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On the Burma road, again

The prime minister's visit to Myanmar is an opportunity to make up for lost time.

india Updated: May 25, 2012 22:30 IST
Aung San Suu Kyi

New Delhi has argued that stability on its periphery is the first priority of its foreign policy. This is both reasonable and, given the recent shrinkage of India's global profile, practical. Among all its neighbours, the charge of neglect by New Delhi is most accurate when it comes to Myanmar. That Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to that country this weekend will be the first State visit by an Indian leader in a quarter of a century is a testament to the parlous state of Indo-Myanmar relations. There are reasons for the decline in India's influence in Myanmar. First was the decision of the junta to deport Indian residents and isolate itself from the world. Another was the dilemma India faced when choosing between the realpolitik of supporting the dictators and the emotional one of backing democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Finally, there was the emergence of a Chinese economic powerhouse that has come to overwhelm all other external influences.

Nonetheless, it cannot be said that India's policy towards Myanmar covered the country in glory. One, it was not consistent. It alternately supported and ignored Ms Suu Kyi. But its backing of the military was also half-hearted and China usurped the benefits that might have flowed from embracing the generals. Second, New Delhi failed to explain its policies. India dropped Ms Suu Kyi because it needed the Myanmar army to bring the North-eastern insurgencies to heel. This was a sensible motive, but it was treated as a State secret. Finally, what little India did promise to the people of Myanmar, including infrastructure projects, never got off the ground. This State visit is an opportunity to make up for lost time. New Delhi needs to realise that a serious engagement with Myanmar will have to work at several levels. First, India's greatest asset is its civil society, including its private corporate sector. The Burman Street sees India as the country that can revive its educational and healthcare systems. Second, the constitutional issues regarding Myanmar's ethnic patchwork are as difficult as the question of military-civilian relations. India can help both in terms of example and concrete legal and political advice. Third, there must be a recognition that the nature of Upper Burma, with its similarities to India's North-east, law and order problems and its land-based connectivity, would require a set of policies different from Lower Burma. The latter will be about maritime trade, special economic zones and a pattern of development similar to Thailand or Indonesia.

There should be no doubts about the overwhelming importance of Myanmar to India. The North-east will benefit enormously from the opening up of the Myanmar border and end the latter's wars. The Look East policy will develop a spine of tarmac that it so far lacks. And, finally, India can atone for one of the somewhat soiled moments in the history of its foreign policy.