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SAARC and Myanmar
K Yhome
28 July 2008

When leaders of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) meet at the upcoming SAARC Summit in Colombo in  August, the question of inclusion of new members in the grouping will be one of the points of discussion apart from other regional issues. According to news reports in May this year, Myanmar had officially written to SAARC Secretariat seeking full membership of SAARC. Myanmar’s requests to join the regional grouping need to be seen from the perspective of how both sides would benefit from each other in meeting future challenges and opportunities in the region.

Myanmar shares a long land boundary with two SAARC members – India and Bangladesh – and a long maritime boundary with them. Geographically, it is part of the extended subcontinent and connects South Asia to Southeast and East Asia. Its geo-strategic location has made Myanmar part of six regional and sub-regional groupings, including Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Forum for Regional Economic Cooperation among Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM). Some SAARC countries and Myanmar are members of the Ganga-Mekong Cooperation and all these groupings have provided platforms for member countries to interact with each other.

Historically, interactions were never absent between SAARC member countries and Myanmar. Commercial and cultural links between Myanmar and SAARC members particularly India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had existed for centuries. Buddhism had gone to Myanmar from India and cultural and economic linkages had existed between eastern communities of India and Bangladesh with people of North-western parts of Myanmar. During the kingdom of Ava, Myanmar invaded the kingdoms of Manipur and Ahoms in Assam. In the colonial period, Myanmar was part of British India for over hundred years. Myanmar’s interactions with SAARC members, however, declined in the Cold War period owing to several factors both internal and international events. In the late 21st century Myanmar renewed its ties with the region and found favourable response from individual SAARC members, leading to the growing ties with individual countries of the region with Myanmar.  

In the changed geopolitical environment in Asia, particularly after the end of the Cold War and the rise of China-Myanmar’s relations have altered Myanmar’s geo-strategic importance. This politico-security environment necessitated regional countries to reorient its relations with Myanmar’s military regime. The regime also soon took advantage of its renewed importance and rich natural resources particularly oil and gas by expanding its engagements with the region. Geo-economic factors also provided a change in attitude among the regional countries in that Myanmar was seen as a “bridge” between South and Southeast Asia.

One major consideration of ASEAN to include Myanmar in its grouping was prompted by the concern of China’s increasing influence over Myanmar. This factor is present and will play a role in SAARC as well. Myanmar appears to see two main advantages in joining regional groupings. One is its desire to diversify its foreign policy to lessen its dependence on China and secondly, the advantages through economic benefits, diplomatic supports and strategic leverages vis-à-vis its perceived hostile countries particularly the West. This is indicated in the Myanmar-ASEAN relations. Greater Mekong Cooperation and BIMSTEC have so far served as economic advantages. This factor seems to be the prime reason behind Myanmar’s desire to join SAARC with the hope that SAARC would also provide support and opportunities it has been getting from other groupings. China is already an observer in SAARC and therefore the argument that Myanmar’s membership may increase China’s influence in the regional grouping may not hold much water.

Myanmar, today, does not have any major contentious issue with any of the SAARC members except with Bangladesh. The Rohingyas’ issue has been a major irritation between the two countries since the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 and remains unresolved. Maritime boundary issues have occasionally emerged to affect the friendly relations with the two countries with claims and counter-claims over maritime waters of the Bay of Bengal. However, in the recent past the two countries have been cultivating cordial relations with the leaderships of the two countries showing increasing interest in cooperation in agricultural and hydropower sectors. India’s relations with Myanmar have been rapidly growing over the past decade. A confirmation to this was India’s quick response to back Myanmar’s membership in the regional grouping. Pakistan has maintained a low profile relation with Myanmar yet an important one in so far as the two have military cooperation with reports of Pakistan supplying arms to Myanmar.   Myanmar’s relations with other members of SAARC such as Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives and the newly joined Afghanistan have remained minimal owing to geographical reasons and also because of the low level of development in these countries.

Myanmar has not only been absent from most of the regional governments’ outlook but also from the public imagination of South Asia for long. However, recent developments have shown that there is a need for Myanmar and SAARC to work more closely. For instance, Cyclone Nargis that devastated Myanmar in May 2008 or Tsunami that destroyed much coastal life in the littoral countries in 2004 indicates that Myanmar and SAARC are intrinsically tied together even in times of disaster. A realization of the need to broaden the scope of exploration in the academic field particularly in issues related to illegal drug smuggling, HIV/AIDS, refugees, internal displacement, environmental issues, border development and management studies, security and maritime studies have already begun.

This was a result of the recognition that transnational issues have to be examined with a holistic approach, if solutions were to be found. Prospects of energy trade between Myanmar and SAARC members also remain to be tapped. A World Bank’s study on cross-country trade of electricity and natural gas in South Asia suggests that Myanmar could export gas to India and possibly to Nepal and Bhutan. All these factors suggest that Myanmar and SAARC would both benefit by working together and the inclusion of Myanmar in SAARC may prove to be a win-win situation for SAARC and Myanmar.

K. Yhome is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation.