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An Entangled Web: Some Aspects of India’s Relations with Myanmar

  • Geopolitics
  • 7 Months ago
  • 11 min read
An Entangled Web: Some Aspects of India’s Relations with Myanmar

An Entangled Web: Some Aspects of India’s Relations with Myanmar

Pankaj Saran
Pankaj Saran - Convenor, NatStrat

Introduction

India’s most consequential relationships are those with its immediate neighbours. This is not surprising given our historical, cultural, and geographical linkages with each of them. The Indian subcontinent is a common civilisational space. At the same time, each of our neighbours has unique characteristics that are essential for us to understand. It is for good reason that the Government of India is pursuing a “Neighbourhood First Policy”. In fact, every country that has multiple land or maritime neighbours accords high priority to its periphery. We see this in the case of the USA, China, and Russia. It is also true that these countries have a mixed record of “success” in dealing with their neighbours. India is no exception. The Indian subcontinent is unique because it consists of countries whose modern-day origins can be traced to a common legacy of colonial rule.

Myanmar is an exceptionally interesting case study of relations between two sovereign States which were once part of the same colonial empire. Both countries gained their independence within a year of each other in 1947 and 1948 but took very different paths thereafter. Their historical experiences leading up to and soon after their independence played a significant part in shaping their worldviews. So have their other well-known attributes of size, location and ethnic features. This chapter attempts to bring out some of the striking features of a relationship that is entangled at multiple levels and the lessons these hold for India’s relations with the rest of its neighbourhood. It suggests that India has successfully protected and promoted its interests in Myanmar in the face of existing realities, internal challenges, and external factors beyond its control. Nevertheless, the relationship has not been an easy one to navigate.

Pillars of India’s Policy

Any discussion on Myanmar cannot but begin with its geographical location. In some ways, it is as strategically significant as Pakistan’s location on the western side of the subcontinent. One of India’s primary goals has been to establish connectivity with and through Myanmar to connect itself to South-East Asia as well as to the Bay of Bengal. Accordingly, a large amount of financial resources have been allocated during the last few decades to building connectivity by road, rail, inland waterways, and sea. Some of the iconic projects include the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project, the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, the upgradation of key roads between the North-East and Myanmar as well as within Myanmar, such as the Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road and the Rhi-Tiddim Road.

In addition, the focus on building a proper border trade infrastructure is critical to connectivity and people-to-people links. India and Myanmar signed a border trade agreement in 1994 and have two operational border trade points, viz., Moreh-Tamu and Zowkhatar-Rhi. A third border trade point is proposed to be opened at Avakhung Pansat/Somrai. In addition, attention has also been paid to establishing connectivity for power, oil, and gas. The focus on connectivity is dictated by two major considerations—to integrate the north-eastern states of India with the rest of India’s economy, and to create routes that are natural gateways for India’s eastward access to the rest of An Entangled Web: Some Aspects of India’s Relations with Myanmar 273 Southeast Asia, notably Thailand, Laos and even Vietnam and Cambodia. The drivers of India’s policies towards Myanmar are rooted firmly in meeting domestic goals. Myanmar has the potential to be a force multiplier in boosting the economies of the North Eastern States.

The second consideration that has guided India’s policy has been preserving our security interests in a turbulent part of the country. The Northeast is a complex mosaic of tribes and overlapping ethnicities within and across the border with Myanmar. Myanmar’s own complexity with competing ethnic and religious identities and a federative structure have historically been a source of instability with serious cross-border implications. The fact that the Chin, Sagaing, and Kachin regions border the Indian States of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and
Mizoram makes them vulnerable to insurgencies, drug and weapons trafficking, smuggling and a host of other illegal activities. Over time, a common thread of Indian policy has been to find ways to shield the Northeast from instability in Myanmar.

It was, therefore, most appropriate for India to be represented by Shri Ajit Doval, the Indian National Security Adviser, at the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement between eight ethnic armed groups and the Government of Myanmar in October 2015. Not without coincidence, the Nagaland Peace Accord was signed between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland a few months earlier, in August 2015. It is similarly understandable that the Indian Army maintains regular channels of communication with the tatmadaw, and security agencies on both sides cooperate with each other. India’s defence cooperation with Myanmar has been growing steadily. India-Myanmar defence engagement was further strengthened with the signing of a MoU on Defence Cooperation in 2019. It is also axiomatic that relations between India and Myanmar have done well when bilateral security cooperation has been effective and robust.

The third pillar of Indian policy has been to be a partner in Myanmar’s economic development by engaging in a trade and development partnership that is mutually beneficial. Indian strategy has been to strengthen Myanmar’s institutions and human capital, create employment opportunities in industry and agriculture, and expand the boundaries of its economic well-being. Giving Myanmar access to the rapidly growing Indian economy is a strategic objective. Some major schemes and projects have focussed on improving border infrastructure, converting trade corridors into development corridors, trade facilitation, credit lines and training.

Development cooperation is a prominent feature in India’s comprehensive bilateral cooperation with Myanmar. India has set up major connectivity infrastructure and established long-term, sustainable and relevant institutions for capacity building and human resource development in areas such as agricultural research and education, IT and skill development. These initiatives are grant funded, though India also extends concessional finance for projects ranging from transport and communications to agriculture, farm mechanisation, and highway development. The total portfolio of projects involving Indian assistance is valued at approximately USD 1.75 billion, of which projects worth nearly USD 1 billion are grant-funded.

A relatively new dimension of India’s approach to Myanmar has been to expand cooperation in the maritime domain in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea to address common challenges such as human trafficking, smuggling of weapons and drugs, piracy, illegal fishing, terrorism and transnational crime, HADR, pollution and protection of the sea lines of communication. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are separated from the Myanmar coastline by the narrow Coco Channel. The Coco Islands are about twenty nautical miles north of the Andaman Islands, while the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are about eighty miles from the Ayeyarwady Delta in Myanmar. This area is, therefore, of critical interest from the security point of view for India. In 1986, India and Myanmar signed an agreement on the delimitation of the maritime boundary in the Andaman Sea, in the Coco Channel and the Bay of Bengal. However, some aspects of the maritime boundary involving Myanmar, Bangladesh and India are still unresolved. In September 2017, the two countries signed agreements on maritime security and cooperation, including one on information-sharing with regard to white shipping. Subsequently, in 2020, the two countries signed a coastal shipping agreement.

A crucial fourth pillar of policy has been to function as the first responder during natural disasters. India offered large-scale assistance during the tsunami in 2004 and the Nargis cyclone in 2008 when Operation Sahayata was launched. Assistance during natural disasters in the neighbourhood has become one of the most prominent symbols of India’s Neighbourhood First Policy. Such assistance has been seen, particularly during the tsunami in 2004, the earthquake in POK in 2005, the cyclone in Bangladesh in 1991 and the earthquake in Nepal in 2015. India’s emergency aid and response to the neighbours scaled new heights during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2021.

The Benefits of Multilateralism

Myanmar is the bridge between the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia. Myanmar is an Observer State in SAARC and a full member of ASEAN. India has always supported Myanmar’s desire to join SAARC because it would be yet another way to integrate Myanmar with the region and break its international isolation. Unfortunately, this never happened; meanwhile, the efficacy of SAARC waned. In 1997, Myanmar joined India and five other countries to form the BIMSTEC grouping. Myanmar attended the grouping’s five Summits, the last of which it attended at the Foreign Minister level in 2022.

In 2000, India and five other countries, including Myanmar, established the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation initiative, again with the objective of building upon the natural geographical and cultural links between them. India, therefore, has sought to deal with Myanmar through bilateral channels and multilateral bodies. This is another pillar of Indian policy towards Myanmar, which overcomes the historical anachronism of Myanmar choosing not to become a member of the British Commonwealth after independence. All these initiatives indicate how the Neighbourhood First Policy and Act East policies of the Government of India have been successfully merged in the case of Myanmar.

The Policy Dilemmas

India has historically faced three principal dilemmas in its dealings with Myanmar. First is the dilemma between interests and values. Second is the dilemma of dealing with Myanmar’s relations with outside powers and its other neighbours, primarily China. Third, the dilemma of reconciling the local realities of the border regions with national interests is seen in Delhi.

In general, India has pursued a policy guided more by its national interests than values. This is hardly surprising, as this is what would be expected by any country in the given situation. Nevertheless, this has often pitted us against the West and has required us to be the voice of moderation and balance when extreme positions, including the imposition of sanctions, have been taken. The challenges in framing Indian policy lie in the structural factors that characterise Myanmar’s society and polity, which have shaped its governance models since independence. The net result of these has been that the Myanmar military has, in one form or the other, ruled the country for most of the period ever since General Ne Win’s takeover in 1962. However, in the early 2000s, India was a consistent advocate of allowing Myanmar to pursue its gradual process of democratic reform, despite the Western policy to apply maximum pressure on Myanmar.

The Indian approach was vindicated by developments inside Myanmar through the framing of a new Constitution in 2008, a period of political reform between 2011 and 2015 and the holding of general elections in Myanmar in 2015. In later years, India worked closely with the elected government and the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi. As a result, India’s policy was characterised by engagement rather than sanctions and the isolation of Myanmar. To this end, India worked closely with the ASEAN consensus on Myanmar. Over time, India has been able to keep its channels open to civil society, political groups, the Buddhist clergy, students, as well as with the military leadership.

The ouster of the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in 2021 and her imprisonment, as well as the major internal disturbances and killings of students and civilian protestors, have posed a major challenge to Indian foreign policy, as they have to the ASEAN countries. In fact, there are rare divisions among the ASEAN countries on how to respond to these latest developments. The West has imposed significant sanctions against the military leadership, members of their families, military holding companies, state-owned enterprises, and sectors like timber. As in previous such cases, India has not joined these sanctions.

