Myanmar statement on Shringla visit differs from Indian line on restoring democracy

Myanmar statement on Shringla visit differs from Indian line on restoring democracy

Foreign Secretary meeting military leader was first such official outreach by India to Myanmar regime since it overthrew NUG in a coup on Feb. 1

A day after Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla met Myanmar’s military leader General Min Aung Hlaing, differences emerged in the way both sides portrayed the visit, with Myanmar official media referring to India’s line on the restoration of democracy, as a discussion on “voting fraud in 2020 elections”, and describing groups allied to the former “National Unity Government (NUG) as “terrorists”.

The meeting between the two was the first such official outreach by India to the Myanmar regime since it overthrew the NUG in a coup on February 1, making Mr. Shringla one of very few international officials to have met Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who heads the “State Administration Council” (SAC) government and has declared himself the “Prime Minister”.

“At the meeting [Gen. Hlaing and Mr. Shringla] frankly exchanged views on goodwill visits of two governments and two armed forces of Myanmar and India,” State-run Myanmar News Agency reported on Friday.,It noted that they discussed “discharging of State responsibilities by the ‘Tatmadaw’ [military] under the constitution (2008) due to voting fraud in the 2020 general election, terror acts of terrorist groups in the country, efforts for counter-terrorism, response to terror acts against education and health staff and efforts for ensuring peace and stability in the border regions of both countries.”

The account varied from the line taken by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), which said the Foreign Secretary had “emphasised India’s interest in seeing Myanmar’s return to democracy at the earliest; release of detainees and prisoners; resolution of issues through dialogue; and complete cessation of all violence.”

‘No’ to meeting Suu Kyi

Sources said the Myanmar regime rejected a specific request by the Indian delegation to meet former State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, who has now been sentenced to four-year imprisonment and faces a trial with more severe punishments expected.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy (NLD) won the elections held in November 2020 for another term, but was deposed after the ‘Tatmadaw’ declared the results were fraudulent, a charge that has not been substantiated yet.

The MEA declined to comment on the difference between the statements issued in Yangon and New Delhi. Diplomats, however, said the attempt by the Myanmar regime to portray the visit of the Foreign Secretary as a quasi-recognition of the government was expected by the Modi government.

“While Myanmar official reports would like the world to believe that India endorses the SAC’s position on the coup, the MEA’s press release, perhaps anticipating this, dwelt a lot on a ‘return to democracy’,” former Ambassador to Myanmar Gautam Mukhopadhaya told The Hindu.

The government’s decision to send Mr. Shringla has been seen as an attempt to engage the ‘Tatmadaw’, particularly given the security threats India faces in the northeast, and a resurgence of militant groups in border states such as Manipur, with the Myanmar military pre-occupied with a crackdown on anti-government forces instead. During talks with General Min Aung Hlaing, Mr. Shringla made a specific reference to the killing of Col. Viplav Tripathi, his wife and young son and four jawans of the Assam Rifles in Manipur in an ambush in November, traced to PLA and Manipur Naga Peoples’ Front militants, who reportedly took shelter across the border.

The Government of India has maintained that given its vast 1,643 km common boundary with Myanmar, it is necessary to maintain contacts with its ruling military. Mr. Shringla also discussed trade, humanitarian food and medical aid, as well as an “expeditious implementation of ongoing connectivity initiatives” such as the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project and the Trilateral Highway with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, according to the MEA statement, indicating that India is keen to press on with bilateral talks.

‘Can’t avoid military’

“There will always be a tension between principle and pragmatism [on dealing with coup leaders]. If you have to deal with security, humanitarian, conflict spillover and refugee issues, you cannot avoid the ‘Tatmadaw’,” Mr. Mukhopadhaya said.

Apart from India, officials from only a few countries have so far engaged the ‘Tatmadaw’ after the coup, who faced a series of U.N. Security Council statements and resolution, and sanctions from the U.S. The ASEAN grouping that includes Myanmar had sent a special delegation to negotiate with the Myanmar leader earlier this year, but cancelled a more recent visit over the denial of access to Ms. Suu Kyi, and ASEAN disinvited Gen Min Aung Hlaing from its summit last month. China sent special envoy Sun Guoxiang to Myanmar, while Russia invited Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to Moscow for a security conference where he met State Security Council Secretary General Nikolai Patrushev. Other countries have thus far only sent non-official representatives like former U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson and Japanese ‘Peace’ envoy Yohei Sasakawa or engage through their Ambassadors in Myanmar.

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