For 25 years, India walked a tightrope in Myanmar between the need to build relations with an important neighbour that was also a strategic gateway to South-east and East Asia, and its conscience. Aung San Suu Kyi was the discomfiting reminder of that conscience. In the struggle to keep a balance between the two, New Delhi could neither go full steam ahead with the military regime that had kept Ms Suu Kyi under arrest, nor go all out to support the pro-democracy movement she led. That partly explains why no Indian Prime Minister visited Myanmar after Rajiv Gandhi in 1987. Now that Ms Suu Kyi, who was released in 2010, is participating in the country's political reforms, India has signalled with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit earlier this week that it wants nothing other than a full normalisation of relations, and quickly. The reasons are no secret. With the western world having suspended sanctions on Myanmar, the country is gradually opening up its resource-rich economy, and as a neighbour, India clearly does not want to be left behind in the race. Equally important, Myanmar borders four states in India's insurgency-hit Northeast. One reason why India did business with the military regime was to keep it from nurturing rebel groups. Prospects for stability in that region have increased with the Myanmar government's decision seriously to pursue reconciliation with various armed ethnic rebel groups on its own side. The development of the border areas could help keep both sides stable and peaceful, give an economic leg-up to the Northeast, plus help connect India to the ASEAN countries.
Forced by sanctions to be China-centric, Myanmar is also eager to diversify its economic and political relations. It is natural for it to want to take advantage of what the Indian economy has to offer. The dozen pacts inked during Prime Minister Singh's visit, including those to improve air and land connectivity between the two countries, and to increase trade, reflect this new urgency to improve bilateral relations, not just between the governments but also between the people of the two countries. As Ms Suu Kyi pointed out at her meeting with Dr. Singh, real friendship between countries can come only with friendship between peoples. India must play its part in this by engaging more with Ms Suu Kyi, whose recent election victory confirmed that she and her party are the leading representatives of the people of Myanmar. By underlining her “defining” role in the unfolding political process, Prime Minister Singh has sought to reverse the earlier, erroneous Indian reading of her as a political has-been. But New Delhi still has a lot of catching up to do on this front.