With gifts for Myanmar’s economy, people and its physical links with India, PM Manmohan Singh sought to make up for 15 years of stunted relations. The first joint statement between the two neighbours in a quarter-century played up roads, trade and education. New Delhi made a determined effort to sidestep the security issues that once dominated India’s Myanmar policy.
The joint statement, said foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai, had “a plan of action for all areas of the bilateral relations.”
Among the accomplishments was a commitment to a 2016 deadline for completing the stretch of the Trilateral Highway running from India’s Northeast, across Myanmar to the Thai border.
But a hoped-for bus from Manipur to Mandalay fell through. Indian officials cited the lack of an all-weather road, but doubts on Yangon's side was a likelier culprit.
New Delhi wielded its educational soft power to the hilt. Singh said India would set up a Myanmar Institute of Information Technology, offered a host of fellowships and training programmes, tie-ups with universities and think tanks.
The emphasis on software helps. Because of their use of social media to organize political protests, says Aung Aung Thin of the news site Mizzima, “the Burmese are very interested in information technology.”
India’s attempt to have collaboration between Calcutta University and Yangon University, a historical institution and a key centre of student protests, was scuttled by the Myanmar government which put forward one of its new varsities, Dagon University.
Conscious that many in Myanmar see India as benign but ineffective as most of its earlier aid projects remain works in progress, New Delhi played up the role of the private sector. The accompanying business delegation was heavy with private sector firms like Airtel, Tata and Jindal Steel. Many of the economic proposals were designed to make it easier for India Inc to establish a footprint in a Myanmar.
The traditional base of the relationship also received a fillip with Myanmar President Thien Sien promising action against Northeast insurgents who, squeezed by Bangladesh, have moved into Upper Burma.
Singh made it a point to press all the other soft power buttons that India has held back the past few decades. India promised a 16-foot sandstone replica of the Sarnath Buddha, reminding Myanmar that it is the home of the country’s dominant religion. It also promised training for parliamentarians and their staff, a reminder that this democratizing state should look west not north for advice.
Indian officials insisted China was not a factor behind the visit. But the nationalist state-owned Chinese newspaper, Global Times, said Singh had gone because India had been "edged out" of Myanmar by Beijing and Washington.