Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 31, 2016
Time to rev up India-Myanmar bilateral ties

< style="color: #333333">Myanmar President U. Htin Kyaw was on a four day State visit to India from August 27 to 30, at the invitation of President Pranab Mukherjee. This was his first foreign tour after being elected to this position at the end of March 2016. This is testimony to the prime importance that Myanmar attaches to relations with India.

It is however also pertinent to note that State Counsellor and Foreign Minister and de facto leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, chose Beijing as the first country to pay a five day successful visit from August 17 to 21. When she was under house arrest from 1988 to 2011, Ms. Suu Kyi was highly critical of Chinese support to the military junta. After assuming power, the virtues of realpolitik appear to have caught up with her and she seems to have realised the need to mend fences with Beijing to enable her to advance her domestic agenda.

Suu Kyi visits China

Domestic security and economic considerations are basic determinants for Suu Kyi's reach out to China. Myanmar and China share a common border of over 2000 km, along which at least six armed ethnic groups that have not joined the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement continue to operate. The convening of the second Panglong Conference (the first one was convened by her father General Aung San in 1947) on August 31 to bring peace amongst the embattled ethnic groups is a bold move and clearly outlines the priority and strategy of Ms. Suu Kyi in promoting ethnic peace in the country. China's support in success of this initiative is considered crucial.

Choice of China for Ms. Suu Kyi's first non-ASEAN state visit was strategic. Cancellation of Chinese funded USD 3.6 billion Myitsone dam in 2011 continues to be a serious impediment in advancing bilateral relations. Ms. Suu Kyi handled this matter deftly by getting a Commission appointed, just before her visit, to review Myitsone and other hydroelectric projects. In Beijing also she made all the right noises. It appears that several options are on the table and a mutually acceptable solution could soon emerge.

During her visit, China promised that the two countries will always be "good neighbours, friends, brothers and partners." This was reciprocated by Suu Kyi as she did not broach the controversial subject of South China Sea and extended support to China’s Belt-Road strategy and BCIM economic corridor. Myanmar reaffirmed its adherence to the one-China principle, and signaled its support for China's position on Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. This is the first time that Myanmar has mentioned Tibet and Xinjiang in a joint statement with China. Previous administrations had only affirmed the one-China policy.

The two countries signed agreements inter alia on economic and technological cooperation to build two new hospitals and a strategic bridge in Kunlong, 32 km from the Chinese border in northeastern Myanmar. China is Myanmar's top trading partner, with two-way trade amounting to USD 15.6 billion in 2015, and also its biggest foreign investor.

India-Myanmar relations

India has started out late in reaching out to Ms. Suu Kyi after her assumption of power in March, 2016. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was the first foreign leader to reach Naypyidaw within days after the National League for Democracy (NLD)  government was sworn in. It might be recalled that Wang Yi was the first foreign leader to arrive in Delhi also after the Modi government took office in May 2014. As against this, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was the first senior Indian leader to reach Naypyidaw for a one-day visit on August 22, a good four and a half months after Suu Kyi's NLD  was sworn in and a day after Ms. Suu Kyi concluded her visit to China.

Notwithstanding this delay, India has considerable strengths with which it can quickly make up for lost time. Both countries share a heritage of religious, linguistic, cultural and ethnic ties. The future holds even greater promise of a mutually beneficial vibrant partnership.

Ms. Suu Kyi is expected to visit the US next month to express her gratitude for all support she received when she was incarcerated. She will arrive in India on October 15 and 16 for the BRICS Summit outreach with BIMSTEC countries, during which she will get an opportunity to meet Prime Minister Modi and other world leaders. PM Modi had met her in November 2014 in Myanmar during his visit for the East Asia and India-ASEAN Summits.

President U. Htin Kyaw is a close confidant of Ms. Suu Kyi. That is why he was chosen for this position as Suu Kyi herself could not become President because of the constitutional provision that any citizen having a spouse or children with foreign nationality would not be eligible to occupy the top position.

During President Kyaw's visit, one of the most significant issues for deliberation was security and stability along the India-Myanmar border. Four Northeastern states viz. Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram share an international boundary of 1600 km with Myanmar. Issue of insurgency from across the border was discussed in detail during EAM Swaraj's recent visit when Myanmar committed that it will not allow its territory to be used by insurgents against India. There are several cross-border ethnic groups and rebels from North East India who have military bases in Myanmar. Positive relations with Myanmar are critical to the security of North East India.

Connectivity of India's Northeastern states with ASEAN through Myanmar is essential for success of the Act East policy launched by PM Modi in November 2014 during his visit to Myanmar. Myanmar provides a springboard to India's North East to reach out to ASEAN nations.

Major connectivity infrastructure projects underway are the trilateral highway connecting Moreh in Manipur with Mae Sot in Thailand through Myanmar, the Kaladan multi-modal transport project connecting Mizoram with Myanmar’s Sittwe port and the Rih-Tedim road in Myanmar across Mizoram. It is regrettable that these projects have been hugely delayed. Trilateral highway is expected to be ready by 2020 though it should have been completed by 2015. Modi has demonstrated in recent months that long overdue projects can be completed within a given deadline. Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam and Parliament building in Kabul are evidence of this. The similar focus needs to be accorded to these projects so that the full benefit to the promotion of bilateral strategic ties can be reaped without delay.

Bilateral trade has grown steadily reaching USD 1.6 billion in 2014-15. India is the fourth largest trading partner of Myanmar, but trade remains far below potential. Agriculture dominates bilateral trade with Myanmar exporting timber and wood products and being the second largest supplier of beans and pulses to India. Possibilities of oil and gas supply from offshore blocks in Myanmar and business opportunities emerging from an open economy underpin bilateral relations.

India can strengthen its ties with Myanmar through its soft-power strength like Buddhism, yoga and Bollywood films. The first stop of President Kyaw on his tour to India is to Bodhgaya to visit the holy site.

India as the largest and a vibrant democracy can share its experience and best practices with Myanmar to make its democratic evolution robust and responsive in coming years. Building institutions, human resource development and capacity building are other areas in which both sides can collaborate to mutual benefit. India can also serve as a glowing example to deal with Myanmar's religious and ethnic minorities. Effectively dealing with Rohingya Muslims has emerged as a formidable challenge which will have to be confronted by Ms. Suu Kyi expeditiously.

Future bilateral partnerships

For Myanmar, enhancing ties with India can help counterbalance China's influence in the country and also develop its economy by using Indian investment, expertise and capacity.

Transition to a civilian government in Myanmar has given greater strategic space to India. Myanmar is looked upon by India as a buffer between it and China. India is concerned that Myanmar could become a convenient corridor for China to have unhindered access to the Indian Ocean which could compromise India's security interests.

In New Delhi President Kyaw was hosted to a state banquet by President Mukherjee and engaged in substantive discussions with PM Modi. Talks on border management, security, connectivity, energy, commercial and economic ties, capacity building, cultural cooperation and people to people contacts formed the bedrock of future bilateral partnership.

The first slew of visits by Suu Kyi and President Kyaw is designed to signal her intention to balance Myanmar's relations with China, India, the US and Japan. She needs the understanding and support of all these powers for heralding an era of stability and development in the country. The message President Kyaw is likely to hear from Delhi is that India stands ready to support Myanmar in every possible way on its march to security, reconciliation and prosperity.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Ashok Sajjanhar

Ashok Sajjanhar

Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan Sweden and Latvia ...

Read More +