Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: India steps up engagement with Myanmar’s ruling junta amid ethnic violence in the Indian state of Manipur, Bangladesh’s government seems keen to disqualify opponents as national elections approach, and 26 Indian opposition parties launch an alliance to counter the ruling party next year.
India is facing a vexing new foreign-policy headache along its border—and it doesn’t have to do with Pakistan or China. On Sunday, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar met his counterpart from Myanmar’s military-led government, Than Swe, on the sidelines of a regional conference in Bangkok. The meeting followed a two-day visit to Myanmar this month by Indian Defense Secretary Giridhar Aramane.
This stepped-up engagement takes place against the backdrop of violence in Myanmar that has intensified since the military took power in a coup in February 2021, and which poses growing risks to Indian interests. Meanwhile, ethnic violence has flared in the Indian state of Manipur, which borders Myanmar to the west. The unrest has pitted the majority Meitei community against the minority Kuki group, which has ethnic ties to the Chin group in Myanmar.
The India-Myanmar border—like many in South Asia—is tense. Groups in Myanmar have provided sanctuary to some militants from Manipur, and New Delhi and Naypyidaw have recently collaborated on efforts to apprehend the rebels. However, the Myanmar junta has also reportedly sought to recruit some of these militants to fight against the anti-coup resistance in Myanmar, and it has failed to stop rebels based on its side of the border from staging attacks in India.
The Indian government likely worries that the post-coup violence in Myanmar will further embolden militants, smugglers, and other destabilizing forces, imperiling its security interests. The junta has staged vicious crackdowns in Myanmar’s Chin state and Sagaing region, where resistance is strong; in January, two bombs reportedly landed in India. And since the military took over, border conditions have become more porous, enabling more drug smuggling and human trafficking.
The ongoing unrest in Manipur has raised the stakes for New Delhi. Some Meitei leaders claim that Kuki rebels have entered Manipur from Myanmar, while Kuki representatives assert that any cross-border movement is peaceful. Meitei leaders also accuse Myanmar of financing poppy cultivation in Kuki areas of Manipur; Kuki community leaders counter that it’s funded by Meitei cartels. Regardless, insurgents in Manipur have operated from Myanmar, and Kuki leaders acknowledge some cross-border migration.
New Delhi is also upping its outreach to Naypyidaw because it worries that conflict could affect regional connectivity projects. India aims to strengthen integration with its neighbors to the north and east through the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral and Technical Cooperation. It is pursuing a delayed highway project with fellow initiative members Myanmar and Thailand, which Jaishankar highlighted on Tuesday, emphasizing the need to expedite “projects that have faced challenges in the recent past.”
Jaishankar also described India’s border areas as “seriously disturbed” and said that “any actions that aggravate the situation should be avoided”—strong language that reflects New Delhi’s deepening concerns. He reiterated India’s support for restoring democracy in Myanmar, a position the Indian government has taken since the coup, hoping for less violence and fewer security and economic risks. This stance raises some questions; after all, India is also strengthening undemocratic forces by arming Myanmar’s military.
When it comes to the junta, New Delhi walks a fine diplomatic line. India needs Myanmar’s cooperation on border and connectivity issues, and it wants to avoid Myanmar becoming fully reliant on China. This helps explain why India is a top arms supplier to Myanmar: According to the United Nations, India has sent more weaponry to the junta since the coup. This may reduce Myanmar’s reliance on China, but it is certainly fueling the very violence that poses a risk to India.
India can afford to go a step further by ramping up humanitarian aid and providing more assistance to those in Myanmar displaced by the junta’s violence. This could bolster Myanmar’s democratic forces, including the parallel National Unity Government, which includes elected lawmakers ousted by the military in 2021. It would also show that India is willing to go beyond platitudes in efforts to restore democracy in Myanmar.
Bangladesh election watch. During a by-election in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Monday, opposition candidate Hero Alam was assaulted at a polling station by people that he and local outlets described as ruling Awami League party activists. Meanwhile, recent reports revealed that the government plans to fast-track pending charges against opposition leaders to prevent them from contesting national elections in January. The credibility of the charges, which include arson and other serious crimes, is questionable.
Both developments emerged with a European Union mission currently stationed in Bangladesh to gauge whether the bloc should send election observers in January, and just days after senior U.S. officials visited Dhaka to discuss the elections. Senior Awami League leaders condemned the attack on Alam, and police made seven arrests in connection with the attack. But none of this will help the ruling party convince skeptical international interlocutors that the January poll will be free and fair.
India’s opposition alliance. On Tuesday, 26 Indian political parties announced an opposition alliance that plans to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in next year’s general election. The coalition, which calls itself INDIA (an acronym for Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance), includes top opposition leaders from the Congress party, as well as representatives from regional parties.
The BJP remains the favorite to win in 2024, despite losing a state election in Karnataka in May. The opposition alliance has its own challenges, including internal disagreements and the disqualification of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi from political office. It is holding meetings to establish a common platform to counter the BJP, which has been criticized for democratic backsliding. “We are setting aside our political differences to save democracy,” Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge said on Tuesday.
Pakistan catches a break? Pakistan’s economic and political crises seem to be easing, if modestly. Last Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) executive board formally approved a $3 billion package for Pakistan, which should unlock additional aid from key creditors and save the country from a debt default. And last weekend, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif pledged to hand over power next month to a caretaker administration to prepare for elections, in line with the constitution.
Sharif said the handover will happen a few days before the end of the National Assembly’s current five-year term. Elections must take place within 90 days of the government’s resignation, meaning a vote should be expected in November.
Trouble may still lie ahead. The government elected in November could get cold feet and refuse to undertake unpopular austerity measures required by the IMF, as many Pakistani governments have done before. And the political environment remains polarized by a major confrontation between Pakistan’s current leadership and former Prime Minister Imran Khan. It’s very possible that the election loser won’t accept the result.
A massive online security breach has exposed the personal data of around 50 million people in Bangladesh—roughly 30 percent of the country’s population. The target was the government’s Office of the Registrar General. Cybersecurity experts blame the breach, first reported by TechCrunch earlier this month, on government websites’ reliance on “outdated security protocols.”
The incident is politically embarrassing for the national government. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has made major commitments to what her party brands as “Digital Bangladesh”—an effort to strengthen the country’s digital economy and connectivity.
The breach will also deepen existing concerns among the public about online security. Dhaka has cracked down on dissent with a digital security law that targets content critical of the government, and reports earlier this year found that Israeli firms have sold spyware and surveillance technologies to Bangladesh’s government in recent years.
A Dhaka Tribune editorial praises the United Kingdom’s recent characterization of Bangladesh as a key strategic actor in the Indo-Pacific region and argues that Dhaka can leverage its diplomatic partnerships to pursue development goals. “We must continue to put diplomacy and our strategic partnerships with other nations at the heart of our development and nation building initiatives,” it argues.
Researcher Amna Ejaz Rafi defends the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, writing in the Express Tribune. She argues that its critics seek “to postpone the change in international order” by expressing objections to the landmark investment project. “The forces of connectivity and economic integration … are seen as a challenge to [the] global power structure,” she writes.