6 Dec 2014

A detailed Overview : India-Myanmar Bilateral-Relationship

Whenever "Myanmar" comes up for discussion on any table in India, these two pictures are very important. Though Buddha stands for cultural linkage and Aung San Suu Kyi stands for political linkage, both of them have overlapping influence upon people and the government on both the sides of border.


Pic courtesy : eurasiareview.com
Around 89% of populations in Myanmar follow Theravada Buddhism, which is the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism. It is an indication of how old and deep people to people linkage between India and Myanmar has, historically, been. Since religion has always spread along with trade, economic dimension of this relation was also important. As happens with our human neighbors, relationship between two countries did not remain strong after both the nations got their independence from Britain. (India got its freedom on 15th Aug 1947 and Burma, which is now called Myanmar, on 4th Jan 1948.) First of all, we will look into the brief history and the dimensions of relation which kept this relation at low level and then understand how relevant and important Aung San Suu Kyi is.

Pic courtesy : csmonitor.com
Historical evidences show that in the pre-colonial era, the relation between these two nations was warm due to close cultural interactions. Things changed in the colonial period. In the 19th century, one war occurred famous by the name of Anglo-Burmese War. Large number of troops which fought the war for British contained mainly Indians. This war finally resulted in the annexation of Burma to the British Empire in 1886. After that large numbers of Indians were encouraged to emigrate in Burma. They dominated in the civil services, police; landlords etc and so played a significant role in expanding agenda of British and suppressing local sentiments. Burma became a separate colony in 1937 but anti-Indian sentiment remained on the ground. 

After both the nations got Independence, there was a fresh and good start due to excellent personal rapport between the First Prime Ministers of both the nations Nehru and U Nu. Both the nations signed the Treaty of Friendship in 1951. But cracks developed in relation after army rebelled in 1962 and General Ne Win took over the government in Myanmar. Most of the Indians were forcefully expelled and their properties were confiscated in the nationalization initiatives of the govt. However, a very large number of Indians stayed back and that is why today Ethnic Indians account for approximately 2% (about 950,000) of the population of Burma. There was very limited (which we will see later in this article) interactions afterwards till 1988. Here, the relationship touched the new low. This was the year when Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma and started mass demonstrations for democracy. On 8 August 1988 (8–8–88, a day seen as auspicious) there was nationwide protest for democracy and Suu Kyi (She is generally called by this name) became a national icon. In the same year, a new military junta (A junta or military junta is a government led by a committee of military leaders.) took power of the govt. and suppressed the uprising. In May 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years and the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won 392 out of a total 489 seats. However, the military junta refused to cede power and continued to rule the nation through a council.  Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest until she was released on 13 November 2010 under the pressure of U.S. and others. Only China maintained close links with Myanmar during this period.

Major shift in India's policy (Post 1993)

Pic courtesy : aseanbriefing.com
Every relation has limitations and it needs to be re looked in to the way of its handling when it starts hurting more than the purpose of larger interest it stands for. India had the dilemma of choosing idealism of democracy and pragmatic engagement with a military government. India’s strategic and economic interests could not await the prolonged political evolution in the neighboring country. A major breakthrough occurred in 1987 when the then-Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Myanmar, but relations worsened after the military junta's severe reaction towards pro-democracy movements in 1988(Since India supported pro-democracy movements), which resulted in an influx of Burmese refugees into India.

In 1991, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao govt. conceived India's Look East Policy to cultivate extensive economic and strategic relations with the nations of Southeast Asia in order to bolster its standing as a regional power and a counterweight to the strategic influence of China. India started engaging with the military govt in Myanmar since 1993. Over the time this relation is in the process of maturing.

Few landmarks in the relationship

After 1993 many senior level visits (Dr A.P.J Abdul Kalam and several ministers) were made but a major breakthrough occurred in Oct 2011 when Myanmar's President Thein Sein visited India. India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Myanmar in May 2012 and signed a 12-point agreement which is as following.

Regarding $500million Line of Credit
Airline Services Agreement between India and Myanmar: with more carriers and more destinations (extending to other Southeast Asian cities)
India-Myanmar Border Area Development
Establishment of Joint Trade and Investment Forum
Establishment of the Advance Centre for Agriculture Research and Education (ACARE)
Establishment of Rice Bio Park at the Department of Agricultural Research in Naypyitaw
Setting up  Myanmar Institute of Information Technology
Cooperation between Dagon University and Calcutta University
Cooperation between Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies and Indian Council of World Affairs
Agreement on Cooperation between Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies and Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses
Cultural Exchange Programme (2012-2015)
Establishing of Border Haats across the border between Myanmar and India

But why Myanmar is so important for India?
Right now, India needs Myanmar more than Myanmar needs India. 

1. Energy Security: Myanmar has very large reserves of natural gas and crude oil. Indian companies like GAIL, ONGC, ESSAR etc are investing aggressively.

2. Geo-political considerations: Myanmar may act as a land bridge between India and South-East Asia. Both the nations are cooperating on multilateral fora to take advantage from each other's influences.

  •     India and Myanmar are leading members of BIMSTEC and the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation. These groupings are helping India develop its influence in the ASEANMyanmar is an Observer in SAARC since 2008. There is huge potential for economic engagement in this region which will pay great dividends to change the destiny of millions of poor.
  •     India will be benefited by reaching out to China's vulnerable neighbors to counter its strategy of 'String of Pearls'.

3. To curtail insurgencies and open up space for the development of North East (NE) region: Improving ties with Myanmar will help dismantle training camps and hide-outs which insurgents in NE of India have made in Myanmar. India has a 1,643 km land border without any fence and deep people to people contact. To utilize this advantage positively, hurdles created by insurgency must be removed.

4. Help curtail parallel economy and funding to insurgencyIndia is located between the “Golden Crescent” (Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran) in the west and the “Golden Triangle” in the east and thus is confronted by the arms-drug nexus. Drug and arms trafficking is a major source of funding to insurgents in both India and Myanmar.
Both the nations have planned various infrastructural projects for economic integration.

1. Indo-Myanmar friendship road: Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo highway, popularly called the Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road, built mainly by the Indian Army's Border Roads Organization. India had completed this project in 2001 but Myanmar did not complete its bit of repairing 71 bridges. So, Indian govt. took complete responsibility in 2012. This road will also be connected to other cities by 2016.

Pic courtesy : firstpost.com
2. India-Myanmar-Thailand Friendship Highway: A 4-lane, 3200 km triangular highway connecting will connect these nations. Route: (Guwahati => Mandalay => Yangon=>Mae Sot =>Bangkok.
This road will be extended to Cambodia and Vietnam under Ganga-Mekong Cooperation within the wider framework of Asian Highway Network: proposed and implemented by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (UNESCAP). India-Myanmar Friendship road is it also part of the Trilateral Highway.

Pic courtesy :quora.com
3. BCIM CorridorBangladesh, India, China and Myanmar-Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) is a sub-regional grouping that seeks to deepen friendly cooperation among the four member nations and linking South Asia with Southeast and East Asia. The primary focus of the economic corridor is to facilitate trade and connectivity between the landlocked and economically isolated southwestern parts of China and the North Eastern region of India. Route: (Kunming in China’s Yunan province) => (Yangon and Mandalay in Myanmar) => North Eastern States of India => (Chittagong-Dhaka-Sylhet in Bangladesh) =>End in Kolkata. The leaders of the four nations intends to revive the ancient “Southern Silk Road” and its southwestern trade routes which emerged as the shortest journey between China and India and served as a highway for merchants carrying gold and silver in the Twelfth century.


4. Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Route
 Route of the Project

 a) Kolkata to Sittwe Port in Myanmar
 b) Sittwe to Paletwa:  Inland Water transport on Kaladan river
 c) Paletwa to India-Myanmar Border : Road 
 d) Border to Lawngtlai on NH-54(Mizoram)

This project is under various stages of completion. (http://www.mdoner.gov.in/content/introduction-1)

5. Many other projects like Delhi-Hanoi rail link, Chennai-Dawei Sea corridor project are in planning stage.

Various contentious issues between India and Myanmar

1. Border Issue with India

Indian govt. decided to fence the border between India and Myanmar to check infiltration, smuggling of arms and narcotics and human trafficking on the pattern of the India-Pakistan and India-Bangladesh borders, where the fence has been effective in checking infiltration and illegal migration to a large extent. This project was started in 2004 after the Joint Survey was completed by both the govt. (India and Myanmar) in 2003.

The vulnerability of the India-Myanmar border stems from a number of factors. 

a. Even though the international boundary between the two countries had been formally delimited and demarcated following the boundary agreement on March 10, 1967, the boundary has not crystallized on the ground.

b. The insurgencies in this area have delayed the crystallization of the international border with Myanmar and have contributed towards sustaining these insurgencies for so long.

c. The India-Myanmar border has a unique arrangement in place called the Free Movement Regime (FMR). The FMR permits the tribes residing along the border to travel 16-km across the boundary without visa restrictions. While the FMR has helped the tribes continue maintain their age old ties, it has also become a cause of concern for the security establishment. The insurgents have been taking advantage of the FMR and have been crossing over to Myanmar to receive training in arms and establish safe havens .This border has also become the main conduit for the trafficking of arms and narcotics from Myanmar. Trafficking of women and children from the Northeast to Myanmar and further to Southeast Asia are also rampant along the border.

The boundary line cuts across houses and villages thus dividing several tribes such as the Singphos, Nagas, Kukis, Mizos, etc., and forcing them to reside as citizens of different countries. They have been claiming that India has ceded its land in the favour of Myanmar. After the Political parties and Non-Governmental Organizations in this area joined the chorus, the central govt. halted this project in Dec 2013.

