Coming closer

Published : Aug 27, 2010 00:00 IST

PRIME MINISTER MANMOHAN Singh with Myanmar's military ruler Genral. Than Shwe before talks in New Delhi on July 27.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

PRIME MINISTER MANMOHAN Singh with Myanmar's military ruler Genral. Than Shwe before talks in New Delhi on July 27.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

The visit of Gen. Than Shwe, the leader of the ruling military junta in Myanmar, points to the strengthening ties between the two countries.

THAT relations between India and Myanmar are on an upswing has been evident for some years now. The visit of Senior General Than Shwe, the leader of the military-led government of Myanmar, in the last week of July to India was an illustration of the growing friendship between the two neighbours. There have been many such high-profile exchanges of visits since the beginning of the decade. The 1990s saw an ebb in bilateral relations as India threw in its lot with Aung San Suu Kyi and the political movement she has been leading since the late 1980s for the restoration of democracy. With the vice-like grip of the Army showing no signs of loosening, India and many other countries have opted to do business with the government in Myanmar. The military junta's decision to hold elections later in the year, albeit under tightly controlled conditions, has improved its image to an extent.

India, which shares a 1,640-kilometre-long border with Myanmar, has political and strategic reasons to forge a strong relationship with the government there. Strengthening relations with its neighbours is integral to India's Look East policy. The policy aims at strengthening economic and political ties with South-East Asian countries in particular. From the security point of view, the presence of many insurgent groups, Indian as well as Myanmarese, along the porous border has necessitated active cooperation and coordination between the two countries. This cooperation has benefited both the countries, which have been battling separatist groups since their independence. Smuggling of narcotics and weapons across the border is also rampant.

The most important agreement signed during the Than Shwe visit was the one on mutual legal assistance. Under the agreement, members of Indian insurgent groups held in Myanmar can be deported to India to face trial. Many separatist fighters wanted in India are currently in custody in Myanmar. During Than Shwe's visit, the two sides also held wide-ranging talks on enhancing economic and military cooperation. There has been a substantial increase in bilateral trade between the countries in the past couple of years.

India's Home Secretary G.K. Pillai was in Naypyidaw, the new capital of Myanmar, in January. The two countries agreed during talks then that their priority was the elimination of insurgent camps that continued to be active along their borders. In October last year, Indian Army chief Gen. Deepak Kapoor was in Myanmar to discuss enhanced military cooperation between the two countries. After the Home Secretary's visit, Myanmar pledged to carry out coordinated operations to flush out insurgents belonging to groups such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the Manipuri People's Liberation Front (MPLF), the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). A statement from the Indian Home Ministry said: Security forces of India and Myanmar will conduct coordinated operations in their respective territories in the next two to three months. The objective of the operations is that no militant can escape to the other side after facing the heat on one side.

Myanmar under the military junta has been facing economic sanctions from the West and is dependent on investments and support from economically strong neighbours such as China, India and countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Myanmar is a member of ASEAN. The West has also been accusing Myanmar of pursuing a clandestine nuclear programme. When Than Shwe was in New Delhi, the United States State Department spokesman told the media that it was the responsibility of countries having a relationship with Myanmar to convey strongly to the leadership there about the need to promote democracy and protect the region from the risk of proliferation. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said that New Delhi should use its standing in the international community to impress upon the government in Myanmar to embrace reform.

Until the late 1990s, the military leadership in Myanmar viewed Aung San Suu Kyi as being too close to New Delhi, where she spent some of her formative years. India had given its highest civilian honour, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award, to Aung San Suu Kyi in 1993. Thousands of Myanmarese refugees, most of them pro-democracy activists, are still in the country. But now pro-democracy groups are accusing New Delhi of sacrificing its principles on the altar of realpolitik. There were scattered demonstrations by pro-democracy groups during the visit of the Burmese leader. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen criticised India's embrace of the military rulers of Myanmar, in a speech he delivered in the presence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the first week of August. But democracies have their compulsions. The U.S. has been the biggest backer of authoritarian regimes worldwide, ranging from monarchies to military dictatorships.

Indian policymakers have not hidden the fact that the key reason for engaging the government in Myanmar is to checkmate the growing Chinese influence there. Than Shwe's visit to New Delhi came soon after he had hosted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. After the political upheaval in Burma (as Myanmar was known then) in 1988, the military junta that took over found itself isolated from most of the international community. China was among the few countries that continued to do business with the then beleaguered regime in Yangon. China signed important economic and defence agreements with Myanmar in the late 1980s and the early 1990s.

The earlier military regime under Gen. Ne Win had kept both India and China at arm's length. The Myanmarese elite have always been suspicious of the motives of the two big neighbours. But after the events of 1988 and the subsequent warming of Sino-Myanmarese ties, northern Myanmar was opened up to Chinese trade in a big way by the mid-1990s. India feared that the Chinese influence in Myanmar was spreading by the day. The Chinese government has always denied that it has any military ambitions in Myanmar. But U.S. and Indian agencies have claimed that the Chinese are building monitoring facilities at Myanmarese ports near the strategic Straits of Malacca as part of their so-called string of pearls strategy to encircle India.

India's Look East strategy had started under the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led Congress government but it was the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government that took the first concrete steps to implement it. Normalising relations with Myanmar was seen as essential for India to leverage its geopolitical proximity to the South-East Asian region. The then Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh started the process by making two visits to Myanmar in 2001 and 2002. The first visit was to inaugurate the India-Myanmar Friendship Road, and the second was to start talks on building the ambitious Trans-Asia highway project. High-level military contacts started in 2000 when the Indian Army chief met with his Myanmarese counterpart. India has since started supplying Myanmar limited amounts of weaponry, and providing training to military personnel from that country. Myanmar was crucial to the Indian government in view of the BIMST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation) and the Kunming Initiative, an effort involving India, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. These developments took place although India's Defence Minister at the time, George Fernandes, was a vocal supporter of the Myanmarese democracy movement. The residence of the Minister was for a long time the unofficial headquarters of exiled student activists from Myanmar who had spearheaded the movement for the restoration of democracy.

The Indian government's policy seems to have turned full circle since then. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in 2006 that India cannot export democracy to neighbouring countries and that India had to deal with governments as they exist. The Indian government is of the view that the elections scheduled to be held later in the year in Myanmar are a step forward. After a long time, the people of Myanmar will be able to elect a new President, two houses of Parliament and 14 regional legislators and governors. The military government has stated that its goal is to establish a disciplined democracy under a parliamentary system of government.

Today, despite protests from the West, Indian companies are investing in Myanmar's rich hydrocarbon sector. During the Than Shwe visit, the two countries also agreed to cooperate in the fields of information, science and technology. India will give $60 million as grant for the construction of a road linking India's north-eastern region to Myanmar and another grant of $10 million to buy agricultural machinery. The Indian government is more focussed on strengthening economic and strategic ties with Myanmar than on spreading Western-style democracy in that country. The agreements signed between the two countries coincided with the Obama administration's renewal of sanctions against Myanmar.

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