India should keep out of the unseemly race for Myanmar’s resources and focus instead on its long-term interests in that country
In ancient Indian chronicles, Myanmar was known as Suvarnabhumi or the “golden land”' already famous for its boundless riches. Its fabled wealth of gold, silver, precious gems and much more, attracted invaders and traders from around the world. There is now a 21st century version of a “gold rush” beginning to take hold as Myanmar opens its doors to the world. Nothing demonstrates this more starkly than the U.S. government decision to lift the prohibition on new American investment in Myanmar including doing business with state owned oil companies. This is despite the public plea from the leader of the country’s democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, that such deals should be avoided until these entities embrace transparent practices and remove corruption.
Lure of opportunities
At the U.S.-Asean meeting at Siem Reap, Cambodia, which concluded on July 13, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had her second meeting with Myanmar President Thein Sein and the two later addressed the strong business contingent accompanying Ms Clinton. It was announced that a 70-member U.S. business delegation would soon visit Myanmar to explore trade and investment opportunities. Other western and Asian states are likely to follow. Clearly the lure of commercial opportunities and profit has triumphed over the hitherto careful alignment with the pace set by Ms Suu Kyi. As this trend gains strength, Ms Suu Kyi will lose one of the more potent bargaining chips she has in dealing with the military dominated government, that is her ability to calibrate the dismantling of western sanctions that have been in place for the past two-and-a-half decades. This may well lead to opinion in India that we, too, should join this rush or face further marginalisation in a key neighbouring country.
This may not be the best strategy to pursue.
In Siem Reap, Mr. Thein Sein spelt out three reforms which were on the top of his agenda. The first, he said, was to consolidate democracy, build strong democratic institutions and restore the fundamental rights of people, including the freedom of speech and assembly. The second was to achieve lasting peace in the country by reaching out to the various ethnic groups and bringing them into the national mainstream. And the third was to transform an essentially centralised economy into a market oriented one, open to foreign investment and commercial exchanges. In each of these areas India can offer itself as a significant and long-term partner, relevant to Myanmar’s own identified priority areas. India should avoid falling victim to a herd mentality but instead focus on establishing a long-term and sustainable presence in the country, encompassing political, security and economic fields. Myanmar may currently be the flavour of the month. For India, it must remain on the menu as a key foreign policy and security challenge in a rapidly changing environment.
Why is Myanmar important to India? Here is a neighbour with whom we share a 1,600 km long land boundary. Four of our sensitive northeastern States — Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram — lie along this border. In dealing with the complex security situation prevailing in this region, Myanmar's cooperation is often critical. The two countries also share the strategic waters of the Bay of Bengal. Any hostile or inimical presence along the Myanmarese coast or on its off-shore islands facing India would be of great concern. Myanmar is also critical to the success of India’s Look East policy. It is India’s gateway to Asean and a transit country for trade and economic exchanges with southern China. The sub-regional organisation of BIMSTEC, which straddles both South and South-East Asia, gives a pivotal role to Myanmar as a regional hub. India has long standing historical, cultural and religious links with Myanmar which underpin a broad-based relationship. There are cross-border ethnic links, too, with Naga and Mizo tribes inhabiting both sides of the India-Myanmar border. The prospects for an enhanced economic partnership, in particular, in the energy sector will add to this substantive and comprehensive relationship, but only as a significant component, not as a singular rationale for engagement.
India’s interests require a significant, but not a dominant presence in Myanmar. Countervailing China’s hitherto overweening presence in Myanmar could not be an Indian preoccupation alone. Our interests are served as Myanmar’s foreign relations become more diversified, lowering the salience of Chinese influence.
In this context, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar in the last week of May was a major initiative. India tried to align itself with the priorities set by the Myanmar leadership itself, including Ms Suu Kyi. The Prime Minister offered Indian expertise and support in the setting up of strong democratic institutions and build capacity in parliamentary practice and procedures. India’s own experience in managing a multi-ethnic, multicultural and plural democracy is a useful point of reference as Myanmar seeks to pursue reconciliation and accommodation with its several ethnic minorities. On the economic side, the visit resulted in a number of important agreements, the most notable being the extension of a $500 million credit line to finance several projects. The two sides agreed to launch a Border Area Development Programme, which will seek to establish development corridors along the ambitious cross-border transport links that are being put in place. This will be of considerable relevance to the development of our own northeast.
The Prime Minister met Ms Suu Kyi in Yangon and extended her an invitation to visit India which she accepted. This will take place later this year. The meeting was warm and friendly with both sides eager to dispel the sense of disappointment which had resulted from India’s engagement with the Myanmar generals while she was languishing under house arrest.
Ms Suu Kyi focussed on the development challenges facing her country, particularly the alleviation of poverty among her people and was keenly interested in India’s own experience in this regard. As member of Parliament, she has declared her intention to work hard for the betterment of the lives of people, promote inter-ethnic harmony and national reconciliation and contribute to the consolidation of democracy in her country. She recognises that the way ahead is full of risks and uncertainties. One cannot say that the reform process is irreversible. Ms Suu Kyi has also been careful in her statements on the ethnic issue, which could erupt in dangerous ways. The Kachin insurgency lingers on and the recent violence in the Rakhine province involving the Rohingyas has confronted her with difficult political challenges which are not easy to resolve. In the initiatives that Ms Suu Kyi may adopt to take a leadership role in addressing these challenges, India could be a friendly and supportive partner.
India should, therefore, avoid being distracted by the gold rush and remain focussed on the long term. It has a unique opportunity to align itself with the priorities set by the leaders of Myanmar and make its own contribution to enabling a successful political and economic transition in a strategic neighbouring country.
This is a more sensible way of ensuring India’s political, economic and security interests in its strategic neighbourhood than joining the unseemly grab for resources that appears to have gripped Myanmar’s erstwhile detractors.
(Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary. He is currently Chairman, Research and Information System for Developing Countries and Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research.)