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“Constructive coalition or secret clique?” Decoding the India-hosted Track 1.5 dialogue on Myanmar

On 25 April 2023, India hosted a ‘Track 1.5’ discussion on the Myanmar crisis with government representatives from Myanmar’s neighbouring countries – India, China, Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh – as well as Cambodia and Indonesia, the previous and current ASEAN chairs, respectively. It also included think-tank representatives from these countries.

Notably, representatives from only the military junta in Myanmar, which calls itself the ‘State Administration Council (SAC)’, were invited to the meeting hosted by the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), a think-tank funded by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). According to a report in Nikkei Asia, these were “midlevel” officials. The National Unity Government (NUG), the civilian government of Myanmar composed of elected lawmakers, was not invited.

The MEA hasn’t put out any official press release on the meeting, which was a follow-up of the first iteration hosted by the Thai government in Bangkok on 13 March. Much like the first one, the participant governments have deliberately kept the second edition under wraps. There was no public consultation or calls for participation in the run up to the meeting. A Reuters report rightly characterised the Track 1.5 as “secretive”.

Why was it convened?

The Track 1.5 may be seen as a joint Thai-Indian initiative to navigate the Myanmar situation. Alternatively, it may be see as an attempt by both to demonstrate their convening power in cobbling together an issue-specific regional coalition. At the outset, it is the outcome of growing frustration in Delhi and Bangkok with the virtual failure of the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus-cum-Special Envoy process, which remains awkwardly stuck between censuring and engaging the SAC. However, there’s more to it.

The meeting’s composition shows that the co-hosts seek to create an exclusive regional platform for countries that share a border with Myanmar and have been affected by the crisis in some manner. India, Thailand and Bangladesh have all seen the instability in Myanmar spill over into their territory in the form of stray bombs, fighter jets, and refugee waves. The crisis has also allowed transnational criminal networks to expand the ambit of their activities. For instance, the UN has reported a sharp spike in opium poppy cultivation along the India-Myanmar and Thailand-Myanmar borders after the coup.

At the same time, the dialogue’s narrow composition is instructive. With the exception of Indonesia, every single participating country continues to undertake routine diplomacy with the SAC in one form or the other. The two frontline hosts – India and Thailand – have, in fact, ramped up their own bilateral engagements with the Burmese coup regime over the past one year. While the Indian foreign secretary, Vinay Mohan Kwatra, visited Myanmar and had an amicable meeting with the junta leadership in November, the Thai deputy foreign minister, Don Pramudwinai, recently toured Nay Pyi Taw in what is being seen as a warm rendezvous with the Generals.

Similarly, China, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Laos too have refrained from calling out the SAC for its undemocratic conduct and brutality against civilians. Their officials continue to meet junta ministers using official diplomatic channels and participate in junta-hosted events in Myanmar. Beijing, especially, has significantly expanded its bilateral track with the junta with the aim of securing its strategic interests and resuming Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects.

Nikkei Asia, citing sources, reported that during the meeting, India “agreed with Myanmar to send a delegation to Naypyidaw to help push for a ‘full resumption of dialogue’ between the regional governments.” This is a pointed reflection of what the dialogue is meant to achieve: a broader legitimation of the coup regime. It remains to be seen if the rest of ASEAN plays ball, but it is clear that the whole dialogue, at a minimum, is designed to rationalise and formalise diplomatic engagement between the participating governments and the SAC. In fact, it reflects their desire to go around ASEAN’s arguably vague approach towards the junta and solidify their working relationships with the SAC to preserve their own political, strategic and economic interests. Indonesia, which received an invite only because it is the sitting ASEAN chair, remains an exception here.

What was discussed?

Given the secretive nature of the dialogue, the full spectrum of the discussions remains unclear. But, one report published by the Press Trust of India, citing “sources”, outlined some of the points raised. These include “reduction of violence, countering transnational crimes, national reconciliation, and delivery of humanitarian aid.” According to Reuters, the issue of “creating space for dialogue” was also discussed.

It is noteworthy that this meeting comes just weeks after the Myanmar junta’s air force bombed Pazi Gyi village in the southeast of Sagaing Region, which borders India. According to The Irrawaddy, 175 people were killed in the aerial bombing, making it the bloodiest single incident of mass murder by the junta since the 2021 coup. The junta claimed that the bombing targeted an NUG-led opening ceremony of the People’s Defence Force (PDF), the civilian government’s armed wing. It justified the huge civilian casualties by linking to those killed with the PDF and by arguing that the bombs hit a “weapon’s storage”. The Irrawaddy estimates that between just 20 March and 18 April, 210 people were killed and 60 injured in junta air strikes “targeting civilian populations” in Sagaing Region, Bago Regions, Chin State, Kayah State, Kachin State and Karen State.

