India and Myanmar are historically the parts of extended British Empire. Burma was a made a province of British India by British rulers and again separated in 1937. India established diplomatic relations after Burma's independence from Great Britain in 1948. For many years, Indo-Burmese relations were strong due Burma previously having been a province of India, due to cultural links, flourishing commerce, common interests in regional affairs and the presence of a significant Indian community in Burma.
India provided considerable support when Burma struggled with regional insurgencies. Since their independence, the relations have largely full of ups and downs, but they have remained friendly. India had provided assistance to Myanmar and both the countries were members of NAM.
Bitterness of 1960s
The overthrow of the democratic government in 1962 by the Military of Burma led to strains in ties. Along with much of the world, India condemned the suppression of democracy and Burma ordered the expulsion of the Burmese Indian community, increasing its own isolation from the world.
During those times, only China maintained close links with Burma while India supported the pro-democracy movement.
When General Ne Win took control of Burma through a coup d'état in 1962, India strongly opposed the imposition of military dictatorship. India supported the prodemocracy forces. The Ne Win regime adopted an anti-Soviet stance at a time when relations between India and the Soviet Union were burgeoning. Myanmar opted for strong relations with China. Burma refused to join the Commonwealth of Nations and withdrew from the Non-Aligned Movement in 1979.
Since 1962, Burma has been under the direct or indirect control by the military. Between 1962 and 1974, Burma was ruled by a revolutionary council headed by the general, and almost all aspects of society (business, media, production) were nationalized or brought under government control under the Burmese Way to Socialist which combined Soviet-style nationalisation and central planning with the governmental implementation of superstitious beliefs. A new constitution of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma was adopted in 1974, until 1988, the country was ruled as a one-party system, with the General and other military officers resigning and ruling through the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP).
During this period, Burma became one of the world's most impoverished countries.
Visit of Rajiv Gandhi onwards
- In 1987, India's Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Burma to seek ways to normalize relations. However, the relations worsened after the military junta's bloody repression of pro-democracy agitations in 1988, which led to an influx of Burmese refugees into India. However, since 1993 the governments of the Indian Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee changed course and began cultivating ties with Myanmar, as part of a wider foreign policy approach (Look East Policy) aimed to increase India's participation and influence in Southeast Asia and to counteract the growing influence of the People's Republic of China.
- At the same time, India continued to sympathize with prodemocracy groups and awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for international Understanding to Aung San Suu Kyi in 1993, by which time she had already become persona non grata to the Myanmar government.
Myanmar towards Democracy
- Myanmar has witnessed dramatic developments in the recent past as it moves towards a more open political system and re-engages the international community after long years of isolation. These developments have been taking place alongside rapidly changing strategic and economic dynamics in the region.
- In the last one decades, India's policy towards Myanmar policy has been driven largely by its security and economic considerations.
- However, the engagement has at least laid the ground for the two neighbours to take their relationship to a higher level. This is in spite of the fact that the political stalemate in Myanmar, between the military regime and pro-democracy movements, coupled with New Delhi’s own sluggish policy implementation and lack of coordination, have impeded the growth of the relationship.
Strategic Importance of Myanmar
There are a number of external and internal factors that point to the strategic importance of Myanmar for India.
- Myanmar is located at the junction of East and South, thus making a land bridge between India and South East Asia. Myanmar is second largest of India's neighbours and largest in eastern side. India and Myanmar share a land border of 1640 kilometers and most part of it is unfenced. The multiple insurgent groups operate in the North East States and many of them are known to have their bases in Myanmar. Such groups can be successfully tackled only if the bilateral relations between the two countries are warm and friendly.
- Myanmar is a key country in the Bay of Bengal littoral region. India and Myanmar share a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. An unfriendly Myanmar might host a rival naval presence in the Bay of Bengal and pose complications to Indian security.
- Myanamar and China share 2185 kilometers border, just next to India-China disputed border. For Myanmar, improved relations with India will reduce the overdependence on China.
- Myanmar has large natural gas reserves, and currently it is 36th largest natural gas producing country. It is in India 's interest to gain from its proximity in the use of these resources. India can provide help by way of investment and technology for exploration as well as production.
- The Look East Policy was targeted at opening the markets in South East Asia and for fulfilling the objective, cooperation of Myanmar was important.
Background of India-Myanmar Cooperation in various sectors:
- India and Myanmar had signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Peace and Tranquillity in Border Areas as early as 1994. The two countries have two operational border trade points (Moreh-Tamu and Zowkhatar –Rhi) on the 1643 km long border. A third border trade point is proposed to be opened at Avakhung-Pansat/Somrai. With these efforts, the border trade between the two sides has swelled to US$ 12.8 million in 2010-11.
- At that time, both the countries had committed to hold talks on joint secretary level and home secretary levels every year, alternatively in each country. These talks continue even today.
- Things improved more in the 21st century. In 2002, the Indian Consulate General in Mandalay was re-opened and the Consulate General of Myanmar was set up in Kolkata. The vital momentum in India-Myanmar ties came in October 2004 when Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, Senior General Than Shwe paid an official goodwill visit to India. Since then, the two neighbours have been coming closer with every passing year and presently the two sides have a true strategic partnership going on.
- General Than Shwe, visited India in October 2004, making it first visit to India by a Myanmar head of state in twenty-five years. From the Indian side, the then President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam 's visit in March 2006 made it a first visit by an Indian head of state to Myanmar since Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister in 1987. After that, there have been continuous bilateral visits.
