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Mainstream, VOL L, No 24, June 2, 2012

Indo-Burma Relations: A Historical Overview

Friday 8 June 2012

What Matters the Most: Democracy or Security?

by Sampa Kundu

In the wake of the recent developments in Burma and PM Manmohan Singh’s latest visit to that country the following article is being published.

I. Introduction

India, the largest country in South Asia, is often being criticised for its policy of engagement with Myanmar. The question is: why does a democratic country like India keep itself engaged with the military backed civilian government of Myanmar where the people have been deprived of democratic rights since 1962? The second question is: how is this partnership benefiting India, if at all? In simple terms, democracy is a situation where winners do not take all, losers ‘live to fight another day’.1 It implies that democracy believes in distribution of opportunities and right to participation. Another very important connotation of democracy is that the absence of democracy in one country is likely to create problems in neighboring societies and states as well. Therefore, it is believed that India is bound to feel the negative influences of Myanmar if it continues to be ‘soft’ towards its closest South-East Asian neighbour. In fact, North-East India, the in-house corridor of India towards Myanmar, has already begun to feel it. But then, the point is, North-East India’s problems are exclusive in nature and the liability goes to our own government. Is it possible that a democratic Myanmar would help alleviate the problems in North-East India and secure her interests?

It is true that from the point of morality and ethics, India should be empathetic towards the common people of Myanmar and support the democratic movement there. But then the question arises as to whether today’s international politics is being led by idealistic theories or it is the realistic approach that guides nations in their foreign policy formulations. All these questions need to be addressed in the background of India’s policy towards Myanmar and in the context of India’s other external relations, particularly with South Asia and China. This background is important for understanding the implications of India’s relations with Myanmar.

II. India’s Foreign Policy towards Myanmar—from 1947 to the Present

The first leaders of independent India and Burma (then) were quite alike in their thinking and approach to problems. In the early years of nation-building both Jawaharlal Nehru and U Nu maintained close bilateral relations between the two countries. In January 1952, India and Burma signed a friendship agreement and promised to meet ‘time to time and as often as occasion requires to exchange views on matters of common interest and to consider ways and means for mutual cooperation in such matters’.2 They extended full support to each other whenever one required the other. Burma and India signed an agreement in 1954 through which India received additional amount of rice from its counterpart to overcome food shortage. Then, in 1955, India granted a huge amount of loan to Burma at a low interest rate.3 The list of bilateral trade and other agreements between India and Burma was extensive and grew with the passage of true.

U Nu and Nehru adopted almost similar approaches in their respective foreign policies at regional and international fora. They stuck to Non-Alignment as the basis of their Cold War era foreign policy in order to avoid entanglement with either of the superpowers. By maintaining a distance from direct Cold War tensions, they wanted to concentrate on domestic developments. It was quite a realistic and pragmatic approach that could have been taken by any newly indepen-dent country focusing on nation-building.

The situation changed in 1962 when General Ne Win succeeded to wrest power in Burma. Between 1960s and the early 1990s, India’s Burma policy was guided more by the moral aspects and India wanted to isolate herself from the military regime in Burma that began to ignore democratic values and institutions and instead imposed authoritarianism.4 India extended its full support towards the pro-democratic movement in Burma, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and a large number of Burmese protesters received shelter in India.

The last change in Indo-Myanmar relationship can be traced to the then Indian Foreign Secretary, J.N. Dixit’s visit to Myanmar (as it was renamed in 1989) in 1993. On March 30, 1993 both sides signed an agreement for mutual cooperation for preventing illicit trafficking in narcotics, drugs and arms. In 1995, the Indian and Myanmarese military launched a joint military operation named ‘Operation Golden Bird’ against several North-Eastern rebels active across the Indo-Myanmar border. In the same year both countries concluded a border trade agreement and by that agreement two border trade posts were opened, one at Moreh in Manipur, India and the another one in Tamu in Sagaing Division, Myanmar. According to our Ministry of External Affairs, the bilateral trade between India and Myanmar was around US $ 365 million over the period April-June of 2009-2010.5 The bilateral trade between India and Myanmar has actually shown a steady growth from US $ 12.4 million in 1980-81 to US $ 995 million in 2007-2008.6 In 2001, the 160 km long Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road, built by our Border Roads Organisation, was opened. This change is described by S.D.Muni as a period when realism and political pragmatism emerged as the guiding principle for Indian foreign policy and commitments to democracy faded into the background.7

