When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives in Myanmar on May 28, it will be the first visit by a head of India’s government to its neighbour in a quarter of a century. This long gap was an important part of the international effort to exert pressure on the military junta, which has ruled Myanmar for decades, to end its stranglehold over the country’s polity and society — a dominance that, while not over, appears to have slackened in recent years. The most visible changes began with the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in November 2010, and the sustained negotiations between her party and Myanmar’s government through much of 2011 that led to its decision to contest elections. Those polls, in April, reinforced the popularity of Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Dr Singh’s visit comes, thus, during a slow transition towards popular democracy that should become irreversible in a few years.
India’s attitude towards Myanmar has been confused. While it correctly recognises that it does not have the luxury of distance – and thus needs to engage in order to ensure co-operation on, for example, dealing with insurgencies in India’s northeast – the country has been lax in leveraging its cultural contacts and local prestige to aid the transition to democracy. Long-term interests, thus, have been sacrificed for short-term gains. After all, juntas do not last forever; and there would have been significant pay-offs to having been the shield and support of the new democratic leadership. As matters stand now, Ms Suu Kyi and her fellows can legitimately feel somewhat betrayed. It is also beyond dispute that no popular regime will be as friendly to the People’s Republic of China as Myanmar’s military rulers have been. Dr Singh’s visit should aim to correct this error and focus the India-Myanmar relationship on the future. This will require ensuring quick moves towards cementing friendly bilateral ties, particularly in commerce.
India has traditionally viewed a more open Myanmar as a crucial connection between India’s northeast and the outside world, particularly fast-growing Southeast Asia. However, efforts to open trade in that direction have stuttered, given the Indian state’s lack of capacity and the fact that Myanmar’s north is still recovering from ethnic conflict. It is important, thus, that additional projects be agreed on. In particular, maritime connections between Myanmar’s coast and India’s eastern states should be enhanced. Private sector-led development of these seaborne connections should be explored. Of course, most estimates suggest that Myanmar has the world’s tenth largest reserves of natural gas; Dr Singh’s visit should focus on ensuring it will become an important destination for India’s resource-hungry energy sector. Government dilatoriness has held up the integration of Bangladesh’s economy with India’s, even though it was a favourable political moment. It is to be hoped that the right lessons have been drawn from that error.