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India-Myanmar Relations: A Review

Relations between India and Myanmar over nearly five decades have been governed by many complex factors. Amongst them are the strategic location of Myanmar, India’s commitment to idealism-driven support to the restoration of democracy in Myanmar, realism-driven need to deal with those actually governing the country, the implications of China’s increasing presence and role in Myanmar etc. China, fortunately for it, has been able to make its foreign policy decisions without having to bother about the nature of the regime in any country.

India and Myanmar share a complicated and delicate history, marked as much by mistrust as amity. For those who may be interested, a “Historical Background” is annexed to this paper.


Pro-Democracy Protests in 2007

A series of anti-government protests started in Myanmar on 15 August 2007. The immediate and stated cause of the protests was mainly the decision of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to remove fuel subsidies, resulting in very steep increases in the prices of diesel, petrol and compressed natural gas. The first demonstrations were dealt with quickly and harshly, with many arrested and detained. Starting 18 September, the protests were led by thousands of Buddhist monks, and those were also allowed to proceed. Initially, only a few hundred monks walked down the streets but, by end-September, the protesting crowds had grown to 100,000 – both monks and democracy activists. There was a renewed government crackdown on 26 September.

The military junta’s actions against the “peaceful” and “almost Gandhian” ptotestors evoked a considerable amount of international condemnation. However, Beijing expectedly showed more interest in maintaining stability than in pushing for democracy.

In an official statement issued in the wake of the violence, India expressed its support for the “undaunted resolve of the Burmese people to achieve democracy”. The Burmese language service of All-India Radio (AIR) was more outspoken in its criticism of Myanmar’s military government. It said that India was gradually succeeding in weaning Myanmar away from its near-total dependence on China for economic and military support. It could not therefore be expected to take the strong position that the US, the European Union and Myanmar dissidents were asking her to take; and thus risk – to China’s benefit – the precious foothold it had achieved in Myanmar over the previous decade.

Ibrahim Gambari, the United Nations special envoy to Myanmar, undertook a tour across Asia, with the hope of cajoling Asian governments to take a tougher stance on the junta’s crushing of the protests. When he called on India (in October 2007) to join other countries in pressing Myanmar’s military rulers to stop their campaign of repression against pro-democracy protesters, the Indian government described Myanmar as its “close and friendly neighbor” and assured that it would help in Myanmar’s national reconciliation. India’s decision to avoid direct criticism of the military regime came in for a lot of adverse comments. However, it is not as if India was totally silent on the issue. When Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win, who visited India in January 2008, called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the PM emphasized that there was need for greater urgency in bringing about political reforms and national reconciliation. “This process has to be broad-based to include all sections of society, including Aung San Suu Kyi and the various ethnic groups.”

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi (the daughter of “General” Aung San) has been under house arrest almost continually since 1989. When anti-government protests intensified in September 2007, hundreds of monks paid respects to her at the gate of her home. This was the first time in four years that people were able to see her in public. On 29 September, she was allowed to leave her house briefly to meet with a UN envoy who was trying to persuade (eventually, successfully) the junta to ease its crackdown against pro-democracy protesters.

On 4 May 2009, a mentally unbalanced American (John Yettaw) swam across the lake and entered the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, uninvited, and remained there for two nights. Instead of faulting those in charge of security, both the intruder and Suu Kyi were held in prison and put on trial. While the intruder was sentenced to imprisonment, Suu Kyi was awarded (on 11 August 2009) an additional 18 months of house arrest – beyond the earlier term which was due to end on 27 May 2009. The sentencing once again showed how the milit.ary junta was determined to stop her participation in the elections to be held in 2010. In a declared act of “benevolence”, the government had commuted the court’s original sentence of three-years hard labour. Aung San Suu Kyi’s conviction drew almost universal condemnation. President Obama demanded her immediate release while British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated that “This is a purely political sentence designed to prevent her from taking part in the regime’s planned elections next year” and called for a UN embargo on all arms exports to Burma. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France sought fresh restrictions on Myanmar’s two important export items – rubies and hardwood. Thailand was even more explicit and urged Myanmar to immediately free Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest to allow her to play a role in next year’s general election. However, action by the U.N. Security Council was stalled due to reservations on the part of Russia and China. “India’s reaction to the conviction of Aung San Suu Kyi was shameful to say the least. It had not one word of condemnation or even ‘disappointment”, wrote Col. Hariharan, a very senior analyst of intelligence and security issues. Suu Kyi is said to have written a letter to Than Shwe, offering to work towards reducing international sanctions on Myanmar, and asked to meet representatives of the US, EU and Australia. Either in a reaction to this or in response to US overtures and demands, two meetings were held in October 2009 between the junta’s liaison officer (Labor Minister and retired Major General Aung Kyi) and Suu Kyi. She was also allowed to meet with representatives from the US, Australia and the European Union. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party has also been allowed to meet with foreign diplomats, including a meeting (on 20 October 2009) with the US charge d’ affaires. Cynical observers may say that the generals are making yet another attempt to put off international pressure, only to revert back to repression once attention shifts elsewhere. Or, are the generals playing the US card against China, knowing that any improvement in relations with Washington will improve its leverage with Beijing?

Prime Minister General Thein Sein told (on 25 October 2009) the leaders attending the East Asian Summit in Thailand that the junta will consider relaxing the terms of Suu Kyi’s house arrest if she “maintains a good attitude”. He also said that she can contribute to national reconciliation.

Sanctions Regime

World governments remain divided on how to deal with the military junta in Myanmar. Calls for further sanctions by Canada, United Kingdom, United States, and France are opposed by some countries (including China) on the ground that “sanctions or pressure will not help to solve the issue”. India had also resolutely opposed the US call for sanctions on Myanmar. There is some disagreement over whether sanctions are the most effective approach to dealing with the junta, with some opining that sanctions may have caused more harm than good to the people.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has estimated that about 800,000 people are subject to forced labour in Myanmar. It announced in November 2006, that it will seek to prosecute members of the ruling junta – at the International Court of Justice – for crimes against humanity, over this issue.

The military junta moved the national capital from Yangon to a site near Pyinmana in November 2005, and officially named the new capital as Naypyidaw (meaning “city of the kings”) on 27 March 2006. In a futile gesture of criticism, many countries still consider the capital to be Rangoon.

Shifting US Position

India has been advising the west to engage with Myanmar and take off the pressure of sanctions. Many in the west thought this was India’s way of keeping up with China. The Obama Administration, after an eight-month-long review, has apparently decided to engage with Myanmar’s generals. On 29 September 2009, US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell held his first meeting with Myanmar’s Science Minister U Thaung in New York. One of the key issues that India may take up during discussions with Campbell when he transits New Delhi this week, en route to Yangon, will be the delinking of the fledgling engagement process from next year’s elections in Myanmar. This, incidentally, will be the first US official visit to Myanmar in decades. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said (after the East Asian Summit in Thailand) that there was an “atmosphere of hope” about improving relations between Myanmar and the United States. Dr. Subash Kapila, a noted International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst, has very recently written a scholarly paper, which can be seen at He has argued that the United States has for decades shunned Myanmar politically and economically, on the grounds of human rights abuses and democracy. India adopted the same stance till the early 1990s. In the process, both succeeded in pushing Myanmar closer to China. India has to some extent retrieved its strategic losses by a political and economic reach-out to Myanmar. The US is still dithering, though the Obama Administration has made some tentative moves towards normalization of relations with Myanmar. The strategic key for checkmating in South East Asia lies in Myanmar. Dr. Kapila has advocated that the US should frame its future policy towards Myanmar based on the considerations that Myanmar is of geo-strategic significance for US Naval interests, that Myanmar has not been adversarial to the US geo-politically, Myanmar’s importance for South East Asian Security, and that the US could use India as a bridge to reach-out politically to Myanmar. He has also emphasized that Myanmar has not yet become a full strategic satellite of China and that such an eventuality can be pre-empted. Almost simultaneously, the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee was told on 21 October 2009 that a high-level US delegation is expected to visit Myanmar in the coming weeks, in an attempt to progress the US efforts to engage with the military junta. The talks will center on improving the human-rights situation in Myanmar, the claimed intention to move towards democracy, and increasing US influence in a country widely viewed as a key regional ally of China – through improved diplomatic relations. The delegation is hoping to meet Aung San Suu Kyi and representatives of ethnic groups. This policy shift is apparently a part of the US desire to build stronger ties with South East Asia. Some analysts say that it is caused by the realization that Chinese influence in the region has increased considerably in the past decade, when US attention was diverted elsewhere. This may be the beginning of a quiet competition between Washington and Beijing for influence in South East Asia. A US-Myanmar detente would undoubtedly be viewed as a threat to Beijing’s strategic interests in the region. A repeal of even some sanctions (before or after the 2010 election) would put the US in direct competition with China for influence in Myanmar.

The US efforts to counterbalance China’s influence in South East Asia have a difficult road ahead in Myanmar. China has already secured a strong position in Myanmar, but the US currently has very little leverage. It has no aid programs, civil society building projects or military-to-military exchanges. Even the US diplomatic mission is headed by a charge d’ affaires, since the US withdrew its ambassador in 1988. India-Myanmar Bilateral Relations : Realism Influencing Policy As a legacy of British rule, Indians had to face (not so latent) resentment amongst the Burmese; due to Indian soldiers (under the British Army) having fought against BIA, due to the perception that Indian officers and staff functioned as tools of the British colonial regime and due to the alleged exploitation by Indian traders and businesses. India’s relations with Burma were mostly cordial in the early years after independence. Prime Ministers U Nu and Jawaharlal Nehru were close personal and were both prominent figures in Non-Aligned Movement. India helped Myanmar survive its first difficult years as an independent state, including crucially when various political and ethnic insurgent groups threatened to break the new country apart. Without India’s massive military and economic aid, U Nu’s government may probably have collapsed. However, Indo-Myanmar relations chilled after General Ne Win’s military coup in March 1962. Many former democratic leaders of the Myanmar, including U Nu, were given asylum in India.

Personal relations between Indira Gandhi and Ne Win were good. The xenophobic policies of his Revolutionary Council and the nationalization of privately owned businesses and factories (of which an estimated 60% were owned by people of Indian origin) made thousands lose their properties and livelihood. During the four-year period spanning 1964-68, nearly 150,000 Indo-Burmese had to leave the country.

Myanmar is of great strategic significance to both India and China, thanks to its location and long borders with both countries. In the early years of the military regime, India pushed hard for democracy. Myanmar thus gradually moved to embrace China. China has the advantage of being able to work comfortably with authoritarian and quasi-democratic regimes, without any schizophrenic (ideological) commitment to democracy. China has become to Myanmar an increasingly attractive source of low-interest loans, grants, development projects, technical assistance etc. Combined with China’s “no strings attached” approach to aid, this is making China a more attractive partner to regimes with questionable records in human-rights and democracy.

By 1993, it seemed obvious that, despite the charisma of Aung San Suu Kyi, the movement for democracy was not making much progress and that the military regime was going ahead with making peace with the ethnic minorities. There was little or no possibility of the military regime relinquishing power to the National League for Democracy. In the absence of dialogue with the Myanmar military, insurgency and narcotics smuggling were assuming alarming proportions in the states bordering Myanmar. In a classic example of how a nation’s interests often override normally expected human behavior, pragmatism became the hallmark of India’s relations with Myanmar. Quiet contacts were established and a series of agreements signed to deal with cross-border terrorism and narcotics smuggling and to promote trade and economic development along the Indo-Myanmar border.

During the tenure of Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister, India realized that giving too much weight to human rights and democracy in Myanmar over strategic considerations may not be in its long term interests. It started basing its policy not on idealistic ‘isms’ but on national security considerations. It was increasingly felt that the way to bring about change is not through isolation, but through active engagement and persuasion. Accepting the realities, India’s call for democracy in Myanmar has been muted in recent years. This has invited a lot of criticism from “purists”. There has also been severe international criticism of India’s closer engagement with the military junta, at a time when the US and EU were concentrating on sanctions, driving Myanmar into even greater isolation.

The success of a nation’s foreign policy is not judged by the high moral grounds that it adopts, but by the advantages that accrue to it. India also realized that the main beneficiary of strained India-Myanmar relations was China, whether for access to all-important hydrocarbon energy sources, transport corridors or strategic control of the Indian Ocean. Thus, a new chapter began. Energy-starved India has been courting Myanmar, which is rich in natural gas. India has been trying to look after its own practical interests by maintaining good relations with the military junta in Myanmar. Not only is India eager to cash in on Myanmar’s substantial reserves of natural gas, but Indian officials also hope that Myanmar government would help in controlling anti-Indian insurgents along the border. Rajiv Sikri (a former Secretary in the Ministry of External affairs) has said that India is obviously not doing enough in Myanmar. Decision-makers in New Delhi are not bestowing serious and sustained attention to Myanmar, since the bordering North East states are themselves political lightweights in the eyes of geographically distant New Delhi. This is in sharp contrast to the attention that, for example, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan gets. If Myanmar were to get even half of the grant assistance and the attention that India has given Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, India would considerably improve her position there. There is no time for India to lose in giving much higher priority to relations with Myanmar. As Kris Srinivasan, a former Foreign Secretary, has observed “The rationale for India’s policy to befriend Myanmar despite that regime’s ill-treatment of people of Indian origin and repression of its own citizens is understandable, but the lack of beneficial results from the new orientation is harder to comprehend. The new strategy has failed even partially to open a closed polity.”


