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Crafting a richer India-Myanmar partnership

In presenting a dispassionate evaluation of the recent visit to India by Senior General Than Shwe, Myanmar's “strong man,” two useful tools are rear view and plainspeak. They would indicate that India-Myanmar relationship has grown in range, depth and vitality in the past decade, but it is not without vulnerable spots.

In the early 1990s, the government of India showed the capability to take a long-term view by shifting to a ‘two-track' policy on Myanmar. It chose to build state-to-state relations while continuing to support the cause of democracy. As head of a relevant division in the Ministry of External Affairs, I saw from close quarters how the shift evoked opposition. By persisting on that path, but also with due sensitivity, India began to achieve its goals. Gradually, the policy was backed by a wider political consensus. As ambassador in Yangon a few years later, I had the privilege of assisting the Ministers from the NDA and UPA governments as they conducted dialogue with their counterparts in Myanmar. These exchanges prepared the ground for Gen. Than Shwe's first, ‘historic' visit to India in October 2004. He conveyed to us how he was impressed with India. Between then and his second visit last week, both countries worked hard to strengthen their relations.

Over the years, New Delhi has faced two kinds of criticism on its Myanmar policy. Realists argued that its pro-democracy stance had driven Myanmar into “China's lap.” Later, they maintained that the engagement was moving too slowly. They failed to recognise that it was never in Myanmar's interest to choose China over India. Now curiously enough, there is talk of Myanmar playing China against India and India against China. It does not require rocket science to realise that the best policy for Myanmar is to befriend both. As for India's motivations and compulsions, they are far too well known to be delineated here.

The other criticism stemmed from ideologues and supporters of democracy in Myanmar who freely advised India to sacrifice its interests. It was difficult to heed their advice or expect them to appreciate the complex argument of realpolitik. As a democratic country, India would love to see democracy prevail in the whole world but it is not our mission in life to spread it globally. Nevertheless, we do sympathise with the victims of the regime, including refugees, the exiled and prisoners of conscience. Above all, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's commitment to Gandhian principles, courage and contribution to Myanmar are appreciated widely in India. In fact, many of us who had the unique privilege of meeting and interacting with her came away with a clear impression that she is an outstanding personality of our age.

Against this backdrop, it is noteworthy that the impact of the pro-democracy camp on India-Myanmar policy seems to have diminished considerably. This was evident throughout Gen. Than Shwe's visit as well as in the joint statement issued in New Delhi on July 27. Hidden in a 45-para statement was a small paragraph which reflected India's emphasis on “comprehensively broad-basing the national reconciliation process and democratic changes being introduced in Myanmar.” This, together with informal indications available from the visiting delegation, left one in little doubt about the political realities. Even after the elections, expected to be held towards the year-end, there may not be any material change in the military's role. It is set to continue calling the shots.

Gen. Than Shwe's visit resulted in a commitment by both sides to further strengthen and broaden the “multidimensional relationship.” A considered assessment would suggest that three aspects were of special significance.

Among political issues, a shared satisfaction with progress in bilateral relations was noted. Both Asean-related and sub-regional cooperation are significant, but what really matters is that India and Myanmar relate to each other as immediate neighbours, linked by geography, history and age-old ties of religion, culture and interaction at people's level. There is still insufficient realisation in India of what a powerful magnet our Buddhist sites represent for visitors from Myanmar. It was no coincidence that Gen. Than Shwe included a 24-hour stay in Sarnath and Bodh Gaya on a full moon night to pray to Lord Buddha, seeking spiritual solace and enlightenment.

The other important political issue was a common perspective on the reform of United Nations institutions, especially Myanmar's reiteration of support to India's candidature for permanent membership of the Security Council.

Border security and development appear inter-linked issues in dialogue. Activities of smugglers, insurgents and terrorists constitute a continuing threat to both countries. Hence it is logical for them to enhance their cooperation. Hopefully, the treaty on mutual assistance in criminal matters, signed during Gen. Than Shwe's visit, would spur new measures. However, India needs to do more to address the internal dimension of insurgency in Manipur and other border areas. Myanmar too will need to assist India more effectively, matching its words with determined and visible action. This may well be a critical test for our friendship with Myanmar.

Economic cooperation is now viewed as the central theme in bilateral relations. A target of $1 billion in bilateral trade has been achieved, albeit after a delay of three years. The balance of trade is unfavourable to India in a 5:1 ratio, posing a challenge to Indian companies. Are they going to be content with exports valued at only $200 million to Myanmar which is hungry for Indian products and services? Specific areas have to be identified; constraints need to be eliminated; and business promotion should be stepped up. Consensus on these issues emerged at an excellent meeting arranged by the FICCI with the business delegation, which included three Cabinet Ministers.

The most dramatic moment at the meeting came when U Thaung, Minister for Science and Technology, observed that Indian investments in Myanmar presently stood at below the quarter million-dollar mark, adding dryly that Indian business was taking “too long to come, unlike China and Asean countries.” This seemed a wake-up call to India Inc. to re-energise itself for its own benefit.

The basket of development projects has been expanding at a rapid pace. About two-thirds of the joint statement related to them. After years of discussions, studies and negotiations, the stage is now set for commencing implementation of the flagship Kaladan multimodal transit transport project. When ready, it should contribute to the development of our northeast. The trilateral highway project too has been a subject of discussions and negotiations for long; it needs priority attention now. The range of areas covered by Indian projects is impressive — roads, railways, telecom, power, energy, hydrocarbons, remote sensing, agriculture, industry, IT and education. Let timely implementation be our mantra.

South Block may well be advised to leave the debate on weighty issues like geopolitical trends, rivalry in the Bay of Bengal and India-China ‘power game' to academics. Instead, it should encourage our Embassy in Yangon to hone its project management skills and help India Inc. deepen its foray into Myanmar.

(The author is a former ambassador to Myanmar.)


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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 12:28:46 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Crafting-a-richer-India-Myanmar-partnership/article16126888.ece

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