Myanmar’s Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s six-day visit to India in November happily will lead to not only closer people-to-people relations between the two countries, but stronger economic, political and military links as well.
Myanmar is getting increasing recognition at the international level. Even if his stay in Myanmar extended no longer than six hours, president Barack Obama made history in November when he visited Myanmar and called on President Thein Sein, later to promise $ 170 million as aid. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar earlier in May this year, the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 25 years had already set the goal.
Way back in 1987, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had visited Myanmar but internal developments in the country later had broadened India’s distance with its closest East Asian neighbour. It is not that Delhi had bid goodbye to Myanmar because of the takeover of power by the military. Pragmatism demanded that India maintain a delicate balance between geo-political imperatives and its commitment to democracy. It was no easy stand to take. But following 1988, India-Myanmar relations greatly improved. Indeed, since 2000 relations between the two countries have shown further improvement, with talks between Indian officials and Myanmar’s military being held regularly at their respective capitals.
Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam visited Myanmar in 2006. That was the first such visit by an Indian Head of State to this south-east Asian nation. It resulted in four agreements being signed relating to Remote Sensi ng, Cooperation in the Petroleum Sector, Optical Link between Moreh and Mandalay and cooperation in Buddhist Studies. Not a big deal, but a good beginning. Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit resulted in a better deal.
The 12-point Agreement that he signed included the following items: A $ 500 million line of credit, Air Service Connectivity, Border Area Development, Establishment of Joint Trade and Investment Forum, Establishment of Advance Centre for Agricultural Research and Education (ACARE), Setting up of an Institute of Information Technology for Myanmar, Establishment of Rice Bio-Park, Cooperation between Dagon University and Calcutta University, cooperation between Myanmar Institute of Strategic & International studies and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) on the one hand and the Indian Council of World Affairs on the other.
Cultural Exchange Programmes and establishment of border haats (markets). It must be remembered that even before the President’s visit there had been important agreements between the two countries. In November 2000, when Gen. Maung Aye visited India, an agreement had been signed for sourcing industrial and electric equipment from India to the tune of $ 15 million. In February 2001, a 160 km long road called the Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road was built with Indian assistance and duly inaugurated. As should be apparent, Myanmar presently constitutes an important component of India’s Look East Policy.
India is Myanmar’s fourth largest trading partner (after Thailand, China and Singapore) and its second largest export market (after Thailand). Bilateral trade rose from $ 87.4 million in 1990-1991 to $ 557.68 million in 2005-2006 to $ 650 million in 2006-2007. The aim is to raise the target of bilateral trade to $ 1 billion. Though as Aung San Suu Kyi complained during her visit to India of Delhi’s failure to support her country’s ‘pro-democratic movement’ all the way, she nevertheless hoped that “the people of India will stand by us and walk with us”. That, she should know, India would.
It was India which took the decision to award Suu Kyi the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Prize for International understanding, over-ruling the reservations of Myanmar’s military regime. And surely she remembers that when the generals suppressed the 1988 popular uprising, it was India again that gave asylum to students fleeing from Myanmar. India could have closed its borders, which it did not. But India has its own needs and had to settle for a policy of aiding the military. Delhi cannot possibly afford to handover Myanmar to China which is hell-bent on seeking cooperation and support from all neighbouring countries. China has invested a lot of money to maintain friendship with Myanmar primarily to get a foodhold in India’s nearest neighbour in the East. China’s aid to Myanmar, besides, is impressive.
Chinese firms laid down a 2,380 km of oil and gas pipelines from Myanmar’s Arakan Coast to China’s Yunnan Province. It is the most important supplier of military aid and has trained Myanmar’s Army, Air Force and Naval personnel. China is the most important supplier of equipment such as jet fighters, armoured vehicles and naval vessels. Access to Myanmar’s ports and naval installations provide China with strategic influence in the Bay of Bengal, in the wider Indian Ocean region and in South East Asia. Additionally China has developed a deep-water port at Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal. Furthermore it has also built an 85 meter jetty, naval facilities and major reconnaissance and electronic equipment intelligence systems on the Great Coco Island, which, considering that it is located hardly 18 kms from India’ Andaman and Nicobar Islands, gives China capabilities to monitor India’s military activities, including missle tests. And, even more significantly, China is assisting in constructing a naval base in Sittwe, not far away from Kolkata. One can clearly guess what Beijing has in mind. In the circumstances, India has no other option but to cultivate and maintain Myanmar’s friendship. That should not be difficult, considering that India and what was formerly known as Burma has had close relationship for decades past.
In Buddhism both have same emotional roots. Importantly, India has no desire to control Myanmar, as China has and of which Myanmar’s military is fully aware of. To show its desire to let democracy prevail, Myanmar’s military regime, under former General Thein Sein has released scores of political prisoners which augurs well for the future. It is now for India to open its arms and befriend Myanmar in a meaningful way, not only in its own interests but in the larger interests of Myanmar itself which doesn’t want a subaltern status under China. Washington has understood it and India, Myanmar’s closest neighbour must cash in on it as vigourously as it can.