Economic Cooperation Fruitful and balanced economic cooperation may be the most effective method of engaging with Myanmar. During the 9th round of consultations between foreign offices of the two countries in November 2008, the two delegations being led by the Foreign Secretaries, it was decided to implement promptly the bilateral agreements [a framework agreement on the construction and operation of a multi-modal transit and transport facility on the Kaladan River, a MOU on intelligence exchange to combat transitional crime including terrorism, and an agreement on avoidance of double taxation and prevention of fiscal evasion] signed in April during the visit to India by Maung Aye. Vice Chairman of the SPDC (also Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services and Commander-in-Chief of the Army). In June 2008, Myanmar and India had reached four more economic cooperation agreements, during the visit of Minister of State for Commerce and Power (Jairam Ramesh). These agreements related to bilateral investment promotion, a USD 20-million credit line between the Exim Bank of India and the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank (MFTB) for the establishment of a manufacturing facility, another 64-million-dollar credit line for three 230 KV transmission lines; and for establishing banking arrangement between the Myanmar Investment and Trade Bank and the United Bank of India.

Most of the economic transactions have so far been between the two governments, in areas like agriculture, telecommunications, aviation and gas exploration. Myanmar has been trying to entice Indian companies to invest in sectors like pharmaceuticals, cement, fertilizer, steel, IT and food processing; but Indian firms seem reluctant to invest, for fear of a repetition of the earlier nationalization drive.

Myanmar-compiled figures show that India’s contracted investments in Myanmar reached USD 219.57 million as of January 2008, of which USD 137 million was in the oil and gas sector. India has given USD 100 million credit for Myanmar’s infrastructure, while USD 57 million has been offered to upgrade the railway system. A further USD 27 million in grants has been pledged for road and rail projects, but there is little yet to show in terms of concrete benefit.


India-Myanmar bilateral trade reached USD 995 million in 2007-08, with Myanmar’s exports accounting for USD 810 million. India is Myanmar’s fourth largest trading partner (after Thailand, China and Singapore) and absorbs about 25% of its total exports. India hopes to double by 2010 the bilateral trade that now stand at $ one billion. It is axiomatic that Myanmar needs help from her friends. In order to improve Myanmar’s multi-lateral trade, India can take the initiative by bringing in the ambit of bilateral trade products like bicycles and spare parts, life saving drugs, fertilizers, textiles, gold plated jewelry, fruits, pulses, tea, gems etc. Already, India imports about 60% of Myanmar’s export of pulses. India can provide the technology to improve productivity in Myanmar’s tea industry. Indian expertise in gem cutting and polishing can be harnessed to provide a boost to the semi-precious gem industry in Myanmar.

Border Trade

It was hoped that greater border trade with Myanmar, on the basis of the agreement signed in 1994, would help revitalize the economy of the North East and help to quell narcotic and arms trafficking, but the hope has not been fulfilled. Only one of the two proposed border posts is open. The road on the Indian side to Moreh is sub-standard. Two-way trade is constrained by the small list of tradable goods, excessive regulation and restrictions; and is negligible compared to trade across the Myanmar’s borders with China and Thailand. India’s North East is swamped by goods of Chinese origin, but there is hardly any movement of Indian exports in the opposite direction.

India and Myanmar are considering the upgradation of the border trade carried out at Reedkhoda (India) and Tamu-Moye (Myanmar) to “normal” trade. This was discussed at the third meeting of Myanmar-India Joint Trade Committee held in October 2008 during the second visit of Indian Minister Jairam Ramesh.

Quest for Energy

Nearly seventy percent of India’s oil is imported and only half its gas demand of 170 million cubic meters a day is met internally. China also imports about 40% of its demand. The two countries account for almost 35% of the growth in the global demand for energy. This dependence on imports has forced both countries to bid aggressively for overseas oil assets.

Expecting an exponential growth in its energy demands due to its expanding economy, India has been trying hard in recent years to secure energy supplies. Unfortunately, India’s oil diplomacy has not been sufficiently geared to meet the challenge; and its oil companies have been outsmarted (or under-bid) by Chinese firms in several deals. In the last few years, ONGC has been thwarted by Chinese firms in Kazakhstan, Ecuador and Angola. Top Chinese offshore producer CNOOC Ltd. acquired a 45 % stake in a Nigerian oil and gas field for USD 2.3 billion. ONGC was also in this race, but withdrew due to objections in the cabinet.

Most embarrassingly, India also lost a deal in Myanmar where no open bidding was held. Myanmar decided to decline gas supply to the (proposed-but-grounded) Myanmar-Bangladesh-India pipeline. Instead, it signed an agreement with Petrochina, under which Myanmar’s ministry of energy agreed to sell 6.5 TCF from A-1 block (Rakhine coastline) reserve through an overland pipeline to Kunming, for 30 years. All this happened despite the fact that India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) and GAIL (India) Ltd., between them, hold 30% participating interest in this block. Anyhow, Myanmar could not be expected to have waited indefinitely for India and Bangladesh to resolve their mutual differences over a project based on sound economic logic but delayed because of domestic political compulsions. Myanmar, however, says that it could still supply gas to the tri-nation gas pipeline from other gas blocks if Bangladesh and India were successful in ironing out their differences. In answer to the question as to who lost Myanmar, Rajiv Sikri (a former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs) has written “Various actors bear a collective responsibility”. In return for various economic concessions (and support in the UN), China seems to have been given preferential access to exploit Myanmar’s natural resources and port facilities along Myanmar’s coast. Chinese investment includes involvement in the Shwe gas project off Myanmar’s western coast. Human rights organizations allege that the offshore project and a dual oil and gas pipeline being constructed from the coast to Kunming have already resulted in human rights abuses and will likely result in many more as the projects progress.

