The winds of change are blowing across Myanmar. Elections of a sort have been held and Ms Aung San Suu Kyi has been released. President Thein Sein recently invited her for direct talks, with which she expressed satisfaction. The international community is gradually opening up to the country and speculation is rife that sanctions may soon be lifted.
India’s relations with Myanmar, a devoutly Buddhist country, have been traditionally close and friendly. Geographically, India and Myanmar share a long land and maritime boundary, including in the area of the strategically important Andaman and Nicobar islands where the two closest Indian and Myanmarese islands are barely 30 km apart. Myanmarese ports provide India the shortest approach route to several of India’s north-eastern states.
India’s national interest lies in a strong and stable Myanmar that observes strict neutrality between India and China and cooperates with India in the common fight against the insurgencies raging in the border areas of both the countries. For India, Myanmar is a bridge between all the countries comprising the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC – Myanmar has observer status) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). External Affairs Minister S M Krishna visited Myanmar in June 2011 to further cement the growing relationship.
The key drivers of the India-Myanmar strategic relationship are cooperation in counter-insurgency operations and the need for India to ensure that Myanmar is not driven into Chinese arms through Indian neglect of its security concerns and arms requirements. Indian insurgent groups (NSCN, ULFA and Manipur rebels among others) have been operating out of bases in the weakly controlled areas across the borders of the Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram and Myanmarese rebels, primarily the Chins and the Arakanese, have often taken shelter on the Indian side. It is in the interest of both the countries to cooperate with each other to fight these insurgent groups in a coordinated manner. The two armies have been cooperating with each other for mutual benefit. India-Myanmar cooperation is also essential to control narcotics trafficking and to curb the proliferation of small arms in the region.
China has made rapid advances into Myanmar and established close political, military and economic relations. Myanmar provides China the shortest land route access to the northern Indian Ocean. China is engaged in exploiting Myanmar’s oil and gas reserves, is building a 1,100 km overland pipeline from Kyaukryu port in Myanmar to the border city of Ruili in Yunnan and is developing Sittwe as a commercial port on Myanmar’s west coast. It is natural that Chinese naval activity in the Bay of Bengal will soon follow. China has also been stepping up arms sales to Myanmar as other nations, including India, are loathe to sell offensive military hardware to the country.
While India is concerned with the slow pace of progress on the issue of national reconciliation and the consequent delay in installing a democratically elected government in power in Yangon, the strategic scenario compels India to balance its security concerns with its support for the emergence of democratic rule. It is only through close engagement that India can promote leverages with the ruling regime to nudge it gently towards national reconciliation. India must also increase its economic footprint in Myanmar, particularly in areas that are contiguous to India.
India and the other regional powers can play a positive role in the re-entry of Myanmar into the international mainstream so that it can be nudged towards becoming a strong and stable democracy that is also mature and responsible and willing to play by the rules and traditions governing international relations. Perhaps multi-national talks, which include India, China, Japan, ASEAN and other stakeholders, would be the best way forward. At least in the initial stages it may be prudent for the U.S. to stay away from such talks.