Similar protest is running on the Myanmar's side but they are raising anti-India sentiment and claiming that India has encroached.

2. Influx of Rohingya refugees to India

In 2012, waves of deadly violence engulfed parts of the western Rakhine state of Myanmar between Buddhist and Muslims. There are racial, religious, economic as well as majoritarian angle behind this conflict. Muslims speaks Rohingya and that is why they are called Rohingya Muslims. They are not considered Burmese citizens under the Citizenship Law. There is controversy among historians over their origin. Some are telling Muslims are migrant from Bangladesh while others are claiming that they are indigenous people. 

Whatever may be the case, the fact is most of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine State. Since 2013, as the influx of Ronhingyas increased, Bangladesh has closed its door to one of the most “persecuted minorities (As per U.N.)” in the world, saying they are not Bangladeshis. Earlier it allowed about 30,000 registered Rohingyas, supported by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. So, they came to India in large numbers.

India will have to handle this issue with care because reportedly the bombing of Bodhgaya temple was linked to crisis in Myanmar.
New Buzz in Myanmar

Constitution was promulgated in 2008 by military leadership which led to general election in 2010. Suu Kyi's party the National League for Democracy (NLD) and ethnic-based political parties in Myanmar boycotted this election but nevertheless it was a landmark in the process of the country’s democratic transition. It led to formation of military backed civilian govt. with Thein Sein as the President. Since 2011, the Thein Sein government has ushered in many positive changes — release of political prisoners (Suu Kyi was released just after the election result was out), greater media freedom and several reforms in the economic, social and administrative spheres. Despite a 25 per cent reservation for the military and the strong presence of Members of Parliament from the military-rooted ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Parliament too has evolved into an active deliberative and lawmaking forum.

Suu Kyi's Party took part in bye-election in 2012 in which her party won 43 out of 45 seats. Her entry into active politics led to change in policy of U.S., E.U and other allies. Earlier they had put sanction on Myanmar and had criticized govt. Since when she has spoken her wish to stand for presidency, the big questions being raised is “will Article 59(f) be changed, which effectively bars Aung San Suu Kyi from being a candidate for the post of President?” Recently, during ASEAN summit 2014 in Myanmar, U.S. president Barack Obama put his weight behind Suu Kyi's possible candidature and constitutional reform.

Pic courtesy : niticentral.com
Similar to our North Eastern states, Myanmar is also facing ethnic war, which rebels(Kachin, Karen, Shan, Wa etc.) claim they are fighting for autonomy, preserving language and culture. China and India both are facing security threats near respective borders due to activities of these ethnic groups.

A durable solution to Myanmar’s political transition lies in a reconciliation among its three stakeholders—political parties, ethnic groups, and the military.


Beijing is watching the political reforms and softening of Western approach towards Myanmar nervously. Beijing has been reaching out to Suu Kyi and is trying to change the perceptions that its long-lasting support to the military junta was transitory and it is not opposed to democratic transition. The opening up of Myanmar and its political reform have rendered Chinese influence thinner and other countries like the US are upping their stakes in Myanmar. The US interest is vindicated by the fact that the first foreign visit by President Barack Obama in his second term was to Myanmar.

There are two broad assets that Myanmar has, which are of interest to the Chinese – access to the Indian Ocean and rich mineral and water resources. Myanmar and China share over 2000 km of mountainous border. Since 1988, China has made huge investments in Myanmar with more than half of it in hydropower dam projects especially for export to the Chinese province of Yunnan across the border.

Many deals were struck with the earlier military government, which received China’s political support and economic aid during International sanctions against Myanmar.

Since a civilian government took over Myanmar in 2011, China’s investment projects have come under criticism. Public opinion in Myanmar objected to the construction of the Myitsone dam because of which the project was suspended by the government along with other projects such as the Letpadaung Copper Mine in Sagaing Division

In the period of 2012-13 there was a sharp drop in the flow of Chinese money into Myanmar as per the data from China’s Ministry of Commerce. 

Recent visit of PM

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his recent visit to Myanmar on the sidelines of ASEAN summit 2014 met Myanmar’s president Thein Sein and tried to bring synergy into this relation. With his Act East Policy, it is hoped, he will open up new vistas of deeper cooperation. As discussed above, the opportunities and benefits are immense. These need to be cashed in.

Pic courtesy : srakaritel.com
Before I stop, I should tell that Aung San Suu Kyi is an alumnus of Lady Shri Ram College and she is linked with India through democratic values. Her following comment moved me.

Pic courtesy : time.com
"It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it."

How India can play a much bigger role in Indian subcontinent, SAARC, ASEAN?

 (Written by Sujit Bharti, an alumnus of IIT Bhubaneshwar)



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