Myanmar - India's bridge to Southeast Asia

By Deepak Nagpal | Last Updated: Nov 11, 2014, 11:51 AM IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is travelling to Myanmar today (Tuesday). Being a neighbouring country, Myanmar holds a special yet unique place in India's foreign policy.

For India, Myanmar is a gateway to Southeast Asia. And for Myanmar, India is a window to South Asia. However, the two countries have not been able to realise the full potential of their relationship due to the differences in their political system and several other issues.

The absence of Myanmar President U Thein Sein at Narendra Modi’s swearing-in was indicative of the not-so-warm relationship that the two countries share. While almost the entire neighbourhood was invited for the ceremony, New Delhi apparently did not send an invite to Nay Pyi Taw.

However, PM Modi’s visit to Myanmar, also for the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting, will seek to chart a new path for the development of bilateral relations. During the visit, Modi will meet President Thein Sein as well as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy.

The relationship between India and Myanmar (erstwhile Burma) goes back to pre-independence days. British rulers had made Myanmar a province of British India. However, the two separated again in 1937. Post-independence, bilateral relations have been in force since 1948.

India has been a democracy since independence, and much more open to the rest of the world. Myanmar, on the other hand, has been an authoritarian, closed regime for most part of its existence. Even the last national elections in 2011, which in many ways were a controlled exercise, saw military ruler U Thein Sein take over as President.

India governments have over the years been supportive of opposition leader Suu Kyi, who was released in November 2010 after years under house arrest. Her movements had been curbed due to her pro-democracy movement and demand for national elections. This had further complicated the bilateral relationship between the two nations.

At the time when India and other countries were not proactive in engaging with Myanmar due to the suppression of democracy there, it was China that sought to fill in the vacuum and started collaborating with Myanmar. It took up infrastructure projects, built roads and also assisted in modernising the Myanmarese armed forces.

Among the notable projects which China has undertaken in Myanmar include the gas/oil pipeline from Yunan province to the Bay of Bengal Port of Kyaukphu. It has also proposed the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor, which will start from Yunan province’s capital Kunming, cover Mandalay (Myanmar), Dhaka and Chittagong (Bangladesh), and culminate in Kolkata.

Beijing has also been involved with the Irrawaddy Corridor project which would see the setting up of road, river and rail link from China’s Yunan province to the Myanmarese ports of Sittwe and Kyaukphu.

In many circles, this project is seen, along with infrastructure development work in the Trans-Karakoram Corridor stretching till Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, as an attempt to surround India.

For India, the task now is to match up to China’s initiatives which have helped it foray into Myanmar, and establish a strategic relationship with the military junta, while also taking advantage of the absence of other countries due to political reasons.

Both India and Myanmar share a 1600-kilometre-long border that encompasses land and sea. Four northeastern Indian states – Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh – share border with Myanmar. This provides an opportunity for India to connect itself to Southeast Asian countries through Myanmar via land route. To achieve this, work is already underway on an India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, which is expected to be ready by 2016.

This geographical closeness also provides India with an opportunity to develop northeastern states by ramping up trade with Myanmar as well as by taking up joint infrastructure development. A healthy bilateral relationship between India and Myanmar could open up the Northeast for tourism potential from much-better-integrated Southeast Asian countries.

Better ties with Myanmar would also help New Delhi in tackling insurgencies in several northeastern states. Collaboration with the Myanmarese armed forces would ensure that insurgents don’t find safe haven in the neighbouring country.

Of late, bilateral trade between India and Myanmar has also seen an upsurge and is currently at the level of $2.18 billion. However, huge potential remains untapped and PM Modi’s visit will have this high on agenda - targeting a $3 billion figure in the next two years.

Also, the two countries have been stepping up military contacts with the then Indian Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh making a five-day visit to Myanmar late last year.

Further, the new Myanmar regime is trying to open itself up in a globalised world and mend its ties with the West. This scenario presents an opportunity for India to seize the moment and firm up its ties with the Southeast Asian nation.

Some steps have already been taken in this regard by the Indian government. After the election of a democratically elected government in March 2011, the then prime minister Manmohan Singh had paid a state visit to Myanmar in 2012. The visit saw launching of several new initiatives, inking of various agreements between the two governments, and announcement of investment and deals by Indian firms.

India has already taken up the resurfacing and upgrading of the 160 km Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road and the Kaladan project – these will link Kolkata Port with under-development Sittwe Port in Myanmar. Once completed, the projects will help India link Kolkata with Mizoram and other northeastern states through inland waterway and road along the Kaladan river.

In order to improve connectivity, a bus service between Imphal and Mandalay is also to be launched very soon.