By Obja Borah Hazarika*
Myanmar’s President Htin Kyaw paid a state visit to India on August 27-30, 2016. The visit was on the invitation of Pranab Mukherjee, President of India. This visit followed close on the heels of the visit by the Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Myanmar on August 22. The visit by the President of Myanmar was the first state visit by Htin Kyaw after the assumption of office by the new government in Myanmar in March 2016.The Myanmar president was accompanied by his wife, Daw Su Su Lwin, several key ministers and senior officials. During his visit to India, the Myanmar president had official engagements in New Delhi and also visited places of historical and cultural importance in India.
A range of bilateral, regional and international issues including border security and management, bilateral trade, insurgency and connectivity were discussed during the visits of Swaraj to Myanmar and the President of Myanmar to India. During the president’s visit both sides agreed to continue to support dialogue along existing mechanisms, which includes border liaison meetings, Heads of Survey Department meeting, Foreign Office consultations, Joint Consultative Commission, Joint Trade Committee, and Regional Border Committee among others. They took stock of the ongoing development cooperation initiatives being undertaken with assistance from India, including in the areas of connectivity and capacity building, health and education infrastructure, agriculture, information technology, industrial training, and training programmes.
Some of the important agreements signed during the president’s visit includes the MoU on cooperation in the construction of 69 Bridges including approach roads in the Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa road section of the trilateral highway in Myanmar’ MoU on cooperation in the construction / upgradation of the Kalewa – Yagyi road section; MoU on cooperation in the field of renewable energy and an MoU on cooperation in the field of traditional systems of medicine.
In addition, border management was one of the most integral issues discussed during the president’s visit. Both countries are keen on ensuring that security is achieved along the Indo-Myanmar border which has been a constant struggle for them as insurgents continue their anti-social and illicit activities along the region. During Swaraj’s visit the commitment of India is its support for the national reconciliation that is being attempted by the government of Myanmar was expressed. In the joint statement released during the president’s visit, both countries agreed to enhance cooperation on developing the the border areas by undertaking both infrastructure development and upgrading roads and construction of schools, health centres like the Yangon Children’s Hospital and the Sittwe General Hospital, bridges, agriculture and related training activities. The importance of cooperating on maritime security was also stressed during the visit.
Moreover, boosting tourism and conserving heritage was another important item on the agenda during the president’s maiden visit to India. The Buddhist sites in India have been attractive tourist destinations for the largely Buddhist population of Myanmar. India has also been active in conservation and restoration efforts of Myanmar’s religious and architectural heritage, including the Ananda Temple in Bagan. The conservation of the stone inscriptions and temples of King Mindon and King Bagyidaw of Myanmar in Bodh Gaya is another area where India has pledged its support.
Furthermore, the president’s visit allowed both sides to take stock of the functioning of the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology (MIIT), the Rice Bio-Park at Yezin University in Nay Pyi Taw, the establishing the Advanced Centre for Agricultural Research and Education (ACARE) in Nay Pyi Taw, the upgradation of the India-Myanmar Centre for the Enhancement of IT Skills (IMCEITS) in Yangon, the e-Resource Centre at Nay Pyi Taw as well as the computerisation of the Central Land Records Development Training Centre (CLRDTC) at Taik Kyi in Yangon region. Additionally, during the president’s visit India offered assistance for undertaking small development projects in Myanmar and offered assistance to Myanmar side to enhance agricultural productivity by undertaking initiatives such as programme on germplasm enhancement, development of seed models, training private seed entrepreneurs in Myanmar, training and demonstration of improvised agro-techniques and other capacity building projects. The two sides agreed to exchange information on skill development initiatives.
They agreed to promote trade and expand cooperation in agriculture, banking, power and energy sectors as mentioned in the joint statement released during the president’s visit. Cooperation in the banking and power sectors and opening of border haats were reiterated during the visit. Expansion of collaboration in oil exploration and hydrocarbon pipeline sectors was also stressed during the visit. Both sides agreed to further promote cultural and academic exchanges and discussed on setting up immigration facilities at the Tamu-Moreh and Rhi-Zowkhathar border crossing points at an early date. They reaffirmed their commitment to work closely together in all international multilateral organizations.
This visit to India was the first visit abroad by the president after assuming power earlier this year which signals the importance which Myanmar assigns to its relations with India. A hedging on the part of Myanmar can also be discerned from the fact that Suu Kyi’s first visit abroad, conducted recently, outside the ASEAN was to China. Suu Kyi will visit India in October this year to participate in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa)-BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) meeting.
Suu Kyi’s first visit since becoming State Counsellor and Foreign Minister outside of the ASEAN to China has been viewed by some as an indicator of Myanmar upgrading its relations with Beijing at the expense of those with New Delhi. However, the China visit should be seen as a country at the throes of democratic change trying to balance its relations with countries on its periphery rather than viewing it as attempts by it to prioritise its relations with one country over the other. In this moment of its fledgling democracy, domestic peace and economic development are of utmost priority to Myanmar. Its foreign relations are thus manifestations of Myanmar seeking to ensure that its democratic transition is soundly buttressed instead of being irrevocably and irreparably nipped in the bud.
India and China are both keen to enhance and improve their relations and presence in Myanmar. Chinese investments in Myanmar far exceeds those of India’s and while India-Myanmar bilateral trade stood at roughly USD 2 billion in 2014-15; China enjoyed bilateral trade worth USD 25 billion in 2013-14 and is also Myanmar’s largest trading partner. Close on the heels of Suu Kyi’s China visit, three ethnic rebel groups with close ties to China agreed to join the Panglong Conference to be held later this year. India does not wield similar pressure on rebel ethnic groups in Myanmar. However, despite such cooperation and support from China, there are contentions issues which plague China-Myanmar relations principal among which is the local protests against Chinese investment projects in the hydropower sector. India’s involvement and presence in Myanmar have not yet been met with local opposition. India and China are keen on harnessing the strategic and economic benefits which are presented by Myanmar which puts the latter in an enviable position of being vetted by two giants of Asia. Myanmar’s current diplomacy of reaching out to both India and China can be understood as its own non-alignment policy of ensuring that gains are accrued from both India and China instead of choosing one over the other and having to forgo the benefits which either country has to offer.
Swaraj’s visit to Myanmar and the visit by President Mukherjee reaffirmed India’s commitment to the democratic transition in Myanmar, its national reconciliation programme and vouched India’s support for its socio-economic development. Apart from the fact that close relations with Myanmar is important for India to harness its gas reserves, clamp down on insurgent activities in its Northeast region, Myanmar is also one of the most important countries for India to realize its Act East Policy as it is the gateway to the rest of the ASEAN nations which continue to be the major focus of India’s foreign economic and strategic policies.
*Obja Borah Hazarika is an Assistant Professor of Political Science, Dibrugarh University. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected]