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30 March 2016, Gateway House

Shifting India-Myanmar relations

“Changing Countours” outlines the changing contours of a newly democratic Myanmar and prescribes the path for India to follow to foster closer links with its next-door neighbour.

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It is ironic that a mention of Myanmar evokes so little in the Indian mind today. From the perspective of their respective civilisations, Burma and India have very close ties. The two countries share a 1609.34km long border; more importantly, they have a shared history of colonial dominance. India’s last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, lived and died in exile in Rangoon after he was deposed by the British. The Burmese royal family was shuttled to Ratnagiri in Maharashtra after they were overthrown by the British, whose keen eye on the resources of Burma trumped all other considerations. Buddhism spread from India to Burma and continues to define the Burmese psyche. Significantly today, security and development in India’s northeastern states are closely intertwined with the internal dynamics of Myanmar.

Why did relations between the two countries sag for so long, and is there a different direction for the future?

Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia’s book comes at a significant time and attempts to answer some of these questions. Ambassador Bhatia’s tenure as the head of the division dealing with Myanmar in the Ministry of External Affairs, his subsequent role as India’s Ambassador in Yangon, and his frequent interactions as Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs, with the leadership in Myanmar have given him a unique perspective on bilateral relations, and his book is rich in detail and perceptive in its analysis.

Myanmar is at the cusp of major changes:  local and parliamentary elections in Myanmar were held in November 2015, and the all-important Presidential elections followed in February this year. At the time of writing this, Htin Kyaw has been confirmed as the country’s first civilian president in 50 years. The 70-year old is a close friend of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who is banned from serving as head of state under the current constitution. Aung San Suu Kyi, who has negotiated unsuccessfully with the military to set aside the constitutional ban so she could assume the office of president, will no doubt play a significant role;  her earlier assertion that the president would essentially be her subordinate will probably stand true.

“She will hold the post handling three institutions: the government, the Parliament and the party,” Mr. Tun Tun Hein, spokesperson for the National League for Democracy, said. Alluding to the military dictatorships of Myanmar’s recent past, he added, “If there was once the senior general in the country, she will be the senior president.”

It is against this background that a newly democratic Myanmar is emerging, giving India a chance to foster closer links with its next-door neighbour, a path Ambassador Bhatia outlines in his book.

Myanmar is not only a fresh economic opportunity for India; it is a chance to overcome the decades’ long neglect of Northeast India by linking its infrastructure and commerce with Myanmar. India could reignite the Bay of Bengal with a surge of commercial activity reviving its eastern ports.

Bhatia divides his book evenly: he examines the historical evolution of Myanmar; discusses the history of India-Myanmar relations; and devotes an entire chapter to the India-Myanmar-China triangle. Finally, Bhatia offers prescriptions for future relations between the two countries.

Bhatia maintains that, “as opposed to the narrative of India-China competition in Myanmar, the potential of cooperation scenario should also be considered”. Bhatia quotes author and political analyst Maung Aung Myoe, who concluded “….. if Myanmar’s engagement with China in the past decades offers any lesson for future reference, it is most likely that Myanmar will be very cautious in dealing with China because Myanmar is thoroughly convinced that China, like all other countries, will determine its policies toward Myanmar according to the calculations of her own interests”.

Myanmar’s dependence on China is waning; at the same time, Myanmar is developing closer relationships with the United States, the European Union,, Japan, and its other partners in East Asia. Myanmar will most likely resist being utilised by China and India as a pivotal state, so, while India and China rivalries may continue, Myanmar will not allow either to have a dominant influence.

Author Rajiv Bhatia maintains that China and India will remain actively engaged in “competing with each other in order to expand their areas of influence in Myanmar”. He emphasises that India’s strategic concerns and security, both in relation to defence against external attack and insurgent groups, as well as imperatives concerning the socio-economic development of the Northeast, will remain unchanged. Myanmar will remain a high priority in India’s worldview. The book’s most interesting chapter outlines the possible future directions of this relationship. The author is encouraged by Myanmar’s “performance in reforming its political system, economy, media and other sectors and in recalibrating its foreign policy during the period 2010-2014”. However, the reform period which helped the economy grow has also exposed the ugly side of Myanmar—sectarian strife and ethnic violence.

Bhatia states: “A whole set of factors that push the two countries towards a close and cooperative relationship will remain potent and unchanged, despite political changes that may occur in Myanmar in the foreseeable future.” Both Delhi and Naypyitaw, Bhatia suggests, should build their future relationship on three pillars:

In the first place, India will have to recognise that China, like India, has legitimate reasons to “craft close cooperation with Myanmar”. The author fully expects that China-Myanmar bilateral relations will take precedence over India-Myanmar bilateral relations. He suggests annual summits to determine the contours and scope of a strategic partnership, and also that India continue to cultivate the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar Armed Forces,  which are administered by the Ministry of Defence and are composed of the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. He further elaborates that India should help the Tatmadaw assume an “appropriate apolitical role in a democracy”.

Is this suggestion not fraught with risk, given the role that China plays, and will, by the author’s own admission, continue to play in the politics of Myanmar? Would not supporting the Tatmadaw be considered a hostile act by China?

Economic cooperation is the second pillar on which Bhatia suggests the two countries could further their relationship. Other than encouraging India Inc. to significantly improve its trade ties with Myanmar, “New Delhi could strengthen its financial heft by announcing a new line of credit of $1 billion to be used in the next three years for the export of engineering goods, technology and projects from India”.  India also needs to complete the Kaladan Multi-modal Transport Project and Trilateral Highway Project by the announced dates as its credibility is dependent on their timely completion.

Finally, the author suggests the setting up of an India-Myanmar foundation with the mandate to develop and implement a “set of programmes for strengthening people-to-people relations by promoting Buddhist pilgrimage in India, regular tourism by Indians in Myanmar, expanding educational exchanges, nurturing dialogues among strategic communities, and providing scholarships to youth, women, and civil society activists for study, travel and interaction”.

India-Myanmar Relation: Changing contours by Rajiv Bhatia (Routledge India, 2015)

Meera Kumar is a New York-based public relations professional. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank, the State University of New York, New York University, and several Fortune 20 companies. She started her career as a journalist writing for various media outlets in Southeast Asia, including the ‘Bangkok Post’ and ‘The Nation.’

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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