Irrawaddy Imperatives review: A blind spot 

What is lacking in India’s strategy towards Myanmar? 

Published - March 26, 2022 04:07 pm IST

There has been a renewed focus on the implications, both regionally and globally, of developments within Myanmar in the aftermath of the ouster of the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) by the military in February 2021. In that context, Jaideep Chanda’s book, Irrawaddy Imperatives, on India’s strategy towards Myanmar is both timely and instructive.

India shares a land border of about 1,600 km with Myanmar which spans four Indian States (Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram) but interest within India about Myanmar is relatively lacking, especially when compared to interest in and knowledge about India’s South Asian neighbours.

A river’s importance

Addressing this blind spot within India (lack of ‘Myanmar consciousness’ in the author’s words) is a key aim of this book. In conjunction with this aim, the book’s second aim is to serve as a reference for scholars interested in India-Myanmar relations by providing a rich amount of data and primary documents in the book’s various appendices.

The book’s key point (and this is reflected in the title) is the geo-political significance of Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River for India’s strategy towards Myanmar.

The author is realistic about the scale of China’s presence in Myanmar and cautions against making policy towards Myanmar purely with an anti-China aim. Instead, India, he believes, should seek to limit China’s influence between the India-Myanmar Border (IMB) and Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River. He cites both G.S. Bajpai (India’s first Secretary-General of the MEA) and General V.P. Malik (former Chief of Army Staff) to make the point that India should view the Irrawaddy River as the buffer for Chinese influence in Myanmar.

Drawing on historical and geographical factors, he makes the case for securing Indian interests till the Irrawaddy, laying out various means to achieve this objective. One suggestion is for increased Indian investment and engagement in less developed areas such as agriculture, forestry, and fisheries as this would bring in much needed investment in areas where it is scarce, making a significant difference to local communities between the IMB and the Irrawaddy, ultimately creating positive perceptions of India within this region.

People-to-people contact

In an extension to this strategy, and to insulate Indian official policy from the vagaries of domestic politics in both countries, greater people-to-people relations is a key area for investment. In this regard, the author believes that connectivity (land, air and maritime) between India and Myanmar needs to be dramatically improved to match India’s cultural and historical linkages especially till the Irrawaddy. In reference to the much-discussed Stillwell Road between India and Myanmar, Chanda believes India’s hesitation towards reconstruction are counter-productive and a bolder approach is needed to achieve India’s security interests between the IMB and the Irrawaddy.

Overall, this is a key work for anyone interested in understanding Indian policy towards Myanmar. By locating this study within the wider ‘borderland studies’ literature, the author has provided a well-researched account of the crucial impact of geography and history for India’s security interests in Myanmar. The various appendices, comprising data, maps and bilateral agreements, is a valuable resource for scholars interested in this subject.

Chanda makes the well-argued case for both greater awareness about Myanmar in India as well as for greater policy clarity towards Myanmar.

India’s Irrawaddy imperative must thus necessarily drive a bolder Indian foreign policy, one that is confident to take some risks to secure its security interests within its neighbourhood.

Irrawaddy Imperatives; Jaideep Chanda, Pentagon Press, ₹1,495. 

The reviewer is with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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