Report of Emerging Trends in India – Myanmar Relations by Amit Singh on 20 June
Speaker: Dr. Amit Singh, Associate Fellow, NMF
Chair: Amb (retd.) Veena Sikri
Discussant: Prof. Manmohini Kaul, JNU, Delhi
Discussant: Dr. K. Yhome, Fellow, ORF, Delhi
Rapporteur: Dr. Omprakash Dahiya, NMF
1. On 20 June 12, National Maritime Foundation (NMF) hosted a Round Table Conference wherein Dr Amit Singh, NMF Research Fellow, presented his paper on “Emerging Trends in India-Myanmar Relations”. The RTC, chaired by the Amb (Rtd.) Mrs. Veena Sikri, was attended by members of the Foundation, serving officers from Naval and IDS Headquarters, experts in international relations besides the National Maritime Foundation Research faculty.
2. In her opening remarks, the Chairperson spotlighted that the topic was important because the two neighbours viz. India and Myanmar, despite their historic and cultural ties, were now seeking to re-activate their engagement after a hiatus. She also outlined the ‘China factor’ in India-Myanmar relations in the recent past.
3. The speaker had divided his paper into six broad themes which are outlined in the succeeding paragraphs.
4. At the outset, the speaker stated that Myanmar was an important neighbour of India as it shared extensive land and maritime borders with India’s North-eastern states and in the Bay of Bengal respectively. During the long spell of Myanmar’s military rule, India had opted to follow a policy of non-engagement with the Burmese authorities. As a part of its “Look-east” policy initiated in 1990s, India sought to re-start the engagement with the Military Junta. The recent democratization process set into motion in Myanmar has the potential to take India-Myanmar relations to a new height.
5. He then dwelt upon the relationship between the two countries since 1948 and analysed them in five different phases. During the first phase (1948-1962),a sound personal rapport between the Prime Ministers U Nu and Jawaharlal Nehru was largely instrumental in the two countries enjoying good relations. The second phase (1962-1988) saw, as the speaker brought out, the onset of cold relations following the takeover of the Government by the military junta. The third phase (1988-1992), witnessed a coup by Saw Muang and was notable for the governance of Burma by the resultant State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which also did not have good relations with India. During the fourth phase (1993-2010), New Delhi initiated its ambitious “Look-east Policy” to enhance its relations with the Southeast Asian countries with Myanmar being a part of it. The water shed event of 2010 General elections that paved the way for the democratization process in Myanmar, which persuaded New Delhi to engage Myanmar more proactively, was described as the current phase (2010-till date).
6. In the third theme, the speaker identified five main factors behind the redrafting of India’s Myanmar Policy viz. ‘Growing Chinese influence in Myanmar’, ‘Stability of the North-Eastern Region (NER) of India’, ‘Role of Indian Diaspora’, ‘India’s quest for Energy’ and India’s “Look East” policy. He highlighted the different connectivity areas and routes from NER of India to Myanmar and the potential that these held to integrate NER with the broader ASEAN’s inter-connectivity network in future.
7. The fourth theme of the paper related to the democratisation process in Myanmar with special mention of November 2010 General elections which ended the decades-old military-rule in the country. The theme also resonated with the ushering of different reforms pertaining to human rights, labour laws and electoral practices by the newly elected President that encouraged Aung San Suu Kyi, and her party NLD, to contest bye-elections. He brought out that the three day visit of the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton in December 2011 was ‘historical’ and ‘path-breaking’ as she was the first US Foreign Policy Chief to visit Myanmar in more than a half century.
8. The speaker analysed India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Myanmar and the signing of 12 MoUs with Myanmar. The latter, covered border area development, connectivity, agriculture, trade and investment etc. which the speaker described as the fifth theme viz. the emerging trend in the relations between the two countries. The implementation of Kaladan Multimodel Transport Project which involved upgradation of Sittwe port in Myanmar and Bus service between Imphal and Mandalay were also a part of the emerging trends.
9. The speaker summed up his analysis by highlighting the main inferences drawn from the study as follows:-
Continuing democratisation process in Myanmar could be seen as a series of positive steps towards developmental reforms.
Decentralising the power or adopting the federal structure may help in accommodating all the stakeholders in Myanmar.
Also, the Indian Diaspora in Myanmar could play a crucial role in strengthening India-Myanmar ties.
10. The Chairperson, Amb. Sikri, brought out how foreign policy perspectives and domestic situations of both the countries play a major role in shaping the relations between the two. She also averred that ‘maritime boundaries’ and ‘maritime interests’ were very much a part of the foreign policies of any neighbouring countries. She suggested that India-Myanmar-Bangladesh Trilateral interactions or joint economic explorations in the Bay of Bengal could be developed further to improve relations between these countries. She also felt that the Indian model of federalism held some relevance for Myanmar in the context of her ethnic problems.
11. The first discussant, Dr. K. Yhome brought out two significant trends emerging in India-Myanmar relations in the recent past. Firstly, the visit of Myanmar’s President Thein Sien in October last year and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Myanmar. While India and Myanmar had reaffirmed their willingness to continue their military cooperation to tackle security issues at the border, expand their trade basket through greater connectivity and further deepen energy cooperation in the oil and gas sector; one of the emerging trends in India-Myanmar relations was the broadening of engagement. The second trend was the growing recognition by governments of both the countries that border security issues cannot be tackled by military means alone. For the past two decades or so the two countries were engaged in military cooperation to deal with insurgent groups that were using the border for illegal activities. While security cooperation had increased mutual understanding and coordination between the armed forces of the two countries, the aim of ending ethnic insurgent activities had not been fully achieved. Hence, the need to link security with development in the bilateral relationship was a major change in the thinking which also raised the level of cooperation in the bordering areas.
12. The second discussant, Prof.Manmohini Kaul, felt that Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Myanmar had come not a day too soon since it had geo-strategic significance and also because the two countries share long land and maritime boundaries. She also brought out that Chinese perspective towards Myanmar and India could be viewed in different ways and how Myanmar diplomatically deals or cooperate with India and China. She emphasized the role of ASEAN in India-Myanmar relations and said that their past engagements in ASEAN had paid dividends to both countries. She mentioned that Indian Diaspora in Myanmar was different from Malaysia and Indonesia. She reiterated that Myanmar could play the role of an economic bridge between India and Southeast Asia as some positive steps like connectivity through BIMSTEC, MGC etc. were already taken in the past. She brought out the reasons regarding non-according of the SAARC membership to Myanmar since the country was part of ASEAN.
13. The key issues that were discussed during the Question-Answer session are listed below:-
Divergent interests of India and China in Myanmar.
Ethnic problems in Myanmar affecting India-Myanmar relations.
China’s influence in Myanmar.
Conflicting SAARC membership Issue i.e. whilst India is seeking Myanmar’s inclusion in SAARC, in the same breadth, Pakistan wants China’s inclusion in the same.
Chinese Diaspora issue, which are a minority in Myanmar.
Opposition by a majority of Myanmar people to China’s involvement in infrastructure development in Myanmar.
Popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi and her cautiousness in moving towards democratic reforms.
Proper administration of India-Myanmar border.
Emphasis on Maritime cooperation and role of navies of both the countries.
14. In the end, the Director expressed thanks to Chairperson and both the Discussants for their valuable comments and suggestions. He stated that as part of its “look east” policy, India has strengthened cooperation with Myanmar militarily. Enhanced exchange of visits by military delegations has been a vital component of this important initiative. In December 2002, as the Fleet Commander, he had taken one destroyer, one missile corvette of the Eastern Fleet and a submarine for a port visit to Yangon. A Myanmar Navy corvette docked at Port Blair to take part in “MILAN 2006”, making it their first visit to a foreign port in four decades. A large number of Myanmar military personnel are also receiving military training in India. With many inhibiting factors out of the way, it is expected that India-Myanmar relations are poised for a take-off albeit in a graduated manner.