Author : K. Yhome

Occasional PapersPublished on Feb 26, 2009 PDF Download
ballistic missiles,Defense,Doctrine,North Korea,Nuclear,PLA,SLBM,Submarines

India-Myanmar Relations (1998-2008): A Decade of Redefining Bilateral Relations

  • K. Yhome

India-Myanmar rapprochement began in 1991 and gained momentum in the latter part of the decade, as evidenced in the growing political, economic and military cooperation since 1998. This paper argues that it was during the period between 1998 and 2008 that the bilateral relationship withstood the test of critical events. Furthermore, expansion and diversification of these bilateral ties took place during the very same period. This paper identifies some issues that could emerge as potential fissures to upset the relationship. In conclusion, the paper suggests that it is high time the leadership of the two countries initiated measures to address these issues. As the stakes increase for both countries, it is imperative for them to ensure the sustenance of the hard earned relationship.

India and Myanmar share profound historical and cultural links. During the colonial period, both countries were under British India. After their Independence, the two countries cultivated a close relationship that culminated in the signing of the 1951 Treaty of Friendship. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru and Myanmar’s Premier U Nu shared common views on many issues regarding the conduct of international politics and pioneered the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Gen. Ne Win’s period (1962-1988) saw ups and downs in the bilateral relations. Ne Win’s nationalisation programme of the 1960s resulted in the eviction of thousands of people of Indian origin from Myanmar, causing frictions in the relationship. Be that as it may, during the same period, the two countries signed the Land Boundary Agreement (1967) and the Maritime Boundary Agreement (1986).

Between 1988 and 1990, the relationship reached its nadir as a result of India’s strong position against the Myanmar military’s brutal suppression of the pro-democracy uprising and the subsequent takeover of power by the generals. The frozen ties began to thaw after India adopted its “Look East” policy in 1991. The period between 1998 and 2008 was of significance to the relationship for two reasons. First, major initiatives were taken in the late 1990s, resulting in the expansion of the ties in diverse sectors, as indicated by the frequent exchange of high-level visits. Second, the relationship withstood the test of critical events during this period, suggesting that the relationship had reached a degree of maturity and trust.

An examination of India’s policy towards Southeast Asian countries shows that Myanmar figures prominently from all perspectives political, security, economic and strategic. Whether it was the desire to engage the eastern Asian regions or, more particularly, strengthening relations with the CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam), India’s renewed focus on them coincided with the strengthening of its bilateral ties with Myanmar. New Delhi sees Myanmar as an important “land-bridge ” on its path to the consolidation of ties with Southeast and East Asia. Myanmar thus fits in very well into India’s regional plans. On the other hand, Myanmar’s India policy has been largely based on its desire to diversify its external engagement. The need for diversification was felt in the face of increasing dependence on China in the late 1990s, which prompted its leadership to reach out to other countries and India was seen as a potential counter-weight to China. Furthermore, Myanmar’s military leadership believes that its improving relation with India boosts its “international image and legitimacy.”

India’s “Look East” policy pulled the two neighbour nations’ ties out of the doldrums it had been languishing in for long years. The policy led to a renewed effort on the part of New Delhi to engage Southeast and East Asia. The initial result was seen in the signing of the border trade agreement in 1994. It needs to be said here that the approach of the two governments was, essentially, one of caution. New Delhi had remained wary of reports that Myanmar granted permission to China for sea access to the Indian Ocean, as also for a Chinese military base in the Bay of Bengal. As for Myanmar, its military leadership had remained chary of New Delhi’s position on Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement. While the Myanmar junta appeared to have played a cautious game, observing New Delhi’s moves and actions, it was also growing increasingly uncomfortable with its heavy dependence on China.

New Delhi cultivated this convergence of interests between the two countries to give an added push to its ties with Myanmar. There has, therefore, been a gradual increase in the comfort level between the two leaderships since 1998, though till that time, the ties were at a low key because of internal factors. By 1996, India and Myanmar appeared set to take their relations to a higher level. However, the incumbent government of India was voted out of power in May 1996. From May 1996 to March 1998, the country saw three prime ministers and none of their governments could stay long enough to take important policy decisions and the process of enhancing bilateral relations stagnated.

In the late 1990s, Myanmar decided to relax its isolationist stance and diversify its foreign policy. It started by joining the region’s most dynamic grouping Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997 and subsequently other sub-regional groupings, such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in December 1997 and the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) in 2000. In 2001, Myanmar also purchased 15 Russian MiG-29 fighters . All this indicated that Myanmar now fully realized that, if it were to minimize its dependence on China, it needed to engage with other important countries and regions.

In 1998, with a new government in place in New Delhi under Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, bilateral relations were given a renewed push. The first important visit was that of the Senior General Maung Aye, the Deputy Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to India in January 2000. Since then, several top level visits have taken place, notable among them being those of Senior General Than Shwe, Chairman of the SPDC in October 2004 and Senior General Maung Aye’s second visit in April 2008. From the Indian side, Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat visited Myanmar in November 2003, followed by President A.P.J Abdul Kalam’s visit in March 2006. During these visits, several agreements and MoUs were signed.

Bilateral cooperation was initiated in many areas, including strategic and energy sectors. Of special importance in strengthening political ties was the visit of Than Shwe in 2004, during which Myanmar expressed its support to India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. The media reports of Chinese military base in Myanmar were also toned-down after India’s Navy Chief visited Myanmar’s Great Coco Island in 2004. Relations were further consolidated when India supported the military regime’s political transition plan after the September 2007 uprising. India also supported Myanmar’s desire to become a member of SAARC and welcomed its joining the regional grouping.

During the visit of Sr. Gen. Maung Aye to India in early April 2008, significant agreements were signed, specially the Kaladan Multi Modal 10 Transit Transport Project. During his visit to Myanmar in September 2007, Minister of Petroleum Murli Deora signed an agreement on energy exploration.

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K. Yhome

K. Yhome

K. Yhome was Senior Fellow with ORFs Neighbourhood Regional Studies Initiative. His research interests include Indias regional diplomacy regional and sub-regionalism in South and Southeast ...

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K. Yhome

K. Yhome