New engagement with an old neighbour

A ‘PEARL’ HARBOUR: “After several years of discussions, India agreed to the building of the Sittwe port in 2008, providing an alternative route to connect with Southeast Asia, without transiting through Bangladesh.” Picture shows workers at the Sittwe port site, in 2012.   | Photo Credit: DAMIR SAGOLJ

Days after Aung San Suu Kyi made a high-profile visit to China as Myanmar’s Foreign Minister, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Myanmar in the first high-level visit from India after the civilian government assumed office in Nay Pyi Daw. Myanmar is passing through a transition since Ms. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won a historic landslide election last year, finally ending five decades of military rule. Though a junta-era Constitution, according to which those with foreign spouses or children cannot hold the executive office, prevented her from becoming president (her sons are British), Ms. Suu Kyi retains strong control over the country’s government.

Ms. Swaraj’s visit also came after Indian troops reportedly crossed into Myanmar territory to target a National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang) military camp, underlining close cooperation between the two states in tackling insurgency along the shared border. During the visit, Myanmar reiterated its resolve not to allow its territory to be used against India, and Ms. Swaraj assured Ms. Suu Kyi of “all help” in “strengthening” Myanmar’s “democratic institutions and socio-economic development.” Indian diplomacy has a tough job at hand as all major powers are now wooing Myanmar.

China-Myanmar ties

During Ms. Suu Kyi’s trip to Beijing, China and Myanmar pledged to forge closer ties as “blood brothers” and enhance trade. But China’s main concern has been progress on the $3.6-billion Myitsone Dam project. After widespread environmental protests, former Myanmar President Thein Sein had suspended work on the dam. Though Ms. Suu Kyi had also called for the suspension of the project then, she assured Beijing this time of a quick resolution on the issue, especially as China’s support would be key in talks with Myanmar’s ethnic minority armed groups operating along northern borders with China.

Though the U.S. remains concerned about the extent of military influence over the new government and Myanmar’s treatment of its minorities, especially the Rohingyas, it has begun to ease nearly three decades of sanctions against Myanmar. The Obama administration views Myanmar’s transition to democracy as one of its key foreign policy achievements.

India, for its part, has a long-standing relationship with Myanmar. India was a strong critic of the Myanmar junta and Indian elites have long admired the freedom struggle led by Ms. Suu Kyi. However, it muted its criticism of the junta and dropped its vocal support for Ms. Suu Kyi from the mid-1990s in order to pursue its “Look East” policy.

Democracy vs strategic interests

A consequence of India’s ideological obsession with democracy was that Myanmar drifted towards China. India soon realised that China’s trade, energy, and defence ties with Myanmar had surged, and it was selling everything from weapons to foodgrain to the country. Chinese firms were getting preferential treatment in the award of gas blocks, apparently in recognition of the country’s steady opposition to the U.S.’s moves against Myanmar’s junta in the UN. India also realised that it would find it difficult to project power in the Indian Ocean if Chinese naval presence continued to increase in Myanmar. As a result, it was forced to shape its foreign policy accordingly. India had few options but to reverse its decade-old policy of isolating Myanmar’s junta and engage substantively with it instead.

However, India’s strategic interests demanded that it only gently nudge Myanmar’s junta on the issue of democracy. India’s relief efforts following the Nargis cyclone in Myanmar in 2008 helped it gain trust at the highest echelons of Myanmar’s ruling elite, and it was rightfully loathe to losing it. It was not surprising, therefore, that India remained opposed to western sanctions on the country. After several years of discussions, India agreed to the building of the Sittwe port in 2008, providing an alternative route to connect with Southeast Asia, without transiting through Bangladesh. India also extended a $20-million credit for renovation of the Thanlyin Refinery. Apart from the 160-km India-Myanmar friendship road built by India’s Border Roads Organisation in 2001, India has been working on a second road project and investing in a deep-sea project (Sagar Samridhi) to explore oil and gas in the Bay of Bengal and at the Shwe gas pipeline project in western Myanmar. The junta in turn has cooperated with India in cracking down on Naga insurgents.

Transition to a civilian government in Myanmar has given India greater strategic space to manoeuvre. “India is the country we should get best lessons from on what democracy means,” Myanmar’s President U Htin Kyaw was quoted as saying during Ms. Swaraj’s visit. But as in the past, the future of India-Myanmar relationship will not be determined by democracy alone.

Harsh V. Pant is Professor at King's College, London and Head of Strategic Studies at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 10:00:33 PM |

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