Myanmar Will Benefit From Deeper Ties With India

By The Irrawaddy 3 March 2020

If Myanmar wants to counterbalance China, it will need to develop stronger ties with India, its other giant neighbor—and the world’s largest democracy.

During President U Win Myint’s recent visit to India, the two countries signed 10 agreements with a focus on socioeconomic development in Myanmar.

Myanmar, which shares a land border with northeastern India stretching for some 1,624 kilometers, is geopolitically significant to New Delhi’s “Act East” policy, which aims to boost economic integration with Southeast and East Asia.

When she visited India for the first time as an opposition figure in 2012, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now Myanmar State Counselor, described the bilateral friendship in personal terms, saying, “I feel myself partly a citizen of India—a citizen of love and honor.” Her father, Myanmar independence hero General Aung San, was a personal friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. Her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, later served as ambassador to New Delhi. Suu Kyi, who also went to school in India, praised the people of the country, “who have given me so much affection, so much warmth with such generosity that I have never felt myself to be far away from India even in the days when I had little contact with you.” In 1995, she received the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust award, though she was unable to accept the award in person, as she was not allowed to leave Yangon.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has clearly long viewed India as important, but Myanmar’s generals also have a keen understanding of the significance of New Delhi’s role in the region’s geopolitical game. Before leaving his powerful position in 2011, former Myanmar dictator Senior General Than Shwe paid two highly publicized overseas visits: to India and China. The twin visits showed that the two nations were equally important to Myanmar.

Today, India’s strategy is to engage with Myanmar through five “C’s”: connectivity, commerce, capacity-building, culture and community. However, the ongoing relationship with India needs to be taken to a more strategic level. India should broaden its scope of friendship with Myanmar by assisting the country’s political transition and economic development, and helping it to build a professional army.

To improve physical links between the two countries, India is involved in several infrastructure projects including the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, which aims to connect the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with the Sittwe deep-water port in Rakhine State by sea. New Delhi’s strategic goal is to create a Special Economic Zone surrounding the Sittwe port, and in so doing, cement India’s footprint in Rakhine and boost its presence in the Bay of Bengal. The Sittwe port is meant to be India’s answer to the Chinese-funded Kyaukphyu port, which is intended to cement China’s geostrategic footprint in Rakhine.

Since he became commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces (known as the Tatmadaw), Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has visited India several times and worked to deepen relations between the countries’ armed forces. India and Myanmar signed a defense cooperation agreement in July 2019 during the senior general’s visit to the country, and the Myanmar navy purchased a diesel-electric Kilo Class submarine from India. The Myanmar military plans to deploy the submarine in the Andaman Sea for security missions. New Delhi has also agreed to train Myanmar army officers and allow them to study in military academies in India.

Insurgent groups are active on both sides of the shared border. But since last year the two countries’ security forces have cooperated to clamp down on these groups, with Myanmar troops driving insurgents hailing from Nagaland and other states in northeastern India out of their main base in Taga, in Myanmar’s northern Sagaing Region.

 Unlike China, which is India’s rival, India does not offer support to ethnic armed groups in Myanmar. Despite its encouragement of peace talks between the Myanmar government and the rebels, China and Chinese groups in Yunnan province allegedly back several ethnic armed groups in Myanmar, contributing to instability in the country, including in areas along the Indian border, where the Arakan Army is now active. This sends a message that China seeks a weak and unstable Myanmar so that it can exert control over its southern neighbor. In this sense, New Delhi differs from Beijing. Myanmar people will come to trust India more if New Delhi helps build a stronger and united Myanmar and contributes to making the Tatmadaw a more professional force at this crucial time.

In fact, a strong and stable Myanmar should be in the interest of all its neighbors—including India and China. A weak and unstable Myanmar benefits no one.

You may also like these stories:

What’s in Store for Myanmar in 2020 and Beyond?

Myanmar and India Sign Ten Deals During State Visit

A Delhi Neighborhood Divided by a Highway and Now Hatred