Historically, Burma has enjoyed strong relations with India, not with China.
During the country’s independence movement many Burmese politicians had great associations with India. Gen Aung San, Burma’s independence hero, was closely connected to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his family. Gen Ne Win, Burma’s strong-man dictator, had close relations with the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her family.
Buddhism travelled from India to Burma and today, an increasing number of Burmese pilgrims travel to Bodh Gaya in northern India, one of Buddhism’s holiest sites.
The wily British—as many senior Burmese like to call them—administered Burma as a province of India when they colonized the country in the 19th Century. Burma’s last monarch King Thibaw spent his final days as a prisoner of the British colonialists in India’s Ratnagiri, a port city on the Arabian Sea.
The king, his family, and many patriotic Burmese will never forgive the British. But when young students began to think of liberating their country from British rule, they looked to India and forged connections with politicians and activists there. Burma and India shared a common dream to be liberated from colonialism. During the colonial period, many wealthy Burmese parents sent their children to India to study.
This week, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi lands in Goa to attend the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (or Bimstec) summit. We will see if and how India’s Burma policy will bring more meaningful engagement between the two countries. Likewise, Burma will re-engage India under a new government that is obviously struggling to rebalance its strategic relations with powerful China.
There is no doubt that we share a common ground. New Delhi is hoping to strengthen warm relations with Burma and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is no stranger to India. Her mother Daw Khin Kyi served as ambassador to India in 1960, she became the first woman to serve as a head of the Burma mission abroad. A young Daw Aung San Suu Kyi went along. India’s then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who knew Aung San, made a special arrangement for the Aung San family to live on New Delhi’s 24 Akbar Road in a colonial-era complex designed by Edwin Lutyens.
In late August this year, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Burma and met with the State Counselor. New Delhi wanted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to pay an official visit to India, but the new leader made a pragmatic decision to visit China instead. Instead, Burma’s President U Htin Kyaw made a four-day visit to India in August. It was obvious, however, that New Delhi was looking to have a substantive dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, not with U Htin Kyaw.
Burma shares a 1,600 km land boundary with India’s northeastern states and India is anxious about a separatist movement on the India-Burma border. Ethnic rebels such as the Assamese, the Manipuri and the Naga have been known to take refuge in Burma and launch raids back across the border. During her visit, Swaraj received assurance that the Burmese government would not allow any insurgent groups to use its territory in attacks against India.
Likewise, India offered to assist the new government in its uphill battle to transform an old system of government. New Delhi has been monitoring closely the recent attacks on the Burma-Bangladesh border by militants with alleged links to terrorist organizations. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will listen to the advice of her Indian counterparts.
Aside from limiting China’s influence over Burma, New Delhi wants to engage on the economic front—particularly the energy sector. India is said to be very interested in importing gas and oil from Burma.
India’s Look East policy—in which the country sought deeper relations with Southeast Asia—was well publicized, but many Burmese feel New Delhi’s engagement lags behind that of Beijing’s. In the geopolitical game, China is ahead of India in Burma. However, to put it frankly, China is not popular among the Burmese people.
Since taking office, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi developed Look East into Act East. How India and Burma engage during Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit will be vital to his Southeast Asian policy.