Book review: An interesting discussion of complex India-Myanmar ties

  • Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Mar 05, 2016 14:52 IST
Premier Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt (first from left) And Jawaharlal Nehru Of India (third from left) enjoy the traditional Burmese water festival. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images) (Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

In ancient times, India gave the Burmese their religion. In present times, Myanmar gives Indians their daily dal. This could sum up the Indo-Myanmar relationship for the average person in both countries. Of course, there is much more to this, as this book by a former Indian ambassador to Myanmar Rajiv Bhatia makes clear.

New Delhi perceives its easternmost neighbour as an external player crucial to the stability of its Northeast, as a buffer state against China and, increasingly, as a gateway to Southeast Asia. The Burmese are more wary as “Myanmar perceives its sandwiched between two Asian giants.”

India’s recent engagement with Myanmar began on an unfortunate note, riding on the vehicle of British imperialism. It led to millions of Indians settled there, almost all of whom left or were pushed out because of World War II or an unwelcoming independent Myanmar.

Read: As India conducts strikes in Myanmar, Pakistan warns against cross-border ‘adventurism’

There were brief periods of camaraderie. Strong personal bonds existed between the father of his nation, Aung San, and Subhash Chandra Bose and the first Myanmar prime minister, U Nu, and Jawaharlal Nehru. But a leftward-leaning India and military rule in Myanmar drove both countries to look increasingly inward. Yangon’s generals look increasingly to China after 1988.

India returns to the Myanmar stage after the military’s bloody crackdown following democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi sweeps the polls in 1990 – as a leading critic of Yangon. It is a testament to how difficult it is for India to play the role of a human rights advocate that within two years New Delhi was back to working with the generals.

Bhatia explains P.V. Narasimha Rao’s decision: “Insurgency in the Northeast was becoming a serious challenge once again. Experts believed that it could not be tackled without cooperation form Myanmar’s security forces.” He fails to note that Kashmir, where militancy was at its height, lay at the heart of Rao’s decision. To hold on to Kashmir, India had to denude the Northeast of troops, making Myanmar’s assistance essential.

Privately India, along with other Southeast Asian nations, urged the military to release Suu Kyi which they did in 2011. Bhatia is realistic in saying New Delhi had little influence in that decision. “Neither sanctions nor engagement per se convinced the Myanmar military leadership to shift gears.” He gives several reasons for the military’s U-turn, but a recognition that continued Western sanctions would mean a de facto Chinese takeover of Myanmar was almost certainly the prime motivation.

The sense is that India punches well below its weight in Myanmar. There are historical issues thanks to Indians close association with British rule. There are also racial ones, which Bhatia does not dwell on, with ethnic Burmese. Most important, however, is Myanmar’s sense of India as “a reluctant power”, unable to sell military supplies or provide generous economic aid, prone to turning its attention elsewhere. He mentions India’s terrible reputation never completing promised transport corridors, dams and highways in Myanmar. Unfortunately, the book does not explain why India has struggled on these fronts.

An explanation for this is New Delhi’s traditional view of Myanmar as a subset of its security problems in the Northeast. It doesn’t help “that the Myanmar military speaks with two voices, assuring New Delhi of its good intentions and best possible efforts, while simultaneously advising and helping Indian militant groups as a lever of pressure on India.” As India’s policy shifts towards promoting Myanmar as a physical gateway to Southeast Asia, both governments are likely to see each other in a better light.

Read: How statements on India’s Myanmar strike made headlines in Pakistan

As Bhatia notes, India must accept that for now Myanmar will not choose between India and China, that Beijing will remain more important to Yangon than New Delhi, and that China has “legitimate interests” in Myanmar.

There is much more in this book, which ranges back and forth between the ancient historical ties of the two countries and anecdotes of Bhatia’s personal experiences in Myanmar.

No single volume can cover the entire breadth of the Indo-Myanmar relationship. Yet there are some surprising lacunae. There is no mention of the Cocos Island dispute, a set of islands India suspected China had been allowed to set up a radar installation, and how that was resolved. The Rohingyas, Myanmar’s horribly persecuted Muslim minority and increasingly seen in India as a future security concern, are given short shrift even though it is one area New Delhi has found Yangon’s stance exasperating. One wishes the book had more detail about New Delhi’s internal decision making during key policy turns regarding Myanmar.

What can be said is that given the rapid changes in Myanmar today, with Suu Kyi now close to political control, a revised volume should not take too long in coming.

India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours

Rajiv Bhatia

Routledge India

Rs 895, PP280

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