India – Myanmar relations – steady & sure progress


The visit of the Indian Army chief, Gen. MM Naravane and the Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla to Myanmar (Oct 4-5, 2020) has elevated bilateral relations to the next level. In the context of Myanmar, it is unprecedented though there is a precedent in the India-Bhutan relationship. Both Gen. Naravane and Foreign Secretary, Shringla are not strangers to this region. Gen. Naravane was formerly head of Indian Army’s Eastern Command and had served as Defence Attache in the Indian Embassy at Yangon. Foreign Secretary Shringla was India’s envoy to Thailand and Bangladesh and earlier headed the territorial desk in the Foreign Office dealing with this region. Shringla’s brief stint as India’s Ambassador to Washington added to the importance of the visit. The Modi government must be congratulated for this pragmatic, pro-active and timely step.

The High Level Team visit has served to reiterate that India seeks a stable Myanmar and its importance for further consolidation of bilateral relations.

Further, the interaction is an expression of support to the desire in the Myanmar armed forces for diversification of economic dependence on China and importantly ending that country’s massive influence in Myanmar. Additionally, it also underlined the fact that India appreciated the fact that Myanmar was getting ready for transition to multi-party democracy and rule of Parliament. Both have taken strong roots and reversal is not possible, though progress has been slow in both cases. India continues to remain strongly committed to helping Myanmar in this direction and a study of the bilateral relations from the past few years confirms this aspect.

Speaking from a strategic perspective, the high-level interaction yielded several takeaways with long term implications.  The timing was perfect given the growing misgivings about Chinese machinations in the region and the hardline posture of India in the face of several provocations from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the Indo-Tibet border and elsewhere especially in India’s neighborhood and its immediate concentric. The signaling has been well received and there are signs that some countries are reassessing the outcome of tensions caused by China. Thailand has called off the Kra Canal joint project with China, there are other stirrings. Bangladesh has announced (Oct 12) that it has shelved the Sonadia Deep Sea Port project where China was its partner.

The meetings with State Councilor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (DASSK) and Senior General. Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar Defense Services attest to India’s desire to help Myanmar achieve its endeavors. It is understood that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has accepted an invitation to visit India at a mutually convenient time.

The visit took place in the shadow of Chinese sabre rattling on the Ladakh segment of the Indo-Tibet border since April 2020 and also on the eve of the Quad Foreign Ministers meeting in Tokyo (Oct 5-6, 2020). Both sides would no doubt exchanged notes on above developments especially China’s unnecessary muscle flexing over the land border issue with India and its maritime problems in the South China Seas. India is obviously worried over Chinese plans to build a multi-modal highway (MMH) connecting Yunnan province to the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar. Though this is not a new development, it has been in the works since mid-eighties and became “official” two years ago under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of President Xi. Myanmar analysts opine that this particular Chinese project has to pass through several areas in the conflict zones of Myanmar. China will have to bring to bear its influence on the ethnic and warring communities to create compatible conditions for development of the project.

There are expectations of slow progress on this score and there will be consequent delays. It will have to be leveraged quickly by India and Myanmar to expedite the completion of important road communication projects which will link India to Thailand and Vietnam through Myanmar.  The MMH is a security threat to India and obviously there are expectations of guarantees from the Myanmar authorities. China will have to exercise greater caution on sensitive issues especially following accusations made by Senior General. Min Aung Hlaing in July 2020 on Chinese providing assistance to Arakan/Rohingyaa terrorist groups in Rakhine state. The decision to operationalize the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport in next six months therefore assumes greater importance for India.

India’s approval to invest over USD 120 million in the Shwe Oil and Gas project is a noteworthy development. Another development relates to the inauguration of the Centre of Excellence in Software Development   and Training in Mytikyina in Kachin state. The Inter-Ministerial Joint Trade Committee Meeting is which is scheduled to meet on Oct 20, 2020 is expected to further strengthen bilateral trade and investment relations.

The Press Release issues by the Ministry of External Affairs (Oct-5, 2020) gave the salient features of the visit. Developments in Rakhine state especially the future of Rohingya refugees now sheltering in Bangladesh was prominently covered.  Both India and Myanmar had covered this subject in detail during the Foreign Office Consultations on October1, 2020. Instability in this sensitive region does not augur well for Myanmar, Bangladesh and India.  It would be in the best interests of these parties to arrive at a mutually satisfactory decision to resolve the situation in an agreed time frame. 

The western world too will have to demonstrate greater understanding of the socio-political dimension of the Rohingya issue which cannot be seen through the prism of domestic compulsions. Resorting to colonial practices of sanctions have little or no value in the present day context, it has done more harm than good. Each sanction will only allow China to strengthen its influence in Myanmar.   The best way forward is dialogue and discussions. 

Gambia’s taking the Rohingya issue to the International Court of Justice is (ICJ) is one such example.  Human Rights activists opine that Gambia would have burnished its credentials if it had hauled up China for its human rights track record especially over the illegal incarceration of Uighurs in Xinxiang province and other minority communities.

Myanmar goes to general elections due on Nov 08, 2020. The visiting delegation had the opportunity to gauge the mood in the country and also to assess the situation in the post-election scenario so as to set the compass for future direction of its relations. The National League for Democracy (NLD) is expected to return to power and given its credentials India will have a greater role in Myanmar’s economic development and progress.

(The author is former Special Secretary, Government of India, a leading expert on strategic and security issues and on India’s neighbourhood, he is presently, Managing Trustee, Institute of Contemporary Studies Bangalore (ICSB), views expressed are his own)

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