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Book Review: 'India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours'- Rajiv Bhatia; By Ambassador (Re

C3S Paper No. 0193/2015

‘India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours’; Rajiv Bhatia (Routledge Publications, 2015). 

The name Myanmar evokes no reaction and Burma a faint recognition. Old timers recall their stay in that land with nostalgia followed by long silence to narrate the horrors of Japanese invasion and evacuation and thereafter of those left behind to bear the brunt of nationalisation and statelessness. The media has regrettably consigned Myanmar to the outlier, obsessed as it is with developments elsewhere in the neighbourhood. And there are very few books by prescient Indian authors on the developments in Myanmar. India’s security and development, prosperity and progress; particularly of the North Eastern States of the Union, are closely entwined with the course of internal dynamics in our immediate North-eastern neighbour of Myanmar. And if we consider Myanmar as our gateway to ASEAN and our first port of call in India’s Look East/Act East foreign policy orientation, the strategic location of the country needs no reiteration.

Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia’s tenure as Head of Division dealing with Myanmar in the Ministry of External Affairs; as India’s Ambassador in Yangon; his many visits to Myanmar, as Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs and in delegations; and interactions with the leadership and common man there give him the experience and authority to write on the country. His book India-Myanmar Relations — Changing Contours traces the history of Myanmar, the content of bilateral relations and the impact of an India-China conundrum on not only the internal politics of Myanmar but also the future orientation of India-Myanmar relations.

The timing of the book is significant. It comes on the eve of important local and Parliamentary elections in Myanmar on November 8, 2015, with the all-important Presidential elections to follow in February 2016. The role of Aung San Suu Kyi and the military will become clearer when the final results are tallied. Written in lucid style, with well-researched and analysed scholarly inputs, the diplomat-turned-scholar in Rajiv Bhatia comes to the fore. And the author has used his ringside view of dealing with Myanmar to great advantage. The book is a veritable storehouse of information and should appeal to not only the serious-minded scholar but also to those keen to know about Myanmar.

The eight chapters of the book are evenly divided. Two chapters deal with a historical evolution of Myanmar, with chapter 2 touching on policies of various countries towards Myanmar. Three chapters deal with the course and content of India-Myanmar relations and one chapter refers to the current state of bilateral interplay. The India-Myanmar-China Triangle, as the author calls it, has a chapter. The last chapter offers future directions for India Myanmar relations.

Ambassador Bhatia classifies Myanmar’s post-independence period under four categories: the U Nu era (1948–62), the Ne Win era (1962–88), the transition (1988–90) and the SLORC/SPDC era (1991 onwards). U Nu’s regime was strongly democratic. The Ne Win era saw a tilt towards an intolerant and authoritarian dictatorship with Myanmar slipping into isolationism. Ne Win’s autarchic policies took the country into a cul de sac where China was perhaps the only support. The gradual opening of doors towards democracy saw Myanmar slowly welcoming back friends and investments. A shift towards a perfect democracy, however, is currently constricted by the Constitutional imperatives of a 25 per cent representation of the military through the electoral process in Parliament and restrictions on Presidential candidates — which will all but make Aung San Suu Kyi, if her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), does well in the elections, to cheer from the terraces rather than the playing field.

The civilisational imprint and religious legacy of India on Myanmar should have drawn the two countries closer. Buddhism travelled from India and Sri Lanka to Myanmar. Both countries were victims of colonial yoke. However, while India remained strongly democratic, Myanmar after a few years of democratic existence, fell victim to military dictatorship.

Ambassador Bhatia has devoted considerable attention in his book to the state of bilateral relations between India and Myanmar. India’s relations with Myanmar were somewhat cool and aloof during the 1980s with India’s sympathy on the side of the democratic forces. Realising that sentiment had no place in foreign policy, India commenced a policy of constructive engagement with the Government of Than Shwe in Myanmar. This led to a better balance in bilateral relations offering considerable scope for greater interaction in the political, economic and security spheres. The author calls for greater government-to-government, business-to-business, and people-to-people interaction between India and Myanmar as the way forward in the further development and consolidation of bilateral relations.

High-level visits between the two sides have gained higher traction in recent days. During PM Modi’s meeting with President Thein Sein on the margins of the ASEAN Dialogue meeting, the latter said that there was a lot of commonality between the two countries and saw “the two countries as brothers”.

Security related interaction has been significant. The reaction of Myanmar to action of Indian security forces against insurgent groups was to note “coordination and cooperation” between the armed forces. The invitation to the Indian National Security Adviser to the signing ceremony of a ceasefire between the Myanmar Government and the armed ethnic groups was a positive development.

Bilateral economic cooperation has significant untapped potential. While there is a need to push up commercial interaction, economic cooperation through projects and capacity building calls for serious attention. The clearance by the Indian Cabinet of the financial outlay for the Kaladan Multi-Modal transport project connecting Kolkata with Sittwe port and onwards to Mizoram is welcome. The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway is still ongoing. Infrastructure and connectivity have been accorded significant importance by leadership.

The author has written extensively on the role and importance of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar’s political future and her impact on bilateral relations. While professing warm feelings of friendship and good feelings towards India, Suu Kyi has also expressed “sadness” and “disappointment” at the lack of unconditional support to the forces of democracy in Myanmar. She has called for “transparency” in Indian action against insurgent groups based in Myanmar.

The author has devoted an entire chapter on the cause and effect of Chinese policies and presence in Myanmar. His reference to India’s holding up recognition of the PRC until Burma did so is a revelation. China’s significant presence can be attributed to strong ethnic links across the Northern borders and its singular support during Myanmar’s isolation. Its economic footprint was omnipresent. With President Thein Sein initiating a pragmatic approach towards foreign policy, a nuanced shift from an overweening dependence on China has been noticed (as in the Myitsone project and elsewhere). However, China will continue to have an important role economically, at least for some more time.

The author has been thoughtful in providing a list of bilateral Agreements and MoUs as an Annexe. He has spent considerable effort at including a vast array of cross-references. And the bibliography at the end of the book is extensive. These should provide valuable support to any serious scholar/diplomat/academic to further pursue his research on Myanmar.

[M. Ganapathi is a retired Ambassador who served in the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies.]

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