China was scheduled to begin (in September 2009) the laying of 1,100 kms-long, parallel oil and natural gas pipelines from the deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu (on Myanmar’s Arakan coast in the Bay of Bengal) to Kunming. The pipeline will also tap into key blocks in Myanmar’s energy-rich Shwe gas fields that have been given on a 30-year lease to a Chinese-led consortium. The pipeline project was agreed to during the visit Maung Aye to Beijing in mid-June 2009. It will reduce China’s dependence on the narrow Malacca Straits, through which 80% of its oil imports of four million barrels per day currently pass. When the oil and gas pipelines are completed by 2013, Chinese tankers will dock at Kyaukpyu port to transport 600,000 barrels per day from West Asia and Africa. The gas pipeline can move about 12 billion cubic meters of gas annually.

In late September 2007, when the pro-democracy protests were under way, India’s Minister for Petroleum (Murli Deora) visited Myanmar and secured a contract for three deep-water gas exploration projects for the ONGC.

Infrastructure Projects

Both India and China are interested in implementing infrastructure projects in Myanmar, to get access to the Bay of Bengal, India for the North-East and China for its landlocked Yunnan province. India and China had planned to rebuild the (World War II) Stillwell Road, on which work by the Chinese has already started. Recent reports say that India has lost interest in the project. A 1,500 km Trans-Asian Highway between India and Thailand and a railway from Hanoi to Imphal are still being talked about. The 160 km India-Myanmar Friendship Road, between Tamu and Kalemayo (Myanmar) and going on to Kalewa, was built by India in 2001. It is now being strengthened and resurfaced. It effectively links Manipur with Myanmar. Two other sections at Rhi-Tidim and Rhi-Falam across the border from Mizoram are under way. An optical fibre network has been laid from linking Kolkata with Yangon and Mandalay.

Kaladan Project

The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit-cum-Transport Project is essentially transportation project on the River Kaladan, which flows in and out of Mizoram and is navigable all the way to the sea. It empties into the Bay of Bengal near the port of Sittwe (formerly known as Akyab). This port will be developed by India into a major commercial hub, to distribute Mizoram’s bamboo crops and Myanmar’s forest wealth. Besides 225-km waterway, the project also envisages construction of two roads, ie.e 117 km extending NHI54 to the border and 52 km from the border to Kaleutwa. Sea lanes are also to be developed between Sittwe and Kolkata and Visakhapatnam. Sittwe could also become a major distribution center for oil and gas supplies to India’s North-East. Kaladan, a wide river with perennial water flow, originates in the upper reaches of Myanmar, enters Mizoram and then meanders back into Myanmar to continue its passage south to the Bay of Bengal. Navigation with 500-ton river crafts is possible all the way from Mizoram. Gooda from the North-East could easily be transported by river to the Bay of Bengal and then onwards to markets in India and elsewhere. The circuitous surface route via Assam and through the Siliguri Corridor could be avoided, cutting transportation costs by nearly half.

Union Minister of State for Commerce and Industry, Jairam Ramesh, announced on 7 January 2008 that India has decided to undertake the project at a cost of more than USD 120 million. The port will be India’s gift to Myanmar, but India would have usage rights. Ramesh termed it as “the most significant initiative the Indian government has taken in South-East Asia”.

When Myanmar realizes the full potential of this project, it may begin utilizing the river for domestic navigational purposes also. Sittwe could eventually become the onshore hub of Myanmar’s gas industry once the vast reserves in the Shwe fields in the Bay of Bengal are developed. It is a win-win situation for both India and Myanmar. Further development of the Sittwe port into a gas and oil transshipment terminal may add to its importance. More funds will be required to develop Sittwe to its full potential, but India may (and should) not be averse to putting up the additional funds.

Cyclone Nargis

Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar on 3 May 2008, causing heavy damage in the densely populated, rice-farming delta of the Irrawaddy Division. There were reports that more than 200,000 people were dead or missing, in the worst recorded natural disaster in Myanmar’s history. UN estimates projected that as many as one million people were left homeless. In the immediate days following the disaster, the military regime complicated recovery efforts by delaying the entry of planes delivering medicine, food, and other supplies. A US naval task force carrying much-needed relief supplies, helicopters and other vehicles as well as manpower was denied permission, based on fears that it could be a prelude to a military invasion. Indian leaders sent condolence messages and rushed urgently needed relief and medical supplies to the affected areas, using two naval ships from Port Blair.


Insurgencies In Myanmar

About twenty minority groups have been carrying on insurgency against the Government of Myanmar, with the Karen being the largest of them. The BBC had estimated in 2004 that upto 200,000 Karen have been driven from their homes during decades of war, with 120,000 more refugees from Myanmar, mostly Karen, living in refugee camps in Thailand, across the border. Another estimate says that more than two million people have fled from Myanmar to Thailand. There are accusations against the military government of “ethnic cleansing”.

Since Beijing reversed its previous policy and withdrew support to the insurgent Burmese Communist Party (BCP) in the 1980s, the BCP collapsed in 1989 resulting in the formation of several ethnic-based insurgent organizations, including narcotics trafficking by the United Wa State Army, now active along the China-Myanmar border.

In early August 2009, in the Kokang incident in Shan State in northern Myanmar, junta troops fought for several weeks against ethnic minorities including Han Chinese, Wa and Kachin. In the first days of the conflict, as many as 10,000 Burmese civilians are said to have fled to Yunnan province in neighboring China. The incident annoyed China.

The military junta has been applying pressure for the ceasefire groups to become border guard units, under army control. Ethnic leaders have so far resisted the demand and with a deadline set for the end of October 2009, civil war may become a possibility. So far, China has been careful to provide only enough support to ethnic insurgents to deter the Myanmar Army from making any rash moves (like at Kokang). This situation may change if closer ties develop between Myanmar and the US.

In India, a limited joint Indo-Myanmar military operation against insurgents (striding the Indo-Myanmar border) was undertaken in 1995. However, cooperation in taking action against the cross-border militants petered out. India and Myanmar have varying problems with different sets of insurgents and do not share the same priorities in addressing them. During his visit to India in April 2008, Maung Aye (Vice Chairman of SPDC) assured that Myanmar will never allow the use of its territory by any organization that harms neighboring countries. At the same time, he acknowledged that, likewise, India does not allow its territory to be used by any organization against Myanmar.

Defence Relations

High-level military-to-military contacts began in 2000. In January, Indian Army Chief General Ved Prakash Malik paid a two-day visit to Myanmar. This was followed by the reciprocal visit by his Myanmar counterpart, General Maung Aye, to the northeast Indian city of Shillong. In the aftermath of these meetings, India began to provide non-lethal military support to Myanmar troops along the border. Most of the Myanmar troops’ uniforms and other combat gear originated from India, as were the leased helicopters Myanmar needed to counter the ethnic insurgents operating from sanctuaries along both sides of the border. Since the initial exchange of visits, there has been a steady flow of high level visits from both sides. Junta chief, General Than Shwe, visited India In 2004, followed in December 2006 by the third-highest ranking officer in Myanmar’s military hierarchy, General Thura Shwe Mann. The latter toured the National Defense Academy in Khadakvasla and the Tata Motors plant in Pune, which manufactures vehicles for India’s military.

After the relatively small-scale pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, China stepped in with enhanced military aid, enabling Myanmar’s army to expand to some 500,000 men, the second-largest standing army in South east Asia. Indian military is also concerned about China modernizing the naval bases at Hanggyi, Cocos, Akyab,, Mergui and the port at Kyauk Phuy. The situations seems to have become an unequal triangular relationship, where one party seems to be reaping all the benefits.


Though China has been able greatly to improve its position in Myanmar and has cultivated civil and military officials, Beijing’s efforts in Myanmar may have started running into the pervasive xenophobia and wariness of dependence on any singular foreign power.

Myanmar is not a democracy or a pluralistic society where clamour for human rights, adherence to international norms and standards have much chance of strict observance. It is one of the few bastions of totalitarian governance in the world today. India may have been making a mistake in looking at Myanmar through the Indian prism and experience. The people, the civil society (what there is left of it) and the media behave very differently than in India. The junta seems to believe that they do not matter much and behaves very differently from the governments in India. It should be taken into account that the Myanmar leadership is perceived as being reclusive and essentially xenophobic, almost happy to be in their own “time warp”, wish to be left alone (except as demanded by the changing international situation) and do not want the dominance of any country in Myanmar’s affairs. They also display occasional touches of racialism. Myanmar’s leadership is able to afford the luxury of such positions mainly because of the country’s strategic geographic location and because it has perhaps the largest military in South East Asia. This view of an untrained amateur student of human behavior (like me) may or may not be valid, but is worth consideration by Indian policy-makers.

With all his experience, Rajiv Sikri feels that Myanmar regards China’s growing influence with suspicion and sees India as the only viable means to balance China’s increasing encroachment, especially in the Kachin and Shan states. For this and other reasons, Myanmar is keen to have good relations with India. India needs to fine-tune its strategy for dealing with Myanmar, focusing not on what should be or might have been, but on what can be done. Apart from inadequate awareness and respect for the psyche of the leadership in Myanmar, India has not shown much subtlety or finesse (not even matching the limited subtlety or finesse shown in Sri Lanka) in dealing with them. There is no evidence of a clear vision about what we want and how to get it. There is hardly any visible coordinated stance or approach, with too many loose cannons around. Often, India seems to be shooting at its own toes instead of at the target. On the commercial and trade fronts, where most deals are government-to-government, the government’s bureaucratic procedures seem to dominate the decision-making process in the public sector oil companies. There is an urgent need to change this to become commercially competitive in today’s fast-paced international milieu. Fortunately, India currently enjoys fairly good political, economic and military-relations with Myanmar. India is also involved in infrastructure projects for better India-Myanmar connectivity. However, one cannot but agree with Kris Srinivasan when he concludes that “The outcomes of the energies expended by India over the past two decades have been negligible. The situation calls for a re-appraisal designed to turn the tide more in our favour.

[This paper was prepared by Mr. R.Swaminathan, President & DG, International Institute for Security and Safety Management (New Delhi), former Special Secretary, DG (Security),Govt. of India and Vice-President, Chennai Centre for China Studies, for presentation on 29 October 2009 at the National Seminar on “Recent Developments in Myanmar : Implications for India”, organized jointly by the Department of Politics & Public Administration(University of Madras) and Center for Asia Studies (Chennai). He can be contacted at]


