FEATURED | Myanmar’s Political Coming-of-Age: What It Means for India?
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FEATURED | Myanmar’s Political Coming-of-Age: What It Means for India?

By Monish Tourangbam and Pawan Amin

FEATURED | Myanmar’s Political Coming-of-Age: What It Means for India?

Image Attribute: Indo-Myanmar Friendship Gate at Moreh, a border town between India and Myanmar / Source: e-pao.net

The institution of a democratically elected government in Myanmar has heralded a new beginning in the political history of the country with implications for the region, specifically democratic India. The trajectory of India’s relations with Myanmar has been a checkered one, with India shunning off the military junta but eventually turning a new leaf to start engaging with them in the 90s, with India’s security concerns in its restive northeastern region being a major factor. India’s decision to reestablish ties with the military led government in Myanmar met with severe criticism from the western world and from Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader and now State Councillor Ang Sang Suu Kyi. Speaking to the Indian media after a long hiatus, Suu Kyi viewed India-Myanmar relations as “an improvement on what it was 3-4 years ago when India was overcautious with regard to support for the democracy movement in Burma.”  Speaking of India’s relations with the military junta, she said, “It’s saddened me that India, the largest democracy in the world, was turning its back on democracy in order to maintain good relations with the military government.”

When Myanmar went for political and economic ties with the rest of the world in 2011, new doors were opened for India in order to reorient the ties that were established.  Myanmar is the land bridge between India and Southeast Asia and hence an inevitable component of India’s Act East Policy. Chinese investments have been a major reality of Myanmar during the long years of the military rule. The period of international isolation of Myanmar, between 1988 and 2010, led to China becoming Myanmar’s biggest investor. The cumulative investment from China during this period totaled $9.6 billion. A major portion of these investments were in the sectors of hydropower generation, transport infrastructure and hydrocarbon extraction. The development of transportation infrastructure also facilitated trade in timber and precious minerals such as jade. Over the years the trade in these commodities began to be conducted through both legal and clandestine channels, with beneficiaries on both sides of the border. The stakes China acquired over the years led to a sizeable increase in its influence on Myanmar’s economy.

However, since the onset of the diplomatic opening of the country, Myanmar has shown its intent to diversify its sources of economic and political interactions. India’s Ambassador to Myanmar Gautam Mukhopadhaya responding to the political shift in the country, remarked, “With the reforms, peace process, free elections and the new government, we can hope to see greater business interest in India free from residual baggage of the past and a fuller development of relations across the board as democracies under a popularly elected leader and government.” The political transition is still undergoing with 25% of the seats in the both the upper house (Amyotha Hluttaw) and lower house (Pyithu Hluttaw) still reserved for unelected members of the military. However, the National League for Democracy’s (NLD’s) strengthened position after the 2015 elections and Suu Kyi as the de-facto leader of the country cannot be taken for granted. Although the conservative elements in the military would want to maintain a tight leash over the political transition, they cannot totally ignore the electorate which has voted NLD to power or the watchful eyes of the international community. 

Suu Kyi is also the head of Foreign Ministry and the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC) that puts her at the center of the external and internal dimensions of a country in transition. Myanmar’s ethnic militias and the developments in the restive regions of the country cannot be wished away from the political dynamics of the country. Given the porous border between western Myanmar and India’s northeast, and the safe havens that Indian insurgent groups have found inside the country under the umbrella of Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), India needs to keep a keen eye on the reconciliation talks within Myanmar. 

The iconic Suu Kyi has often found herself on the wrong foot, when it comes to her handling of the Rohingya issue. In May 2016, she forbade the United States ambassador from using the word “Rohingya” to refer to the persecuted ethnic group. A month later, she banned Myanmar government officials from using the term. How she deals with this issue in future would have some bearing for India given that an estimated 36,000 Rohingya Muslims are in India today, concentrated in the seven states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi. Moreover, in the aforementioned interview that she gave to Indian media before the NLD came to power, she made it clear that relations between Myanmar and China will be good.  “We have a long history of maintaining good relations with India and China. Particularly immediately after independence. That was very much our foreign policy. Burma was one of the first countries in the world to recognise the Communist government of China at a time when we were extremely friendly with India,” she said.

