of India’s uneven yet rich democratic tradition that has translated into a general disdain for ‘deep state’ apparatuses (like the Tatmadaw) in its neighbourhood. Any policy tweak in this regard can be read in a decisive manner by external actors, only to the detriment of the Indian regional project.
The author is a New Delhi-based policy analyst, currently coordinating the South East Asia Research Programme at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. His research focuses on Myanmar's ethnic politics and foreign relations, India's Act East policy, and the ASEAN.