It is likely that the Track 1.5 participants brought up these airstrikes, especially the Pazi Gyi massacre, given its scale and proximity to the Indian border. However, it is unclear how strongly, or whether at all, the government and think tank representatives condemned it or demanded any accountability from the junta. None of the discreet “sources” quoted by the Indian media so far have mentioned the airstrikes, either because it wasn’t discussed or was done so in passing. It is noteworthy that none of the participating governments, except Indonesia, has issued any official condemnation of the deadly bombing so far. The spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, during a recent press briefing, only called for a halt to violence “by all sides” when a journalist sought his reaction on the incident.

The participants also reportedly “felt Myanmar’s capacity to fight transnational crimes need to be supported.” The implicit subtext of this position is that the governments agreed to work with the SAC to check the spike in transnational crimes after the coup. This is despite evidence of SAC-linked elements – such as the Zomi Revolutionary Army-Eastern Command (ZRA-EC) and the Karen Border Guards Force (K-BGF) – themselves being involved in transnational criminal networks along the India-Myanmar and Thailand-Myanmar borders.

Will this dialogue work?

In itself, the idea of creating a joint coalition of ASEAN member states and Myanmar’s neighbours under a Track 1.5 discussion format is a good idea. For long, countries like India and Bangladesh have only passively watched the crisis unfold next door. So, this initiative marks a refreshing turn of imaginative and proactive diplomacy. But, in its current form, the dialogue process is rife with serious contradictions, structural faults and a damaging lack of transparency.

One source familiar with the meeting told Reuters that the initiative will “not supplant” and “only complement” ASEAN. However, by inviting only certain ASEAN members while leaving out others, the dialogue risks subverting the Southeast Asian bloc’s centrality and in turn, widening internal differences over the Myanmar crisis. This is especially because except Indonesia, all the other ASEAN invitees are amenable to engaging the junta despite the latter’s non-compliance with the Five-Point Consensus. This may not sit well with other influential members of the bloc, such as Singapore and Malaysia, who remain averse to working with the junta. In fact, it may also disrupt relations between Delhi and ASEAN, which might feel blindsided by this parallel process.

Further, if the idea is to really help ASEAN implement the Five-Point Consensus, then the Track 1.5 should have included all stakeholders from Myanmar, including the NUG, which is what the consensus stipulates. By including just the SAC, in fact, the dialogue negates, not complements, the ASEAN-led Consensus. There is little sense in putting together an informal gathering of government and non-government stakeholders to facilitate freewheeling discussions on a delicate regional crisis if a major party with direct stakes in that crisis is completely left out.

Reuters, citing yet another “source”, indicated that the participants hoped to officially rope the NUG in at some point. Yet, it remains unclear how they would do so given that the junta has designated the NUG as a “terrorist organisation” and continues to actively, sometimes violently, persecute the democratic opposition. In any case, the NUG has on several occasions indicated that it is willing to talk to its neighbours to end the crisis in Myanmar. So, one hopes that they are invited in the next iteration of the dialogue to be hosted by Laos.

Most of all, the core intent of the dialogue facilitators remains suspect. Currently, it appears that they are more keen on using the Track 1.5 format to build bridges with the junta than foreground the aspirations of the Myanmar people. They seek to justify their engagement with the junta through specific pivots of cooperation – most prominently, delivery of humanitarian aid and transnational crimes. But, both these issues require multi-pronged engagements, not one-sided diplomacy with the military regime. The junta, which has its own predatory interests to protect, cannot be trusted to either crack down on transnational criminal networks along Myanmar’s borders or ensure equitable humanitarian aid delivery. We don’t know if the participants talked about ways to diversify aid delivery networks in Myanmar to allow non-junta actors to participate without the fear of retribution.

Finally, the overall opacity around the process is detrimental to the initiative’s credibility. It diminishes the space for public engagement and accountability over a serious political and humanitarian crisis that is harming the lives of real people, fuelling geopolitical volatility, creating economic uncertainty, and destabilising an entire region. By shrouding itself in a cloak of secrecy and keeping out Myanmar’s democratically elected representatives, the coalition ends up looking like an exclusive, elite and self-interested clique of governments and individuals who have no real interest in listening to the voices of the people most affected by the situation in Myanmar. One hopes this changes in the next iteration.