Myanmar has witnessed dramatic developments in the recent past as the country moves towards a more open political system and re-engages the international community after long years of isolation. These developments have been taking place alongside rapidly changing strategic and economic dynamics in the region. It is in this context that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar assumes great significance.
In the past decade or so, India’s Myanmar policy has been driven largely by its security and economic considerations. However, the engagement has at least laid the ground for the two neighbours to take their relationship to a higher level. This is in spite of the fact that the political stalemate in Myanmar, between the military regime and pro-democracy movements, coupled with New Delhi’s own sluggish policy implementation and lack of coordination, have impeded the growth of the relationship.
India wants to increase its role and presence in Southeast Asia and beyond. The prime minister’s visit to Myanmar will be seen as part of this effort, within the evolving regional geopolitics, as Myanmar tries to rebalance its external engagements. New Delhi would want to use the visit to reaffirm its willingness to strengthen the relationship with its eastern neighbour, and with the hope that Myanmar both becomes the bridge and acts as a gateway in reaching the East.
Myanmar, meanwhile, will want to see the high-profile visit as a re-affirmation of its reforms, and will hope that the strengthening of ties with the region’s major player will enhance its profile. It aspires to regain its historical place as a regional powerhouse. Naypyidaw will, of course, seek development assistance from New Delhi as it plays catch-up with its neighbours.
Even as the ongoing political transition in Myanmar has made progress under President Thein Sein, the country still faces daunting challenges on several fronts. It remains one of the poorest nations in the region despite being endowed with rich natural resources. Long years of economic mismanagement and military rule have had disastrous consequences, and it will take years for the country to build the capacity it requires. In fact it is here that India’s role and support could play a critical role.
Thus India needs to define its role in Myanmar; and this visit should be used to chart out a long-term plan for enduring cooperation and mutual benefits. The focus of the visit needs to be on creating the ground for strengthening and broad-basing engagement with all the political players in Myanmar; deepening economic ties; and increasing the connectivity between two countries.
Prime Manmohan Singh’s meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi will, of course, send a strong message to her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and other pro-democracy parties that India supports the values they have long struggled for. As India engages Suu Kyi and the NLD, it is important that India also build strong ties with the military-backed ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party.
Equally important is building a bridge to Myanmar’s many ethnic political parties — particularly those from the states bordering India. These could play a critical role in dealing with border issues — whether these are related to connectivity, to security, or to infrastructure, trade and investment. More importantly, sharing India’s parliamentary and democratic experiences with Myanmar’s political parties could go a long way in strengthening Myanmar’s nascent democracy.
India and Myanmar have several common social, economic and security issues along their shared border. New Delhi and Naypyidaw are aware that in dealing with these issues, they need each others’ help. Working out a common strategy for development of their border regions will serve well in resolving some of the long-standing ethnic unrest on both sides of the border, as well as other border-related security issues. Increased connectivity to boost economic activities in the border regions will be central to this effort.
For both New Delhi and Naypyidaw, economic development that respects local sensitivities and benefits the local population of India’s Northeast and Myanmar’s Northwestern region are the only answer to resolve the decades-old armed violence that has characterised the two regions. Ethnic communities along the India-Myanmar border have long been seen as a security problem; little, however, has been done by both powers to change this, and efforts to make them key stakeholders in the bilateral relationship have been negligible. This must change.
India needs to focus on its strengths while dealing with Myanmar. Two areas where India can, perhaps, make the biggest impact are the health and education sectors. Indian pharmaceuticals companies have already created a strong presence for themselves in Myanmar, dominating the market with a share of over 40 per cent. India is already involved in building hospitals in Myanmar, and these efforts needs to be expanded by involving the Indian private sector.
Despite the rich traditional and cultural ties between the two countries through history, the present-day presence of each in the popular imagination of the other is dismally low. There is an urgent need to encourage people-to-people contacts. India has several “soft power” advantages that could be leveraged to increase its image in Myanmar. Bodh Gaya and other Buddhist shrines in India could be used to attract Burmese visitors. And Indian educational institutions are yet another area where India can project its image. To this end, offering scholarships to Burmese students to study in Indian universities and technical institutes such as information technology and computer science will ensure a long-term relationship with Myanmar’s younger generations. It may be noted that Aung San Suu Kyi studied and lived in India in the mid-1960s and late 1980s.
As immediate neighbours, sharing long land and maritime boundaries, India and Myanmar have little choice but to engage each other closely. Such engagement, particularly after a long spell of strategic distance, needs understanding of each other’s social and economic interests, and respect for each other’s political and strategic concerns. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit will be considered crucial by historians, if he succeeds in laying a strong foundation for an enduring relationship between India and its most distant neighbour.
The writer is at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi