Mizoram and Myanmar: Lessons in foreign policy and centre-state relations

Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga wrote to prime minister Narendra Modi last week virtually rejecting the government of India’s directive to the security forces and the north-eastern states bordering Myanmar to prevent the movement of peoples from that country to India because of the military coup of February 1. He stated “This is not acceptable to Mizoram”. Conceding that “there are certain foreign policy issues where India needs to proceed carefully” Zoramthanga nevertheless added “we cannot ignore this humanitarian crisis”. He basically asked for Modi’s intervention to allow the free movement of Myanmar nationals who, apprehending persecution at the hands of the Myanmar army, want to cross over into Indian territory.

The chief minister rooted his assertions on two considerations. The first invoked India’s democratic traditions; as Zoramthanga put it “India as the world’s largest democracy in the world and Myanmar’s immediate neighbour” needs to ensure “that the political refugees from Myanmar are given asylum and provided food and shelter here in the country”. The second reason was Mizoram specific. It related to the ethnic ties that bind Myanmar’s Chin community and the Mizo people.

Not only did Zoramthanga made his letter to Modi public, he went ahead and held an online meeting with Zin Mar Aung an elected member of Parliament belonging to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD) party. The NLD has formed a government-in-exile and Zin Mar Aung has been nominated as its ‘foreign minister”. Following the meeting the chief minister tweeted that he had a “fruitful” meeting with the “Hon’ble Foreign Minister, Myanmar”. Some sections of the media quoted an official of the chief minister’s office as saying that the “two leaders discussed the current political situation in Myanmar”.

Zoramthanga is an experienced political leader who is serving as the state chief minister since 2018; he held the same office in 1998-2008. He would be aware that the constitution gives the central government exclusive control over the country’s foreign policy. He would also be completely aware of India’s stakes in Myanmar and the sensitive nature of India-Myanmar ties generally and specifically so after the coup.  It can therefore be surmised that he is under great political pressure to act in the manner in which he is now doing.

Zoramthanga should have acted more responsibly but the concerned central government ministries and agencies should also have moved to prevent the situation between the centre and the state to reach this pass. An understanding at political and bureaucratic levels would have been reached between the centre and the state on how to discreetly and sensitively handle the movement of people from the Myanmar border areas into Mizoram. That would have prevented bitterness that sometimes arises from routine bureaucratic instructions that are perceived to ignore local customs and concerns. This situation now needs to be remedied speedily through senior political level intervention. Naturally, there is no dispute that the centre controls foreign policy but political finesse is also required to carry the states along.

Zoramthanga’s attitude on what is a critical foreign and security policy matter for India illustrates the difficulties in formulating policies in these domains when regional emotions come out strongly pressing the government of India in directions it may not want to go. Similar difficulties have been experienced in managing relations with Sri Lanka because of intense sympathy in Tamil Nadu for the Tamil minority in that country because of the attitudes of the Sinhala majority towards it. Not to the same degree but there has always been concern in Bihar for the welfare of the Madheshi community in Nepal. There are Bihari communities which have close ties and relationships with the Madheshis and there is the perception that their interests have always been ignored by the Kathmandu valley elite.

Naturally foreign policy making does not take place in a vacuum. It has to navigate competing internal interests which do not arise only because of regional sentiments. Business interests and lobbies often seek to influence foreign policy decisions too especially when economic and commercial aspects of external relations get involved. In all such matters the political leadership has to evolve a coherent approach to safeguard and promote the country’s overall diplomatic and security interests. In doing so, should it also focus on its values, as Zoramthunga has emphasised in his letter to Modi?

It is easy to push for democratic values and civil freedoms when a country’s security or economic interests are not at stake. It is not so easy when there is a stark choice between sacrificing the latter for underlining the former. Then countries try to do a juggling act. This can be illustrated in the case of Myanmar. The greatest condemnation of the military coup has come from countries that are far away from it. The United States and European Union countries fall in this category. They are concerned about China making fresh inroads in Myanmar but these worries are not of such an order that they would prevent them from imposing sanctions on the generals. India has to be more wary even while stressing the return of democracy.

The consolidation of Chinese hegemony across its north-eastern and eastern borders cannot be a comfortable prospect for India. It has therefore to keep the engagement going with the generals and at the same time signal that in doing so it is not indifferent to what they have done. One way to achieving balance is by emphasising to the generals that the onus on preventing Myanmar people from crossing over to India because of fear of persecution and worse lies squarely with them.