When Look West meets Look East: India-Myanmar Relationship

A primer on the several hurdles that plague the balance and counterbalance walk between India and Myanmar. 

On November 8th, Myanmar will hold its first open, multi-party elections since 1990. The election comes on the heels of a protracted reform movement that was put into place by the military backed USDP party that has been running the country since 2010. Western governments who have encouraged Myanmar’s reforms and praised the paltry civil liberties that have been granted, see this election as a crucial step in Myanmar’s sluggish path to democracy. The November election will also be the first general election for Suu Kyi’s NLD party in 25 years. Their last victory in 1990 ended with her house arrest, crackdown on student protests, a ruthless military dictatorship headed by the SLORC and the introduction of a contentious constitution. There is a small hope, that this election will push the country forward, on a path to a sustainable democratic union. 

The five years since the Thein Sein government came into power, has seen a dramatic shift in the world’s perception of Myanmar. The US and the UK have been trying to balance critical engagement and investment in the country with rightful indignation about its abysmal human rights record. Investments in Myanmar from countries including Thailand, Hong Kong have increased manifold. China and India, meanwhile have pushed ahead fully realizing the strategic importance of a country that sits at the crossroads. Myanmar’s reaction to this increased attention has been one of quite deliberation, and astute pragmatism.

The new crop of Burmese leaders realize that while China has the economic clout to enable it realize its streams of development, overly depending on China would at some point in time create a situation where Myanmar would be subsumed by China. The increased border tensions between the two countries and signs of Chinese interference in funding and training ethnic rebels has been a serious point of contention. The suspension, by  Myanmar of various Chinese projects, including the gas line, the copper mine project and Myistone Dam project were meant to send a strong signal to China. China, meanwhile is going all out in an effort to increase its presence in the region. It has in the last few years invited various ethnic Burmese parties for talks. It also invited Aung San Suu Kyi, a political activist whose arrest and silencing it fully supported till a few years back. Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China in early June this year is a sign of the triumph of realism on both sides, and an indication of how the election can potentially change Myanmar’s relationship with its neighbors.

Myanmar’s look west policy, on the other hand gives it an opportunity in investing in a good relationship with India which also has a meeting point in its look east policy. There are, however, several hurdles in this balance and counterbalance tightrope walk.

The first and primary issue is the inability of the Indian government to project a coherent, and sustainable policy towards Myanmar. The relationship goes in short bursts of optimism followed by benign neglect of interest. Every opportunity to increase India’s investment in building a long term relationship with Myanmar has been hampered by bureaucratic incompetence, inefficiency and more importantly an inability to voice a proper policy with regard to its engagement. While there is something to be said about quiet strategic engagements without bringing too much attention to a well defined policy, India’s engagement often looks like something it stumbled into, without clarity or deliberations.

The second factor affecting India-Myanmar relationship is the hangover from the past, when Indians dominated the Burmese landscape. It carries with it a history of exploitation of the Burmese people by Indian employers under the active encouragement and prodding of the British overlords. Burmese nationalism is a direct result of that, and incorporates a kind of xenophobia against every ethnic group that came in settled in Myanmar and exploited the resources and people of Myanmar over the last 300 years.  Our inability to understand that and work around that issue has resulted in some very awkward, and inelegant handling of the relationship. Myanmar’s assertion of its strong position in the Indian Ocean region and its awareness of what it can bring to a relationship should be seen as a sign of the country coming into its own. India needs to work out what it can do in terms of investing in that relationship.

There are various ways in which this relationship can move ahead. Critical of this would be to extend invitations to not just the assumed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but also to various ethnic parties which will have a stake in the future of the Burmese Union. The Thein Sein government has been under negotiations with various ethnic parties over a ceasefire agreement which is likely to have long term impact not just within Myanmar, but also along the border with Nagaland, and Manipur. It would be in India’s interest to indicate a willingness to work with recognized ethnic parties to settle border disputes. India also needs to formulate a strategic policy of including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to create a maritime and land route on the lines that China is proposing of the belt highway. India also needs to seriously plug the gaps in the many proposed and incomplete projects that it has with Myanmar. Cross-border trade, energy investments, river-networks, infrastructure developments have all been left unfinished and neglected by various governments. The projects needs to be completed and the last mile problems solved.

The NDA’s focus on diaspora engagement and using Indians settled abroad to build relationships should extend eastward too. Myanmar has a large group of politically neglected Indians who have struggled to establish themselves in the country and are at the receiving end of various policies that have enfeebled them. India needs to work on a policy that will ensure that these Indians settled in Myanmar can lead a life without their rights being violated in any form or measure.

The Thein Sein government has been astute in managing the transition from a military backed government to one that proclaims to be democratic. The opening up of the country to visiting journalists and diplomats, granting small slivers of civil liberties, allowing protests and opposition have been chalked up as achievements. On the other hand, there have also been commentators who have expressed doubts about the pace and nature of reforms taking place in the country. Suu Kyi herself, has encouraged US, UK and the rest to have a healthy skepticism about the transition.

Burmese news agencies have reported that a total of 83 parties have signed up to compete in the elections. These include ethnic parties like the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, the Arakan National Party, the Mon democracy party and smaller ethnic coalition parties. The lack of a ceasefire deal means ethnic parties will be able to build on it to secure votes in return for greater control in deciding their fates. The waning popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi also means that the NLD cannot rest assured of a majority in the houses. The military remains an overarching figure, controlling veto power, and the ability to legally stage an overthrow of a government in case of instability. The voting system also ensures that even non elected members, including military personnel can be voted by a council of ministers to the presidency. Barring Aung San Suu Kyi who cannot become president under the current constitution, the three most likely candidates all come from military backgrounds. Both Thein Sein and Shwe Mann, who is the current speaker of the house have shown themselves to be open to a regimented democracy and have exhibited a degree of flexibility to accommodate reform movements. The current commander-in-chief of the armed forces Min Aung Hlaing will be retiring soon and is widely expected to be the third candidate.

India has a real opportunity here to invest in a stronger, more strategically informed relationship with a neighbor with whom we share more than just a border. Any relationship requires adaptability, trust and an appreciation of what the other side requires from the relationship. How we use this moment to our advantage needs to be seen.


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