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Interview with Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia IFS (Retd.) on “Myanmar and its Relations with India and Chin

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Article 49/2020

Interview with Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia IFS (Retd.), Former Ambassador of India to Myanmar, on “Myanmar and its Relations with India and China”

Amidst border tensions with China, India is looking to recalibrate its Myanmar policy. On 1 October 2020, India stated its agreement to provide debt relief service to Myanmar under the G-20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative. This would assist Myanmar’s efforts to tackle the economic impact of Covid-19. In addition, New Delhi and Naypyidaw expressed they are working to operationalize Sittwe port in early 2021. Moreover, the Indian Foreign Secretary and the Chief of Army Staff of India are visiting Myanmar on 05 October 2020, to discuss issues of interest. These measures may be a way for India to increase momentum in its regional outreach while countering Beijing.

Meanwhile, an intriguing juxtaposition is observed with regard to both China and Myanmar. On 09 September 2020, a German firm was hired by the Myanmar government to oversee a bidding process in lieu of the New Yangon City project. This move attempts to project transparency in the tendering procedure, in order to ‘challenge’ a bid from the now US-sanctioned China Communications Construction Company. The CCCC is blacklisted for helping militarize Chinese outposts in the South China Sea. On the other hand, on 10 September 2020, the European Parliament ousted Aung San Suu Kyi from the Sakharov human rights prize community, over her inaction on the Rohingya crisis. The US is also strongly urging Myanmar’s government to comply with the ICJ ruling on the Rakhine issue. Meanwhile, Myanmar continues to receive China’s political support. It remains to be seen how Suu Kyi will balance Myanmar’s domestic challenges and Chinese backing on one hand, with Western commercial interests and political pressures. Her leadership of the country, alongside her diplomatic acumen, can play key roles in shaping the outcome of the Myanmar elections to be held on 08 November 2020.

Asma Masood, Associate Member, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S), interviewed Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia IFS (Retd.), Former Ambassador of India to Myanmar, on his take on developments in Myanmar and its linkages with India and China.

Q1: While nationalism in Myanmar aims to support the democracy in transition, it is also leading to human rights issues viz. the Rohingya crisis. How can Myanmar balance this nationalistic spirit?

A1:  The Rakhine problem has existed despite nationalism in Myanmar; it was there earlier and it is present now. One first needs to define nationalism in the given context. Myanmar does not possess a nationalistic impulse, yet the link is seen in ethnic terms. In other words, nationalism in Myanmar identifies with the Bamar community; it is a majoritarian impulse. The Rakhine issue emerges from the Bamar view of the Muslims within Myanmar’s Rakhine province and from the rest of the Buddhists in Myanmar.

They (Buddhists) all know that Myanmar has no choice but to follow one path, that of unity like India. But some observers feel that the Bamar are not willing to compromise which gives rise to a fundamental problem. One views that the path lies in compromise on both sides in order to consolidate nationalism. Rakhine is part of the problem; it is not the only problem. The issues related to diversity and ethnic groups lead to a complicated scenario, wherein nationalism in Myanmar is yet to be complete.

Q2: While there are some affinities between India and Myanmar, such as Buddhist linkages, what is the attitude towards India among Myanmar’s civilians? Is there still a sense of victimhood stemming from the perceived domination of Indians in their country’s bureaucracy, army and land-ownership, all of which occurred during colonial times?

A2: That is not the actual case. All memories of the earlier domination have been eliminated by the exodus of Indians who were compelled to depart due to Myanmar’s policies. What is left of Indians in Myanmar comprises the lower strata, the ‘rice strata’, small traders and farmers, from whom there is no sense of domination. The new face of Indians in the country are seen in expats in trade, investment and industry. There are also the descendants of the original settled Indian community. All these groups do not pose a threat to the Bamar trade community that has emerged.

On the other hand, lies the Burmese perception of China. It can be described as a love-hate situation.  The two countries’ relations are far from unidimensional. Nevertheless the Burmese find it easier to deal with the Chinese, especially with those from southern China. There are even cases of inter-marriages between the two sides.

It is imperative to understand Myanmar’s perception of China from the top-down level. The China-Myanmar bilateral was strong during Ne Win’s reign and the subsequent period as well. At the time, Beijing was hand-in-glove with Myanmar’s military generals. It is of note that China has its own modus operandi of shaping relations with Myanmar. Firstly, Chinese companies bring in their own country’s workers. China supports Myanmar’s northern ethnic groups. There is also the illegal trade factor, which China is working to remove. For instance, the trafficking of Burmese women into China’s Yunnan province. From a macro-perspective, China practices heavy-handed economic diplomacy with Myanmar. Significantly, once democracy builds up, a country’s media becomes more independent. For instance, negative feelings were in the public domain in Myanmar for some years since 2011, when Thein Sein assumed leadership.

The present government under Aung San Suu Kyi, like the earlier ruling faction, wants to balance India, the US, China and the West. But this can happen only when other parties want to balance. It is possible to favour the party that is most demanding only when one is most generous. It was a big loss in terms of foreign policy for Suu Kyi when  Hillary Clinton did not win the US presidential elections. Myanmar’s problems with ASEAN are also increasing due to Suu Kyi’s rapport with her country’s military. Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi had to grapple with the Myitsone dam issue with China.

Amidst all these factors, one views that Aung San Suu Kyi knows India best.