India, in fact, has been involved with Myanmar in many other projects and activities in order to strengthen the bilateral relationship. Both the countries have sought to cooperate with each other in various regional and sub-regional initia-tives too. Their involvement in the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multilateral Scientific, Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC), Kunming Initiative or the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Initiative (BCIM) are noteworthy, among others. Myanmar and India share space in the Association of South-East Asian nations (ASEAN) too. In the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) also Myanmar has become an observer. Sharing of common platforms with other regional countries has enabled both India and Myanmar in making their relationship closer and more intimate.
The bilateral visits by the respective high level dignitories to the other country have created a space where both the nation-states have got opportunities to reduce mistrust and build an environment of engagement. On his visit to India, the former head of state, Than Shwe, concluded five agreements with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The agreements included a Treaty on Mututal Assistance in Criminal Matters, Memo-randum of Understanding (MOU) regarding Indian grant assistance for implementation of small developmental projects, agreements of cooperation in the fields of science and technology, MOU on information cooperation, and MOU for the conservation and restoration of Ananda temple, Bagan, Myanmar. The question is: why has India embarked on such an intensive relationship with Myanmar? The answer to this question lies in India’s quest for security, energy and stability in the region. For better understanding of the issue, it is important to project two important stakeholders—China and North-East India.

III. China Factor

China’s relations with Myanmar have also witnessed many turns and twists like the Indo-Myanmar relationship. The major turn came in 1988 when China supported Burma which was struggling at home to suppress the student uprising against the junta government in the country. Since then, China has always supported Myanmar in the international fora by reiterating that the democracy question is Myanmar’s internal affair and the outer world should not interfere in it. China has invested a huge amount of money in Myanmar in infrastructure, especially transpor-tation, exploration of natural gas and oil, and has also helped the country in strengthening her defence. This has the potential to go against India’s interest as New Delhi is also quite eager and interested in obtaining oil and natural gas from Myanmar and having direct transport access with South-East Asia via Myanmar. Thus, India’s hunt for alternative energy has pushed her towards her eastern neighbour. Further, in order to bring South-East Asia closer to India, it has taken initiatives like the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Multi-modal Transit and Transport Project.

IV. North-East India Factor

North-East India shares a 1643 km long border with Myanmar. North-East India’s geographical location is such that the rebels fighting the state often take shelter in the thick jungles in Myanmar. India has sought Myanmar’s help on various occasions in crushing these rebels. Security forces from both the countries have agreed to launch joint operations, joint investigations and interro-gation to handle the problem of insurgency in the region.

It is a well-established fact that stability and security in North-East India is the primary and most important prerequisite for her development.

V. Energy Factor

The increasing rate of economic growth in India has led to the gradual and continuous rise in its energy requirement. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), India’s energy requirement is expected to be double of what it is now, and by 2030 the country is likely to overtake Japan and Russia and be the third largest energy consumer after China and the United States of America (USA).8 India’s domestic production is, however, not sufficient to cater to this large demand for energy. Therefore, India has been importing oil, natural gas, petroleum products and other items from abroad to meet the domestic demand.

At present India is trying to cultivate the Myanmar Government along with the govern-ments of a number of other countries to import oil and natural gas. Currently, India is seeking to explore Myanmar’s vast reserves of oil and natural gas through state and private enterprises. India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Videsh Limited (OVL), Gas Authority of India (GAIL), Essar Energy and some other enterprises and companies have stakes in Myanmar’s different onshore and offshore blocks for exploration and production.

India has been attempting to construct a gas pipeline through Myanmar and Bangladesh to this country and import gas from Myanmar via that line. But due to some hassles in Indo-Bangladesh relations the project has not been implemented till date. However, India has not abandoned its idea of importing gas from Myanmar and, if it does happen, that will definitely contri-bute to India’s energy security.

VI. Implications for India

A stronger partnership with Myanmar will definitely benefit India provided the latter partner is equally interested in having a close ally in India. Lack of interest on the part of Myanmar has all the possibility to jeopardise India’s aims and ambitions and may push back the entire region into the clutches of underdevelopment. With the ascendancy of the present civilian Prime Minister of Myanmar, Thein Sein, who has become the head of state after Senior General Than Shwe gave up the post following the last elections held in 2010, hopes have been raised in different levels and fora about Myanmar’s friendly approach towards regionalism and sub-regionalism. If that happens, it will definitely boost Indo-Myanmar relations as well.

Being a next door neighbour, India could not really afford a policy of disengagement with the rulers of Myanmar, particularly when the country is not able to predict China’s regional calculations. That’s why, after the visit of the US President to India in late 2010, it has been made clear that New Delhi will not change its Myanmar policy since that is driven by strategic interests.9 Only time will tell us whether India’s current policy towards Myanmar will be beneficial for the country or not.

As of now, India has achieved limited success in terms of getting Myanmar on board in fighting trans-border insurgency and developing cross-border trade and commerce and energy coope-ration initiatives. Expectations are high, the scope is limited and India is taking a calculated risk. The final output is yet to come and here the old maxim is well worth repeating: nations have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, they have only permanent interests. It is obvious that all nations follow their interests in international politics and India is no exception.

VII. Conclusion

India’s immediate neighbours fall into the top twentyfive failed states as ranked by the Fund for Peace and published by Foreign Policy.10 According to this list, Afghanistan ranks seventh, Pakistan twelfth, Myanmar eighteenth and Bang-ladesh is at the twentyfifth position. India itself has her own internal problems. This is clearly a vulnerable situation for the entire South and South-East Asian region. In fact, this is affecting the security environment in this part of the world. As an emerging global power, therefore, I believe, India should grant more development aid and grant to its neighbours. This should be added by India’s efforts to promote a cooperative political space between and amongst the countries in the region if it wants to sustain its own economic growth.

India has realised that a developed and pros-perous region cannot emerge with countries having so many internal problems. It actually affects an individual country too, as Vikram Sood has rightly said, ‘Globally, India is being recog-nised as a rising economic power but not in the region where economic development has become hostage to security issues.’11 It is of course true that in an undemocratic society like Myanmar, it would be difficult for the common people to taste the fruits of development, even if countries like China, India, Thailand, Singapore and others have been investing money in the country. It is also true that there is a possibility that only a handful people are benefiting from these foreign invest-ments and development projects in Myanmar. But then stopping all sorts of engagement with the country would not solve the problem. Further, the geostrategic position of Myanmar is such that India cannot ignore the country.

In the past when India interfered in the domestic issues in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, it was criti-cised by some of the policy-makers. Therefore, India’s policy today of not interfering in the internal problems of Myanmar and following a pragmatic line of action may be considered as an outcome of its previous experiences in regional and international politics.

1. Dr A. Lever, Keynote address at the “Ethics and Counter-Terrorism Workshop”, 2009.
2. D. Bhattacharjee, “Challenges in Indo-Myanmar Relations: South Asia Politics”as quoted in in L.K. Chowdhury, “Indo-Myanmar Relations: Retrospect and Prospect” in India Quarterly, Volume 61, 2005, pp. 143-164.
3. N. Jayapalan, Foreign Policy of India, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi, 2001, pp. 427-433.
4. M.B. Samantaray, “Indo-Myanmar relationship in the Changing World” in South Asia Politics, Volume 2, 2004, pp. 48-50.
5. Annual Report, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Policy Planning and Research Division, 2009-10.
6. Saurabh, Dynamics of Indo-Myanmar Economic Ties, IDSA, 2010 [Online; web] Accessed January 28, 2011, URL: saurabh_060110.
7. S.D. Muni, “Indian Foreign Policy: The Democracy Dimension (With special reference to neighbours)” as quoted in Arvind Kumar, “The Democracy Question in India’s Foreign Policy” in Mainstream, Volume XLVIII, 2009.
8. International Energy Agency (IEA), World Energy Outlook 2007, as quoted in T. Madan, “India’s International Quest for Oil and Natural Gas: Fuelling Foreign Policy” in India Review, Volume 9, 2010.
9. Burma Centre Delhi, Myanmar Policy Dictated by Strategy, 2010, [Online: web] accessed July 12, 2011, URL:, as published in the Hindustan Times.
10. “The Failed States Index 2011”, in Foreign Policy[Online: web] accessed July 12, 2011, URL: http://www. index_ interactive_map_and_rankings.
11. V. Sood, “India and Regional Security Interests” in Alyssa Ayres and C. Raja Mohan (eds.) Power Realignments in Asia: China, India and united States, as quoted in R.Mukherjee and D.R. Malone, “Indian Foreign policy and Contemporary security Challenges” in International Affairs, Volume-87, 2011, pp. 87-104.

The author is currently pursuing her doctoral thesis on “India and Myanmar in BIMSTEC: Implications for North-East India” from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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