Charting the Contours of India-Burma Ties

By Bertil Lintner 17 February 2016

There is no shortage of books, articles, reports and academic papers about Burma’s relations with China, which is understandable given the extent of bilateral trade between the two countries and China’s long-standing involvement in ethnic and political insurgencies in the border areas. But this focus on Burma’s northeastern frontier has come at the expense of any serious examination of the country’s other powerful neighbor: India.

This neglect is surprising given Burma has historically had much closer ties with India than China. Buddhism came from the Indian subcontinent and so did the Burmese writing system. Connections with Indian kingdoms and empires remained strong throughout the reign of Burma’s three main dynasties, Pagan, Toungoo and Konbaung.

Many Burmese may not have forgiven the British for making their country a province of India after three wars in the 19th century, and the influx of Indian migrants remained a contentious issue throughout the colonial period. But nevertheless, Burma’s independence movement was closely connected with India’s. Many Burmese were educated at Indian universities and the vast bulk of Burma’s trade was with India even after it became a separate colony in 1937.

After independence in 1948, India sent large quantities of weapons and other military equipment to Burma, which helped the besieged government of prime minister U Nu survive the onslaught of a myriad of ethnic and political insurgencies. After U Nu was deposed in a military coup d’état in 1962, he spent most of his time in exile in Bhopal, India, until he accepted the military’s offer of an amnesty and returned home in July 1980.

Today, India is once again turning its gaze on the region, first with its “Look East” policy, which was launched in the 1990s to bolster economic and strategic relations with Southeast Asia and, since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, “Act East,” a more forceful version of the same concept.

In brief, India’s newly aroused interest in Burma is motivated by four major concerns. Burma is the obvious link between India and lucrative markets in Southeast Asia—and the highway on which it one day will be possible to travel from India to Singapore will go through Burmese territory.

New Delhi’s security planners also want to ensure that ethnic Assamese, Manipuri and Naga rebels are deprived of cross-border sanctuaries in the remote hills of northwestern Burma, from where they can launch raids into India and smuggle guns into India’s volatile northeastern region.

Thirdly, India’s rapidly expanding economy also needs energy, and New Delhi has shown interest in importing more oil, gas and perhaps even hydroelectric power from Burma. Lastly—but perhaps most importantly—India wants to keep China’s influence in Burma at acceptable levels.

Rajiv Bhatia’s book, “India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours,” is therefore very timely and fills a huge gap in current literature about Burma’s foreign relations. Bhatia, who served as India’s ambassador to Burma from 2002-05 and later became Director General of the Indian Council of World Affairs, is well placed to describe and analyze the sometimes cordial, sometimes strained relationship between India and Burma.

Anti-Indian sentiment was strong during the British colonial era, as merchants from India came to dominate domestic trade and moneylenders from the chettyar caste exploited Burmese farmers and in many cases took over their land.

Before World War Two, the majority of the population of Rangoon was of sub-continental origin, either Muslim or Hindu, which, needless to say, caused resentment among the indigenous Burmans. Indians were referred to—and still are—as kalar, a pejorative for “foreigners.” (Interestingly, Caucasians are called kalar pyu, or “White Indians”.)

Many Indians fled when the Japanese—aided by Burman nationalists—invaded Burma in 1942. More left after independence in 1948 and, when the military seized power in 1962 and nationalized everything in sight, as many as 300,000 ethnic Indians were forced to migrate to India. This tragic development is described in the only other book of significance about Indo-Burmese relations, “The Indian Minority in Burma: The Rise and Decline of an Immigrant Community,” by Nalini Ranjan Chakravarti, which was published by Oxford University Press in 1971.

Bhatia takes us beyond Chakravarti’s account of Indo-Burmese relations, through all the ups and downs in former and contemporary bilateral ties, and does so objectively and factually. He also describes how India provided support to pro-democracy activists during and after the 1988 uprising against the dictatorship and how that policy changed in the early 1990s, when it was realized that the military regime was there to stay.

India’s policy—along with Western sanctions and boycotts—had also had the undesired result of pushing Burma’s military regime into the embrace of the Chinese. That, of course, was not in the interest of New Delhi’s security planners. A new approach was needed and encouraging trade was one way of providing Burma with an alternative to its heavy dependence on China on almost everything from the importation of consumer goods to the acquisition of military equipment.

Gradually, relations between India and Burma improved. As Bhatia shows in graphs, border trade more than tripled between 2005-2006 and 2013-2014, from US$15.41 million to US$48.63 million. Overall bilateral trade showed an even bigger increase, and now rivals that between China and Burma. Bhatia opines that “China and India will remain actively engaged in competing with each other in order to expand their areas of influence in Myanmar [Burma].”

India’s problem, though, is its fixation with the western border. But very little is likely to change in India’s relations with its traditional foe Pakistan. Taking into account India’s four major concerns on its eastern border, it is actually Burma with its opportunities and challenges that should be India’s most important neighbor.

Bhatia’s book helps us understand India’s point of view at a time when the dynamics of Burma’s internal politics and external policy priorities—away from China—are changing the geopolitical landscape of the region. For many Burmese, it would also be a good read in order to overcome traditional prejudices towards India and Indians. Only then can China’s still powerful grip on Burma be challenged, with India better able to link up directly and strategically with Southeast Asia.

“India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours” by Rajiv Bhatia (New Delhi, London, New York: Routledge; and Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies; 2015.)