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India-China-Myanmar Relations

(Based on keynote address delivered by the writer at an Interaction on “Emerging India-China-Myanmar Relations”, jointly organised by the Chennai Centre For China Studies ( and the Department of International Studies of Stella Maris College, Chennai, at the college on July 19,2007)

Since the World War II, Myanmar, better known the world over as Burma, had never attracted so much international attention as now. Actually, there are reasons, both global and local, for this development. The rise of China as a major global economic power and the unlocking of India’s potential to grow as yet another global economic power, are redefining international relationships in South and Southeast Asia. Myanmar is now viewed as a critical area of interest to China and India. It is of special interest to the U.S. which would like to check the over-riding influence of China in this region while cruising on its journey to the status of a contending global power.

While China has developed close political, military and economic relations with Myanmar, India is in the process of following suit. A study of India-Myanmar and Sino-Myanmar relations offer some interesting aspects of how they are adopting the geo-strategic setting and political environment of the region to their advantage.

Geo-strategic Reality

Myanmar shares common borders with five countries: Bangladesh 193 km, China 2,185 km, India 1,463 km, Laos 235 km, and Thailand 1,800 km. India dominates Myanmar’s western borders, just as China dominates its northeastern borders. Thailand borders the entire eastern part of Myanmar except for the narrow strip that borders Laos and Thailand. This makes Myanmar a strategic land bridge linking South, and Southeast Asia.

As a littoral of the Indian Ocean, Myanmar’s strategic value further increases. Its 1930 km long coastline dominates the eastern arch of the Bay of Bengal, leaning on to the Malacca Strait. Thus Myanmar provides China the shortest land and sea access to South Asia, just as it provides convenient external land and sea communication options to India’s landlocked northeastern states. Myanmar’s ocean boundaries are barely 30 km from the Andaman Islands increasing its maritime security potential.

Both sides of the regions bordering Myanmar are mostly populated by ethnic communities with their own distinct ethnic, religious and linguistic identities from the rest of the countries. However, the majority Burmese population, who are Buddhists, lives in the fertile and more developed southern Myanmar with easier access from China. Thus the northern tribal regions of Myanmar have suffered neglect and remain under developed. This has given rise to a sense of alienation among ethnic tribes, many of who had waged relentless wars for their independence. Notable among them are the Nagas, Kachins and Chins bordering India, Arakanese bordering Bangladesh, Lisus, Kachins and Shans bordering China, and the Shans and Karens bordering Thailand. Thus ethnic militancy has always affected Mynamar’s democratic governance, destabilising the country.

Most of Myanmar’s mountain ranges and major river systems run north-south. This makes construction of road communication and movement from India’s east to Myanmar against the grain of the country, difficult. At the same time, it facilitates easier movement from the Chinese border in the northeast, and provides for natural flow of traffic. The Chinese have used this favourable terrain configuration to build road from the Chinese border to Mandalay in the heart of Myanmar and onward to the coast. As Myanmar provides the shortest access from mainland China to India’s eastern borders, these developments have special strategic significance.

India’s northeastern states bordering Myanmar are not as well developed as the Yunnan province of China bordering Myanmar in the northeast. China has found it useful to link the development of Yunnan region jointly with Myanmar and Laos. Thus the two-way border trade and commerce is qualitatively and quantitatively better with China than with India.

India-Myanmar Relations

India-Myanmar relations have a long history of substantive political, cultural, religious and social interaction. During the British colonial period, Myanmar was administered as a part of British India till 1935. Till the end of the Second World War, Indian traders, professionals and administrators had followed the British to work in Myanmar. The Indian freedom movement inspired the freedom struggle in Myanmar. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Aung San, who spearheaded the freedom struggle, had built close personal relationship between them.

After Burma became independent in 1948, the fledgling democracy led by Prime Minister U Nu sought the advice and counsel of Pandit Nehru on more than one occasion. They built a close rapport and the two countries benefited from this relationship. However, Burma’s democratic experience from 1948 to 62 was never a success. Political rivalry, factionalism, and corruption coupled with the ever growing ethnic and communist insurgencies made democratic rule ineffective. However, for the first decade and a half when democracy struggled to articulate itself, the Burma-India relationship drifted apart.

Gen Ne Win, the Burmese army chief, who seized power and ruled the country from 1962 to 88, was essentially a xenophobic leader. In the words of JN Dixit, India’s former Foreign Secretary, Ne Win’s rule was characterised by correct but not close relations between India and Burma. However, India’s reservations about the Myanmar military regime’s violent suppression of the peoples’ movement for democracy from 1988 onwards and the incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi soured the relationship between 1989 and 1992. India also provided sanctuary and financial assistance to fleeing pro-democracy activists.

In a marked departure from the past, India’s Myanmar policy had been undergoing a radical change since 1992. The new policy focused purely on India’s strategic and economic considerations based on pragmatic grounds. Myanmar bordered India’s sensitive northeastern states. Myanmar’s northern borders abutting China also constituted a tri-junction of India’s eastern border. It forms a strategic bridge between South Asia and South East Asia making it a vital area of influence for India’s security. There had been a phenomenal growth in Chinese influence in Myanmar particularly after the western nations slapped a ban on sale of arms to Myanmar in 1989. This was a matter of serious concern as it brought the threat from Chinese mainland nearer home to the northeast. Moreover, Myanmar’s support was considered essential for curbing the drug traffic and the Myanmar based insurgency threats to India’s northeast.

Since then, the successive Indian Governments, have embarked upon building a broad based relationship with Myanmar touching upon defence, trade and commerce, energy sector, and developmental assistance and confidence building at top levels. While Myanmar welcomed India’s interest and expressed its readiness to cooperate with India on strategic issues and in increasing economic and technological cooperation in all spheres, the regime cautioned against Indian interference in its internal affairs relating to release of Aung San Suu Kyi and restoration of democracy. The military junta reacted adversely when India conferred the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding to Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995. This made the military regime suspicious of India’s ganging up with the West against it. As a result, India has jettisoned its support for the democratic movement in Myanmar. It has progressively withdrawn the succour provided to the Myanmar leaders who had taken refuge in India.

India’s Policy Considerations

After liberalisation of Indian economy from 1992 onwards, India started looking at the lucrative markets of ASEAN region as part of the ‘Look East Policy’.Following the admission of Myanmar as a member of the ASEAN in 1996 its importance in furthering India’s trade with ASEAN increased.

Development of India’s seven Northeastern states has remained stagnant resulting in the alienation of sections of society and encouraging the growth of insurgency. Development of their land and sea links through Myanmar could end isolation of these states and wean them away from insurgency. Some of the insurgent groups like the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) operate from sanctuaries in Myanmar. Better relations and coordination with the regime in Myanmar could put an end to the operation of such insurgencies.

Myanmar’s abundant reserves of natural gas waiting to be exploited, could help India in meeting its ever increasing demand for energy resources as the economy keeps growing at a fast pace.

Growth of India-Myanmar Relations

In keeping with these considerations, India has been focusing on giving substance to India-Myanmar relationship with specific actions. There have been a number of high level visits between the leaders of the two countries. Sr Gen Than Shwe, Myanmar’s Head of State, visited India in October 2004. President APJ Abdul Kalam visited Yangon in March 2006. Visits of ministers and chiefs of armed forces from both countries have also taken place. There had been regular meetings at the ministerial level to monitor the progress of various projects involving India in Myanmar.

To improve connectivity with Myanmar, India has taken up a number of road and port construction projects. India has constructed the 160-km Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road in Myanmar from Manipur border. It is also assisting in the proposed trilateral highway project to connect Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Bagan in Myanmar. India’s Kaladan multi-modal transit transport facility is aimed at improving linkage between Indian ports on the eastern seaboard and Sittwe port in Myanmar. This would enable transportation by river transport and road to Mizoram providing an alternate route for transport of goods to northeast India. A proposal to build a rail link from Jiribaum in Assam to Hanoi in Vietnam through Myanmar is also on the cards.

India is slowly becoming a regular supplier of arms to Myanmar, joining the ranks of China, Russia and Ukraine. Initially, India had supplied low tech arms and armaments, including 105 mm guns, T-55 tanks, light helicopters, transport planes, artillery ammunition and some naval craft. However, there had been a progressive upgradation of these exports. All the three chiefs of India’s armed forces have visited Myanmar for building better rapport. India’s latest defence aid package includes counterinsurgency helicopters, avionics upgrades for Myanmar air force’s Russian and Chinese-made fighter planes, and naval surveillance aircraft.

India’s trade with Myanmar is growing at a fast clip. It is fourth largest trading partner with its investment reaching $35.08 million last year. In 2006-2007, India-Myanmar trade was estimated at $ 650 million falling short of the target of $ one billion. (In 2004-2005, China-Myanmar trade was $1.145 billion as against India’s figure of $ 341.40 million in the same period). India is taking steps such as extending airlines, land and sea routes to strengthen trade links with Myanmar. It is also cooperating with Myanmar in areas like agriculture, telecommunications, and oil and gas sectors.

India’s policy of building closer relations with the military regime in Myanmar has drawn flak both at home and abroad. This was considered a betrayal of India’s ethos. During a recent visit to Myanmar on January 19, 2007, India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee made clear the country’s ‘hands off’ policy on the struggle for restoration of democracy going on in Myanmar. He said that India had to deal with governments ‘as they exist … We are not interested in exporting our own ideology. We are a democracy and we would like democracy to flourish everywhere. But this is for every country to decide for itself.’

Chinese Influence

China-Myanmar relations have a long history. Modern Myanmar’s relations with China can be divided conveniently into four periods: 1949-1961 democratic rule, 1962-1988 Ne Win rule, and 1989-to date, Than Shwe rule.

In the period of democratic rule, the emerging China found a friendly regime in Burma under Prime Minister U Nu. Independent Burma was one of the first countries to recognise the Peoples Republic of China in December 1949. The two countries signed the first trade agreement in 1954 and a boundary treaty in 1960. However, China’s preoccupation with its own consolidation and growth restricted the relationship. Yet in 1961, armies of both countries launched joint operations to evict Kuomintang troops from parts of Shan state in Myanmar.

After Ne Win seized power in 1962, the relations between the two countries took a nosedive and the cadres of Communist Party of Burma (CPB) sought refuge in China. For the next six years, Sino-Myanmar relations had troubled times with periodic persecution of ethnic Chinese and anti-Chinese riots in Myanmar. Between 1968 and 1973, Chinese gave full support to the CPB insurgents to fight the military junta successfully. The Chinese also provided similar aid to Kachin, Shan rebels and Naga militants during this period. The CPB organised a number of insurgent groups to operate jointly against the military regime. However, Ne Win’s China visit in 1975 somewhat eased the relations. It warmed up in 1979 when China signed a $ 63 million aid agreement for various projects in Myanmar.

The year 1988 was a turbulent period both in China and Myanmar,with the Tian An Men square agitation in the former and the ‘8888’ Movement of students in latter. Perhaps this generated some kindred spirit in the regimes in both the countries. China utilised the opportunity offered by the international isolation of Myanmar after the military regime crushed the people’s upsurge in 1988. In 1989, China formally advised CPB to retire in keeping with its revised policy to stop assisting insurgents of other countries. This crucial decision helped the military junta to end the Communist insurgency and cripple Kachin and Shan insurgencies to a large extent.

Since then China has stepped up its influence on Myanmar through economic, military and development assistance. China has been providing military hardware to Myanmar to overcome international sanctions and help Tatmadaw(Myanmar’s military) to grow in strength. Till recently almost 80 per cent of Myanmar’s defence equipment was of Chinese origin. China has considerable economic influence in Myanmar over a number of fields, including supply of electricity and trade and commerce.

The grateful military junta in Myanmar has now raised China to the status of ‘Elder Brother’. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, had summed up China’s Myanmar policy in these words: ‘China supports Myanmar’s efforts in maintaining national stability, promoting reconciliation among ethnic groups and expanding foreign relations.’

Chinese illegal migration into the under-populated northern areas of Myanmar had been an unreported process for sometime now. According to one report, 30 percent of Mandalay’s population was of Chinese immigrants. Unlike ethnic Indian community, which had been languishing as second class citizens under Myanmar citizenship laws, China has managed the absorption of ethnic Chinese as citizens of Myanmar.

China’s strategic objective appears to be to gain direct access to Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea through Myanmar bypassing the narrow Strait of Malacca. With this aim in view, China had been underwriting the development of roads from Myanmar’s northern borders to south. China has time and again proved itself as a valuable ally of Myanmar internationally, whenever efforts were made in the UN Security Council to discuss Myanmar.

In fact, China is perhaps the single most important power with influence over Myanmar’s military regime. In the ten year lead time it had, China has established close military cooperation with Myanmar. It also has established four electronic listening posts in Myanmar to monitor Indian and Thai communication traffic.

This implies that as long as the military regime is in power, China will continue to have an overriding influence in Myanmar regardless of India’s efforts to build a win-win relationship with Myanmar.In other words, as long as India and China have a peaceful and constructive relationship, India-Myanmar relations will flourish in the present political dispensation.

Understanding the Military Regime

Traditionally and qualitatively, the Tatmadaw differs from the armies of South Asian countries which started as instruments of British colonial power. However, in Burma, the British used the more dependable Indian Army for security and did not create a large Burmese army. On the outbreak of the World War, a group of nationalist leaders under Aung San known as the ‘Thirty Comrades’ raised the Burma Independence Army (BIA). The BIA spearheaded Myanmar’s freedom struggle first against the British in collaboration with the Japanese invaders and later against the Japanese in support of the Allied armies. The ‘Thirty Comrades’ had been deciding the political destiny of Burma. The first Prime Minister U Nu, and Gen Ne Win, the Army Chief were all members of this elite group of 30.

The Burmese society’s exposure to western values had been limited even during the British colonial period. Thus western concept of democracy did not take root in Burma. So after Myanmar became free in 1948, for the next 14 years, the multi party democracy in action was disastrous. When the democratic experiment miserably failed, in 1962 the army under Gen Ne Win took upon itself to provide ‘stability and security’ to the country. Even after the exit of Ne Win in 1988, the military regime has managed to hold on to power. Twenty six years of Ne Win’s rule has resulted in state ownership of all enterprises, with the armed forces having a strangle hold on everyday life of the people. Rudimentary democracy introduced under the tutelage of the Tatmadaw was a single party rule that was a handmaiden of the military masters.

Thus the Tatmadaw feels it has a legitimate role in ensuring stability and security in the country, if necessary outside the control of political masters. This feeling of the armed forces seeking a perpetual role in power is the main road block in evolving a democratic constitution for Myanmar. There is close integration of military commanders in local development council activities. Most of the public sector undertakings are headed by military officers. This has built a vested interest in the armed forces to stay in power in any scheme of governance.

The Tatmadaw, is Southeast Asia’s second largest conventional force, estimated at over 400,000 troops. It has more than doubled in size since the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) took power in 1989. It has around 340 infantry battalions(Tat Yin) including 266 light infantry battalions employed in counter insurgency operations. Myanmar tank fleet comprises of 139 Soviet-designed T 72Ss and around 600 Chinese built main battle tanks of different models. The Tatmadaw is considered an effective force in combating insurgency as is evident from its ability to successfully handle nearly 45 insurgent groups during the last three decades. However, it is considered as having little experience in conducting conventional operations.

