Myanmar, a country of estimated 56 million people, has abundant natural resources such as oil, natural gas, timber, and minerals. Once known as the rice bowl of the world, it was the richest country in the region at the time it gained independence from colonial rule in 1948. Myanmar started as a parliamentary democracy, but was beset by ethnic strife from the start, and soon the different groups began to resist domination by the Burman, the majority ethnic group.
Despite constitutional disputes, representative democracy survived in Burma until the military coup of 1962 led by General Ne Win, who held power for the next twenty-six years. Throughout this period, there were no free elections, and freedom of expression and association were almost entirely denied, and the economy deteriorated significantly. The military has extensive economic interests and its members occupy top positions in almost every government agency.
By mid-1988, food shortages and economic discontent led to mass protests, often spearheaded by monks and students. During the 1988 protests, Aung San Suu Kyi rose to prominence as the leader of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). In 1990, the junta held elections in which NLD garnered 82 percent of the vote despite Suu Kyi's house arrest. The military government refused to acknowledge the results, imprisoned many NLD politicians, forced others to flee, and continued to clamp down on dissent, closing the country to the outside world.
The junta renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council in November 1997 and continues under this name to the present day. In 2007 Burma witnessed protests led by Buddhist monks. [Monks in Myanmar have had a history of political activism dating back to colonial times. Monks enjoy the highest moral authority in Myanmar and monasteries play a prominent role in society, filling the gap in social services created by the government.] This was followed by the government drafting a new constitution and putting it to vote in May 2008 amid the humanitarian crisis from the cyclone. According to the junta the constitutional referendum won an overwhelming majority, but rights groups called the vote "a fraud." 2
History of India- Myanmar relations- Importance of Myanmar for India
India-Myanmar relations are rooted in shared historical, ethnic, cultural and religious ties. As the land of Lord Buddha, India is a country of pilgrimage for the people of Myanmar. A large population of Indian origin (according to some estimates about 2.5 million) lives in Myanmar, with Chin, Kachin and Mizo tribes on both sides of the border..8
Myanmar was part of British India from 1886 when it was annexed by the colonial army. In 1937 it became a separately administered territory. Nonetheless there were strong links between the national leaders of India and Burma in their quest for freedom.
India had a close relationship with Myanmar's people. This warmed considerably in the wake of the 1988 mass protests against military rule when India staunchly criticized the military's repression and provided sanctuary to democracy activists. This resulted in ordinary people looking to India for support in their struggle for democracy.
But that support ceased from the mid-1990s with India adopting a "pragmatic policy" towards Myanmar. India needed to deal with whoever was in power in Myanmar and with Suu Kyi unlikely to come to power, the Indian government needed to continue dealing with the generals. This was in recognition of the importance of Myanmar for India.
The importance of Myanmar to India stems from the following:
- India and Myanmar share a 1640km long unfenced border. North-east insurgents (NSCN, ULFA, Manipur rebels) have been known to use this border to seek refuge in Myanmar, therefore security cooperation is a main component of bilateral relations. India has signed a mutual legal assistance agreement through which Indian insurgents held in Myanmar can be deported to India. This is the first time that Myanmar has signed such an agreement with any country.7
- Can serve as transit to NE states bypassing Bangladesh. Burma has encouraged India to build cross-border infrastructure which will allow access to NE states from Sittwe port.
- Can serve as transit to ASEAN states because Myanmar is an ASEAN member by opening road and rail links to the mainland ASEAN economies.
- Myanmar is a member of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC). MGC is an initiative by six countries – India and five ASEAN countries namely, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam – for cooperation in the fields of tourism, education, culture, transport and communication.8
- Access to Myanmar's widely coveted energy resources (oil and gas) and hydropower capacity.
- Recent reports of Myanmar's quest for the acquisition of nuclear weapons from North Korea (with Chinese and Pakistani help), though uncorroborated, are of concern to India as nuclear weapons in the hands of yet another military regime would not be conducive to long-term strategic stability in South Asia.5
- Today India has become the fourth-largest investor in Myanmar and one of only eight countries known to regularly supply its army with lethal weaponry. According to official statistics, Myanmar—India bilateral trade reached $1.07 billion in 2010—11, standing as Myanmar’s fourth largest trading partner after Thailand, Singapore and China.4
Chinese influence in Myanmar. Myanmar has been regarded as a “client state of China". Bilateral trade between China and Myanmar exceeds $1.5 billion and China is one of the major suppliers of arms to the junta. China, along with Russia, has consistently defended the government against efforts by mainly Western states to press UN sanctions. Its growing influence is a matter of grave concern:
o China has made rapid advances into Myanmar and established close political, military and economic relations.
o Myanmar provides China the shortest land route access to the northern Indian Ocean. China is developing Sittwe as a commercial port on the west coast. Additionally China is helping upgrade facilities at Coco Island port (Coco Islands are in the Bay of Bengal and are geographically part of the Andaman Islands archipelago). It is natural to expect/suspect that Chinese naval activity in the Bay of Bengal will soon follow.5
o China has signed a long-term agreement with Myanmar for the exploitation of its hydrocarbon reserves and for the transportation of oil and gas through a 1,100 km overland pipeline from Kyaukryu port in Myanmar to the border city of Ruili in Yunnan. This pipeline will reduce the distance by 1,200 km and make China less dependent on the Malacca Straits.
o There are also concerns that China has set up radars in Myanmar territory to monitor Indian missile movements.
