Focus On Myanmar

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DR APARNA PANDE |

INDIA’S diplomatic influence has grown significantly through 2023, attracting interest from countries worldwide looking to strengthen economic and strategic bonds with the South Asian nation. However, relations with its closest neighbors remain conflict–ridden and problematic. While its western neighbor Pakistan often captures international attention, its eastern neighbor, Myanmar (formerly Burma), is frequently overlooked.

■ General U Ne Win, on a state visit to India, with India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Photograph, 1959 | granger.com

India’s relations with Myanmar are multilayered: old historical ties, strong relations during the anti–colonial struggles of both nations against British rule, with many complications since the 1950s. In the 1990s, New Delhi launched its Look East Policy (and later Act East), which emphasised regional connectivity, developmental aid and military support. In exchange, it sought support from Myanmar for security issues on Indian territory.

 

The 1962 military coup led by General U Ne Win that marked the end of constitutional democracy in the country also damaged ties with India. The inward orientation of the junta, repression of minorities and expulsion of foreigners — including ethnic Indians — created a rift between them

 

India’s foreign policy is a blend of idealistic principles and pragmatic considerations. While its leaders frequently emphasise moral and ideological values, realpolitik plays a significant role in shaping policy. This dynamic is made clear by interactions with Myanmar.

POLITICAL RELATIONS 

India’s national struggle coincided with that of other colonial countries. India’s first prime minister and external affairs minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, built close relations with the founding elite of several countries in Asia and Africa. Burma was a part of the British Indian Empire until 1935.

 

In the 1990s, New Delhi launched its Look East Policy (and later Act East), which emphasised regional connectivity, developmental aid and military support. In exchange, it sought support from Myanmar for security issues on Indian territory

 

India’s relations with Burma were close during the first decade after each gained independence, and they signed a Treaty of Friendship in 1951 that declared “everlasting peace and unalterable friendship” between them. Both were also members of the Non–Aligned Movement.

The 1962 military coup led by General U Ne Win that marked the end of constitutional democracy in the country also damaged ties with India. The inward orientation of the junta, repression of minorities and expulsion of foreigners — including ethnic Indians — created a rift between them.

■ Rare public protests over the Chinese–backed hydropower project on the River Irriwaddy. The dam, would be one of the world’s tallest at 152 metres high and would provide electricity for neighbouring China | Bazuki Muhammad

However, after initially distancing itself, India maintained a middle ground in its policy, engaging in diplomatic relations with the regime while offering limited support to democratic forces.

India also supported Aung San’s family, especially his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, in their fight for democracy, and granted political asylum to former Prime Minister U Nu when he was exiled by the Ne Win regime.

At the same time, the countries maintained diplomatic relations. General Ne Win visited India in 1968, 1970 and 1980. Several successive Indian prime ministers visited Myanmar, more recently Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi.

 

In 1988, India publicly criticised the junta, sided with the pro–democracy uprising and offered sanctuary to Burmese dissidents. In retaliation, Myanmar began trading with China and purchasing Chinese weapons

 

AID AND THE CHINA FACTOR 

From the 1950s onward, relations between China and Myanmar have been a concern for India. New Delhi has warily watched on as Beijing builds a network of friendly South and East Asian states relying on it for patronage — the so–called String of Pearls strategy, designed to encircle India.

Myanmar kept a neutral stance during the 1962 Sino–Indian war, which India interpreted as a pro–Chinese policy. In 1988, India publicly criticised the junta, sided with the pro–democracy uprising and offered sanctuary to Burmese dissidents. In retaliation, Myanmar began trading with China and purchasing Chinese weapons.

■ PM Modi’s visit to the historic city of Bagan in Myanmar | Facebook

China and Myanmar share a 2,000–kilometer–long border, and China is Myanmar’s top trading partner and foreign investor. Beijing has frequently vetoed United Nations Security Council resolutions against the military junta and blocked the inclusion of Myanmar on the Security Council’s agenda.

Chinese investment in Myanmar currently stands at 26 percent of total Foreign Direct Investment and bilateral trade is $2 billion. In contrast, India’s bilateral trade with Myanmar was $1 billion in 2022.

 

There were several attacks on Chinese projects since Beijing was viewed as a strong supporter of the junta. Some projects were suspended, like the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam in 2011, because of public concern over the dam’s social and environmental impact

 

Geopolitics in the 1990s necessitated that India build economic ties with countries in Southeast Asia to bolster investment and provide access to energy. New Delhi has long sought a stable Myanmar that keeps Indian interests in mind. Ideally, it would like to wean Myanmar from dependence on China.

■ India–backed port opens in Myanmar

The decade of semi–democratic rule in Myanmar from 2011 to 2021 provided India with a brief opportunity. There were several attacks on Chinese projects since Beijing was viewed as a strong supporter of the junta. Some projects were suspended, like the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam in 2011, because of public concern over the dam’s social and environmental impact. With the return of the junta, some fear that its leader, Min Aung Hlaing, the army general who seized power in 2021, will revive the hydroelectric project to buttress ties with China.

China is Myanmar’s largest supplier of weapons and provides technical and other training to the Myanmar army. Since the 1990s, 60 percent of China’s arms exports have gone to three of India’s immediate neighbors: Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. ■

Dr Aparna Pande is director of the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute, Washington D.C.

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