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Out of a Burma Shell

Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar this weekend highlights the growing importance of this neighbour to India. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes.

world Updated: May 27, 2012 01:56 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times

This weekend will see the first Indian prime minister visit Myanmar in 25 years. This was excusable in the past. But today, India’s relations with its only Southeast Asian neighbour are crucial for both foreign policy and domestic security reasons. Four key reasons Myanmar matters to India:


Why did India decide to switch from supporting pro-democracy activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and back Myanmar’s brutal military regime? The answer is not oil or China. The answer is the Northeast.

A terrible security dilemma faced the PV Narasimha Rao government in the early 1990s. Kashmir was in flames and the Naga rebels were running rampant. The government didn’t have enough soldiers to suppress both. The solution: ask the Burmese military to deny the Nagas safe haven in return for India turning its back on Suu Kyi.

It worked like a dream. Kashmir was saved. The Nagas were so battered by joint action by the Indian and Burmese armies that they sued for negotiations. This underlines something many Indians don’t realise. The patchwork of ethnic insurgents that bedevil the Northeast is the same cloth that covers Upper Burma. Mizos and Nagas straddle the bilateral border and have fought with both governments at one point or another.

The Stakes: India’s efforts to stabilise the Northeast would receive an incredible boost if the disparate bits of Myanmar were to end their own civil wars. Combined with the economic benefits of trade and transport links across the Indo-Myanmar border — and the Northeast could become an Asian tiger patch.


India has been reasonably successful in its Southeast Asia engagement. The Look East policy has largely been focussed on a stretch running from Bangkok to Jakarta. One gap has been Myanmar, the second-largest Southeast Asian nation in the area.

More importantly, Myanmar is the only with a land border with India. If that border, presently beloved only of smugglers, were to open up India could have a road and rail link all the way to the South China Sea. Right now, trade and travel to Southeast Asia must all be air and sea.

India, in conjunction with Southeast Asian states and countries like the US and Japan, has already began talks on building a “trilateral highway” that would snake its way from India all the way to Vietnam. A road from “Assam to Annam” — the last being one of the ancient kingdoms of Vietnam. The best part about this project, say Indian and US officials, is that much of this road “already exists”. It just wasn’t worth doing as long as Myanmar was outside the picture.

The Stakes: India’s lack of land links to Southeast Asia is one reason China is so dominant in the economic relations of that region. China is building large numbers of north-south links to reinforce this domination. India needs to develop east-west connectors that ensure it isn’t reduced to a wannabe in the region.


The political reforms announced last year by Myanmar’s generalissimo Thien Sien are not necessarily irreversible, though the army seems determined to go through with them.

Myanmar faces two fundamental political problems — along with a host of smaller ones. One is the nature of civilian-military relations. The military is all for reform now, but Suu Kyi is determined to make sure Parliament is supreme and that means over the military as well. Analyst Ravinder Pal Singh, who has worked with such ethnic groups the past year, says, “I find the ethnic armed groups are very keen for help in understanding issues relating to constitutional criteria for democratic control of the military sector.”

The other is arguably the even more difficult issue of constructing a federal system that keeps the majority Burmans and the ethnic minorities happy. If India, which has faced and resolved similar constitutional issues, could contribute to the resolution of these issues it would enormously enhance the country’s standing in Myanmar. India would be the source of both Buddhism and democracy.

Singh points out that while the Chinese have focussed on commercially exploiting minorities, India could help them in the stuff of political reform and “democratic dialogue.”

“India is not in the business of exporting democracy” is a common line from New Delhi officialdom. Yet helping Myanmar achieve a sustainable constitutional order would be a step towards stabilising the Northeast as well.

India has an advantage in Suu Kyi, a person whose intellectual influences are dominated by India’s greats including the Mahatma and Rabindranath Tagore. Healing the rift with Suu Kyi is now a pressing requirement of the Singh visit.

The Stakes: A democratic, independent-minded Myanmar is more likely to lean towards India than China. A liberal political order would best ensure Myanmar becomes normal. When Myanmar is on the boil, the Northeast simmers and China gains greater entry.


A simple statistic: India-Myanmar trade is $1 billion. Sino-Myanmar trade is $3.5 billion. It looks even worse when one looks at investment. China invests about fifty times more than India does. Myanmar is choc-a-bloc with the sort of resources whose supply is giving India migraines right now.

This includes natural gas — Myanmar may be one of the world’s 10 largest gas reserve holders. It also includes dal — Myanmar is the world’s second-largest exporter of pulses. If the country has a bad harvest, green mung and tur become a price problem in India. There is a lot of other stuff in-between.

Burmese themselves say they want India to rebuild their educational system and rejuvenate their healthcare. The country has a shoddy telecom system and a shortage of hotels. Even if China uses its deeper pockets to secure the natural resources, there is as much to be made in the undeveloped secondary and tertiary sectors.

The real game for India is that this is a country that seems set to follow the same path that the other major Southeast Asian countries already have. India completely missed the opportunities that arose when Malaysia or Thailand evolved into Asian tigers.

This time India is better prepared to offer something. And it is superbly located to be at the forefront of Myanmar’s economic transformation.

The Stakes: This is a multi-billion dollar opportunity and the basis for the sort of binding relationship that could change the economic character of eastern and northeastern India and even Bangladesh. India’s eastern flank would be secure and a whole lot of money would be made by all concerned along the way.

First Published: May 26, 2012 22:33 IST