The Air Force (Tatmadaw Lei) has about 64 fighter/ interceptors (F7 and MIG 29) and 64 fighter/ground attack aircraft (J6 and A5) apart from 33 aircraft for counter insurgency operations. The Air Force has very limited transport lift capability.

The Navy (Tatmadaw Yay) has one frigate and three corvettes, 26 Fast Attack Craft (FAC) including 10 FAC armed with missile,s and 10 submarine chasers. Ending its isolation for the first time ever, Myanmar-built missile corvette UMS Anawyahta participated in ‘Milan 2006’ exercise off Andamans along with Indian Navy in January 2006.

The Tatmadaw will always remain a dominant factor in running the country regardless of the type of rule. This is somewhat similar to the role often assumed by armies in deciding the fate of the nation in countries like Pakistan and Indonesia. So at present, any dispensation to restore democracy will have to involve the concurrence if not cooperation of the Tatmadaw.


Myanmar has a great deal of strategic significance for both India and China. Over the last two decades the Chinese have built very close economic, political, military and developmental relations with Myanmar. Myanmar’s role in providing China a shorter access route to Indian Ocean and South Asia is going to be crucial in the strategic scene of South Asia. The Chinese have used the geophysical advantage they enjoy to gain access to Myanmar’s mineral and natural gas resources. Following a policy of non-interference in internal affairs of the country, China has become the main supplier of arms to Myanmar. This has enabled the military junta in power to beat the western sanctions and double the army strength. It has also enabled the junta to suppress the struggle for democracy going on under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi since 1990. .

India has embarked on a policy of building closer relations with Myanmar to counter the Chinese influence and facilitate the growth of trade and commerce with ASEAN as part of its Look East policy. It is financing road and port development projects in Myanmar which would improve connectivity of India’s north eastern states and help their development. India has also been selectively arming Myanmar despite the military regime’s dismal record in human rights and governance. With a friendly regime in Myanmar, India hopes to evict Indian insurgent groups from sanctuaries in Myanmar. The military regime has welcomed these efforts to broaden its relationship with India and ASEAN countries in the interest of its own strategic security.

India’s current Myanmar policy appears to be largely copying the methods adopted by the Chinese. However, India, as the largest functional democracy, has a larger role to play in encouraging the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. Considering this, India’s relationship should aim at building better economic and developmental relations with the military regime while exploring all avenues to help the military regime and the democratic forces evolve a viable solution to build a democratic society. Sacrificing India’s fraternal relations with Myanmar’s democratic forces by itself is unlikely to increase India’s influence as the military regime is using the competing interests of India and China to its own advantage.

Apart from the lead it has gained in Myanmar, internationally China has greater economic, political, and military clout than India in helping out the military regime. Given this advantage, India is unlikely to replace China’s position as the most influential country in Myanmar under the military regime.

In the absence of Aung San Kyi’s leadership, the struggle for democracy in Myanmar has become immobile. Understanding this, the military regime is unlikely to release Aung San Suu Kyi unless it gains a face saving role for the Tatmadaw in any future democratic set up.

The military regime has been able to weather international sanctions for nearly 20 years. However, as Myanmar’s ties with India and ASEAN countries grow and economic liberalisation touches the younger generation of military officers, we can expect a desire for change among armed forces. Similarly, the student movement holds the potential to take over a leadership role for political rapprochement with the military regime. When these developments come through perhaps there is a scope for evolving a democratic society though different from the western concepts but meeting Myanmar’s needs. India and China are indispensable in enabling this process that could stabilize the society in their strategic neighbourhood. Thus in the interest of India’s strategic security, helping the creation of a stable and democratic regime in Myanmar should be India’s long term policy rather than mere economic goals.

(The writer, Col. R.Hariharan, is a retired Military Intelligence officer and was a MI specialist on Myanmar. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail:

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