Guest Column

Indo-Myanmar Ties Should Go Beyond Geopolitical Interests

By Joe Kumbun 27 February 2020

The India-Myanmar relationship is blossoming. It encompasses the highest levels of authority on both sides, from heads of state and government to military chiefs, as well as ministerial and functional-level visits. Myanmar President U Win Myint is currently visiting India at the invitation of his counterpart, President Ram Nath Kovind. He will also meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other high officials and ink key agreements to deepen ties.

Looking to lessen its dependence on China, which has built up over many decades, Myanmar has sought to strengthen its links with India in the last decade so. Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and other high-ranking officers have visited the country repeatedly in a bid to boost defense cooperation.

India not only trains Myanmar military officers, but also sells sophisticated weapons to the Tatmadaw. For instance, India delivered Shyena advanced lightweight torpedoes to Myanmar’s navy in July 2019. Myanmar has also reportedly received weapons and defense hardware such as rocket launchers, mortars, radars, night-vision devices, bridges and communication devices, as well as road construction equipment like bulldozers, dump trucks and soil compactors. In addition to equipment transfers, the two sides conducted the joint India-Myanmar Bilateral Military Exercise

However, rather than fostering democracy, ending the civil war and bringing peace to the country, Myanmar’s cultivation of closer ties with India is part of a geostrategic “balancing act” aimed at limiting the influence of China.

Similarly, for India, Myanmar occupies a strategic geopolitical position as the country where New Delhi’s two major foreign policy initiatives—“Act East” and “Neighborhood First”—converge.

India is pushing its geopolitical goal of connecting to Southeast Asia through Myanmar. China, India’s regional rival, is pushing to build the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor—part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—which includes a railway from China’s Yunnan Province to Kyaukphyu, Rakhine State. India is thus in a hurry to finish the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway.

As China vies to link to the Indian Ocean through the Bay of Bengal, so India is attempting to exert itself in the Bay through the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project, which will connect the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata to Sittwe in Rakhine State, Paletwa in Chin State, and the Indian state of Assam.

India has vowed to engage with Myanmar through five “C’s”: connectivity, commerce, capacity-building, culture and community. Such a strategic partnership is laudable. As a part of the connectivity pillar, land-border crossing points have been opened at Tamu-Moreh (between Sagaing Region and India’s Manipur State) and Rihkhawdar-Zokhawthar (between Chin State and India’s Mizoram State).

However, relations between the two countries—motivated so far by Myanmar’s balancing act and India’s geopolitical goals—should go beyond such narrow interests.

India, in fact, should help a Myanmar to foster its nascent democracy, build a federal union and end the civil war to bring about peace. A regional power that serves as a major linchpin in maintaining security, stability, peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region, India should deepen its engagement in Myanmar beyond just government-to-government and military-to-military relations.

India should tighten its relationship with Myanmar by engaging in the following sectors.

First, India should engage with Myanmar’s newly founded political parties—ruling, opposition and ethnic—by providing them with technical support. Doing so will be conducive to fostering democracy in the country. Even China—a communist regime—has engaged with some Myanmar political parties by inviting their leaders to Beijing.

Second, India should engage with Myanmar’s civil society organizations (CSOs), which play a critical role in a democratic society. India has appeared somewhat aloof when it comes to engaging with CSOs in Myanmar. Undeniably, the role of CSOs in the democratization process should not be undermined. India should thus pave the way to engage with Myanmar’s CSOs by, for instance, providing financial support.

Third, India should get involved in Myanmar’s peace process, which has become a political quagmire. India should not limit its concern to just the insurgent groups that operate along the shared Indo-Myanmar border. If India continues to shun involvement in Myanmar’s peace process, China will continue its interference in the process and direct it in its own interest. Thus, India should get involved by facilitating peace talks or offering financial support.

Last but not least, India should strengthen its support for Myanmar’s education sector, which is the key to opening the doors of economic prosperity and democratization.  India should provide more scholarships for Myanmar’s young leaders, who will be the leaders and change-makers of the future, and the drivers of democracy in the country.

As a nascent democracy, Myanmar needs more Indian engagement. Taken for granted in an established democracy like India, the idea of democracy is still fresh and new in Myanmar.

The health of these vital institutions and systems will require more than the pursuit of geopolitical interests, but rather the practical application of lessons from India. The aims of India’s engagement with Myanmar should not be limited to furthering geopolitical interests, but should include fostering democracy, building a federal union and achieving peace.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of an analyst based in Kachin State. He can be reached at [email protected]. 

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