Days after Aung San Suu Kyi made a high-profile trip to China as foreign minister of Myanmar, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Mynamar in the first high-level visit from India after the civilian government assumed office in Naypyitaw. Myanmar’s President Htin Kyaw is on a four day visit to India as well this week.
Myanmar is passing through a transition since Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won a historic landslide election last year, finally ending five decades of military rule. Though a junta-era constitution has banned her from becoming president because of her late British husband, Suu Kyi retains strong control over the country’s first civilian-led government.
Swaraj’s visit, moreover, came days after Indian troops reportedly crossed into the territory of Myanmar to target an NSCN (Khaplang) military camp, underlining close cooperation between the two states in tackling insurgency along their long, shared border. During the visit, Myanmar reiterated its resolve not to allow its territory to be used against India. And India assured Suu Kyi of “all help” in “strengthening your democratic institutions and socioeconomic development of your people.” Indian diplomacy has a tough job at hand as all major powers, near and far, are wooing Myanmar’s new government.
Tellingly, Suu Kyi’s first trip abroad after taking power was to Beijing where the two nations pledged to forge closer ties as “blood brothers” and to enhance trade. But China’s main concern has been progress on the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project in the Irrawaddy river basin. After widespread environmental protests, former Myanmar President Thein Sein suspended work on the hydropower dam in 2011. Though Suu Kyi had also called for the suspension of the project then, during her visit as foreign minister, she assured Beijing of a quick resolution on the stalled project, especially as China’s support would be key in talks with Myanmar’s ethnic minority armed groups operating along northern borders with China.
Though the United States remains concerned about the extent of military influence over the new government and the country’s treatment of minorities—in particular the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya—Washington has begun to ease nearly three decades of sanctions against Myanmar. The Obama administration views Myanmar’s transition to democracy as one of its key foreign policy achievements and is hoping for robust ties with a potential democratic ally in Asia.
India, for its part, has a long-standing relationship with Myanmar. After being a strong critic of the Myanmar junta, India muted its criticism and dropped its vocal support for Suu Kyi starting in the mid-1990s to help pursue its “Look East” policy, aimed at strengthening India’s economic linkages with the rapidly growing economies in East and Southeast Asia. More important was the realization in Delhi that China’s profile in Myanmar had grown at an alarming pace. India’s ideological obsession with democracy made sure that Myanmar drifted toward China. Delhi was stuck between the demands of its role as the world’s largest democracy and the imperatives of its strategic interests.
Indian elites have long admired the freedom struggle led by Suu Kyi, who was honored with one of India’s highest civilian awards in 1993. The official policy of the Indian government has always been to support the eventual restoration of democracy in Myanmar. But India’s strategic interests in Myanmar could not be ignored, especially as China’s trade, energy, and defense ties with Myanmar surged. India was finding it difficult to counter Chinese influence in Myanmar, with China selling everything from weapons to food grains to Myanmar. Chinese firms were furthermore getting preferential treatment in the award of blocks and gas, apparently in recognition of China’s steady opposition to the U.S. moves against Myanmar’s junta at the UN. India also realized that it would find it difficult to project power in the Indian Ocean if China’s naval presence continued to increase in Myanmar. China’s growing naval presence in and around the Indian Ocean region has been troubling for India because it restricts India’s freedom to maneuver in the region.
As a consequence, India was forced to take a more realistic appraisal of the developments in Myanmar and shape its foreign policy accordingly. India had a few options but to substantively engage the junta, and it reversed its decade-old policy of isolating the Burmese junta and began to deal with it directly. India’s strategic interests demanded that Delhi only gently nudge the junta on the issue of democracy. India’s relief efforts after the tropical cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008 earned it a great deal of appreciation. India managed to gain a sense of trust at the highest echelons of the Myanmar’s ruling elite and it was rightfully loathe to lose it. Not surprising, therefore, that India remained opposed to Western sanctions on the country.
After several years of discussions, India agreed to the building of Sittwe port in 2008 at a cost of $120 million, providing an alternative route to connect with Southeast Asia, without transiting Bangladesh. In addition, India extended a $20 million credit for renovation of the Thanlyin Refinery and also supported Myanmar against the U.S. censure motion in an attempt to lure the junta to grant preferential treatment to India in the supply of natural gas. Apart from the 160 km India-Myanmar friendship road built by India’s Border Roads Organization in 2001, India has been working on a second road project and investing in a deep-sea project (Sagar Samridhi) to explore oil and gas in the Bay of Bengal and at the Shwe gas pipeline project in western Myanmar.
The junta had cooperated with India in eliminating Naga insurgents who find sanctuaries in Myanmar’s border areas. India’s long border with Myanmar is an open one where the tribal population is free to move up to 20 kilometers on either side.
The transition to a civilian government in Myanmar has thus given India greater strategic space to maneuver. “India is the country we should get best lessons from on what democracy means,” Myanmar’s President U Htin Kyaw was quoted as saying during Swaraj’s visit. But as in the past, the future of India-Myanmar relationship will not be determined by democracy alone.