- Bilateral trade has expanded significantly from US$ 12.4 million in 1980-81 to US $ 1,352.09 Million in 2010-11. India’s main exports to Myanmar are primary and semi-finished steel and pharmaceuticals.
- In 2008, the devastating cyclone ‘Nargis’ ravaged Myanmar. At that time, India responded immediately with relief materials.
- In 2011, India announced assistance of US $1 million for humanitarian relief and rehabilitation in the areas affected by the severe earthquake in Shan State in March 2011. Of this amount, US$ 250,000 has been handed over as a cash grant to the Myanmar Government while US$ 750,000 was utilized for reconstruction of one high school and six primary schools in Tarlay Township that was worst affected by the earthquake.
- India is actively involved in over a dozen projects in Myanmar, both in infrastructural and non-infrastructural areas. These include upgradation and resurfacing of the 160 km. long Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road; construction and upgradation of the Rhi-Tiddim Road in Myanmar; the Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project.
- An ADSL project for high speed data link in 32 Myanmar cities has been completed by TCIL. ONGC Videsh Ltd. (OVL), GAIL and ESSAR are participants in the energy sector in Myanmar. M/s RITES is involved in development of the rail transportation system and in supply of railway coaches, locos and parts.
- India announced the extension of a new concessionals facility of US$500 million Line of Credit to Myanmar as well as technical and financial support for three new projects, namely the Setting up an Advanced Centre for Agricultural Research and Education (ACARE) in Yezin; Setting up a Rice Bio Park demonstrating the various techniques in rice biomass utilisation in the Integrated Demonstration Farm at Nay Pyi Taw; and Setting up an Information Technology Institute in Mandalay.
Bilateral trade has expanded significantly from US$ 12.4 million in 1980-81 and breached the $ one billion mark for the first time in 2010-11, as per the Central Statistical Organization (CSO), Yangon. India's imports from Myanmar are dominated by agricultural items (beans, pulses and forest based products form 90% of Indian imports). India’s main exports to Myanmar are primary and semi-finished steel and pharmaceuticals.
It is heartening to note that India and Myanmar have rediscovered themselves. It’s a win-win situation for both the neighbours who have traditionally had close ties for centuries. Even the West has now realised that one way to reach out to Myanmar and engage with that country is through India. From Myanmar’s perspective, it is a good thing that its leaders have realised that they should not keep all their eggs in one basket and engaging only with China would actually harm their long-term national interest.
Visit of Manmohan Singh
The recent visit of Dr. Manmohan Singh, first by an Indian prime minister in 25 years, is being dubbed in Delhi as “historic”. However, the military and political leaders of Myanmar have embarked on a bold and difficult venture to reform the ossified political structures of the nation, open up its long closed economy and reorient its international relations. Thus, India has been adapting now to this historic change unfolding in Myanmar.
In recasting India’s policy towards Myanmar, India faces three challenges.
The first is the newly competitive diplomatic environment there. In the last two decades, India’s only rival for Myanmar’s affections was China. Now, the United States, Europe and Japan, which sought to isolate and punish Myanmar all these years, are falling over each other to reconnect with the nation. The onus is on Delhi to demonstrate the special value of its ties to Naypyidaw, which is acutely conscious of Myanmar’s geopolitical significance.
The second challenge is a political one. India’s “constructive engagement” with the military rulers of Myanmar during the last two decades was prudent from Delhi’s perspective. But courageous Aung San Suu Kyi, who has endured much repression in her struggle to democratise Myanmar, and her followers are certainly disappointed at India’s “pragmatism”. In his talks with Suu Kyi, who has now been elected to the parliament, and the military-backed rulers of Myanmar, Singh will have to carefully calibrate the competing imperatives of India’s policy — a genuine empathy with the democratic aspirations of the Myanmarese, the need to engage all the political forces in the current period of transition, and the logic of doing business with the government in power.
The third and biggest challenge for Singh is to bring a measure of credibility to India’s economic partnership with Myanmar. Delhi’s tall talk on promoting connectivity, trade, and investment links with Myanmar has not been matched by India’s performance on the ground. Unable to execute major projects on time, India has lost much ground in Myanmar despite the freedom it has had to deepen commercial ties during the last two decades. One can only hope that Singh has worked out an effective mechanism to translate India’s economic promises to Myanmar into time-bound action.
India wants to increase its role and presence in Southeast Asia and beyond. The prime minister’s visit to Myanmar will be seen as part of this effort, within the evolving regional geopolitics, as Myanmar tries to rebalance its external engagements. New Delhi would want to use the visit to reaffirm its willingness to strengthen the relationship with its eastern neighbour, and with the hope that Myanmar both becomes the bridge and acts as a gateway in reaching the East.
Myanmar, meanwhile, will want to see the high-profile visit as a re-affirmation of its reforms, and will hope that the strengthening of ties with the region’s major player will enhance its profile. It aspires to regain its historical place as a regional powerhouse. Naypyidaw will, of course, seek development assistance from New Delhi as it plays catch-up with its neighbours.
Visit of Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2012
• Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrived to India on 13th November after a gap of nearly four decades. Ms. Suu Kyi spent several years in India during her early days when her mother Daw Khin Yi was Ambassador to India.
• She met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and discussed a variety of issues, including the national reconciliation process under way in her country and the process of democratisation in this context.
• Delivering the Nehru Memorial Lecture on the 123rd birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru, Ms. Suu Kyi said the principles that guided India’s freedom struggle inspired her as she continued to strive for a democratic Myanmar.