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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 40, September 21, 2013

A New Role for India in Myanmar

Sunday 22 September 2013, by Sonu Trivedi


Given the transition taking place in Myanmar from authoritarianism to democracy in the midst of ongoing communal and ethnic violence on the one hand and reform initiatives by the new regime on the other, the Indian mission in Myanmar faces immense challenges as well as opportunities. How well it is going to capitalise on these opportunities and ward off challenges is going to have a wide-ranging impact on the future of India-Myanmar relations. However, the chore is not free from caveat. The road ahead is full of challenge.

The upcoming diplomatic row over the border issue in Manipur over the pillar 76 on Indo-Myanmar border in Holenphai village near Moreh has added to the existing problems. Although the two sides have agreed to sit together to negotiate the issue peacefully, it has alerted both sides on the border. Whether it is a ‘misunderstanding’ or an ‘intrusion’, it has certainly raised alarm bells on either side. Furthermore, in the light of clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in the Rakhine State, the incidents in central and northeastern Myanmar in recent months in particular and the alleged plans of radical groups to target Buddhist installations in India has added to the existing challenges. These are no longer internal affairs of Myanmar alone. The outburst of Buddhist nationalism may have long-term implications and its impact is going to be widespread influencing security in the entire region of South and South-East Asia including the Indian subcontinent. These have radicalised Muslims outside Myanmar that has resulted in retaliation and retribution; and its spillover effect is going to be appalling. It implies that India would have to play a tough role to tighten security and prevent violence. Amidst the existing dynamics, how the Indian mission in Yangon responds to this crisis is going to significantly alter India’s relationship with Myanmar in the coming days.

India has now a greater responsibility being the world’s largest democracy and one of Myanmar’s closest neighbour having civili-sational ties. It has to keep up to the rising expectations of the pro-democratic forces in Myanmar. Even the Opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, could not hide her emotions when she advocated a greater role for India in Myanmar. To quote her, “Myanmar had not yet achieved the goal of democracy………We hope that through this difficult last stage, the people of India will stand by us and walk with us as we proceed along the path which they had taken many years before.”

Easing of Western sanctions after political reforms in Myanmar entrusts India with a more pro-active role. It has to secure its own economic interest vis-à-vis competition against the new powers in the region. As of now, the European Union and Australia have lifted their travel and financial sanctions against Myanmar, but the United States has taken what US officials call a “calibrated” approach. While it has suspended most restrictions on investment, imports and financial services, the US still main-tains its list of targeted sanctions, bans some people from traveling to the US and blocks imports of specific products, such as jade and rubies, for which trade has been dominated by state and military interests.

In the wake of the regime transformation and emerging political dynamics in Myanmar, particularly with the emergence of the Western powers and rapprochement with the United States, India will now have to push more vigorously to expand its economic interests in Myanmar before the West starts making its presence felt. India’s economic involvement in Myanmar, largely through the public sector, has not been up to the mark with complaints about implementation delays and quality controls. This gap, however, must be filled by the Indian private sector which wants to move in as opportunities expand in this hermit kingdom. 

One of the most important challenges facing the mission is to strengthen the economic and trade relations between the two countries. In the current phase of transformation the Chinese support for the regime seems to be a challenging opportunity, particularly, vis-à-vis its closeness with the West and its proximity with India. Myanmar seems to be walking on a tight rope in balancing China and India against each other. It is certain to give precedence to democratic administrative practices of state building and nation-building as against the previous regimes. This has brought Myanmar closer to India than its earlier Big Brother, China. It poses a considerable threat to the prolonged Chinese influence and dominance in the region. The threat has become more real after the suspension of the $ 3.6 billion dam project at Myitsone and recent protest against a China-backed copper mine in northwestern Myanmar at Letpadaung near Monywa.

Nevertheless, China continues to remain as its largest trading partner and biggest source of foreign investment. On the other hand, President Thein Sein has reaffirmed that Myan-mar’s transition to democracy will not change the country’s traditional friendship with China. The two countries have agreed to continue to strengthen communication and coordination to accelerate the formulation of mid-term and long-term goals of bilateral exchanges in politics, economy, trade, culture, security and other areas to steadily push forward comprehensive cooperation. They have also embraced the concept of corporate social responsibility and stressed on the need for evaluating the social and environ-mental impact as well as occupational health hazards of the ongoing programmes.

Given the limitations of the Indian public sector investment in Myanmar, bureaucratic hurdles and procedural delays, private sector investment must be encouraged to bridge this gap. This needs an introspection and greater intervention by the private players but with a caveat. In the absence of a democratic culture in Myanmar, it is very difficult to carry out negotiations and implement democratic administrative practices. Furthermore, lack of connectivity and poor rail-road link in the border areas of Myanmar and India’s North-East has posed a formidable challenge for integrating the region and meeting up the development dividends. In this regard, building of road connectivity between the North-East and Myanmar under India’s Look East Policy has been a welcome move.

The ultimate determining point would be the internal political dynamics within the political regime and its long term repercussions on India-Myanmar relations. The ongoing tussle between the hardliners and reformists has scared the reform process. This poses a question over the durability and sustainability of the regime. However, it is believed that a stable Myanmar would be to the advantage of India. In addition, the relationship between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the military and the dynamics which she shares with the other minority parties is further going to determine the future of the regime and its consequence on India-Myanmar relations. Nevertheless, resolving the ethnic issue will be Myanmar’s biggest challenge now. Overcoming of sixty-year-old ethnic conflict will not be easy and the government will have to do a great deal to build the trust necessary to move beyond temporary ceasefires to resolve the underlying political issues. The recent occurrence of communal violence has further added to the existing problems. The country needs to learn lessons in multiculturalism from India especially in the field of adopting federal democratic practices and managing ethnic conflicts.

Regime change and political developments in Myanmar since the last two years have opened a new chapter in India-Myanmar relations. This could pave the way for strengthening bilateral partnership in the years to come. Despite having close ties in the initial years after independence during period of parliamentary democracy and the subsequent strains during military rule to India’s present policy shift from ‘idealism to realism’ and engagement with Myanmar, the two countries have continued to remain ‘good brothers’. Changes in the regime structure has been a guiding factor in this oscillating relation-ship. However, people-to-people contacts have continued with this civilisational neighbour in the form of cultural and spiritual exchanges.

Dr Sonu Trivedi is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Zakir Hussain Delhi College, University of Delhi.

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