By Col R Hariharan
Myanmar President Thein Sein’s visit to India from October 12th to 15th had only limited visibility in Indian media that has become characteristic of news relating to Myanmar. Unlike the earlier visits of Myanmar’s heads of state, Thein Sein’s visit is of special interest on two counts – the changing political environment in Myanmar and India’s slow assertion of its strategic perception. In the near term, these developments might compel India to take a relook at its Myanmar policy and reshape it in keeping with the changes taking place both within and outside Myanmar.
President Thein Sein is no stranger to New Delhi as he had visited India a few times in his military days in various avatars. So presumably he knows New Delhi’s thinking on issues affecting its interests. President Thein Sein regime carries the baggage of military backing while seeking greater internal and external acceptance as a democratic regime.
He has taken a number of initiatives to improve image of the civilian government to show it’s a people-sensitive regime; the recent suspension of construction of the Chinese -aided Myitsone hydroelectric dam is a case in point. Over 6,300 prisoners, including about 220 political prisoners, have been released under an amnesty.
More importantly, he has kept the lines of communication open with Aung San Suu Kyi in a bid to bring back the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) to main stream politics. Apparently both sides are in the process of evolving a face saving formula to arrive at a win-win situation. In this context, the Myanmar Lower House of Parliament’s approval to amend three clauses of the Political Parties Registration Law, including the clause that prevented serving prisoners from being a member of a political party, are significant. Other amendments include doing away with the twin requirements for registration of a political party – contesting at least three parliamentary seats for registration as party, and replacing the word “protect” with “respect” in the instructions for political parties to conform. The amended law will come into force when the President gives his assent.
These moves are welcome to India as they reduce its unease in dealing with the autocratic military regime in the past. Although, there are a number of outstanding issues to be resolved to make Myanmar a reasonably credible democracy, President Thein needs every encouragement from India in going ahead with this process.
Usually India-Myanmar relations tend to be assessed through the strategic security prism of China-Myanmar relations. Such comparison is inevitable as China is loudly asserting its political, economic, and military clout in ASEAN and South Asia. But for more than a decade now India and Myanmar have tried to broad base their relations focusing on five areas: capacity building of Myanmar in developmental areas, mutual trade, improving communication infrastructure for land and sea links between India’s landlocked regions and Myanmar, defence cooperation and coordination, and regional cooperation. There has also been significant emphasis on furthering historical and cultural ties between the two countries.
However, officially both countries have avoided making public reference to strategic security aspects beyond the denial of sanctuaries for Indian insurgent groups in Myanmar soil and goodwill visits of military chiefs of both countries. This has now been broadened (in the context of the current Myanmar’s military confrontation with the Kachin Independence Army –KIA) to include denial of sanctuaries to Myanmar insurgents on Indian soil. Contacts between the armies of both countries have been limited to exchange of visits of senior officers, border meetings of sector commanders and limited cooperation at the ground level in trans- border operations against insurgents.
Perhaps in deference to Chinese strategic sensitivities, military regimes in Myanmar had always given China a preferred status over India in allowing free flow to its relations. This suited the military junta as it was heavily dependent upon China to overcome international trade sanctions and in warding off periodic forays of the U.S. and the West against Myanmar in the United Nations. Unlike the tenuous communication links between India and Myanmar, China developed its communication links with Myanmar to further its interests.
Myanmar has not shown such attention to Indian sensitivities while avowing its strategic relationship with China. In fact President Thein Sein visited China in May 2011, within three months of coming to power. After his meeting with China’s President Hu Jintao, Myanmar President said “Having been designated as partners for multi-strategic cooperation, Myanmar-China relations have reached a new chapter and the highest level in China’s foreign relations.”
The title “Joint Statement Between The Republic of the Union of Myanmar and The Peoples’ Republic of China on *Establishing a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership” *[emphasis added] issued after the Myanmar President’s visit is probably indicative of Myanmar’s desire to indicate that despite adopting a multi-party parliamentary system, it was business as usual with China. According to the news website Irrawaddy, President Thein Sein during his discussion with the Chinese President expressed Myanmar’s backing for China in its territorial dispute with Vietnam in the South China Sea. Significantly, Myanmar’s support came at a time when tension between China and Vietnam was building up over Vietnam’s oil exploration bid in the South China Sea.
It would suit both China and India to avoid a military confrontation in view of their fast growing multifaceted relations. This is evident from India’s conscious attempt to play down such a possibility, despite China’s frequent show of its muscle to assert its superiority over India. However, India has been concerned for some time now with China’s increasing influence in India’s neighbourhood. So when Myanmar’s ‘civilian’ President talks of “multi-strategic cooperation” in partnership with China, India cannot afford to ignore this emerging strategic equation on its eastern borders. When China completes its ongoing communication projects in Myanmar, increased strategic cooperation between Myanmar and China would significantly enhance security threat to India’s weak eastern flanks in any future China-India confrontation. It would also increase China’s strategic options against India, particularly when China’s visible presence is likely to grow further in Pakistan as and when Af-Pak region undergoes a change in the aftermath of the U.S pull out.
Apart from all this, China has a record of providing Indian insurgent groups from the northeast in the past. Despite, China’s public assertion of ending such practices, increased China-Myanmar strategic cooperation increases China’s options to revive it at a time of its strategic convenience. This aspect should not be ignored as some of the Manipuri insurgent groups and the breakaway group of the United National Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) hiding in Myanmar had been trying to procure Chinese weapons for some time now. Recently Indian media reports indicate that Maoists, with the help of the ULFA, were also likely to establish their sanctuaries in Myanmar.
