Analysis: Modi in Myanmar

By Bidhayak Das 4 September 2017

When the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi lands in Napyitaw on Monday evening, he will not likely have time to look forward to his much-touted visit to the ancient city of Bagan, where the Archaeological Survey of India has done stellar work to renovate the Ananda Temple after a 2016 earthquake.

This visit by the PM comes at a critical juncture for both India and for Myanmar, as both countries face similar problems of armed rebellions, a rise in ultra-nationalistic forces, threats of growing radical Islamic insurgencies, and a need for overall development.

While on the democracy quotient, India may be ahead of Myanmar, and there are perhaps lessons for the latter to learn that could strengthen its own democratization process since the National League for Democracy (NLD) government was voted to power in 2015.

So what will PM Modi discuss with President U Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar’s capital? Their plates are full. Talks are likely to start with a routine review of developments in bilateral relations, with a focus on the development cooperation and socio-economic assistance that India has been undertaking in Myanmar.

However, between the mundane reviews, Modi seems poised to bring up the issue of strengthening existing cooperation between India and Myanmar on security and counter-terrorism. India has arguably been worried by the recent turn of events in northern Rakhine State, where a Muslim insurgency has taken root. These concerns are well founded, given that India shares a 1,643-kilometer boundary with Myanmar and some northeastern Indian states like Mizoram and Tripura are in close proximity to the Chittagong hill tracts of Bangladesh, near northern Rakhine.

Worries probably reach beyond the insurgency itself and toward the fallout of the conflict, in which Rakhine Hindus too have come under attack, with several reportedly killed, along with Muslims and Buddhists. The plight of the Muslim Rohingya community of northern Rakhine—referred to as “Bengalis” by the Burmese government in order to identify them as interlopers from Bangladesh—continues to be a concern. Recently the Indian government came under international pressure to stop the potential deportation of more than 40,000 Rohingya refugees. Even the national human rights commission had on August 18 questioned the move and wrote to the Indian home ministry, asking for a detailed report within four weeks.

The only news that has emanated from the Indian government on how Prime Minister Modi plans to address this issue is from Sripriya Ranganathan, a senior officer in India’s foreign ministry. She told reporters recently that the issue of the Rohingya in India will feature in the discussions between PM Modi and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her government. Ranganathan has been quoted in the Indian media as saying, “We will be discussing how India can help them in addressing the situation that is prevailing in the state.”

In the past India has been very careful so as not to interfere with any of Myanmar’s internal conflicts in Myanmar, including those in Rakhine, but as of late it has been more vocal in lending its support to the Burmese government and the Tatmadaw in tackling the situation there. At this stage it would be difficult to read too much into how India plans to engage itself in Rakhine, but it could certainly be said that Chinese support to Myanmar in resisting any involvement of the UN Security Council (UNSC) may well have prompted India to also play a part.

International pressure and pressure from exiled Rohingya organizations has pushed India to exert its leverage as a member of the UNSC to prevent atrocities from being committed against the Rohingya population by Myanmar’s military. India has not responded so far to any of these calls and it can expected that PM Modi will bring these developments to the table when he meets higher-ups within the NLD-led government.

It perhaps goes without saying that India wishes to ensure that there is peace across the borders which will allow it to fine tune trade and investment, skills development, build a strong infrastructure and harness energy for the overall development of India’s landlocked northeastern region. PM Modi has aired this view several times in the past.

For Modi, unfinished tasks are growing and he likely wants to ensure that he has success stories to share as he and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), heads for the next general election in 2019. There is a need to revisit the Act East policy, which has been tattering, to say the least.

The promise to create more air connectivity, made by Nirmala Sitharaman when she visited Myanmar as the Commerce and Industry Minister in May 2016 has remained simply that—a promise. In fact her visit to Myanmar was followed by yet another statement at the sixth India Myanmar Joint Trade Committee (JCT) meeting in Delhi where she was quoted as saying, “the Indian government has been seeking the cooperation of the Myanmar side in actively pursuing enhanced road, sea and air connectivity between the two.”

While there is no news on air connectivity, the push to complete some of the sea routes will likely to figure in Modi’s talks with his Myanmar counterparts. Of these, the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP), which aims to connect the landlocked Indian state of Mizoram to the Bay of Bengal, as well as provide new trading routes for the rest of Northeast India, will certainly top the list. The other would be the new Special Economic Zone and a seaport in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, where India is looking to invest heavily.

Whether India is developing these ports to keep up with China’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean is not the issue. What is perhaps of greater significance is the fact that India is dependent on Myanmar to develop connectivity to the rest of Asia, and that cannot be overlooked. Therefore, it would be in India’s best interest to ensure that its plans get the much needed momentum to build on the cordial relationship that she shares with this once-pariah state.

Bidhayak Das is a veteran journalist who has also spent over a decade working on promoting democracy in Myanmar. He is currently working as an independent consultant on elections, media and communications.