Myanmar, geographically the closest Southeast Asian country, has a high priority in India’s regional policies. It is a bridge between the countries comprising the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (where Myanmar has observer status) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. India and Myanmar share long land and maritime boundaries. Myanmarese ports provide India with the shortest route to some of its northeastern states. Myanmar’s geostrategic importance for India thus needs no overemphasizing.
In the initial period after Independence, Indo-Myanmar relations were very close. But it was negatively affected by the seizure of power by the military in Myanmar in 1962. A period of intense xenophobia and insularity pushed the country into near isolation. Domestic policies, including the expulsion of ethnic Indians and later a closer Sino-Myanmarese axis, soured the relationship with India. There was no break in relations, but they were maintained at the formal level and there was not too much economic, political or technological cooperation between the two countries. When the generals suppressed the popular uprising of 1988 and nullified the election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, India gave asylum to fleeing students from Myanmar, a base for their resistance movement and supported a newspaper and a radio station that propagated the democratic voice. Then reality intruded. India’s strategic rivals, China and Pakistan, began to court the Myanmarese generals and were rewarded with major economic and geopolitical concessions. So India’s policy underwent a 180-degree change. From standing up for democracy and the resultant estrangement, New Delhi settled for a policy of aiding the military regime in Yangon. The then Indian prime minister, P.V Narasimha Rao decided to activate relations with Myanmar. This was part of a larger ‘Look East’ policy.
Even then bilateral relations in the mid-1990s witnessed a series of hiccups. For example, India’s decision to award the Jawaharlal Nehru memorial prize for international understanding to Suu Kyi, overruling the reservations of Myanmar’s military regime, infuriated the Myanmarese government. However, by the end of 1999, interactions between foreign ministers of the two countries at meetings at ASEAN fora removed the misunderstandings. Since 2000, relations between the two countries have stabilized and civil and military officials have met regularly to take bilateral ties further.
India has been slower than China to develop infrastructure in Myanmar and to benefit from its natural resources, but appears to want to redress the balance. It has announced it would lend $500 million to Myanmar to help develop projects, including irrigation works. Trade and economic cooperation between the two countries has been growing steadily. The trade turnover, which was just $13 million in 1980-81, now stands at $1.5 billion.
Myanmar has huge oil and gas reserves and is an attractive target for India’s energy diplomacy. Apart from security and border issues, India is looking forward to cooperation in cross-border development projects, oil and gas, power, railways, telecommunication, education and training. According to the Indian ministry of external affairs, relations with Myanmar have become truly multifaceted, “with cooperation in a range of developmental and other projects in the areas of roads, power, hydro-carbon, oil refinery, transmission lines, telecommunications and information technology”.
What led India to take a second look at its policy towards Myanmar and decide upon the policy of ‘constructive engagement’? The objectives of reviving relations with Myanmar, according to the former Indian foreign secretary, J.N. Dixit, were, first, to create cooperative arrangements between the two countries to counter secessionist activities on both sides of the border, and second, to ensure that Myanmar’s security and foreign policies remained balanced in terms of Myanmar’s relations with China and India. A third objective was to enhance mutual cooperation in controlling the illegal trafficking of drugs from the ‘Golden Triangle’. Another was to create equations with Myanmar to safeguard India’s security interests in the Bay of Bengal and the shipping lanes.
India and Myanmar share a long unfenced border, allowing militants from the Northeast to use the adjoining country as a springboard to carryout guerrilla strikes on Indian soldiers. At least five major militant groups from India’s Northeast have training camps in the dense jungles of Sagaing in northern Myanmar. Myanmarese rebels, primarily the Chins and the Arakanese, have likewise often taken shelter on the Indian side. It is in the interest of both countries to fight these insurgent groups in a coordinated manner. Coordination between Indian and Myanmarese security forces has grown dramatically in recent years, especially since 2004 when Than Shwe visited India. In September 2011, the Myanmar arm launched two offensives in Sagaing against Indian militant groups. In spite of the fact that Myanmar has been taking action against Indian insurgents in its territory, their continued presence there has made some Indian officials sceptical. However limited the results are, in the absence of the cooperation India has received from Myanmar in combating insurgency, the situation would clearly have been worse. India-Myanmar cooperation is also essential to control narcotics trafficking and to curb the proliferation of small arms in the region.
The China factor heavily influences India’s foreign policy in general, its Myanmar policy being no exception. India is also concerned about Pakistan’s long standing military ties with Myanmar. The India-Myanmar relationship presents a complex scenario, given the Sino-Myanmar, Sino-Pakistan and Pakistan-Myanmar triangle of relations.
For several years New Delhi supported Suu Kyi and the democratic movement in Myanmar, but accepted realpolitik after finding that Beijing was forging strategic links with Yangon. When the American president, Barack Obama, called on India to back American policies on Myanmar, Indian officials made it clear that India was not looking to modify its foreign policy even in lieu of American support for a permanent United Nations security council seat. The United States of America and other Western countries that in the past shunned contact with Myanmar have taken a positive view of the winds of political change blowing across the strategically important Southeast Asian country and have accordingly tailored their policies.
China has cast a long shadow over India’s Myanmar policy, but does not completely envelop it. A stable, economically vibrant and independent Myanmar would be in China’s as well as India’s interests. Symptomatic of the delicate balancing act that New Delhi has to perform, the visit to India of the Myanmar Opposition leader, Suu Kyi, after a gap of more than four decades is both actually and potentially important in determining the future direction and shape of India’s Myanmar policy.