India–Myanmar relations for UPSC

India–Myanmar relations – Why in News ? An article appeared in The HINDU newspaper “India’s outreach to Myanmar” and highlight recent visit India officials to Myanmar.

Outcome of recent visits

  • Reflected India’s multidimensional interests in the country and the deepening of ties between two countries
  • Visit would be viewed as India’s support for its efforts in strengthening democratisation amidst criticisms by rights groups over the credibility of its upcoming election.
  • India is taking steps to leverage its political, diplomatic, and security ties with Myanmar to address some of these issues.
  • Inauguration of the liaison office of the Embassy of India in Myanmar may seem a routine diplomatic activity. China was the first country to establish a liaison office in Myanmar in 2017.
  • India has also proposed to build a petroleum refinery in Myanmar that would involve an investment of $6 billion.
  • The joint visit reiterated the “mutual commitment not to allow respective territories to be used for activities inimical to each other.”
  • Announcement that India was transferring a Kilo-class submarine to Myanmar demonstrates the depth of their cooperation in the maritime domain.
  • India has reiterated its support for “ensuring safe, sustainable and speedy return of displaced persons” to Myanmar.

Why India more engaging with Myanmar?

Like in other neighbouring countries, India suffers from an image of being unable get its act together in making its presence felt on the ground.

How India dealt with Myanmar ?

  • Political logic that has shaped India’s Myanmar policy since the 1990s has been to support democratisation driven from within the country. This has allowed India to engage with the military that played a key role in Myanmar’s political transition and is still an important political actor.
  • It has also enabled India to work with the party in power, whether the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party that won the 2010 polls or the pro-democracy National League for Democracy, which is in power now.
  • India is cognisant of the geopolitical dimension of Myanmar’s democratisation. Myanmar’s political transition created challenges for Myanmar and limited its ties with the West
  • India and a few Asian countries have engaged Myanmar keeping in mind the need to reintegrate it with the region and world. This has been a strategic imperative for Myanmar as part of its policy of diversifying its foreign engagements.
  • A key factor behind the military regime’s decision to open the country when it initiated reforms was, in part, to reduce dependence on China. By engaging Myanmar, India provides alternative options to Myanmar. This driver in India’s Myanmar policy has perhaps gained greater salience in the rapidly changing regional geopolitics.

Historical background of relation

  • India – Myanmar relations date to antiquity and cultural exchanges included Buddhism and the Burmese script, which was based on the Indian Grantha script.
  • Myanmar (formerly Burma) was made a province of British India by British rulers and again separated in 1937.
  • India established diplomatic relations after Myanmar’s independence from Great Britain in 1948.
  • India and Myanmar relationship officially got underway after the Treaty of Friendship was signed in 1951.
  • For many years, Indo-Burmese relations were strong due to Myanmar previously having been a province of India, due to cultural links, flourishing commerce, common interests in regional affairs and the presence of a significant Indian community in Myanmar.
  • India provided considerable support when Myanmar struggled with regional insurgencies.
  • However, the overthrow of the democratic government by the Military of Myanmar led to strains in ties.
  • Along with much of the world, India condemned the suppression of democracy
  • Myanmar ordered the expulsion of the Burmese Indian community, increasing its own isolation from the world
  • Only China maintained close links with Myanmar while India supported the pro-democracy movement
  • A major breakthrough occurred in 1987 when the then-Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Myanmar
  • Again relationship worsened after the military junta’s reaction towards pro-democracy movements in 1988, which resulted in an influx of Burmese refugees into India.
  • Since 1993 the governments of the Indian Prime Ministers P. V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee changed course and began to establish warmer relations between the two nations, as part of a wider foreign policy of increasing India’s participation and influence in Southeast Asia, in light of the growing influence of the People’s Republic of China

Dimensions of Indian’s engagement with Myanmar

Strategic engagement

  • Myanmar is geopolitically significant to India as it stands at the center of the India-Southeast Asia geography. Myanmar is the only Southeast Asian country that shares a land border with northeastern India, stretching some 1,624 kilometers. The neighbors also share a 725-km maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal.
  • Being the only country that sits at the intersection of India’s “Neighborhood First” policy and its “Act East” policy, Myanmar is an essential element in India’s practice of regional diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific, and serves as a land bridge to connect South Asia and Southeast Asia.
  • Myanmar an inadvertent “kingmaker” in Sino-Indian relations because of its strategic and geographic locations between Indian Ocean and land transit to South-East Asia.
  • India scours for ways to outsmart Beijing so that the balance of power in mainland Southeast Asia is tilted in favor of India.

