Monday, November 12, 2007

India-Myanmar Relations Predicament and Prospects

India-Myanmar Relations Predicament and Prospects
Syed Ali Mujtaba


India Myanmar relation is steeped in history. The moment we talk about Myanmar, it's all history that comes to our mind. Whether it's being the mortal abode of the last Mughal King, Bhadur Shah Zafar, or the stories of the splendor of Rangoon where Indians once flourished, or the hazardous trek of many Indians from Burma after its occupation by the Japanese during Second World War, all these forms the part of our folklore. The last powerful memory that remains encrypted in our mind is the 1962 coup in Burma following which Indians were ordered to leave that country empty handed. History seems to have frozen after that; there is hardly any news what's happening on the Burma front.

The endeavor of this paper is to update the audience on the contemporary developments of India - Myanmar relations and the effort is to bring out the nuances of India's foreign policy towards Myanmar.

The executive summery is; India faces a moral dilemma whether to support the pro democracy forces in Myanmar or to adhere to the principals of realpolitik and engage the military regime in its national interest. India's foreign policy makers prefers to follow the mid path or "Madhyam Marga" as its called and chooses to engage the military regime without abandoning its support to the pro democracy forces in Myanmar.

This paper begins with a peep into Myanmar's land and people, goes on to trace its political history since independence and analyses the problems faced by Myanmar. It highlights the history of India-Myanmar relations and talks about gas pipeline and issues that surrounds Indo - Myanmar relations. The paper updates on the developmental activities going on between the two countries and touches upon India- Myanmar Naval Cooperation and the China factor. It finally wraps up with a summery and a conclusion.

Myanmar at a Glance

Myanmar sits at the crossroads of Asia's two great civilizations; India and China. It stretches from the Andaman Sea in the south right up into the Eastern Himalayan mountain range in the north. Steeped into history and home to 135 different ethnic groups, Myanmar's vibrant culture provides all the traditional delights of Asia. With spectacular monuments, ancient cities, virgin jungles, snow-capped mountains, pristine beaches, Myanmar remains one of the most mysterious and undiscovered destinations in the world.

Yangon, the cosmopolitan city of Myanmar, still maintains its colonial charm. The magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda dominates the city's skyline. Mandalay is another important city in Myanmar. Its royal palace and impressive surrounding sit at the foot of the imposing Mandalay Hill. Another city Bagan, is one of the remarkable archaeological sights in Asia where ancient temples dot the landscape. Mrauk-U, often touted as an interesting alternative to Bagan, has the 15th Century ruins of the Arakan Kingdom.

Myanmar has an area of 6, 76,552 sq km or 2, 61,218 sq miles. It shares common borders with India and Bangladesh in the West, China in the North and Northeast, Laos and Thailand in the East.

Myanmar has a strategic importance in the Indian Ocean region as it opens up in the Bay of Bengal in the west and the Andaman Sea in the south.

Official estimates in 2002 put Myanmar population at 52.2 million with an annual growth rate of 2.02 per cent. Life expectancy is 54 years (men), 60 years (women). The urban population is about 30 per cent.

Even though endowed with rich natural resources, especially oil and gas, teakwood and gem, pulses, beans, fish, rice and opiates as items of exports, Myanmar lies in the bracket of medium human development category ranked 127 out of 173 countries. (UNDP report 2002)

Buddhism is practiced by 89.3% of the population, Christianity 5.6%, Islam by 3.8%, Hinduism 0.5%.

The official language of Myanmar is Burmese and spoken by over 80 per cent of the population, even as each ethnic group has its own language.

Myanmar is divided in 14 administrative divisions and has 8 major ethnic nationalities: ethnic Burmans account for roughly 60% of the population, with the Shan, the Karen, the Kachin, and the Karenni being the next most numerous.

Pyinmana, some 390-kilometer north of Yangon is the new capital of Myanmar that has become operational since February 2006.

A military junta called, State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) runs the government and General Than Shwe, is the chairman of the SPDC and also the head of the state.

