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Success of Modi’s Act East Policy depends on India – Myanmar ties; By Jai Kumar Verma

C3S Paper No. 0125/2016

It was External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj first and Hitin Kyaw President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar next within a week, visiting each other’s country that raised eyebrows. It seemed that both the nations were trying to forge close relations with each other, motivated by a desire to counter China’s growing influence as a regional leader.

For a country to be treated like a great power, it must act like a great power, and that requires a bit of throwing of weight around and India is learning this from China and US. It has understood that to be the big brother in the region it has to let the smaller nations know that it is big. And what better than helping in the growth of these countries like China does.

Concerns and tensions increased in India over China’s extensive military involvement in developing ports, naval and intelligence facilities and industries, specifically the upgrading of a naval base in Sittwe, a major seaport located close to the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. India’s engagement of the Burmese military junta has helped ease the regime’s international isolation and lessen Burma’s reliance on China. Both nations sought to cooperate to counteract drug trafficking and insurgent groups operating in the border areas. India and Myanmar are leading members of BIMSTEC and the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation, along with Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, helping India develop its influence and ties amongst Southeast Asian nations.

India was hesitant in reacting to the 2007 Burmese anti-government protests that had drawn overwhelming international condemnation. India also declared that it had no intention of interfering in Burma’s internal affairs and that the Burmese people would have to achieve democracy by themselves as it respects the sovereignty of Myanmar. This low-key response has been widely criticised both within India and abroad as weakening India’s credentials as a leading democratic nation. Indo-Burma relations went into a pleasant phase over Burmese steps towards democracy. As of 2013, India has provided loan to Myanmar for its development, about US$500 million. India and Myanmar are set to cooperate in matters military and India also aims to help modernize Myanmar’s military.

While Aung San Kyi the de facto ruler of Myanmar and a Nobel laureate paid a five days visit to China in August 2016, Sushma Swaraj reached Myanmar on August 22, just after Aung San Suu Kyi concluded her visit. It was the first high level visit by an Indian dignitary after the massive victory of National League for Democracy (NLD) in the elections held in November, 2015. Ajit Doval India’s all powerful National Security Advisor also visited Myanmar on June 16, as a special envoy of Prime Minister Modi.

The President of Myanmar and his high level delegation’s meeting with Prime Minister Modi and others recently, resulted into both sides agreeing to fight terrorism and deciding to maintain peace and tranquility at the borders and assured not to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other country.

India and Myanmar share approximately 1700 km of borders and few terrorist outfits have terrorist camps inside Myanmar and take refuge there after carrying out terrorist activities in India. Myanmar leadership assured that it will not allow terrorist groups to use its territory for cross border terrorist activities in India. Sushma’s visit happened soon after Indian army foiled the attempt of terrorists of National Council of Nagaland-Khaplang group to enter India.

Both sides also decided that the vigil at the borders must be enhanced so that diverse insurgent outfits do not cross the border after carrying out terrorist activities in another country. It was also agreed that besides land borders Maritime Security Cooperation in the Bay of Bengal would also be enhanced.  Myanmar leadership welcomed India’s Act East Policy as it suits the country and areas of cooperation between both the countries should be identified and work should commence.

Both Myanmar President in India and Swaraj in Myanmar, discussed about cooperation in several fields including information technology, power, human resources and infrastructure development, health, education, transport, renewable energy and agriculture. India can import large quantity of pulses as Myanmar is surplus in pulses while India needs it urgently. Indian agriculturalists should help out their counterpart in Myanmar to improve the quality of pulses and its marketing in India.

Suu Kyi faces a challenge of restoration of democracy and minimizing the interference of the army. Army has amended the constitution in such a way that she cannot become the president and besides it, army has control over important ministerial portfolios like home, defence, border affairs etc. and 25 percent of parliamentary seats are also reserved for army.

China had close relationship with the military regime and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was the first foreign minister to visit Myanmar after civilian government took over. After the visit of Foreign Minister several other Chinese leaders also visited Myanmar. China welcomed and honoured Suu Kyi as Head of State in her latest visit.

The military junta of Myanmar also kept cordial relations with China as it was the primary source of supply of arms and ammunition and secondly they feared that China would instigate various terrorist outfits in the country to overthrow the government.

India has to be careful while chalking out its relations with Myanmar as China which has surplus funds may go a big way in the development of the country. Myanmar watchers feel that besides promise of economic development China would also assist new leadership in national reconciliation especially in Panglong conference where all armed groups met. China has decisive influence on at least 3 rebel armed outfits. Suu Kyi would have to give some concessions to China for all the promised assistance. It may include Myanmar’s silence on South China Sea issue, support economic corridor from Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) etc.

Indian policy planners should not be worried unnecessarily that Suu Kyi visited Laos, and Cambodia (both are close to China) and China before visiting India but have to chalk out a long term strategic strategy so that India Myanmar relations are strengthened and China supported terrorist outfits may not able to utilize Myanmar territory for carrying out terrorist activities in India.

President Htin paid a fruitful visit and Suu Kyi would also be visiting soon and at that time strategists should try to clear the picture between India, Myanmar and China relationship. India and Myanmar have close relationship on social and religious grounds and Indian leadership must utilize it.

The public and military of Myanmar realized that China was exploiting the natural resources of the country without giving real compensation and that was the reason that military rulers became so annoyed with China that they suspended Myitsone dam project of China. In fact Chinese authorities requested Suu Kyi to resume the project.

Modi is pursuing a successful foreign policy with special attention to the neighbours hence India must strengthen its ties with Myanmar. India always supported democratic forces in the country but now when civilian government came into existence other countries are trying hard to cultivate closer relationship.

India should not compete with China as Myanmar and China shares a border of more than 2000 km and Chinese were supplying arms and ammunition to military rulers. The military is still powerful in the country hence India should not underestimate it.

India should assist in oil and gas projects and must harness the avenue of spirituality and Buddhist religion not only in Myanmar but in China too. India should develop Buddhist pilgrimage places so that more and more people from Myanmar and China visit the Buddhist sites which will strengthen the ties as well as generate employment in the country.

Indian oil giants like Indian Oil and Bharat Petroleum should also export gasoline to Myanmar as this oil rich nation has no refinery so far. Indian oil companies should also invest in oil and gas sectors including offshore drilling as Myanmar has abundance of oil and gas reserves.

Indian companies should participate in the competitive tender for marketing of petrochemical and petroleum products as well as in establishment of LPG terminals. China is establishing an oil refinery at Davei with a cost of USD 3 billion where about 100000 barrels of oil would be processed.

Myanmar has more than 2.9 million persons of Indian origin therefore India should open Trade and Cultural Centers in the country which will be useful to inculcate cordial relation between both the countries.

India should train more personnel of Myanmar armed forces in professional and technical courses especially in jungle warfare and curbing the terrorist activities in border areas, as it will be beneficial to both the countries.  India should also provide training to Myanmar defence personnel in repair and maintenance of equipment of Russian origin.

Myanmar is a link between India and Southeast Asia hence it is essential for the success of Modi’s Act East Policy to have cordial relations between India and Myanmar. Indian businessmen should also invest in Myanmar which is rich in natural resources but poor otherwise. According to a report 70 percent of its population is without electricity.

India and Myanmar have agreed to a 4-lane, 3200 km triangular highway connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand. The route, which is expected to be completed by sometime during 2016, will run from India’s northeastern states into Myanmar, where over 1,600 km of roads will be built or improved. The route begins from Guwahati in India and connects to Mandalay in Myanmar, route continues to Yangon in Myanmar and then to Mae Sot in Thailand, which then continues to Bangkok.

The first phase connecting Guwahati to Mandalay is set to complete by 2016. This will eventually be extended to Cambodia and Vietnam under Mekong-Ganga Cooperation within the wider framework of Asian Highway Network. This is aimed at creating a new economic zone ranging from Kolkata on the Bay of Bengal to Ho Chi Minh City on the South China Sea.

India should also assist Suu Kyi in restoration of full-fledged democracy in the country.  In recent times about 20 Parliamentarians of Myanmar were trained by Bureau of Parliamentary Studies and Training at New Delhi. Both India and Myanmar would gain by strengthening cordial relations.

Indo-Myanmar relations are very important for Prime Minister Modi’s Act East Policy and over the past two decades, relations between India and Myanmar have improved vastly, with a number of high-level political visits. India needs to nurture this relationship by increasing economic and security engagement with Myanmar without acting the big-brother.

(Jai Kumar Verma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst and a retired R&AW officer. The views in the article are solely the author’s.)

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