Given these changes, Thein Sein’s Indian visit to India (a few months after his trip to China) at India’s invitation is timely. It shows that India has taken note of the significance of changes in Myanmar and the perceptions of the civilian government. It is also a manifestation of India’s desire to improve its equation with the new players in Naypitaw.
Only weeks before President Thein Sein’s visit to New Delhi, India had taken two major strategic initiatives. The first was the signing of a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan, moving beyond India’s developmental assistance (raising the heckles of Pakistan, China’s close strategic ally in South Asia). The second was the India’s hesitant but clear show of strategic solidarity with Vietnam, particularly at a time when Vietnam is locked in a confrontation with China over oil exploration in disputed waters. In this respect, President Thein Sein’s visit (coincidentally?) came close on the heels of President of Vietnam Truong Tan Sang’s visit to New Delhi.
In fact, India ignored Chinese caution and went ahead with signing of agreement between state-owned Indian and Vietnamese companies on cooperation in exploiting oil and gas resources of Vietnam during President Truong’s visit.
India as a large functional democracy at its doorstep can do a few things for Myanmar, which China despite its economic and strategic clout would not be able to do. India with its better democratic credentials and close relations with the U.S. can help the civilian regime gain full international acceptability ending the sanctions regime. India can be a useful counterpoise for Myanmar in handling China, particularly when China’s strategic ambitions override its acceptance of the civilian regime in Myanmar. India’s growing economic clout and influence in Southeast Asia could be useful in Myanmar’s desire to play a greater international role in the coming years. India also needs a friendly and stable Myanmar on its borders for its own strategic reasons. And Myanmar with its strategic location at the gates of ASEAN can be a useful adjunct to India’s engagement of Southeast Asian nations. Moreover, India’s growing appetite for industrial resources needs access to untapped natural resources including gas and minerals of Myanmar.
Despite this setting, India-Myanmar relations had remained a potted plant. The democratically elected Indian government had always found it difficult to publicly proclaim its support to Myanmar’s military regime as it clashed with its democratic value system. As a result India’s relation with Myanmar was closeted at government level, lacking depth. It was devoid of people to people contact. For reasons of realpolitik, both the ruling and opposition parties in India have largely accepted this dispensation as inevitable in the national interest.
India’s appreciation of Myanmar’s actions to usher in democracy, even of a limited kind, is evident in the joint statement issued after the visit of the Myanmar President. India’s extension of additional $500 million line of credit to Myanmar making a total of $ 800 million in all is a testimony to it.
India is involved in over a dozen projects in infrastructure, IT and oil exploration. Infrastructure projects include up gradation of Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo, Rhi-Tiddim and Rhi-Falam roads and the Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project (KMMTP). The KMMTP which links Mizoram with Myanmar and provides a river based outlet to the port of Sitwe is perhaps strategically the most important of all projects. But India had not been able to execute these projects with the speed they deserve, although the Myanmar bureaucracy is also partly responsible.
Indian public sector companies have not shown their readiness to grab fleeting business opportunities that are coming up as Myanmar is widening its development and a favourable relation with Myanmar exists. Participation of Indian private sector companies could be enhanced now as the Indian line of credit extended so far amounts to $ 800 million. Indian expertise in IT, real time communication services, rail construction and maintenance services are some of the areas not fully exploited to increase Indian presence in Myanmar.
With India-Myanmar trade is set to double at $1.4 billion. Though this may not look very significant it will be about one fourth of China’s estimated figure of $ 4 billion plus. However unlike China, India’s trade lacks variety and depth. But unless direct communication links between India and Myanmar are better established increased trade would continue to be limited to border trade.
India as a flourishing democracy has a much bigger responsibility in helping the growth of democracy in Myanmar. India in the name of strategic security cannot ignore this aspect in its policy making, as it has done since 1992. A good beginning would be to persuade the new government in Myanmar to allow greater people to people contacts between the two countries at the level of students, scholars and academic exchange.
A second important aspect, which India had ignored for long, is the fate of people of Indian origin in Myanmar. From Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s times, India had ignored the problems of these people. The present citizenship laws are discriminatory as they do not treat people of Indian origin, born and brought up in Myanmar, on par with ethnic Burmese. With increased assertion of democratic values in Myanmar, time has come for India to persuade Myanmar to amend its citizenship laws to make them more equitable to people of all ethnic origins.
To summarise, the weakness in India’s relations with Myanmar at present is it is largely limited to two governments. The bottom line in improving it is to make it more relevant to the people of both countries by widening its scope and content. While India’s relations with Myanmar cannot be compared with that of the U.S., the growth of Indo-US relations offers a very good example of how such a growth can be achieved.
This may not come through immediately as Myanmar is undergoing a paradigm shift in its political make up. However, India can succeed only if it invests time, energy and resources to plan for it now. And probably there would be positive results even if India invests in Myanmar a quarter of the time and energy it expends on building better relations with Pakistan and Sri Lanka. We have a poor record in using fleeting opportunities of grand strategy in our history. It is time we moved away from this inward looking strategy. If India waits too long in taking new initiatives in Myanmar, its interests may be brushed aside by other nations with strategic interests in the country and the region around when Myanmar is welcomed back into the international fold.
(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: [email protected])