Burma since Independence

The post independence history of Burma can be divided into three phases. First phase from 1948 to 1962, second from 1962 to 1988 and third phase from 1988 till date.

After the Word War II, General Aung San, architect of Burma's independence and revered as the leader of the independence struggle, was able to win the trust of the ethnic nationalities and unified them with the Burmans at the Panglong Conference in February 1947. All the nationalities participated in that conference and demanded independence of Burma from the colonial rule. The British Government acceded to their demand and a Constitution was drafted in 1947 and Burma was granted independence on January 4, 1948. However, before the Constitution could be put into effect, General Aung San was assassinated along with most of his cabinet members on July 19, 1947.

The period from 1948-62 was marred by widespread conflict and internal struggle emanating out of constitutional disputes. There was persistent division among political and social groups that undermined any democratic system of governance to strike roots in Burma.

A strong leadership at this stage could have checked fissiparous tendencies but weak constitutional authority contributed to the erosion of trust among the nationalities. The military was called on several occasions to assume the role of caretaker government and through military campaigns the control of the central authority was reinforced.

The military took over power in 1949 and 1958 but handed it back to the civilian government after restoring law and order. In 1958 it stepped down after remaining in power for almost 18 months.

This trend however was halted in 1962 when General Ne Win staged a coup on the pretext of saving the country from the break up and displaced Prime Minister U Nu. The military General assumed absolute power and abolished the 1947constitution and established a military government with socialist economic priorities.

Like any other military ruler, Ne Win too sought to dominate every aspect of the Burmese life. He crushed all the parties except his own the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) and hobnobbed with socialism. This meant tight control over the economy, denial of liberty, and enforced isolation from the rest of the world.

This hardly provided any relief to the economically bedraggled country. The year 1962 saw the first demonstration against the Ne Win regime. Henceforth, things did not move on a happy pace and the mismanagement of the economy added up to the people's woes. General New Win tried to address these issue by nationalizing banks, demonetizing currency but could not improve the situation. There was a wide spread demonstrations in 1964, 1974, 1987 and 1988.

In March 1988 economic situation worsened and student unrest broke out in Rangoon. The demonstration increased in size, despite repeated military crackdowns. On August 8, 1988, military supposedly killed more than 1,000 agitators, mostly students. However, this did not dampen their spirits and in September 1988, the agitation reached a point that General Ne Win had to resign.

A military junta called State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took over the power from General Ne Win and in a bid to restore order sent the army to suppress the ongoing agitation. It's estimated that more than 3,000 people were killed during the military crackdown from 1988 to 1990.

It was during this time that Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San, made her first political speech at a public rally in Rangoon and assumed the role of the opposition leader in Myanmar.

The SLOARC around this time ruled Myanmar through martial law. It abolished Ne Win's constitution abandoned his socialist practices and also deposed his Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). In 1989, the SOLARC changed the English name, Burma to Burmese name, Myanmar. It also changed Rangoon to its Burmese name Yangon. The SOLARC finally announced national parliamentary elections on May 27, 1990.

The successor to the BSPP and military patronized party called the National Union Party (NUP), and the Aung San Suki led National League for Democracy (NLD) were the main contender for the election. The NLD routed the junta supported NUP party and registered a landslide victory, wining 392 of the total 485 seats.

However, belying all fair play and justice, the SOLARC refused to call the Parliament and quashed the electoral verdict on the ground that Aung San-Suuki can not hold power since she was married to an English man. The SOLARC also disapproved her idea to make Myanmar a federal state, reasoning that it would lead to the disintegration of the country. The military rulers defended their action calling national interest to be higher than an individual and reminded the people of military's role in saving the country from breaking up in 1949, 1958 and 1962.

The SLORC also started propaganda through state controlled media. It launched a campaign against the civilian government alleging it to be conspiring with the insurgents. To gain legitimacy, history was rewritten denying any role of the military in the civilian massacre of 1988. The SOLRC further tried to gain legitimacy by extending state support to the Buddhist Sangha.

Since 1990's Myanmar under SOLARC has been moving away from socialism and started limitedly opening up the economy. As a result India, Thailand, South Korea, has entered into Myanmar in a big way. The new trend was given legitimacy in 1997 when SOLARC changed its name to SPDC (State Peace and Development Council). In the same year, Myanmar was admitted to the grouping ASEAN or Association of South East Asian Nation.

Notwithstanding this, the fact remains that Myanmar's condition is far from normal under the SPDC rule. The Military rulers have defied all the international pressure for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar and refuses to release Aung San Suu Kyi. The pro democracy leader has been virtually under house arrest since 1990 except once in 1995 and then in 2002.

In 2002, the SPDC released Aung San Suu Kyi and held talks with her on the future role of the democratic forces in Myanmar. During that period she was allowed to travel inside the country and address the people. In one of her country tours, in May 2003, her convoy was attacked and some of her supporters were injured. This gave the military once again the pretext to detain her. Since then she has been under house arrest and from there continues to be a railing point for the pro democracy movement in her country and elsewhere.

Another development since in Myanmar 1990 was series of cease-fire pacts singed between the insurgent groups and the military Junta. It's reported that out more than 17 insurgents groups signed the ceasefire agreement. However, some major groups refused to give up their armed resistance.

In 1993, General Than Shwe announced establishment of a National Convention or a reconciliation process aimed at drawing up a new constitution for Myanmar. He also outlined a seven-point plan to restore democracy in Myanmar. The drafting of such constitution is going on since then and all democratic process has been put on hold till its completion.

The latest buzz is, Junta is calling the convention of the ethnic groups in October 2006 to hammer out a consensus for dawning up the new constitution. The military claims that it would conduct the fresh elections under the new constitution where democratic forces will have a limited role to play. The Junta has also hinted that the new constitution envisages making Myanmar a totalitarian state. The big question is, will the ethnic groups endorse such idea? Can any election be held under such constitution? All this remains to be seen in the days ahead.

Analyzing Myanmar's problems

There are two fundamental problems that Myanmar is grappling with today. One is the degree of autonomy to be given to the ethnic nationalities and other is how to improve the country's economic situation.

Since the country's independence, Myanmar's central authority had an acrimonious relationship with the ethnic groups calling for maximum autonomy of their regions. The democratic forces propose to solve the ethnic rigmarole by opting for a federal solution and giving autonomy to the level of financial independence to the nationalities. The military government is opposed to such idea as it may lead to the disintegration of the country. However, it has not been able to provide an alternative paradigm how the aspirations of the ethic groups could be assuaged under a totalitarian system. Myanmar's other big problem is its depleted economy that triggers popular discontentment time and again. The dilemma with the Junta is it cannot take extensive economic reforms due to its obvious political and social repercussions. The World Bank report suggests that Myanmar needs massive financial support from the world bodies to improve its over all economic situation. However, the funds are subjected to the civilian rule, respect of human rights and proper integration of the ethnic minorities. All these look a very tall order under the current dispensation in Myanmar.

India- Burma Relations

India enjoyed friendly relations with Burma from 1948 to 1962. Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Prime Minister U Nu were instrumental in cementing initial political and diplomatic ties between two countries. India provided Burma with military and economic assistance during this period.

India's relations with Burma totally froze after its military take over in 1962. General Ne Win who seized power, nationalized all private enterprise in Burma and ordered expulsion of the Indians. This created a bad blood in India-Burma relations. India had to arrange ferries and aircrafts to lift its citizens out of Burma. India's war with China in 1962 and military regime siding with the Chinese too had repercussions on India -Burma relations. General Ne Win's idea of cocooning Burma from the rest of the world further distanced India from Burma.

During Indira Gandhi's rule, India avoided any contact with Burma and was critical of its suppression of democratic movement and maintaining a poor human rights record.

There was no change in India's policy towards Burma during Rajiv Gandhi's regime. Rajiv Gandhi criticized the SOLARC for assuming power in 1988 and extended moral support to the pro democracy movement in Burma. His government also provided thousands of Burmese citizens with "refugee status" in India after they fled Myanmar in wake of military repression.

India's policy of engaging Myanmar

However, due to changing realities, Indo - Myanmar relations saw a major shift during Narshima Rao's regime. There were three stated reasons for the shift in India's policy towards Myanmar. One was to contain China. Second was to check insurgency, drug trafficking, and smuggling in India's northeastern states. Third was the Look East policy, where Myanmar played a central role if India had to reach out to the South East Asian countries.

So it's with these stated objectives, India started to cultivate friendly relationship with Myanmar. India's then Foreign Secretary JN Dixit visited Yangon in March 1993 and a bilateral agreement to control drug trafficking and border trade were signed. India and Myanmar again held talks in Yangon in 1994 and a Memorandum of Understanding to maintain border tranquility was signed. India assured Yangon that it would not interfere in Myanmar's domestic affairs and Yangon assured New Delhi that Myanmar's proximity with China would not be directed against India.

However, India- Myanmar relations once again deteriorated in 1995, when New Delhi conferred Jawaharlal Nehru Award for promoting international understanding on Aung San Suu Kyi. Myanmar's military junta protested New Delhi's move but despite such irritants, India kept open the political and diplomatic channels with Myanmar.

During Gujaral period, India slipped back to its old policy of supporting the pro democracy movement in Myanmar. The National Front government laid emphasis on human rights and restoration for democracy for improving India- Myanmar relations.

The real shift in India Myanmar relations came when the BJP led government assumed power in 1998. Since then a new momentum was infused in the dormant Indo-Myanmar relations. Fresh diplomatic engagement with Myanmar was made to achieve India's stated objective outlined during Narshima Rao's regime.

India's foreign secretary, K. Ragunath, visited Myanmar in February 1998. He discussed issues like strategic cooperation on internal security, border management and modalities to enhance border trade. To keep the momentum high, India- Myanmar foreign secretary meeting was held in Yangon in August 2000. Discussions were held on effective border management that included steps to curb drug trafficking and smuggling. The two countries agreed to strengthen the infrastructure and step up security to promote border trade.

During Vajpayee era India's foreign minister Jaswant Singh visited Myanmar and singed number of agreements. India's chief of armed forces General VP Malik also visited Myanmar during this time.

As a sequel to these visits made by the Indian dignitaries, Myanmar's foreign minister Win Aung visited India in January 2003. He was first senior leader from Myanmar to visit India after more than 15 years. The two countries signed a protocol to establish regular bilateral ministerial consultations and agreed cooperation in projects related to infrastructure, energy and information technology.

The high point in Indo-Myanmar relation was the visit by General Than Shwe to New Delhi in October 2004. It was for the first time that the head-of-state of Myanmar had visited India in 24 years. Several agreements like setting up cultural exchanges, cooperation in non-traditional security issues, Tamanthi hydroelectric project in Myanmar were signed during his visit. The two sides explored how to expand cooperation in areas like, industry, energy, rail transportation, communications, science and technology and health. India raised the issue of insurgency in its northeast region with bases in Myanmar and the military ruler assured to take necessary steps to oust the rebels from its soil.

Keeping up the contacts robust, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held talks with his Myanmarese counterpart Soe Win on the sidelines of 11th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur in December 2005. Indian Prime Minister suggested to Soe Win to start a national reconciliation process and work for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. He also conveyed India's desire for the freedom of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The India Prime Minister also raised issue of insurgency in the northeast region of the country.

India's pressure to curb insurgency bore results in January 2006 when India Myanmar jointly held military operation to flush out the rebels inside Myanmar's territory.

In the ongoing high-level exchanges, Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam visited Myanmar in April 2006. This was first ever visit by an Indian President to Myanmar since independence. The high point of his visit was signing of three important agreements in natural gas, satellite-based remote sensing and promotion of Buddhist studies. During Kalam's visit, new vistas of cooperation in IT, automobile, textiles, agro-based industries, river and land-based transportation system were explored. Indian President promised all help to Myanmar in the institution building process and also in restoring the democratic system of governance. He also expressed concern over the welfare of Aung Sang Suu Kyi and requested her release. The SPDC chief assured Kalam that he would take India's help in implementing his proposed seven point plan for democracy and may give a sympathetic consideration to India's request of the release of the pro democracy leader.

India's Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran followed up Kalam's trip by visiting Yangon in June 2006. This was the seventh round of foreign office consultations between the two countries. The two sides took stock of the common security challenges posed by the insurgents in the northeast region. Reconstruction of the Settwe port in Myanmar, Kaladan Multi-Modal transport project and Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road project were also discussed during his visit. The high point of Saran's visit was the India-Myanmar gas pipeline project.

India and Myanmar Gas

Myanmar supposedly has world's tenth-biggest gas reserves estimated to be more than 90 trillion cubic feet. India has evinced keen desire to procure gas from Myanmar to meet it energy needs. India's ONGC Videsh Ltd and Gas Authority of India Limited together hold 30 per cent stakes in the exploration and production of gas in Myanmar's A1 and A3 off -shore blocks located in Sitwe area of the Arakan state.

India however faces the problem of the transportation of the gas from Myanmar. A Bangladeshi company Mohona Holdings Limited mooted the idea of tri-nation pipeline project involving Myanmar, Bangladesh and India way back in 1997. Under this proposal, the 290 Kilometer pipeline would run through the Arakan state in Burma, via Indian state of Mizoram and Tripura and to cross over to Bangladesh, before entering back into Indian state of West Bengal. The three countries singed an agreement on this project estimated to be $ 1 billion plus in Yangon on February 2005.

The construction of the India- Myanmar pipeline was scheduled to start in 2006 and the delivery of the gas was to commence from 2009. However, this project got entangled in political row after Bangladesh sought other concessions from India to allow the passage of the pipeline through its territory. India rejected Bangladesh's demands that bilateral issues cannot become part of a trilateral agreement and decided for an alternative route to bypass Bangladesh.

A technical consultant company SUZ Tractebel from Brussels (Belgium) was engaged by the Gas Authority of India to prepare a detailed feasibility report for an alternative pipeline route to Myanmar. The European company has come up with the new route that would link Myanmar's Sitwe area with Jagdishpur-Haldia pipeline line at Gaya in Bihar. The 1,400-km pipeline would pass via Mizoram, Tripura, Assam, and West Bengal to enter Bihar. This route is almost three times the distance of the tri nation pipeline and may cost India $ 3 billion plus.

India's decision to bypass Bangladesh was taken after Myanmar started raising doubts over India's seriousness to transport gas from its gas fields. Myanmar gave ultimatum to India that if it does not decide fast, it might consider selling gas to some other countries.

Even as the pipeline project is still in its finalization stage, India has offered hard cash to buy Myanmar gas and import it through ship. India has invited bids for long-term chartering service of a CNG ship for the transportation of the Myanmar gas. Such ship when operational may become first of its kind to ferry such huge amount of gas in the Bay of Bengal.

Some pro-democracy activists and international human rights watchers are opposed to the idea of India buying gas from Myanmar and they want it to be put on hold till democracy is restored in Myanmar.

Issues around Indo-Myanmar relations

India - Myanmar share 1,643 kilometer-long common border along the Potkai Hills. India's four states; Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh share international border with Myanmar. Issues that surround Indo-Myanmar relations are; cross border insurgency, narcotics trade, border posts, border fencing border trade etc. Cross border militancy: India faces insurgency problem in its states of Nagaland, Manipur and parts of Mizoram across the Myanmar borders, whereas Myanmar faces insurgency from Naga (Khaplang group) from the Indian side. India-Myanmar Army has agreed to strengthen the mechanism to exchange intelligence along the international border to check cross border crimes. In January 2006, Myanmar and Indian Army conducted joint operation to flush out NSCN-K rebels where helicopter gun-ships were reportedly used.

Narcotics Trade: India faces the problem of narco-terrorism through the porous Myanmar border wherein drugs are smuggled to India and exchanged for arms and ammunition. According to a report, the Indian army last year alone, seized drugs worth over 30 crore rupees in the international market from the Myanmar border. Myanmar remains the primary source of drugs problem in Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland. Number of agreements has been signed between India and Myanmar since 1993 to collaborate to fight the drugs menace along their common border.

Border post:
India- Myanmar army is currently holding border post meetings at regular intervals at Moreh-Tamu in Manipur. The two countries have recently agreed to open four more border posts to facilitate army meetings. They are at Lungwa in Nagaland's Mon district, Bihang in Manipur's Churachandpur district and at Sapi and Zokawathar in Mizoram. Among the border posts, Zokwathar, Moreh and Lungwa are also international trade centers.

Border Fencing: Border fencing is important to check narco-terrorism along India-Myanmar border. Recently, India has sanctioned to raise the iron fencing, along Mizoram's 404-km border with Myanmar. It has also ordered the fencing of the 14 kilometers of the porous international boundary at Moreh in Manipur.

Infrastructure Development

There has been flurry of activity going on in the field of infrastructure, development between India and Myanmar. India has offered $35million as financial assistance to Myanmar for its various development projects. This includes multi-modal transport system, road, railways and telephone network.

Road: India is exploring a transport corridor through Myanmar, a potential gateway to East Asian countries to form a free-trade region. The 'trilateral highway' connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand is being discussed. The National Highway-39 that connects Manipur with Myanmar is considered as gateway to ASEAN nations. Currently a road from the border town of Moreh in Manipur to Kangla that's 110-kms-long is operational. With plans to build another road via Mizoram, another gateway for bilateral and regional trade promotion is in the offing. Another road connecting Zakhaotar in Mizoram with the Chin state of Myanmar is being talked about. India's Border Roads Organization has started the survey work of the 225 km stretch road that would connect Mizoram to Tidium in Myanmar.

Rail: India is playing a big part in helping Myanmar to augment its rail infrastructure needs, supplying rails and rolling stock and assisting in upgrading its rail network. This assistance is part of the ambitious Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) project that would link New Delhi with Hanoi. India has made available a line of credit of US $ 56 million to Myanmar to build a modern railway utility along the northwestern and central flanks of its neighbor. India is also assisting in upgrading the Yangon-Mandalay sector of Myanmar railways. Indian Railways has initiated the preliminary tasks to extend the broad-gauge track from Jiribam in southwest Manipur to Moreh that's scheduled to be complete by March 2010. Waterways: The Kaladan multi model transport project between India and Myanmar is a combination of rivers, transport, building of highway and natural gas pipeline projects. It's commissioned in the southern part of Mizoram with total outlay of $ 100 million. As a part of this project, India is planning to rebuild Myanmar's Sittwe port, situated on the mouth of the Kaladan River. The port is intended to link Mizoram to the Bengal Sea via Arakan's Kaladan River that connects to Assam's river in India. India is keen to rebuild this port for the transportation of gas and other natural resources from Arrakan to its northeastern states.

India Myanmar Naval Cooperation

The strategic importance of Myanmar in the Indian Ocean has made India initiate naval cooperation with Myanmar. A number of Indian naval personal have been visiting Myanmar off late. Indian Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash first visited Myanmar in 2003 and then again in January 2006 where he presented a consignment of communication equipment to his counterparts. His latest visit became controversial because it was reportedly to discuss the sale BN-2 Islander aircraft to Myanmar. This was objected by Britain that originally supplied it to India. The British High Commissioner to India, Sir Michael Arthur issued stern warning that if New Delhi went ahead with the sale, Britain would stop the supply of spares for Indian Navy's Islander aircraft. He added that Britain was bound by EU guidelines that no military dealings have to be done with Myanmar either directly or through third party.

In spite of such hiccups India and Myanmar naval cooperation is forgoing ahead. Two Indian warships, INS Ranjit and ISN Kuthar did joint naval maneuvers with Mayanmar's navy in December 2005. The Indian warships' visit to Myanmar ports was the third, in the past three years. In December 2002, an Indian naval fleet, comprising a submarine and two destroyers, berthed at the Yangon Port. Then in September 2003, two more Indian warships carried out four-day joint naval maneuvers with the Myanmar navy. In exchange, a Burmese corvette was at Port Blair to take part in "Milan 2006." This was for the first time in four decades that a Myanmar ship visited a foreign port.

The China Factor

Due to Myanmar's strategic location, China has always been key in India-Myanmar relations. Security and strategic interests of India and China seem to clash with each other over Myanmar. While China has gained a lot siding the military regime since 1962, India has lost all its leverage supporting the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar. China taking advantage of Myanmar's splendid isolation with rest of the world has developed a deep involvement in Burma. Much to India's strategic nightmare, China on Myanmar's Coco Island has built its naval listening and weather posts. Also, China and Myanmar have agreed to establish a 30,000-square-mile offshore economic zone to facilitate exploitation of natural resources. This may have bearing on India's maritime and economic interests in the Indian Ocean. India's strategic thinking towards Myanmar is also guided by Sino-Pakistan, Sino-Myanmar relations. India's warming up relation with Myanmar is to check Chinese free run in that country. Although China and Myanmar have drawn closer for various reasons, Myanmar is keen to develop ties with India since it does not want to remain isolated with the rest of world. Myanmar is aware of its strategic importance to both India and China and when it comes to selling of its natural resources it has considerable bargaining options with both these countries.


There are few salient features in the India-Myanmar relations. First, India faces a moral dilemma whether to side with the pro democratic forces or engage the military government. The call of the conscience is to side with the democratic movement but the demand of the realpolitik is to discard the moral high ground and engage the military regime in Myanmar.

There are three key factors that are compelling India to develop a proactive relation with Myanmar. First 'Look East Policy' to reach out to the ASEAN, second coordinated effort with Myanmar to develop its northeast region and third strategic policy to contain Chinese influence over Myanmar.

In India's look east policy, the trilateral highway between India, Myanmar and Thailand plays a major role to reach the South East Asian countries. So is the Trans Asian railway that is to connect New Delhi with Hanoi.

A deep economic relationship with Myanmar in India's view would give a tremendous boost to the development of its northeast region. The planned infrastructure development of road, rail and waterways are all steps in this direction.

India sees China's involvement in Myanmar having geo- strategic implications for the region and does not want to give it a free hand. It therefore would like to engage Myanmar through greater economic strategic cooperation.

Apart from bilateral relations India is also engaging Myanmar through ASEAN and BIMSTEC. India's engagement with Myanmar through ASEAN began in 1997, when it was admitted as its full dialogue partner and in the same year Myanmar became its full member. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) set up in 1997 is another forum through which India is engaging Myanmar. Its not only India that is after Myanmar, its also Myanmar that's after India. Facing sanctions from European Union and America, Myanmar wants to develop deep relations with India for economic reasons. India is one of Myanmar's major trading partners and fourth largest market for its goods. The most startling fact is bilateral trade between India and Myanmar has grown nearly eight-fold in recent years. In 2004-05 bilateral trade has reached over $500 million and two sides have set target of $1 billion for the year 2006-2007. India's policy of engaging Myanmar has definitely paid dividends even as the tug of war between the call of consciousness and realpolitik continues.
Syed Ali Mujtaba Ph.D. is a working journalist based in Chennai. He works for Mizzima news service that specializes on Myanmar related news. This paper was presented at the Observer Research Foundation,(ORF) Chennai. India. The author can be contacted at

No comments: