India’s ties with its ‘far off’ neighbour, Myanmar


Last month, reports on cross-border operation against Northeast insurgents by Indian armed forces flooded TV screens and newspaper headlines. This again reminded of the presence of a neighbour that is often missing in our public discourse. The debate that followed in media on whether the government’s ‘political messaging’ was right or wrong kept the issue alive and provided more coverage on Myanmar’s importance to India.

Whatever that means in terms of sustaining our interest on Myanmar, there is no denying that Myanmar’s presence in our public imagination has been sporadic. The country emerges as a neighbour only when a big event related to the country takes place –– a high-level visit, a natural calamity, a major uprising, and the latest to be added to such rarities is cross-border operation.

As before, this time too, Myanmar soon dissipated into the air after a couple of weeks of intense focus. We are back to the reality of having a ‘far off’ neighbour. Be that as it may, the India-Myanmar bilateral relations at the governmental level have expanded over the years and there has been deepening of mutual trust between political and defence establishments of the two countries.

This is reflected in the increased high-level exchanges. In the past four years alone, there have been over a dozen exchanges of top political leaders of the two neighbours. Myanmar President Thein Sein visited India in October 2011, and  again in November 2014. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Myanmar in May 2012 and also in March 2014, which was followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit for the ASEAN summit in November the same year. Myanmar’s Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi also visited India in November 2012. The list can go on if we include the visits by vice presidents, speakers of parliament and armed forces chiefs.

Security cooperation

Having said so, a question that merits a sharper assessment is the impact of Myanmar’s transition process on India-Myanmar relations. Security cooperation between the two countries since Myanmar’s transition has definitely scaled up. The most visible demonstration is the recent cross-border operation that was carried out by the Indian Army.

This was further cemented with the visit of India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to Myanmar soon after the cross-border operation and met with Myanmar’s top political and military leaders and discussed border security. This suggests that India has been able to involve Myanmar in its counter-insurgency efforts connected to its Northeast region. With this growing mutual understanding, it is likely that we may see more security cooperation in the form of joint operations between the two armed forces and even unilateral actions, should situation demands.

Defence cooperation between the two countries has expanded beyond land border security. The two countries conducted their first ever bilateral naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal in March 2013 and engaged in coordinated patrols along their maritime boundary. Other interactions between the two navies, including port calls and exchange of high-level visits, have also increased.

In May 2014, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on sharing information and intelligence on a variety of border security issues. In May this year, the first joint hydrographic survey between the Indian Navy and the Myanmar Navy was completed off Sittwe harbour (India has been involved in upgrading the Sittwe port). Information from the survey is expected to help enhance safety of the vessels that would be operating in the Sittwe port.

India’s has also played some role in Myanmar’s ethnic peace process when Myanmar sought New Delhi’s advice on ethnic political settlements earlier this year. On the Rohingya issue, while India has stayed out of Myanmar’s domestic politics, it had donated $1 million towards relief in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in the aftermath of communal riots ravaged the region in 2012.

Economic Cooperation

On the economic front, a question that may be asked is if New Delhi has fully leveraged Myanmar’s reforms to scale up economic cooperation. Here there are mixed results. The overall economic relationship between Myanmar and India has not changed much in the transition period. In the year Myanmar initiated transition, bilateral trade was US $1.3 billion in 2010-2011 which increased to just US $2.0 billion in 2014-2015.

The prospects for enhancing economic cooperation in the transition period were reflected in the number of agreements signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar in 2012. Three years later, that optimism is not reflected on the ground.

An agreement to start a bus service between Imphal and Mandalay has yet to take off after three years. Another agreement to enhance direct air connectivity to facilitate easy business interaction, tourism and people-to people exchanges has not helped increased new flight services between the two countries. In fact, even today the two countries have to contend with only one flight service between Kolkata and Yangon, which existed before the transition period.

Although four Indian banks (State Bank of India, United Bank of India, Bank of India and EXIM bank) have set up representative offices in Myanmar, there are still no proper banking facilities to boost trade and investment. In fact, in October last year, Myanmar awarded banking licences to nine foreign banks that included banks from Japan, Australia Singapore, and China. No Indian bank applied for license.

There has been no visible signs that projects such as the Kaladan Multi-Model Transit and Transport project that will link the Bay of Bengal with the Northeast region or the India-Thailand-Myanmar Trilateral Highway have made significant progress beyond the normal pace of development during the transition period.

It is true that some positive developments have taken place during this period, including operationalisation of the coastal shipping service between the two countries, new investment by Indian companies in Myanmar’s energy sector, and opening of land customs station (LCS) at Zokhawthar in Mizoram for border trade with Myanmar.

Surely, there are problems in implementation. Part of the problem is on India’s side, but Myanmar, too, has its own share of problems when it comes to implementation. Unless the two countries address their internal structural issues to ensure effective implementation of the planned and ongoing projects, the prospects of accelerated economic cooperation look grim.

With the Modi government now giving a renewed push to developing connectivity infrastructure in India’s Northeast and trans-border connectivity, there is a new hope that New Delhi will ensure itself a place in the increasing competition in Myanmar, being described as Asia’s “last frontier”.

The China Factor

Following the cross-border raid, there were media reports about Northeast insurgents’ link with China’s PLA, citing intelligence sources. Reports about such linkages are not new, but the recent reports have yet again brought the China factor in focus vis-à-vis India’s security concerns in the Northeast region.

Since the conflicts between Myanmar army and ethnic rebel group of Kokang in northern Myanmar re-emerged earlier this year, Naypyitaw has accused China of training, financing and supplying arms to the Kokang rebel group. This shared concern between Myanmar and India will remain as new rebel configurations and renewed offensives continue to emerge in the borderlands.

Since the transition period, Naypyitaw’s relations with China has been undergoing a rough phase with diverse issues ranging from Myanmar’s engagement with the US; suspension of China-funded projects; and Myanmar’s conflicts with rebels along China-Myanmar border emerging as sources of tension between the two countries.

In the emerging geopolitics, India’s role as a player in the country has taken a back-seat as the focus shifts to the growing power play between China and the US. But this changing geopolitics has also given New Delhi an opportunity to work with other players and partners, including the US and Japan, in shaping the evolving geopolitics to attain its ends. As Myanmar prepares for a general election later this year, the competition will only intensify and New Delhi will need to ensure that its interests are not adversely affected.

(The author is a Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This article has been written for India Writes Network, www.indiawrites.org).