High level bilateral visits have accorded priority to India-Myanmar relations in the last two years, including the one made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Myanmar in November 2014 and that by Myanmar‘s Vice President U Sai Mauk Kham to India in January 2015. The first meeting of the India-Myanmar Joint Consultative Commission (JCC) was also held on July 16, 2015. Physical connectivity between the two countries, and in the process also enhancing trade and people-to-people ties have been at the forefront of the relationship. Besides the much quoted India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway in progress, the Bangladesh – China – India - Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor is significant.  The project linking Kolkata to Kunming will provide the Indian states with access to the ocean through the Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project leading to the port of Sittwe in Myanmar. China’s own Maritime Silk Road Initiative is likely to expedite the work on BCIM economic corridor.

Also, the Directorate of Company and Investment Commission and the Myanmar Investment Commission in Myanmar recently revised the foreign investment laws, opening up labour intensive agriculture and infrastructure sector for Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs). This provides a good opportunity for India’s own construction sector which is presently the second highest contributor to India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Moreover, the development in construction sector automatically leads to growth of allied industries like cement, steel, labour etc. Thus, by investing in Myanmar’s infrastructure sector, India can become an important player in the country’s economic development. This will lead to strengthening of ties, which could possibly help India in combating insurgency in the region and proliferation of drugs and weapons from across the border.

Myanmar’s military has often been seen as reluctant in terms of providing all out support to counter-insurgency in India’s Northeast, with undoubted links on the Myanmarese side. In this context, New Delhi’s cooperation with military leaders in Myanmar becomes imperative. During the JCC meeting, India reaffirmed its commitment “to support the modernization of Myanmar Armed Forces” and “share its experience in functioning in a democratic environment, in creating a national army, cooperation in the field of IT, in dealing with emerging security challenges, and military to military cooperation including in terms of training.” Moreover, cooperation in the maritime domain has been on the upswing and will form an important element in the times to come. Since 2013, the two countries have been conducting a coordinated patrol along the maritime boundary as part of the annual India-Myanmar Coordinated Patrol (IMCOR) exercise. Another opportunity for India could possibly be in the area of defense sales. The delegation from Myanmar which visited India in 2015, showed a keen interest in purchasing India’s Offshore Patrol Vessels. The changes as well as continuities in Myanmar's political transition as seen in the surge of the NLD and the remnant influence of the military junta is something that New Delhi needs to watch in the days to come. The democratic seed sprouting in Myanmar, in principle, is a welcome development for India. However, a pragmatic reading of its interests complicates India’s relationship with neighboring Myanmar, and has always called for an adroit balancing act between the power players in the latter. Moreover, Myanmar’s diplomatic and economic opening has made it a new strategic theater for regional and extra-regional players alike. 

Hence, as India envisions a multi-pronged relationship with Myanmar, it needs to keep its ears and eyes open to how the decision-making in a changing Myanmar pans out, both in domestic as well foreign policy dimensions.

About the Authors:

Monish Tourangbam (TR RID: L-2939-2016) is Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University (India).

Pawan Amin (TR RID: L-2926-2016) is an independent strategic analyst. He has a MA from the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University (India).

Cite this Article:

Tourangbam, M. , Amin, P. "FEATURED | Myanmar’s Political Coming-of-Age: What It Means for India?" IndraStra Global Vol.002, Issue No: 08 (2016), 0005, http://www.indrastra.com/2016/08/FEATURED-Myanmar-s-Political-Coming-Age-What-it-Means-for-India-002-08-2016-0005.html | ISSN 2381-3652 | https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.3545075

AIDN0020820160005 / FEATURED | Myanmar’s Political Coming-of-Age: What It Means for India?