This is a reflection of the geopolitical realities that India faces in its dealings with Myanmar, but it does not mean that India condones the actions taken by the military or has sacrificed its belief in the principles of democracy and human rights. There are many cases around the world where the West has engaged with and interacted with authoritarian regimes due to geopolitical compulsions, including in the case of Egypt, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. India’s response was, however, much sharper in July 2022 when the military junta executed four political prisoners. Apart from issuing a statement expressing deep concern, India also joined the consensus resolution adopted by the UN Security Council in July 2022, condemning the executions.

The second challenge that India faces is the relationship between Myanmar and China. There are non-benign aspects of this relationship which impinge on India’s core security interests and necessitate a response. The matter has been a subject of discussion between the two countries, and India’s views are well-known to Myanmar’s leaders. China has exploited Myanmar’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities, including Western pressure on it, to entrench itself in Myanmar through projects such as the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, domination of the country’s fragile economy, rapacious exploitation of Myanmar’s natural and mineral resources and investments in dual-use infrastructure in Myanmar’s ports and defence supplies. Chinese investments in Myanmar’s port infrastructure are aimed with an eye at gaining access to the Indian Ocean. Additionally, China has exploited weak central control in Myanmar and ethnic conflicts to instigate cross-border ethnic violence in the North-East. It has backed groups such as the Arakan Army to sabotage Indian projects in the country.

There is, however, growing awareness in Myanmar about the heavy China hand. The case of strong opposition to the Chinese-funded Myitsone dam in Kachin State, close to China, is well known. Not so well known is that the Myanmar authorities drastically cut back on the scope of the Chinese-funded Kyaukphyu port project because its original scope had no relationship to the needs of the Myanmar economy. More recently, in 2021, Chinese-funded factories in Yangon were torched after the February 2021 military takeover, and there were persistent rumours about Chinese secret flights and assistance to quell the protests and help the Army with the use of social media and internet technologies. In the last few years, the tatmadaw has sought to reduce its dependence on Chinese weaponry and other supplies. There is also mutual suspicion about the activities of certain Ethnic Armed Organisations along the Myanmar-China border.

Apart from China, Pakistan has been active among the Muslim population of Myanmar. There is evidence of the involvement of the ISI among Rohingya organisations, such as the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, to promote radicalisation and terrorism. Terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its front, the Falah-e-Insaniyat, have been involved in using the Rohingya issue to target India and Bangladesh.

The West naturally looks upon India as a fellow democracy to join their efforts in pushing for democratic reforms, free and fair elections and respect for human rights in Myanmar. They see India as the upholder of values which are different from China’s. India, as a country bordering Myanmar, and as a society which has its own tribal population and ethnic diversity, has remained in regular dialogue with different Western countries to make them more aware of the peculiarities of the local realities. This has not always met with success, but the West has high regard for India’s role and understanding of the complexities of Myanmar. The third main challenge to India comes from the geography and demography of the Indo-Myanmar border in the four states of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh. These border areas are defined by the close ethnic, linguistic, and religious links between their peoples and the tradition of free movement and border trade between them. Therefore, it is incumbent upon Delhi to safeguard its international borders while, at the same time, being aware of the local realities. A recent challenge in this regard was the entry of Chin refugees into Mizoram after the military takeover in February 2021, which exemplified the strong links on both sides of the border. In addition, the flow of narcotics remains a major factor in perpetuating the nexus between arms smuggling, human trafficking, and insurgent activity.

The Case of the Rohingyas

The Rohingya exodus in 2017 has resulted in more than one million refugees being present in Bangladesh. India is faced with the challenge not only of preventing their flow into India through Bangladesh, which is of utmost importance but also of managing the tensions and mutual acrimony between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Given the fragility of the ethnic and cultural balance in the Northeast and its highly limited resources, India is not in a position to take in the Rohingya refugees. Instead, it has advocated a peaceful resolution of the problem through bilateral dialogue between Myanmar and Bangladesh. This has not made much headway, but as a friend and partner of both countries, India has given both sides substantial humanitarian and economic assistance to alleviate the burden on their limited resources, prevent further cross-border flows, and facilitate the return of existing refugees voluntarily and with dignity.

The Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) and the European Union (EU) have particularly been active in agitating against the matter at the international level. Apart from such actions, it is important that these countries also contribute by facilitating third-country resettlement in their countries since most of them are signatories to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. This is what many of them had done during the Southern Bhutanese/Bhupali refugee problem between Nepal and Bhutan in the mid-2000s and the case of Syrian and Afghan refugees.

Conclusion and Lessons

Myanmar has been and remains a challenge for Indian foreign and security planners. North-East India can only be as secure as the borders are with Myanmar, and indeed, with another eastern neighbour—Bangladesh. However, despite a sizeable Indian diaspora and the critical strategic aspects involved, Myanmar does not feature high in mainstream Indian strategic discourse. This is unfortunate. Yet, Myanmar is a country that matters immensely to India. Therefore, it needs to be demystified and understood much better. For this, the Indian media, academia, cultural and business community must contribute by being more interested and invested in understanding Myanmar and its people.

(First published by Vivekananda International Foundation in the book "Revisiting Myanmar: Present Through Past")


     

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