Historical Background

The Union of Myanmar, known as Burma till 1989, is the largest country by geographical area (678,500 sq kms) in mainland Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China on the northeast (with the Hengduan Shan mountains as the boundary), Laos on the east, Thailand on the southeast, Bangladesh on the west, India on the northwest and the Bay of Bengal to the southwest. One-third of Myanmar’s total perimeter forms an uninterrupted coastline of 1,930 kilometres. Myanmar and India share a border of over 1,600 kilometers. The country’s culture, heavily influenced by its neighbours, is based on Theravada Buddhism. Known human habitation in Myanmar goes back nearly 5000 years, from when the Mon, considered to be the first inhabitants, settled in central Myanmar and along the eastern coast of Bay of Bengal. It is believed that the Mon established some trade and cultural contacts with the early inhabitants of India. The Burmans (originally from Yunnan), who established their first kingdom in Myanmar in 849 A.D., eventually absorbed the communities of the Mon and Pyu people. King Anawrahta (r 1044-1077) set up the Pagan Kingdom bringing about the first unified state of Myanmar. Kublai Khan’s victory in 1287 started a period of continual conflicts that continued for many centuries. The appearance of Europeans had little effect on Myanmar due to these conflicts, until they infringed on the British Raj in Bengal. This brought about British intervention (from 1824) and, though Rangoon was occupied in 1853, all of Burma was formally annexed to British India only in 1886. Burma was administered as a province of British India until 1937, when it became a separate colony. One of the results of the British occupation was the flow of Chinese and Indian immigrants, who tended to exploit the Burmans. Indians were drafted in large numbers into the colonial army during the three Anglo-Burma wars in the 19th century, and about 400,000 Indians were taken there to run various public services. The persons of Indian origin on the eve of the Japanese invasion numbered about 1.1 million.Strong Burmese resentment against the British was noticed as early as 1919. It was often vented in violent riots that paralyzed Yangon on occasion. Much of the discontent was caused by a perceived disrespect for Burmese culture and traditions, like the British not removing their shoes upon entering Buddhist temples or other holy places. When scandalized Buddhist monks attempted to physically expel a group of shoe-wearing British in Eindawya Pagoda (Mandalay) in October 1919, the leader of the monks was sentenced to life imprisonment for attempted murder. Such incidents inspired the Burmese resistance to use Buddhism as a rallying point for their cause. Buddhist monks became the vanguards of the independence movement, and many died while protesting. Students were also active participants in anti-British activities.Nationalist sentiments became more evident with the start of World War II. A student leader, Aung San (and his “thirty comrades”) went to Japan for “training”. On return, they founded the Burma Independence Army (BIA) in Bangkok (which was then under Japanese occupation) on 26 December 1941, with the help of Japanese intelligence. When Rangoon fell in March 1942, the BIA formed an administration for the country that operated in parallel with the Japanese military administration. On 1 August 1943, the Japanese declared Burma to be an “independent” nation, and Aung San was appointed War Minister. Later, Aung San became skeptical of the Japanese promises and made plans to organize an uprising in Burma (in cooperation with Communist leaders Thakin Than Tun and Thakin Soe), with help from the British authorities in India. On 27 March 1945, he led the BNA in a revolt against the Japanese occupiers and helped the Allies defeat the Japanese; and the British established a military administration.The Anti-Fascist Organisation (formed in August 1944) was transformed into the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), a united front consisting of the BNA, the Communists and the Socialists. The BNA was gradually disarmed by the British, when the Japanese were driven out of Burma. Aung San turned down the rank of Deputy Inspector General of the Burma Army and became the military leader of the People’s Volunteer Organisation. He was popularly referred to as Bogyoke (meaning General). After civilian government was restored in Burma in October 1945, Aung San became the President of the AFPFL in January 1946. In September, he was appointed Deputy Chairman of the Executive Council of Burma by the new British Governor, and was made responsible for defence and external affairs. [This was analogous to the appointment of Jawahar Lal Nehru as the Vice President of the Interim Government in India, in June 1946.] The communists left the AFPFL, when Aung San and others accepted seats on the Executive Council. Aung San (at the age of 31) was to all intents and purposes the Prime Minister. On 27 January 1947, Aung San and Clement Attlee signed an agreement in London guaranteeing Burma’s independence within a year. In April, the AFPFL won 196 out of 202 seats in the Constituent Assembly. Tragedy struck on 19 July 1947, when a gang of armed paramilitaries broke into the Secretariat Building and assassinated Aung San and six of his cabinet ministers, who were participating in a meeting of the Executive Council. [The assassination was allegedly carried out on the orders of political rival U Saw, who was subsequently tried and hanged.] U Nu, (a former student leader) and Foreign Minister Ba Maw took over the leadership of the government and AFPFL. The country became independent on 4 January 1948, as the “Union of Burma”. It became the “Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma” on 4 January 1974, before reverting to the “Union of Burma” on 23 September 1988. On 18 June, 1989, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) adopted the name “Union of Myanmar”.Military RuleCivilian government ended in 1962 when General Ne Win led a military coup and put U Nu in prison. Myanmar now has one of the longest surviving military regimes in the world. Ne Win ruled for nearly 26 years and pursued policies in the name of “Burmese Way to Socialism”. Between 1962 and 1974, Burma was ruled by a Revolutionary Council headed by the general, and almost all aspects of society (business, media, production – including the Boy Scouts) were nationalized or brought under government control. In an effort to consolidate power, General Ne Win and many top generals “resigned” from the military and took civilian posts. They held “elections” under a one-party system and Ne Win ruled Burma between 1974 and 1988, through the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), which was the sole political party allowed to function. The Burmese Way to Socialism adopted Soviet-style nationalization and central planning and was a kind of an amalgam of Buddhism and Marxism. During this period, Burma became one of the world’s most impoverished countries.People whose ancestors were not from the “original” Myanmar races, i.e. Sino-Burman and Indo-Burman communities, were classified as “associate citizens” or “resident aliens”, with the right to vote, but not allowed to be elected or hold government positions above a certain level. This and the wholesale nationalisation of private enterprises led to the exodus of about 300,000 Burmese Indians.Almost from the beginning of military rule, there were sporadic protests against it, many organized by students, and were almost always violently suppressed by the government. Student protests were violently broken up every year during 1974-77. Unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression led to widespread pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the country in 1988. Security forces killed thousands of demonstrators. Ne Win stepped down in July. Aung San Suu Kyi (the daughter of Aung San), in partnership with Brigadier Aung Gyi and General Tin U, tried to appease those who resented the military rule and was only partly successful. Defense Minister General Saw Maung staged a coup in September and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1989, SLORC declared martial law after widespread protests. In July, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest and General Tin U put in prison.In May 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won 392 out of a total 489 seats, and 60 % of the votes. The election results were, however, annulled by SLORC, which arrested most of its top leaders and declared that a non-military government could not be e stablished in Myanmar, without a new constitution. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991 put a lot of pressure on the SLORC. When General Than Shwe took over as SLORC chairman in 1992, many political prisoners were released and Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed visits from her family; and later allowed to meet a U.S congressman, a UN official and an American reporter. In 1992, SLORC unveiled plans to create a new constitution through the National Convention, which began 9 January 1993. When the military directed it to give it a major role in the government, NLD party members walked out the convention. The National Convention continues to convene and adjourn. Many major political parties, particularly the NLD, have been absent or excluded, and little progress has been made.The State Law and Order Restoration Council was renamed as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997, with the same leadership as the SLORC. On 7 February 2008, SPDC announced that a referendum would soon be held relating to the new Constitution, and that elections would be held by 2010. The referendum, held on 10 May 2008, promised a “discipline-flourishing democracy” for the country. The referendum is seen by many as an effort to “legalise” the perpetuation of the military rule. ———

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