With no other neighbouring country has India undergone more ups and downs perhaps than with Myanmar. At one time, there was a large Indian business community in then Burma. In the 1950s over two million Indians were summarily told to leave the country. They had to leave and they did. A painful event. Myanmar is a highly nationalist country and its military rulers have withstood economic sanctions, caring neither for western or Indian pressures, for years. Presently, with its economy in shambles, the situation has changed. In the 1980s India was a supporter for Suu Kyi’s fight against the military dictatorship. But when it realised that it needs the help of the dictatorship in denying Naga rebels a safe haven, it turned its back on Suu Kyi.
Presently both Suu Kyi and the military government on the one hand and India on the other have come to understand each other’s imperatives. Now Suu Kyi has been invited to India to deliver the next Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture and among the deals signed during Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit, in one, both parties have re-affirmed their “shared commitment to fight the scourge of terrorism and insurgent activity in all its forms and manifestations”. One can fully trust the Myanmar Government under the leadership of President Thein Sein to fulfil its promise. President Sein seems hell-bent on introducing reforms in his country. Thus he has already released over one thousand political prisoners.
The media in Myanmar is given more freedom. As one commentator has noted, “journalists who had never thought they could return home after years in exile have now set up offices in downtown Yangon and even engage with the government. And the autocratic senior General Than Shwe has retired. After two decades spent in punishing Myanmar with economic sanctions hypocritic western powers are now realising their folly. British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Myanmar recently, declaring that the European Union should suspend all sanctions while maintaining an arms embargo.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was next to visit Myanmar. Now America and Australia have both lifted travel and financial restrictions on hundreds of members of the Establishment. President Obama has even nominated Derek Mitchell as his country’s first Ambassador to Myanmar in 22 years, even while expressing his concern about Myanmar’s “closed political system and its treatment of minorities” among other things. The point is that the West wants to have a firm foothold in Myanmar with the evident objective of keeping an eye on China which for years now, has had an unchallenged place in Myanmar’s land and waters. That in turn must have made the country’s military rulers wish for a change in scene. Wisdom came to Myanmar when it realised that it was falling behind even Vietnam in development, that it cannot for ever be strategically dependent on China alone and cannot be seen to be servile to Beijing.
China had literally taken over Myanmar’s army, its ports and naval installations and construction of oil and gas pipelines and had received almost exclusive right to develop and exploit natural gas reserves in the Arakan region. That, it is believed with some justification is one reason why the new Myanmar leadership is opening up to India and the West. For India, Myanmar offers scope for a “connectivity” both political and economic. Thus, India is now all set to offer Myanmar’s MPs lesson or two about democracy. It has shown willingness to facilitate visits by delegations of Myanmarese MPs to New Delhi to learn about the way the parliamentary system functions in the largest democracy of the world.
According to Foreign Secretary Ranjam Mathai, New Delhi would invite eight batches of Myanmarese MPs – each having ten members – to Delhi to study the proceedings in the Indian Parliament. One can only hope Indian MPs will measure up to expectations. The first batch of Myanmarese MPs should be coming to Delhi next July. As the Foreign Secretary put it, India’s policy of continued engagements with the Myanmar junta has paid dividends as the country is now in the process of a transition to democracy. Not that India in the fourteen MoUs it has signed, given Myanmar any substantial financial aid. Yes, it has offered $ 500 million to Myanmar as concessional credit. That cannot be compared with Japanese largesse, with Tokyo waiving nearly $ 4 billion that Myanmar owed it. But India will not only set up a Myanmar institute of Technology but will also undertake to set up small development projects in the border region, to start with. Besides, it was not for nothing that a team of Indian industrialists accompanied Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his visit. An MoU deals with the establishment of Joint Trade and Investment and the setting up of an Advance Centre for Agriculture Research and Education.
Time was when Myanmar led as the world’s largest exporter of rice. Now it is claimed India will set up a Rice Bio Park in an appropriate place in the country. In many ways Myanmar is way behind times, in almost all fields of Science and Technology. To help it raise its standards India has signed an MoU on Cooperation between Dagon University in Myanmar and Calcutta University. Another MoU is on Cooperation between Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies and Indian Council of World Affairs. Meanwhile, India’s trade with Myanmar around $ 1.4 billion is expected to touch $ 2 billion by 2013 which is just a beginning considering that China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner as of now, its bilateral trade amounting to $ 4.7 billion. Importantly for India work is to be started to link Imphal with Mandalay with an all-year road to make travel easy and also to make connection to all South Eastern nations faster.
Myanmar is now viewed – as it indeed should be – as a critical partner in India’s Look East policy and “an economic bridge between India and South East Asia. A beginning has thus been made. It was not India that pushed Myanmar into it but the latter’s own realisation that if it wants to keep up with the times, it has to take a new path. The Army still remains in power but there seems to be a desire on its part to make” a transition to civilian rule and to a system of democracy with the Constitution as the core” In this surely India can help in howsoever small a measure?