Thein Sein's dialogue in Delhi requires India looking at bilateral, regional dimensions.

The India-Myanmar relationship has been enriched by nine visits at the VVIP level in the past decade. The latest visit was by President Thein Sein who heads a more representative government than all his predecessors except one, namely Premier U Nu. This fact alone imbued Thein Sein's visit with special significance, but there are other factors too. A holistic assessment of his dialogue in Delhi requires a critical look both at the bilateral and regional dimensions.

Backdrop

Since the visit in July 2010 by his predecessor — Senior General Than Shwe, the ‘strong man' of the previous military government — the internal political landscape in Myanmar has undergone a noticeable change. A well-planned transition to guided democracy, accompanied by an increased quotient of freedom for citizens, the release of political prisoners, the adoption of reform agenda and a gradually blossoming reconciliation between the government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has generated optimism. Evidently her political influence, together with her freedom and visibility, are on the rise. But prudence demands that the magnitude of change should not be overstated. The Tatmadaw, i.e. the military, has agreed to try out a different method of governance (in which a ‘ civilian' government bears day-to-day responsibility for the country's affairs), but red markers are in place. Political forces are expected to behave responsibly, ensuring that public order and territorial integrity are not jeopardised and no one asks for a full-fledged democracy in a hurry.

Two other important trends marking the backdrop should be noted. One relates to China and the other to India. Myanmar's decision to suspend the Myitsone dam project with China as the main beneficiary, has introduced new tensions, but the two governments are likely to craft a modus vivendi soon. The India-related factor is that South Block, facing criticism, has begun to strive hard to expedite implementation of previous projects and to choose new projects that are susceptible to execution within a shorter time frame.

Bilateral issues

A comparison of the joint statement issued after Than Shwe's visit last year and the one released after Thein Sein's visit last week reveals that officials are running out of adjectives to provide a label to bilateral relations. Last year these were described as “a multidimensional relationship”; this year's choice is “a multifaceted relationship.” However, expanding contours of relations point to the emergence of a nascent strategic partnership. It is perhaps a matter of time before the two governments decide to call a spade a spade.

Myanmar's reiteration of the commitment to Five Principles of Peaceful Existence and to its policy of independence, articulated by Thein Sein, must have been music to New Delhi's ears. India's emphasis on Myanmar's central importance in the region makes Naypyidaw happy. The government's mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, stated in an editorial that the visit opened “a new chapter” for cementing bilateral relations with “high momentum.”

Delving deeper, two key gains of the visit should be highlighted. The first relates to border security management. A whole mix of negative activities is a constant on the India-Myanmar border. Although Myanmar extends cooperation to India, it is episodic, not sustained, in nature and it is given to a suboptimal degree. This explains the two governments' agreement on “enhancing effective cooperation and coordination” between their security forces in tackling “the deadly menace of insurgency and terrorism.” It is hoped that President Thein Sein carried home a clear message and that he would deliver on this score satisfactorily.

The second issue relates to ambitious plans to expand economic and development cooperation. It has been agreed to double bilateral trade to $3 billion by 2015. For the first time, a figure was put out, showing the monetary value of the assistance extended by India through various projects in recent years; it is $300 million. What is of the greatest importance — and what also constitutes evidence that South Block is listening to Track II deliberations — is the decision to offer a generous Line of Credit (LoC) amounting to $500 million for new projects. Perhaps Myanmar is heading to join the upper league of Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) officials have displayed refreshing candour now by putting a timeline on the flagship Kaladan multi-modal transport project. According to them, its riverine part would be ready by June 2013 and road connectivity would be speeded up, thereby bringing the project “on stream” by 2014. Moreover, in choosing new projects, special attention is now accorded to capacity-building and skill development in agriculture, IT, industrial training and health. Last week's joint statement refers to plans of expanding “connectivity” through railway and microwave links, road, air and ferry. Much of this is not new; authorities need to show tangible progress for the sake of their credibility.

Regional points

Bordered by five countries, Myanmar is located in a complex region. Among its external relationships in Asia, China and India rate high importance, besides the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations (ASEAN). A dispassionate analyst would view the India-Myanmar relationship without ‘the prism of China' but also without ignoring ‘the China factor.' It is common knowledge that China's political and economic profile in Myanmar is impressive. The two countries are linked through “a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership,” announced in May 2011. Note other reported figures: the total number of Chinese projects: 72; the value of Chinese investments in Myanmar: $16 billion, and bilateral trade standing at $5.3 billion in March 2011.

Experts believe that Myanmar has been looking for options, a mindset that drives it to strengthen links with other neighbours and to seek openings with the West. With senior American officials describing recent changes in Myanmar as “dramatic developments” that may be matched by suitable U.S. measures, Myanmar's quest for alternatives could succeed gradually. Meanwhile, India's assistance is already available in generous proportions. Smart Indian companies would do well to speed up matters before they face new competition from American and European companies in case the economy opens up.

Let us be clear: Myanmar is important to us for economic as well as politico-strategic reasons. Speaking at an elegant banquet hosted by her, President Pratibha Patil captured India's sentiment aptly as she observed: “When we look eastwards, we first see Myanmar.” She stressed that Myanmar occupied “a central place in our vision and approach of rebuilding of our Eastern connections.” Toasting her on fruit juice, President Thein Sein used simple words in Myanmar language to convey that his government placed “a special emphasis” on the policy of maintaining good and friendly relations with India. He also expressed “high appreciation” for India's Look East policy.

Other bonds

The choice of places visited by the President — Rajghat, the Akshardham Temple, the premises of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, besides Buddhist pilgrimage sites — has its own story to tell. The shared legacy of Buddhism and many other cultural and ethnic bonds combine to make India and Myanmar special friends. As they accelerate their journey to rediscover each other, they are set to deepen their mutually beneficial cooperation.

Hopefully the governments would encourage peoples and their representatives too to come closer. In this context, the big question is: how should New Delhi bring Aung San Suu Kyi into the process of growing engagement between India and her country?

(The author is former Indian Ambassador to Myanmar.)

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