While the presence of leaders from the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation was considered one of the most memorable aspects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony last May, this attachment to a regional organisation that has achieved little by way of economic integration, connectivity, or people to people contacts is, to say the least, strange.
In the brief period since India became a “dialogue partner” of ASEAN, we have achieved a far more rapid transformation of economic ties and connectivity — especially by air and now hopefully by road — than we have with our SAARC neighbours over the past three decades. One of the reasons for this has been the fact that the economies of our eastern neighbours in ASEAN are far more dynamic than those of the neighbouring SAARC countries, where only Sri Lanka and Bhutan can be said to have comparable rates of growth. Moreover, Pakistan is interested neither in connectivity nor economic integration with India, which is the only SAARC country sharing land/maritime boundaries with all other members. Islamabad’s primary role in SAARC is to seek to isolate and embarrass India.
While Myanmar was regarded in colonial times as linked to India, the years following independence saw that country isolating itself progressively from the rest of the world. The advent of economic liberalisation in India and Narasimha Rao’s “Look East Policy,” coincided with efforts by the military junta in Myanmar to seek membership of ASEAN and open their doors for trade, investment and other ties, with the world. Mercifully, Rao and his successors chose not to follow western double standards and ostracise the military junta. What has followed has been a fruitful partnership with Myanmar that has safeguarded the security of our northeast, where four Indian States — Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram share borders with it.
While our engagement with Myanmar has been of immense benefit to both countries, public knowledge of, and political interest in, this relationship have been abysmal. The net result is that while an unfriendly Pakistan and a distant Maldives were invited to Modi’s inauguration, no representative from friendly Myanmar, with whom we share a 1640 kilometre land border and a well demarcated maritime boundary was invited. This, despite the fact, that Myanmar soldiers have, in the past, shed their blood fighting Indian insurgents. Moreover, Myanmar is today going through a quiet, but significant transformation in both its internal and foreign policies, which few in India have noted.
While the military junta, which took over in 1988, discarded General Ne Win’s socialistic inclinations and isolationism, the country is now finally headed for a high growth path, after a decade of relatively slower growth. The primary reason for this change is the end of US-led efforts to isolate Myanmar, ostensibly because of the absence of democratic freedoms. This change in American and western policies came about in 2010, when a new constitution came into force. While the US has called for a further reduction of the role of the military, which nominates 25% of the members of parliament and effectively blocks constitutional change, it appears unlikely that such change will be effected before general elections scheduled for later this year. Myanmar has been afflicted since its birth by ethnic insurgencies. Even today there are 16 armed ethnic groups committed to waging war against Yangon, under the umbrella of a “United Nationalities Federation Council”. While the ethnic minorities may not vote for Aung San Suu Kyi, they do share her views on diluting the constitutional powers of the military.
Ever since the military Junta took over in 1988, New Delhi has viewed growing Chinese influence in Myanmar with increasing concern. New Delhi wisely discarded an ill-advised policy of joining Western efforts to criticise and isolate the military Junta and opted for a process of constructive engagement. While India had no intention of matching Chinese assistance in areas like infrastructure and arms supplies, substantial assistance was rendered in skill development of Myanmar personnel in areas ranging from remote sensing and military training to hotel management and Information Technology. The possibility of China establishing a military presence in the Bay of Bengal was pre-empted by India agreeing to develop the Bay of Bengal Port of Sittwe and building a road and river corridor linking Sittwe to its north-eastern States through Mizoram. India has also successfully participated in off-shore exploration for oil and gas.
The fears that existed in India just over a decade ago about Myanmar providing naval and radar bases on its mainland and the offshore Coco Islands to China have been assuaged. Myanmar looked the other way on aerial and satellite surveillance of activities on the Coco Islands by India. While there is still concern in New Delhi at some of the separatist groups from Nagaland, Assam, Manipur and Bodoland operating from Myanmar territory, there is broad satisfaction on both sides about continuing cooperation on this issue. There are limits to the actions that Myanmar can presently take, as Indian insurgents have found haven in Kachin State, where large areas are controlled, not by the government, but by the Kachin Independence Army, which is known to enjoy links with people in China’s bordering Yunnan province.
In the meantime, as Myanmar’s international isolation had ended and western and Japanese assistance has grown, there are strains in its relations with China. The Myanmar government has, in recent years, rejected Chinese projects for copper mining, a hydro-electric dam and a proposed rail link between Kunming and Kyaukphyu, in western Myanmar. Many Chinese-aided projects are primarily for exploitation of raw materials in recipient countries. They are administered by Chinese state-run enterprises like CNPC or PetroChina, with supplies of equipment and machinery coming from Chinese enterprises like Huawei. Their partners receive few benefits and, in fact, face problems of displacement of people and environmental degradation. Myanmar also suspects China, with good reason, of allowing its territory in Yunnan to be used by ethnic Han insurgents in Myanmar’s Shan state. Matters escalated when the Myanmar Air Force bombed suspected bases of “Kokang” insurgents in Yunnan, resulting in the deaths of 4 Chinese farmers.
In these circumstances, India would do well to focus increasing attention on issues like energy corridors and connectivity in BIMSTEC, which links ASEAN members Thailand and Myanmar, across the Bay of Bengal, with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and landlocked Nepal and Bhutan. This will allow India to demonstrate that Pakistani negativism cannot hinder its efforts at regional cooperation. Once Chabahar port in Iran is available for trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia, Pakistan will find itself bypassed. This would involve diminishing the salience and importance of SAARC as a forum for regional cooperation. That may not be a bad development, considering the limitations of SAARC as a useful forum for regional cooperation.
(G. Parthasarathy served as India’s ambassador to Myanmar and as High Commissioner to Australia and Pakistan)