India Marginalized in Myanmar

By Subir Bhaumik 20 July 2013

India has not gained much from Myanmar’s transition from military rule to a fledgling democracy. When Myanmar was ruled by a military junta and shunned by the West, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) were seen as alternatives to Chinese influence. But as Myanmar opens up to the outside world after decades of isolation, it is turning more to the West, especially the United States, to balance China’s growing influence, and not to India. Increasingly, Delhi is seen as a defensive power, unwilling and incapable of contesting Chinese influence in Myanmar, and not central to what has been described as the emerging “Great Game East.”

The West has long seen India, Asean and Japan as playing a key role in mitigating China’s growing stranglehold on Myanmar, a nation located at the strategic crossroads of South and Southeast Asia. In the past, US officials praised Myanmar’s more democratic neighbors for their “constructive engagement” with the former ruling junta, which helped to limit Chinese influence. Even now, many countries, including Japan, Australia and the Asean member states, would like to see India do more to offset China’s still dominant position in Myanmar.

But far from boosting its presence in its newly democratizing neighbor, India has withdrawn into a shell. It hasn’t even pushed Myanmar to do more to help with its security concerns along their shared border. It is happy with whatever little Myanmar has done to contain the insurgents from India’s remote northeastern states who enjoy sanctuary in Sagaing Region, where Manipuri rebel groups are still active, and Naga and Assamese hardline factions still have bases which have yet to face any military action.

India is also doing little to stop the smuggling of weapons and narcotics from Myanmar. And, apart from completing the Tamu-Kalemyo highway—the only project India has been able to deliver on time in Myanmar—it has largely failed to implement its “Look East” policy in any meaningful, concrete way.

The Kaladan multimodal project, centering on the modernization of Sittwe Port in Rakhine State, has made only slow progress, and is, in any case, designed more to ensure access between India’s mainland and its remote northeast, rather than increase India influence in Myanmar.

India’s ambitious Delhi-Hanoi railway corridor through Myanmar seems an even more elusive goal, as there is still no funding available to build a rail link through the border state of Manipur to the Myanmar frontier. And Delhi continues to hesitate over reopening the WWII-vintage Stillwell Road, as it tries to decide whether the move would create more problems than benefits for India.

While Myanmar’s government has sought Indian expertise in certain areas such as software development, telecoms and services, it is less interested in what India may have to offer in key economic areas such as mining, heavy industries or infrastructure building. Nor does Myanmar’s army look to India as an alternative to China as a source of military hardware: Now that relations with the West are on the mend, the Tatmadaw can anticipate eventually having access to the world’s most advanced military technology. Development megaprojects are also beyond India’s means—for these, Myanmar is more likely to seek partners in Japan or Asean.

In terms of soft power, however, India can more than hold its own, even against China. As the saying goes, Myanmars goes to China for arms and India for salvation. As the land of the Buddha, India has a special place in the hearts of Myanmar’s Buddhist faithful. Unfortunately, however, Delhi is woefully lacking in ideas on how it can effectively wield its soft power. Apart from plans to send some Buddhist relics to Myanmar, India has made no real effort to step up its cultural diplomacy as a means of forging stronger ties.

India’s private sector is also not rising to the occasion as Myanmar opens its markets to the world. There are areas where it would not face much competition, such as media, human resource development, education, healthcare, infotech, entertainment, and tourism and hotels. In all these areas, India could provide cost-effective and efficient alternatives to what’s on offer from the rest of the world. For instance, an experienced Indian media trainer would be far less expensive and much more effective than one from the West, Japan or an Asean country.

In this and other areas, however, India’s business community has shown much initiative. Some Indian companies are getting into hotels, but not much else. Despite the huge following that Bollywood soap operas enjoy in Myanmar, India’s movie moguls have not demonstrated much interest in tapping into this market. And this is not merely a commercial loss: Media and entertainment are force-multipliers in winning hearts and minds.

For India’s political elite, Myanmar is valued chiefly for its strategic location vis-à-vis China. Efforts to strengthen India’s position in this three-way relationship have, however, been flawed. Over the last two decades, India moved away from its total support for Myanmar’s democracy movement and cultivated ties with the Tatmadaw in a game of catch-up with China. In the process, it has lost credibility with the democracy movement, including Aung Sang Suu Kyi, and did not gain much from the Tatmadaw, either. As they say in Bengali, India lost the mango and also the sack. Now both the generals and the pro-democracy movement look to the West, and not India, as an option against China.

Myanmar is India’s only land bridge to Southeast Asia. Unless it can engage Myanmar decisively, the “Look East” thrust of Indian foreign policy will become little more than a cliché. As the world’s most populous democracy, India could do much more to help Myanmar in its democratic transition—more than just helping to run election commissions and giving advice on parliamentary practices.

What India could share most is its own rich experience in handling ethnic minorities in its northeastern region, something that would help Myanmar enormously. India’s failures and success in the Northeast—the challenges it has faced in dealing with insurgents and the strategies it has adopted to engage them in dialogue and finally co-opt many of them—might be more relevant for Myanmar’s new democratic leadership.

The ethnic minority problem figured at the top of the Indo-Myanmar post-colonial interaction, as India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited Myanmar’s first prime minister U Nu to a tour of the troubled Naga Hills. India also helped the U Nu government materially and morally to manage the first wave of ethnic insurrection after Myanmar’s independence.

At the time, Delhi’s influence was unmistakable, as U Nu looked to India as a role model during Myanmar’s first experiment with democracy. It was seen as Myanmar’s most helpful friend in the regional neighborhood, more acceptable than the colonial West. China, meanwhile, was regarded as both a problem and a hostile nation, after defeated Kuomintang troops moved into Shan State and Mao’s regime started strongly backing the Communist Party of Burma.

After General Ne Win seized power in 1962, however, Indian influence suffered as the generals saw India as the natural inspiration for the country’s pro-democratic forces. Ne Win’s expulsion of thousands of people of Indian origin strained relations with Delhi even as the general sought to make it up by sending his troops to fight the China-bound Naga and Mizo rebels. After India’s victory in the 1971 war with Pakistan (which somewhat restored the country’s pride after its humiliating defeat by China in 1962), the Myanmar junta started taking Prime Minister Indira Gandhi much more seriously. Relations suffered again under her son Rajiv Gandhi, however, due to his support for the 1988 democracy movement. At the same time, the generals continued to see India as a major regional player whose support for the democracy movement could be a game changer.

But when, in the early 1990s, India changed course in a desperate effort to match China’s surging influence, Myanmar’s ruling generals knew they no longer needed to worry about India. They accepted Delhi’s overtures not so much to counterbalance China as to ensure that India did not go out of its way to back the pro-democracy movement or the ethnic minorities—some of which, like the Kachin Independence Organization, had , albeit briefly, India’s covert support in the 1980s.

In the end, India never gained much influence with the military junta, but lost its credibility with the pro-democracy movement. Now, as Myanmar moves towards democracy and attempts to balance the all-pervasive Chinese influence, it looks more to the West, and less to India.

Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author of “Insurgent Crossfire” and “Troubled Periphery.” This story first appeared in the July 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.