Thus its very important for India to develop a strong relationship with Burma to counter the spread of Chinese influence into the Indian subcontinent.
India’s recent engagement with Myanmar
Although India has engaged the Burmese junta, analysts say in reality India's benefits from cooperation with the junta have been disappointingly small on both the economic and security fronts. The Burmese regime plays India and China off of each other, protecting its own interests above all. But when forced to choose, the Burmese junta invariably favors Beijing. A case in point was the 2005 decision to award China a 30-year contract to develop the most valuable blocks of the Shwe natural gas fields despite India putting in a higher bid. This leaning towards China stems from the fact that, China has supported the junta from Western criticism and will expectedly continue to do so in the future too. 1.
On its part India supports democracy and democratization, but believes that this has to be an internal process. The GOI has used its influence with the generals to move towards an inclusive society and broadbased participation in governance. The Indian government had also persuaded the Generals to release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Indian engagement with the junta has many positive outcomes too. It has created some goodwill in the Myanmar regime for India which was evidenced from Indian relief operations being allowed in the wake of the earthquake in March 2011. UN Under-Secretary General was allowed entry into Burma after Indian persuasion.
The situation has changed with the 2010 elections, which put in place a nominally democratic government. This has given India space to widen its engagement. Though the election was widely viewed as deeply flawed, it set in motion a process of change. New political institutions - a presidential system, two houses of parliament, 14 regional governments and assemblies - have been created. Civil society groups, which emerged in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, have reportedly grown in number in recent months. Myanmar's parliamentarians and civil society activists have expressed interest in India's "considerable experience in parliamentary democracy and institution building".
Analysts opine that New Delhi should be clever and use its values and role as a leader within Asia to change the regional calculus on Burma. This means working with fellow democracies in the region such as Indonesia, Japan and Thailand to press for political reform and improvement on human-rights, economic and internal security issues that have external consequences for the region.1
By broadening the scope of its engagement in Myanmar while retaining its focus on security concerns and furthering economic interests, India appears to be winning back lost public goodwill. New Delhi is no doubt hoping that the people-centric projects and reaching out to the masses will make its relationship with its eastern neighbor more sustainable.
Some projects that are under discussion or in the pipeline:
- $120 million Kaladan multimodal transit and transport project that India has funded and constructed. This project will link landlocked Mizoram with Myanmar's Sittwe port. India is already upgrading Sittwe port. 6
- an agreement for construction of an 80-kilometer road linking Rhi in India's northeastern state of Mizoram with Riddim in Myanmar's mountainous Chin province. The US$60 million project is expected to improve overland trade, providing a boost to the local economies
- India pledged $10 million towards capacity building in Myanmar- will focus on the agricultural sector, which is the backbone of Myanmar's economy. India is setting up an agricultural research center.
- India handed over 10 modern and disaster-proof rice silos to preserve grains during natural calamities. Ministry of Agriculture will be drawing up plans on extending cooperation to Myanmar. India has already agreed to provide $10mn for procurement of agricultural tools, and 100 computers to help computerize land records.
- India will send an ASI team to help restore the 11th century Ananda temple in Mandalay region.
- India has agreed to modernize the childerns hospital in Yangon.
U Thant Myin in a new book envisages a fundamental reorientation of Asia with the two great civilizations of India and China being woven closer together and Burma playing the linking pin.
The Chinese were the first to recognize the great opportunity that Burma presented and in the 1990s unveiled plans to connect its interiors to the Indian Ocean. This realizes what has been termed a “two oceans policy” to link China to the World- first is Pacific and the second would be Indian Ocean. In this vision Burma becomes a new bridge to the Bay of Bengal and the seas beyond. This also resolves China’s “Malacca Dilemma”- China is heavily dependent on foreign oil, and approximately 80 percent of these oil imports currently pass through the Strait of Malacca, For Chinese strategists, the strait is a natural choke point where future enemies could cut off foreign energy supplies. Burma provides the alternative route needed. Chinese planners have declared that by 2016 it will be possible to travel from Rangoon to Beijing in a day, a grand route that they hope will one day extend to Delhi and therefrom to Europe.9
Meanwhile, India has its own ambitions. Not left behind is the US- the Obama administration has compromised its proclaimed promotion of human rights and democracy in its quest to counterbalance China. Some in the opposition believe the US, too, has begun to "Look East" and subjugated its previous commitment to promoting rights and democracy in Myanmar to the broader strategic policy aim of counterbalancing China.
Myanmar has thus become a new testing ground for great power competition- a Great Game. 3