A Visit that Sets the Stage for India, Myanmar to Take Ties to the Next Level

The restoration of democracy in Myanmar, the lifting of US sanctions and Narendra Modi's hands on approach foretells New Delhi's more active role in the country's nation building.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi sand Myanmar state counsellor and foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi after their joint press statement in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi sand Myanmar state counsellor and foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi after their joint press statement in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

Aung San Suu Kyi – state counsellor and foreign minister of Myanmar, and leader of the National League of Democracy (NLD) – recently concluded her first official visit to India, six months after the NLD formally taking charge.

Suu Kyi is no stranger to India, having lived in Delhi with her mother Daw Khin Kyi, Burma’s Ambassador to India in the 1960s and graduated from a Delhi college, and later pursued research on the independence movements in India and Myanmar, at the IIAS, Simla. She has often spoken of her affection and closeness to India, most feelingly during her acceptance speech for the Jawaharlal Nehru Prize for International Understanding during her last visit to India in November 2012, not long after she was released from house arrest in 2011.

Though not formally head of state or government, her recent visit was treated as a ‘state’ visit, with full ceremonials and official meetings with President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, for which the external affairs ministry deserves credit. It marks the culmination of a series of interactions since the NLD assumed power, including a major business event in Yangon led by commerce and industry minister Nirmala Sitharaman; Foreign office consultations in India; visits by national security advisor Ajit Doval and Swaraj to Myanmar; a meeting between Prime Minister Modi and Suu Kyi at the ASEAN-EAS Summit in Vientiane; and Myanmar President U Htin Kyaw’s formal visit as head of state last August. President Mukherjee also hosted a private lunch in her honour. Taken together, they mark a determined outreach towards the last of India’s immediate neighbours under PM Modi’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy hitherto held back by the election process in Myanmar in 2015.

Media coverage of her visit was understandably dominated by the situation in the Rakhine state, where unprecedented attacks by armed mobs against Myanmar border guards and police in the so-called Rohingya-Bengali Muslim dominated Maungdaw district, and the security crackdown against it, has resulted in the loss of at least 40 lives many from the security forces; the relative importance of China and India to Myanmar; and the Indian effort to isolate Pakistan for cross-border terrorism in the region at the BRICS Summit. She addressed each of these in her statements at the BRICS-BIMSTEC event where she addressed the Rakhine issue squarely, and media interactions.

On the Rakhine issue, she sought more time and understanding as a nascent democracy to deal with the issue within the rule of law and reconciliation between communities in a democratic framework. Earlier, she had appointed former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as the head of a mixed national-international commission (formally, the Arakaan State Advisory Committee) to seek reconciliation between the two communities in Rakhine but this does not appear to have had a propitious beginning a mixed national-international commission (formally, the Arakaan State Advisory Committee) to seek reconciliation between the two communities in Rakhine but this does not appear to have had a propitious beginning.

On relations between India and China, she invoked compulsions of good neighbourliness, “balance” and pragmatism in justifying her first official bilateral visit as state counsellor to China (essentially the same reasons India felt obliged to engage with the military regime in the 1990s to deal with border related security problems).

And on terrorism, she cautioned that it was necessary to isolate terrorism and the reasons for it, not generalise it indiscriminately although she also acknowledged it was a serious problem, that organisations and countries “did come into the equation”, and that early signs pointed to the fingerprint of Pakistan in the recent attacks in Rakhine that had to be investigated further.

However, the real significance of the visit lies in how India can contribute to addressing Myanmar’s multiple challenges of democracy, nation-building and development, forge a strategic road map for bilateral relations over the next few years, and make up for the perceived backwardness in India’s relationship with Myanmar relative to China and other countries.

India’s age-old relations with Burma suffered with Gen. Ne Win’s military coup and nationalisation of businesses in the 1960s. The departure of well-to-do Indians who dominated the Myanmar economy until then, the insular turn of the Myanmar military, the harsh crackdown on the student and pro-democracy agitation of 1988 and the NLD victory in the 1990 elections of Suu Kyi was the icon, and the international sanctions that followed, constricted the relationship. Successive efforts by Indian governments to kickstart the relationship ran aground until Sr. Gen. Than Shwe began a subtle turnaround engaging India on its security concerns vis-a-vis the North East of India and Myanmar’s border area development in the late 1990s. These were really eased only with Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 2011 after President Thein Sein’s USDP came to power, and now hopefully exorcised with the peaceful transfer of power to the NLD government this March.

One result of this 50-year hiatus in our relationship has been that two countries tied by culture and religion through history and more recently by British colonial rule, virtually forgot that they were neighbours. Myanmar, a country that was much more closely tied to India by culture and history tilted definitively eastwards first towards China and now the ASEAN. Even today, we think of Myanmar as a neighbour as an afterthought, and hardly in the same vein as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or even Pakistan. Perhaps tellingly, Myanmar was almost inconspicuous by its absence from Modi’s swearing in 2014. There are only three poorly serviced flights to Yangon from Kolkata and Delhi via Gaya per week, compared to 100 between Myanmar and Thailand, 90 between destinations in China and Myanmar, and about 50 from Singapore.

Myanmar lies at the intersection of Prime Minister Modi’s ‘neighbourhood first’ and ‘Act East’ policies through both the North East and the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. India’s financial commitment to its development partnership with Myanmar amounts to over US$ 1.75 billion, spread over major connectivity infrastructure projects like the Kaladan Multi-modal Transport Transit Project (KMTTP), and the Trilateral Highway and its feeder roads and bridges funded and executed by India; high value capacity building projects like the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology mentored by and modelled on the IIIT Bengaluru in Mandalay and Advanced Centre for Agricultural Research and Extension (ACARE) mentored by the IARI near the capital Nay Pyi Taw with funding and expertise from India besides several other smaller projects; small border area development projects worth US$ 25 million over 5 years for the Chin and Naga Hills of Myanmar; nearly 500 seats for training of civil services and other education and training opportunities for in Indian universities and training institutions funded entirely by India; and a soft line of credit for Myanmar’s infrastructure development priorities over the last 10 years amounting to nearly US$ 750 million.

Few countries have development commitments of this scale. If these are not so well known, it is because many of these are long gestation projects that will still take 3-5 years before they come fully on stream. When they do, they can be expected to have the same impact as the completion of the Salma Dam and Afghan Parliament in Afghanistan. Until then, we will have to be patient.

India is among Myanmar’s top five largest trade partner, built on the back of an assured market for Myanmar pulses and timber in India, having grown through the ups and downs of Myanmar’s relations with the international community and therefore dependable. India is the ninth largest foreign investor in Myanmar despite constraints imposed by US-led sanctions, lack of direct shipping and banking channels, and poor information about each other. With the restoration of democratic rule in Myanmar and the removal of sanctions by the US, and the revival of transport and banking channels with the return of Indian banks, including the State Bank of India on October 3 this year, these figures represent a base line that can only be improved.

Yet it is also true we have lagged behind others like China, Singapore, Thailand in the ASEAN, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong and disparate countries like Norway, Qatar, the Netherlands, UK, Australia and even Vietnam, in taking advantage of the opportunities being opened up in this resource rich market. India has not been able to build on the openings that it could have with the high level visits of President U Thein Sein in 2011 and 2013, and PM Manmohan Singh in 2012. Today, five years after the economic openings effected by the last government, India’s brand presence in Myanmar relative to others outside pharmaceuticals, is still negligible.

Driving from the newly opened international airport in Yangon to the city amidst spanking new constructions and hoardings advertising products from Japan to Finland and the US, there is not a single Indian product to be found. The only visible Indian presence in Yangon are a few Tata showrooms that are marketing pickups and Nanos being used as taxis in Yangon. Indian tractors and TVS motocycles are making an entry elsewhere in the country.

 The restoration of democratic rule under Suu Kyi, the near complete removal of US sanctions against Myanmar, and Modi’s more hands-on style of economic governance and stress on implementation, provide us a chance to raise our game and play a desirable role in Myanmar’s democratic evolution, development and nation-building. Suu Kyi’s comments before her departure thanking India for helping Myanmar “make up for lost time” and restore its earlier position in South East Asia in areas covering democracy, federalism and economic development suggest that the seeds of a stronger relationship have been laid. It is to be expected that U Htin Kyaw and Suu Kui’s visits will be followed up in good time with visits by Prime Minister Modi and President Mukherjee during which period an agenda for a much more strategic relationship predicated in India’s economic outreach towards the Greater Mekong sub-region and food security for both countries, and Indian investment in Myanmar’s overall economic and social development can be built up. A joint commission fortuitously headed by the foreign ministers of both countries, one of only two or three that Myanmar has at that level, already exists to develop such a relationship.

The author is a former Indian ambassador to Myanmar.