Q3: China says that it does not see India as a competitor in Myanmar. Is this due to the deeply entrenched nature of China in Myanmar and Beijing’s view that India does not ‘qualify’ as a competitor? Secondly, what about China’s strategic contest vis-à-vis access to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, and the two ocean strategy; that is, are there reasons beyond the Malacca dilemma?

A3: This is diplomatic language. The reality is that competition between India and China in Myanmar does exist. The Myanmar policies of both India and China are shaped by this consideration. If India makes an offer to Myanmar, China would offer five times more. There is an obvious asymmetry observed, which must be understood by researchers and analysts. India’s profile in Myanmar is substantial and has increased over the years, yet it is smaller than China’s. In addition, the nature of the relationship differs. While China is keen on large projects in Myanmar such as infrastructure and transport, India promotes Myanmar’s human capacity development and assists its agricultural sector. India has shown a poor record with regard to the Kaladan multi-modal project and the Trilateral Highway.

On the second query, China’s interest in southwest Myanmar is not only because of the Malacca dilemma but due to other concerns where China seeks to balance and pressure India. China also looks at the Bay of Bengal with immense strategic value. Thirdly, a flagship factor is detected, wherein China would demonstrate muscle through its relations with Myanmar while attempting to impress not only India but other regional actors such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives. Moreover, China understands the importance of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Q4: Until recently, Myanmar was being economically accommodated by a large part of the world, while other parties engage in criticism of the Rohingya issue. Could you share your views on this accommodation or ‘tolerance’? Is it a case of appeasement, for example in the case of India?

A4: The Rohingya problem is serious, no doubt. Evidence shows clearly they are subject to oppression. We have to fix responsibility. We do not fix it on the civilian government but on the military while bearing in mind that the military also came under serious attack. The attack was a reaction. The constitution in terms of border security and immigration issues is outside the purview of the Suu Kyi government. Outsiders are not completely aware of how the country is managed.

The ethnic problem has continued. Methods to contain it during the time of rulers in the past and present have not met success. The current failure is caused by the military displaying extreme behaviour.

Few Europeans and other state citizens deal with Myanmar, with most being identified as business persons. These commercial players understand the situation in Myanmar better.

I would advise a charitable view of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. Knowing Suu Kyi’s background, her achievements and limitations, we must understand her.

On the question of appeasement, I view that there are principles and there are interests. It is important to raise one’s voice for the Rohingya. But the government does not have to be involved in every step. The civil society also plays a role. If India criticizes Myanmar’s government more than helping it, we would further push Myanmar into China’s influence. A blended approach is required. We are learning from history, as we did from the case of 1991/1992 when we lost elbow room with Myanmar. Hence diplomacy is about balancing values with interests.

Q5: Myanmar desires to be a bridge between India and China. How do you see this vision being taken forward?

A5: It is a very sensible vision and a viable option for Myanmar. When India-China ties become strained due to other factors, this bridge will not work. Cooperation becomes a competition. The Bangladesh-Myanmar-India-China initiative (BCIM) was supposed to be a bridge. When Manmohan Singh visited Yangon, he spoke of Myanmar as a bridge between India and Southeast Asia as well as with China. That was the Indian view then. There was no reference to BCIM in 2015-2016. The first official announcement from Delhi on BCIM came when India and Bangladesh issued a joint statement in 2017.

India’s diplomacy is proactive, not reactive. There are many goals to achieve, and India has had considerable success in achieving them. We need to recognize the progress which has been made since 2011. There were high-level visits by Thein Sein, Manmohan Singh and by Aung San Suu Kyi. This is not to say there were no shortcomings. We need more financial resources; moreover, we need more agility in terms of seeing how to help Myanmar. On another note, one area where India and Myanmar can fully cooperate is to strengthen sub-regional cooperation, in organizations like BIMSTEC, where South Asia and Southeast Asia converge.

Q7: In what way does the suspension of the Myitsone project indicate China’s loss?

A7: Evidence suggests that the Chinese have come around to the fact that Myanmar’s military will not agree. China has found alternative projects with the country including oil pipelines.

Q8: How can India work with Japan in Myanmar, given that Tokyo is the biggest aid donor to Myanmar and similar to India by way of promoting skill development in the country?

A8: India and Japan can tap immense potential by working together in Myanmar. The availability of Japanese capital and India’s management expertise, coupled with the experience of both countries working in Myanmar and Southeast Asia will lead to a win-win scenario. There is already strong political endorsement for such a strategy. However, no joint projects have taken off at present. Japan did invite Indian companies to invest in Myanmar’s Thilawa SEZ, thereby creating employment opportunities for local workers while also using natural resources. This marks an example of trilateral cooperation.

Q9: To conclude, do you believe that a successful foreign policy in India towards Myanmar will pave the way for Delhi’s triumphant foreign policy in the region and beyond? That is, if and when India can achieve optimum ties with Naypyidaw despite the challenges, would it lead to a benchmark showing that India’s foreign policy has reached a zenith?

A9: India’s foreign policy is anchored in its 360-degree worldview. It is a multidimensional phenomenon. India deals with a large part of the world, not just one. To succeed, we have to succeed everywhere, not just in one corner. But that one neighbour, Myanmar, is important to us. Our effectiveness in Myanmar will show the success of our South Asian policy, our Myanmar policy and our Act East policy.

(The views expressed are interviewee’s own)

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