Trade and commerce

  • India’s imports from Myanmar are dominated by agricultural items (beans, pulses and forest based products form 90% of our imports).
  • India’s main exports to Myanmar are primary and semi-finished steel and pharmaceuticals.
  • Bilateral trade has grown from $12.4 million in 1980-81 to $2.18 billion in 2016-17.
  • Myanmar is also the beneficiary of a duty-free tariff preference scheme for least developed countries (LDCs).
  • India is actively involved in over a dozen projects in Myanmar, both in infrastructural and non-infrastructural areas.
    • Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project
    • upgradation and resurfacing of the 160 km. long Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road
    • NHPC signed an agreement for development of Hydro-Electric Power project
    • India-Myanmar Industrial Training Centre has been set up by HMT(I) in Myanmar
  • Some of the Indian companies such as Essar, GAIL, and ONGC Videsh Ltd. have invested in Myanmar’s energy sector

Connectivity

  • India is building the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport, a road-river-port cargo transport project, to link Kolkata to Sittwe in Myanmar and then from Myanmar’s Kaladan river to India’s north-east.
India–Myanmar relations for UPSC


  • India, Myanmar, and Thailand are building the Asian Trilateral Highway, which will connect India to ASEAN. The road is expected to boost trade and commerce in the ASEAN–India Free Trade Area, as well as with the rest of Southeast Asia.

Border trade

  • India and Myanmar signed a border trade agreement in 1994 and have two operational border trade points (Moreh-Tamu and Zowkhatar –Rhi on the 1643 km long border.
  • A third border trade point is proposed to be opened at AvakhungPansat/Somrai.
  • Insurgents from India’s Nagaland have also disrupted the completion of the KMMTT project.
  • During the 3rd India-Myanmar Joint Trade Committee in October 2008, it was agreed that Border Trade at the existing points would be upgraded to Normal Trade so as to promote bilateral trade between the two countries.
  • Indian and Myanmar armies have carried out two joint military operations, codenamed Operation Sunshine 1 and 2, to fight militants along the borders of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Greater impetus was given to these operations after Modi visited Myanmar in 2018

Maritime

  • As part of its policy for the Indian Ocean called Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), central to which is port-led development,” India developed the Sittwe port in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. This port, which sits on the Bay of Bengal, serves as a critical node of the KMMTT initiative
  • India’s long-term strategic goal is to create a Special Economic Zone surrounding the Sittwe port, and in so doing, cement India’s footprint in Rakhine and boost its presence in the Bay of Bengal. The Sittwe port is meant to be India’s answer to the Chinese-fronted Kyaukpyu port, which is intended to cement China’s geostrategic footprint in Rakhine.
  • Seeing that Myanmar is critical to its national security interests, India provides military training and conducts joint military exercises with the Myanmar Army like the India-Myanmar Bilateral Military Exercise (IMBAX-2017 and IMBEX 2018-19), by which India had trained the Myanmar Army to be able to participate in UN Peacekeeping Operations.
  • Realizing the growing importance of the Bay of Bengal, the navies of both India and Myanmar conducted a historic bilateral naval exercise, IMNEX-18, in 2018.

Defence co-operation

  • To deepen their defense relations, India and Myanmar signed a landmark defense cooperation agreement in July 2019
  • India also invited the Myanmar Army to participate in the India-led multilateral Milan naval exercise that occurs biennially in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
  • To elevate its Made in India” arms industry, India sees Myanmar as key to increasing its military exports. Along those lines, Myanmar bought India’s first locally-produced anti-submarine torpedo, called TAL Shyena, in 2017, and in 2019, Myanmar acquired a diesel-electric Kilo-class submarine, INS Sindhuvir, which India had modernized after purchasing from Russia in the 1980s.

Cultural ties

  • India’s Buddhist Circuit” initiative, which seeks to double foreign tourist arrivals and revenue by connecting ancient Buddhist heritage sites across different states in India, should resonate with Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
  • India’s Buddhist diplomacy would not only attract pilgrims from mainland Buddhist Southeast Asia and thereby bolster the country’s tourist industry, but it could also build up India’s diplomatic reservoir of goodwill and trust with Buddhist-majority countries such as Myanmar.

Humanitarian Assistance

  • India has responded very enthusiastically and effectively in rendering assistance following natural calamities in Myanmar like Cyclone Mora (2017), Komen (2015), earthquake in Shan State (2010).
  • India reiterated the relevance of the Coalition of Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) for disaster prone countries like India and Myanmar and encouraged Myanmar to consider joining the CDRI.
  • India also offered support in capacity building in disaster risk mitigation as well as in strengthening Myanmar’s National Disaster Response Mechanism.

The Rohingya Issue

India does not directly engage with the issue of Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority. But India has condemned the recent terrorist attacks in northern Rakhine State. This can be considered as a measure of support to Myanmar.

Cooperation between India and Myanmar in the regional/Sub-regional Context

ASEAN:

Myanmar became a member of ASEAN in July 1997. As the only ASEAN country which shares a land border with India, Myanmar is a bridge between India and ASEAN. A few proposals for cooperation have been implemented and some are under discussions with Myanmar within the framework of ASEAN’s IAI programme.

BIMSTEC:

Myanmar became a member of BIMSTEC in December 1997. Myanmar is a signatory to the BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement. Myanmar is the lead country for the energy sector. Myanmar trades mostly with Thailand and India in the BIMSTEC region. Myanmar’s major exports to India are agricultural products like beans, pulses and maize and forest products such as teak and hardwoods. Its imports from India include chemical products, pharmaceuticals, electrical appliances and transport equipment.

Mekong Ganga Cooperation:

 Myanmar is a member of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) since its inception in November 2000. MGC is an initiative by six countries – India and five ASEAN countries namely, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam – for cooperation in the fields of tourism, education, culture, transport and communication. The chairmanship of MGC is assumed by member countries in alphabetical order.

SAARC:

Myanmar was given the status of observer in SAARC in August 2008.

Challenges

Porous Border : Indo-Myanmar border is porous and lightly policed which is exploited by terrorist outfits and insurgent groups from North Eastern part of India eg. supply of trained cadres, arms trafficking, Drugs. This has Internal Security as a  major concern for India;

India must enhance India’s presence by expeditiously developing infrastructure and connectivity projects in the country.

Bilateral trade between India and Myanmar is far from expectation

Trust Deficit : This has widened between India-Myanmar because of the Indian reputation and eventually has impact and delaying implementation of various projects.

China exercise Soft-Power : China has asserted itself through its soft power (use of Buddhism as common religion )

China’s increasing Trade Relations : China’s trade and economic relations increased with Myanmar by taking up large infrastructure projects. Will impact India’s Act East Policy.  As China’s growing influence in the region is a potential threat to India,

Rohingya issue: Rohingya is not only creating an ethnic conflict within northeastern states of India but also deteriorating India’s relations with Myanmar over extradition issues.

Way Forward

India needs to enhance India’s presence by developing infrastructure and connectivity projects in the country.

Border management: Both the countries are affected enormously due to the misuse of open border by internal and external forces

Enhancing the economic partnership with Myanmar needs to be a priority in India’s Act East Policy

India needs to deal with the Rohingya crisis not only as a security but also a humanitarian issue.

Low Income consumer market  : Myanmar itself is an emerging consumer market of 60 million people who have demands for products ranging from personal care to beverages to smart phones. India should leverage these export opportunities.

More sectors should be explore for enhanced engagement : These include manufacturing high-end smart phones, exporting cement, furniture, FMCG, energy, telecommunications, healthcare, creating townships, low cost housing development, ports and logistics, rural electrification etc.

Further deepening can be possible : Agriculture sector where India can further substantially augment its cooperation such as rice research activities, post-harvest technology, agriculture financing and articulating policies.

Importance of KMTT : Kaladan Multimodal Transit and Transport project and India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway have seen much delay over the past couple of years. Hence, it can be said that the success of India’s Act East Policy will now depend on India’s pro-active and pragmatic approach for completion of projects.

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Dr. RS Aggarwal
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