Importance of Myanmar

A significant contribution to India’s knowledge of the East, which is essential for a successful “Look East” policy.

Published : Jan 06, 2016 12:30 IST

RAJIV BHATIA’S India-Myanmar Relations , although packed with his exhaustive knowledge of the topic, reminds me of a joke about an expert who flew over a country and wrote a book while another expert stayed in the country for a week and wrote an article. Rajiv Bhatia stayed in Myanmar as India’s Ambassador from 2002 to 2005. He had asked for the posting. Earlier, he was heading the territorial division in the Ministry of External Affairs dealing with Myanmar.

For many Indians, if not for most, Myanmar that we knew as Burma is a closed book. We have a vague idea that a long time ago our ancestors called it Suvarnabhumi. We do know of the Buddhist link in a superficial way. Our history or geography textbooks in school do not tell us much about Burma, which was a part of British India until 1937. The Indian media do not have a presence in Myanmar. We read about Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent electoral triumph, but we rarely come across an article on its significance unless it is from Rajiv Bhatia, who is an outstanding diplomat and an eminent scholar.

The first chapter is on changing Myanmar. The author proceeds in a systematic manner by first defining South Asia. This is necessary as Myanmar is not a member of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), but only an observer. But for India, Myanmar is important in many ways. As K.M. Panikkar put it in 1943 when Burma was under Japanese occupation, “defence of Burma is in fact defence of India and it is India’s primary concern no less than Burma’s to see its frontiers remain inviolate”. India and Myanmar can and should step up economic cooperation to the benefit of both.

The next chapter “Deciphering Myanmar: An Indian Perspective” deals with India’s perception of Myanmar over the centuries. We know about the Buddhist link but many of us do not know about the influence of Hinduism on our neighbour.

Let us take one example. The Burmese worshipped spirits ( nat s) before Buddhism came to the land. As a matter of fact the practice is still prevalent. Nat possibly is derived from the Sanskrit word nath . “Looking to the future, the Buddha is worshipped, while, looking to the present one worshippeth—spirits.”

Dealing with the theme of Myanmar’s unity in diversity, the author points out that the British ruled directly from Rangoon (now Yangon), a new capital established in 1885, only a part of the country known as the “ministerial Burma” consisting of Lower and Upper Burma. The rest of the country, mainly the hill regions, enjoyed autonomy under some supervision. Before its independence in 1948, there was reason to fear that only a “truncated Burma” might emerge as independent. It goes to the credit of Bogyoke Aung San to have won the confidence of the various ethnic groups. He combined to an extent the roles of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel. In 1947, the Shan, Kachin and Chin communities agreed with the Burmese leaders to form the Union of Burma. The 1947 Constitution gave Shan and Kayah States the right to secession.

The author traces the complex political developments since independence with remarkable clarity. The author is able to look at Myanmar in a holistic way. Otherwise, the narrative might have been indigestible. The style is at times acronymous but there is a long list of acronyms to help the reader.

The third chapter covers India-Myanmar relations from antiquity to the Raj. As China and India radiated their influence, cultural and otherwise, their neighbourhood virtually became “a battleground”. In the long run, Indian culture triumphed everywhere save “in Annam and Tongking…. Burma’s debt to India is great”. The conventional view that links with India date from the arrival of Theravada Buddhism from Sri Lanka is refuted by archaeological excavations taking the interaction to an earlier time.

The first Anglo-Burmese War in 1824 was triggered by an attack on Cachar, a British-protected state. It ended in 1826 with Burma ceding Manipur, Assam, Arakan and Tenasserim. Arakan was absorbed into the Bengal Presidency and Tenasserim was put under a Commissioner who reported to Penang in Malaya. It took the British 60 years to complete their conquest of Burma.

India’s interest Indian leaders took interest in the Suvarnabhumi. Rabindranath Tagore visited it in 1916 and 1924. Mahatma Gandhi was in Burma three times, in 1902, 1915, and 1929. He was happy to see that Burmese women “enjoy a freedom which no other women on earth enjoy elsewhere”. But, he was shocked that they smoked. He was “painfully surprised to see beautiful Burmese women disfigure their mouths by cheroots and cigars”. To the Indians in Burma, Gandhi’s advice was to “become one with the people here as sugar dissolves in milk”. Jawaharlal Nehru was in Burma in 1937. He, too, was charmed by the Burmese women. They were “full of charm and activity, and laughter peeped out of the corner of their eyes”.

The most important visitor from India was Subhas Chandra Bose. He moved the headquarters of his “Provisional Government of Free India” from Singapore to Rangoon when it was under Japanese occupation. Bose had spent two years in the Mandalay jail from 1925 to 1927. When he left Rangoon for good in April 1945, Bose gave out a stirring message titled “India Shall be Free”. He said prophetically: “I have always said that the darkest hour precedes the dawn. We are now passing through the darkest hour; therefore, the dawn is not far off.”

Martial law Not many of us in India are familiar with the circumstances that led to the establishment of military rule in Burma in 1962 when General Ne Win staged a coup and deposed Prime Minister U Nu. He suspended the 1947 Constitution and imposed martial law. The divisive politics, ineptitude of elected leaders and ethnic tensions paved the way for the coup. Ne Win proclaimed a new constitution in 1974 and Burma came under one-party rule. By 1988-1990, a period of transition started.

During the U Nu (Thakin Nu) era from 1948 to 1962, India and Burma were close. Nehru and U Nu were close personal friends. When Burma faced a serious threat from Communist rebels, India supplied arms. In 1951, the two countries signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Even when Burma took over land belonging to Indians through a piece of legislation in 1948, Nehru did not let that spoil the bilateral relations. At U Nu’s request, Nehru delayed recognition of the People’s Republic of China so that Burma could do be the first to do so outside the Communist bloc.

For years, India supported democracy in Myanmar even at the cost of unfriendly government-to-government relations. P.V. Narasimha Rao, who became Prime Minister in 1991, changed that policy. India needed support from Burma to address the insurgency in the north-eastern region. As part of the Look East policy, India started improving relations with the military government in Burma. The author, without any boasting, gives a fascinating account of his role in effecting the policy change.

The sixth chapter deals with the current bilateral relationship. There is a divide between some security experts and economists in general on the advantages and disadvantages of promoting transport connectivity between Myanmar and India. The former are worried about the threat from China and the latter point out the economic and political advantages of better connectivity. The author cogently advocates better connectivity.

The triangle The last chapter, “India-Myanmar-China Triangle”, starts on a personal note. Within weeks of presenting his credentials in 2002, the author and his wife were invited to luncheon by the Myanmarese Foreign Minister and his wife. There was nobody else. The Foreign Minister said that such an exclusive lunch is reserved only for diplomats from India and China. It is the triangle that explains much of Burma’s foreign policy, including its relations with India. For centuries, Myanmar has tried to follow a policy to preserve its independence from the two giants. If Buddhism came from India, cultural influences came from China as well as India. China invaded Burma a number of times whereas India had been invaded by Burma from time to time.

Hence, there has been a tendency to fear the northern neighbour and to seek friendship with the western one. This tendency was strong in the years following independence. Ne Win altered it. He visited China 12 times during the 26 years he was in power. He took numerous measures against Indians in Burma and expelled many. The Burmese Communist Party, with the support of China, caused Ne Win much trouble. However, the party was dissolved in 1989.

It would be interesting to compare the policies of India and China towards Myanmar. The author quotes a Myanmarese scholar who assessed that while China showed “a high degree of consistency”, India’s policy went through three phases: criticism and opposition from 1988 to 1992, normalising relations from 1993 to 2000, and comprehensive cooperation since 2002.

China has consistently ignored the democratic aspirations of the people in Myanmar. In 2011, the author advised the Government of India to invite Aung San Suu Kyi, as it was necessary to invite her before China did. She came to India in 2012. She was invited to China only in June 2015.

The India-Myanmar-China triangle is likely to be affected by Myanmar’s “pivot” towards the United States, the European Union, Japan and its other partners in East Asia. “Therefore, the triangle should be viewed and assessed not in isolation, but in the wider context of Myanmar’s worldview since independence, and the gradual transformation of its foreign policy in recent years,” the author concludes.

The book will be of interest not only to students of international relations and diplomats but also to the general public in India, Myanmar, and the wider India-Pacific region. India cannot have a successful Look East or Act East policy without knowing the East. Rajiv Bhatia has made a significant contribution to our knowledge of the East.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian is author of Diplomacy: Indian Style , published in 2012.

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