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Things that Modi should do in Myanmar

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • November 10, 2014

    Myanmar will draw the international spotlight when the world leaders including Prime Minister Modi, President Obama will attend the upcoming ASEAN and East Asian Summit in Naypidaw from 11 November.

    Can PM Modi play the same magic in Myanmar as he did in Nepal, Bhutan and Japan? Though not a stand-alone visit, Modi during his meetings with President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi could do well to underline how he proposes to revalidate the Swarna Bhumi - Bharat Bhumi natural links.

    India shares 1700-km boundary with Myanmar, yet the absence of it in India’s foreign policy priorities has been a strange but serious omission. It is difficult to imagine how India’s otherwise astute leaders then allowed Burma to slide into seclusion and accepting Chinese hegemony to India’s detriment. No one seemed to even care for the economic imperative - Burma exported 3 million tons of rice prior to its independence. Rangon was a flourishing city, when Bangkok was only a village. The reason though may have been less to do with India’s policy neglect, but Rangon’s own idiosyncratic expression turning into self-inflicted isolation. To be also sure, Myanmar ignored India in the fear that China might step up arms subversion.

    India’s controversial relationship with Myanmar must come to an end. Modi should just do that. Modi’s visit to Naypidaw should assume importance against the backdrop of firstly, the possibilities of greater political reforms underway including an amendment in constitution — which currently bars opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Suu Kyi from becoming president — ahead of 2015 elections. The regional summit will ensure a more spotlight on the country's progress toward democracy.

    Second, China strong traditional ties with Myanmar are undergoing a change. Beijing for decades provided the junta with military and diplomatic support to the detriment of democracy in Myanmar. However, Thein Sein government since 2011 significantly sought to decrease the country’s over-dependence on China. In fact, China has been stung by massive outcry over Chinese exploitation of country natural resources and use of Myanmar’s territory for a gas and oil pipeline and hydroelectricity projects. Mainland China and Hong Kong combined had invested $20.8 billion in Myanmar but Thein Sein suspended the Chinese-led $3.6 Myitsone dam project, meant for supplying electricity to China. Beijing is watching the political reforms and softening of Western approach towards Myanmar nervously. Beijing has been reaching out to Suu Kyi. There is a possibility of Suu Kyi making a “good-will” visit to China next month. If the visit takes place, Beijing will succeed in changing the perceptions that its long-lasting support to the military junta was transitory and it is not oppose to democratic transition.

    India’s ties with Myanmar improved substantially after Gen. Maung Aye’s visit to New Delhi in 2000, the landmark visit by President U Thein Sein in October 2011 and the return visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Naypyitaw in May 2012, the first such visit in 25 years. These exchanges have fundamentally changed the context. Myanmar’s international image improved since then and encouraged other countries including President Obama to visit Naypyitaw in November 2012.

    However, after the initial support, India failed to sustain the quantum of support for the pro-democracy movement. Suu Kyi expressed disappointment over India’s courting the junta and backing away from supporting her when she visited New Delhi in 2012. Suu Kyi said, in a memorial lecture for Nehru. "I was saddened to feel that we had drawn away from India, or rather that India had drawn away from us, during our very difficult days, but I always had faith in the lasting friendship between our two countries."

    The Prime Minister must reach out to Myanmar in unconventional ways and remove any antipathy among the people who once, like other neighbours, had began to perceive India as a big military threat. China fully exploited those sentiments. The junta even looked once upon a time to Islamabad for military aid.

    Clearly, for India relations with Myanmar cannot be a bilateral affair – rather it a matter of regional security and India’s long-term interest. While India should acknowledge Myanmar’s military’s role in stabilizing a country beset by an unprecedented insurgency problem that helped India as well. However, there are signs that Myanmar will loom large internally, and if India is not careful, the democratic agenda supported by it could be usurped by others. India’s national interest also lies in preventing the US fomenting crisis in its strategic neighbourhood. The changes within Myanmar are likely to spur greater enthusiasm among the Burmese to seek closer affinity within India.

    For India, the lack of conceptualization has been a serious deficit in its policy thinking. So far, failing to imagine India’s geographic continuum as a whole has rendered space for others to maneuver the region. China has cleverly boxed India in South Asia. However, foreign policy under Modi is showing signs of India regaining its lost geopolitical profile. Modi’s visit to Myanmar, therefore, should prove to be the defining spirit and it should underscore the same significance as he did to signify India’s ability to show responsibility, realism and regionalism in Bhutan, Nepal and Japan.

    How Modi will bring Myanmar back into the Indian fold will remain a challenge. One very clear and indigestible truth is that the role of Military in that country cannot be wished away easily. Any paradigm shift in policy will be too optimistic. Myanmar shares long borders with China with which it has long historical association. India, therefore, should not aim to compete or replace Chinese influence but should exploit those areas where it enjoys a distinct edge in Myanmar.

    India should work on strategic convergences and shared concerns of dealing with insurgency along border areas. Dealing with Rohingya refugees is an important agenda. The bombing of Buddha Gya temple was linked to crisis in Myanmar.

    More importantly, drawing from China’s experience, India and Myanmar should enhance cooperation in regional development schemes. The ongoing important cross-border connectivity projects project should be enhanced to promote a regional market across the region. There is surely much more scope for India to get involved in Myanmar’s oil and gas sector. A new addition to it could be supported by projects that will promote a web of spiritual activities with commercial interests. Buddhism is fast becoming a factor of cultural mobilization and economic growth cross Asia including in China. India is sitting atop millennia-old tourist mines. Buddha-Industry alone could transform the lives of millions, providing lucrative career options to its youth. The millions of Shakyamuni’s followers in South-East Asia including China link their spiritual destinies to India. Promoting a web of economic and cultural interdependency is essential to ensure that Myanmar does not find it necessary to use the insurgency card against India.

    India’s policy leverage in Myanmar is Buddhism. The Burmese Buddhist tradition is the most organized and powerful institution in that country. An active interface with the Sangahraja of Myanmar and other cultural and spiritual bodies is essential for harnessing an enduring relationship. In fact, monks are the best ambassadors of India in Myanmar. It is only that India never used these parameters as instruments of its diplomacy. India should consider having a visa-free scheme for Myanmar monks visiting India.

    Myanmar has over 2.5 million Indians and Modi should think about opening Indian Trade and Cultural Centres (TCCs) across Myanmar. The TCCs would also play a useful role once the highway project linking India-Myanmar-Thailand-Vietnam are completed. And linked to this is the imperative of promoting a brand of sustainable cultural tourism. A series of pilgrimage corridors from China across Myanmar could serve as engines of economic growth for the people living in the North-East. Once viewed as absurd, the idea of India-China jointly cooperating in Myanmar could become a reality now. The corridor could benefit India more than China but delay could risk serious ramifications against China’s increasing quest for strategic minerals and water resources. It is here that India should visualize Myanmar playing the role of a bridge for India reaching out to China’s vulnerable Southeast regions and South-East Asian region as a whole. Here lies India’s strategic and security interests.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India