India and Myanmar relations: Change in dynamics by democratic triumph

Finally democracy triumphed in Myanmar. Can India leverage its democratic institutions to further cement its relationship with ‘the land of golden pagodas’?

After decades of struggle, finally democracy triumphed over military junta and Myanmar parliament enters democratic era after 54 years of military rule. It’s time to glance over India-Myanmar relations and how India will be benefited from such stable democratic government.

India and Myanmar have traditionally had much in common, with cultural, historical, ethnic and religious ties, in addition to sharing a long geographical land border and maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. Let’s see it in brief!

How did India and Myanmar engagement begin ?

  • Myanmar is India’s bridge to east, and an important ally for growing its regional power.
  • India and Myanmar’s relationship officially got underway after the Treaty of Friendship was signed in 1951.
  • For many years, India did not open up to the authoritarian regime, and it was only over a period of time that India started engaging with the military junta of Myanmar.
  • The region’s focus has revolved around the SAARC countries and China, Myanmar is becoming increasingly important for India in both a strategic and economic context.

What about bilateral trade ties?

  • Bilateral trade has grown from $12.4 million in 1980-81 to $2.18 billion in 2013-14.
  • Agricultural items like beans and pulses and forest based products make up nearly 90 percent of India’s imports.
  • Myanmar is also the beneficiary of a duty-free tariff preference scheme for least developed countries (LDCs).
  • Both countries also signed a border trade agreement in 1994 and have 2 trade points along their 1,643 km border.
  • India has also promoted some trade events such as the India Product Show 2012, which represented 19 Indian companies.

But, How shared cultural links promote unique relations between both countries?

  • The two countries have shared cultural exchanges through various cultural troupes.
  • One such exchange was in 2009 when Myanmar sent a 13 member student group that attended a SAARC cultural festival in India.
  • This was followed by another major event at which the Indian embassy in Yangon organized the annual Indian Film Festival, which is a major event on the Yangon cultural calendar.

Does India have historical bond with Myanmar?

  • Yes! Yangon was once a center for India’s independence struggle.
  • The Indian National Army (INA), formed by Indian nationalists during World War II in 1942 with the motto of Ittehad, Itmad aur Qurbani (Unity, Faith and Sacrifice).
  • Comprised over 40,000 soldiers, who fought valiantly against the British imperialist forces.
  • Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose became leader of the INA in 1943 and undertook a groundbreaking march towards Indian territories from Burmese soil with the aim of achieving Indian independence.<This time we can expect question on Netaji and his work, as we know current happenings about Netaji’s files declassified>
  • General Aung San, Burma’s independence hero, was a close friend of Netaji, the supreme commander of the INA.
  • That friendship was reflected in cordial relationship between the soldiers of the INA and their counterparts in the Burmese National Army (BNA).
  • So, it’s good to use this historical bond for building more coherent and strong relations with Myanmar.

How Myanmar is Strategically significant to India?

  • Myanmar is strategically important to India as it is the only ASEAN country that shares a land border with India.
  • It is also the only country that can act as a link between India and ASEAN.
  • Myanmar is India’s gateway to Southeast Asia and could be the required impetus to realize India’s Look East Policy.
  • India has also decided to upgrade the Kalewa-Yargyi road segment to highway standard.
  • Myanmar would develop the Yargyi-Monywa portion, and this would help to connect Moreh in India to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar.
  • This in turn would improve India’s connectivity and relationship with both Myanmar and Thailand.

How can India become regional pivot in Asia?

  • If India is to become an assertive regional player in Asia, it has to work toward developing policies that would improve and strengthen it domestically.
  • This will encourage more confidence in its ability to lead the region and be an important global player.
  • Competition with China should also be considered and taken seriously. As China’s growing influence in the region would lead to a more one-sided dynamic in the region.
  • China has asserted itself through its soft power as well as through its trade and economic relations with Myanmar by taking up large infrastructure projects in the country.
  • India on the other hand needs to use its soft power more effectively, and at the same time strengthen itself domestically and regionally.

What are advantages that India has over China with regard to Myanmar?

  • One is the democratic process, which results in different governments at the center and states through free and fair elections.
  • There is also the respect for institutions that are strong enough to hold the country together.
  • Finally, cooperation in different multilateral forums such as ASEAN and BIMSTEC strengthen the relationship between the 2 countries.
  • Apart from these reasons, India has sent a clear signal that while economic ties are important, it is keen to build a holistic relationship and is prepared to assist in institution building in Myanmar.

What is the significance of Connectivity in India-Myanmar Relations? 

<How North-Eastern region can play vital role in this?>

  • Myanmar’s vast oil and natural gas reserves and other resources make it a natural partner for many countries in the world.
  • India, being its next door neighbour, cannot be indifferent to this reality.
  • Besides, geo-political considerations, historical and civilizational links, and the ethnic overlap across their borders, have all come together to make India’s North-East the land bridge between the South and South-East Asia through Myanmar.
  • The 1,640 km-long border between Myanmar and the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram signifies the importance of this eastern neighbour for India.
  • India expects to reap various economic benefits by bolstering bilateral trade and investment, which critically depends upon better connectivity in the region.

How bilateral cooperation agreement gives impetus to India’s Look-East Policy?

  • The strategic location of Myanmar is pivotal to India in reaching out to the economically vibrant South-East Asian countries.
  • India’s Look-East Policy envisages building infrastructure and expanding the transportation network including railroads, aimed at furthering surface connectivity in the region.
  • It is recognized that in addition to more economic contacts, such connectivity will promote social stability in the region by facilitating people-to-people contact amongst trans-border ethnic groups.
  • It is expected that insurgent outfits would lose their recruitment base once the local resources begin to be exploited and employment is generated leading to overall development. 
  • Concrete economic benefits are expected to come up in the region with establishment of border haats.
  • In addition, internal trade routes have the potential to enhance accessibility to sub-regional markets that connect Bangladesh, Myanmar and Bhutan.

Way forward

  • The basic foundation for the relationship between India and Myanmar has been laid by previous governments, the onus is on the present Indian administration to demonstrate that it can take the relationship to a higher level.
  • India can become a strong regional player through a more proactive approach, cement India’s place in the region and grow into a powerful, global country.

Published with inputs from Arun

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