A recent visit to the city of Yangon underscored the increasing economic presence of China in Myanmar. The massive investment, pipelines, and rail strategy are well known, but a drive through the city is enough to make clear the extent to which China has boosted its economic foothold in the country.
Yet, even with its numerous shortcomings, India has a number of advantages over China when it comes to building bilateral ties with Myanmar.
For one thing, there are strong historical ties. On my visit, I was heartened to see that the tomb of Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II (exiled by the British after the Indian Rebellion of 1857) was well maintained, with significant assistance from the Indian government.
Other sites in Myanmar point to its history with India, including a large number of old South Indian Hindu temples and Sikh shrines. One of the Sikh shrines, the Guru Nanak Sikh temple near downtown Yangon, was built in 1897 by Sikhs who were part of the British army. It runs a free dispensary.
These sites are physical evidence of the impact that Indians have historically had on local ethos and culture in Myanmar.
Even today, as it takes on the challenges of political reform and institution building, there is much Myanmar can learn from India. In that regard, it is worth noting that New Delhi has begun to assist Myanmar in a number of important spheres, including agriculture, information technology and engineering. Most recently, INDEE 2014, a flagship engineering exhibition of India’s Engineering Export Promotion Council, was being held in Yangon with Indian embassy support. India needs to send a clear message that it believes in providing assistance in sectors where local capabilities can be built, rather than just milking resources to bolster its own economy.
Another area is press freedom. A conference I attended highlighted the mushrooming of electronic media channels and newspapers in Myanmar, although skeptics see the reforms as mere window dressing. India has a vibrant media, and could offer a useful example to Myanmar in this regard.
India’s admittedly imperfect yet reasonable robust experiment with a pluralist society could also provide lessons in religious tolerance, at a time when clashes between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists pose a serious challenge to Myanmar. China’s handling of its problems with the Uighurs in Xinjiang would suggest it is a less useful model for a country attempting the transition from authoritarianism to an open society.
While China enjoys a growing dominance in Myanmar’s economy, some astute thinking by India could make it a serious competitor. To do that, though, New Delhi needs to be more assertive and aggressive in projecting its own strengths. It should make special efforts to highlight its shared history and institutional advantages, and its believe in partnership rather than creating appendages. This is important, because the ever-increasing Chinese economic presence is slowly but surely causing resentment amongst sections of the Myanmar populace.
Some of the steps India needs to take are faster implementation of projects, greater connectivity between its Northeast and Myanmar, such as the initiation of the Imphal-Mandalay bus service, an increased number of flights connecting Myanmar and India, assistance for the Indian private sector in Myanmar, and aid and assistance in education. An Indian government with a clear economic and strategic vision may well be able to deliver on all the above.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonepat, India.