Foreign Policy Watch: India-Myanmar

Myanmar’s internal situation shouldn’t hobble India’s ‘Act East’ policy


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Paper 2- Act East Policy


The military takeover in Myanmar on February 1, 2021 and its aftermath have seen an adverse impact on India’s Act East policy.

What happened in Myanmar?

  • The 2021 coup occurred in the aftermath of the general election on 8 November 2020, in which the NLD won 396 out of 476 seats in parliament, an even larger margin of victory than in the 2015 election. The military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, won only 33 seats. The Army claimed the results of the election were rigged and did not acknowledge the results.
  • On February 3 2021, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest under charges for breaking COVID-19 laws. Additional charges included importing and using radio and communication devices from her security team which is prohibited in Myanmar and require clearances from intelligence agencies.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi received an additional criminal charge for violating the National Disaster Act on 16 February, and two additional charges for violating communications laws and an intent to incite public unrest on 1 March.

Events of the Myanmar Coup

  • By March 31st 2021, at least 520 civilians have been killed by military or police forces and at least 3070 pope. At least three members from the NLD have died in police custody
  • About 400 elected parliament members were placed under house arrest. Following the coup, the NLD arranged for the MPs to remain housed in the complex until 6 February.
  • When the Myanmar ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, condemned the coup by the military, he was fired from his post the following day.
  • Civil resistance efforts have emerged within the country, in opposition to the. Numerous acts of civil disobedience labour strokes, military boycott campaign, and formal recognition of the election results by elected officials
  • Since the onset of the coup, residents in urban centres such as Yangon staged cacerolazos, striking pots and pans in unison every evening as a symbolic act to drive away evil, as a method of expressing their opposition to the coup.

India’s stance regarding the Myanmar Coup

  • Ever since the protests started, there have been reports of defections from the Myanmar Police Force. On March 11, 2021, 11 officers crossed the India-Myanmar border into the state of Mizoram with their families. The Myanmar government reached out to India to extradite them, with the Indian government replying that they would make a decision regarding that matter.
  • The Assam Rifles were given orders to tighten security along the India–Myanmar border. From 10 March, the border has been closed after 48 nationals from Myanmar have crossed it.
  • Officially, the Indian government has expressed its deepest concern regarding the developing situation in Myanmar. While supporting a smooth and transitional process towards democracy, it is also concerned that the instability in Myanmar may affect the northeastern states.

Look East Policy

  • In order to recover from the loss of the strategic partner -USSR (end of the Cold war 1991), India sought to build up a relationship with the USA and allies of the USA in Southeast Asia.
  • In this pursuit, former Prime minister of India P V Narasimha Rao launched Look East policy in 1992, to give a strategic push to India’s engagement with the South-East Asia region, to bolster its standing as a regional power and a counterweight to the strategic influence of the People’s Republic of China.


Difference Between Look East and Act East:

Look East:

  • Look East policy focused on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries + Economic Integration.
  • India became a dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1996 and summit level partner in 2002.
  • In 2012 the relationship got up-graded into a Strategic Partnership.
  • The time when India launched the Look East Policy in 1992, India’s trade with ASEAN was USD 2 billion. After signing the Free Trade Agreement in 2010 with ASEAN, the trade has grown to USD 72 billion (2017-18).
  • India is also an active participant in several regional forums like the East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) etc.


Act East:

Act East Policy focused on ASEAN countries + Economic Integration + East Asian countries + Security cooperation.

Prime minister of India highlighted 4C’s of Act East Policy.

  • Culture
  • Commerce
  • Connectivity
  • Capacity building


  • Security is an important dimension of India’s Act East Policy.
  • In the context of growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, securing freedom of navigation and India’s own role in the Indian Ocean is a key feature of Act East Policy.
  • In pursuance of this, India has been engaged under the narrative of Indo-pacific and informal grouping called Quad.

Impact on Act East policy

  • With the present dispensation in Myanmar, the Act East policy is going nowhere.
  • Impact on outreach: This has not only stymied New Delhi’s initiatives in terms of land outreach towards the vibrant economies of South East Asia, but has retarded development in the Northeast.
  • Pragmatism demands that an ambitious policy that had fired the aspirations of the Northeast does not become a casualty to the inertia of policymakers.
  • There seems to be a full-bodied recalibration exercise among insurgent groups operating from the Sagaing Division and Chin State in Myanmar.
  • In the north, the ULFA which was until recently in a submissive mood and had declared three back-to-back unilateral ceasefires has suddenly turned belligerent.
  • Need for a relook at Act East policy: In this background, a fresh look needs to be taken at both the furtherance of the Act East policy and the security matrix that governs the Northeast.


1] Opening a new axis of land-sea connectivity

  • Promoting trade and commerce: Favourable bilateral relations with Bangladesh offer an opportunity for opening a new axis of land-sea connectivity for promoting trade and commerce with Southeast Asia.
  • Upgrade land routes: There is a need to upgrade the multitude of land routes to the seaports of Mongla and Chittagong in Bangladesh, from Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura.
  • The key land linkages from the Northeast are — Agartala via Akhaura, Dawki (Meghalaya) via Tamabil, Sutarkandi (Assam), and Srimantapur (Tripura) via Bibir Bazar.
  • Exploit shared river connectivity: In addition, there is a need to use inland water transport (IWT) to exploit the shared river connectivity of the Brahmaputra and Barak rivers.

2] Continued engagement with Myanmar

  • The land gateway to South East Asia does not seem likely in the near future.
  • But there should be no dilution in our initiatives to ensure that peace and stability return to Myanmar at the earliest.
  • For this, there is a need for continued engagement, both formal and informal, with the warring factions in Myanmar.

3] Develop appropriate infrastructure

  • Appropriate infrastructure such as container depots, cold storage facilities and seamless highways will have to be developed on a war footing.
  • Indian manufactured goods will have to be transported to the rail/roadheads in the Northeast like Guwahati for ready access to the seaports of Bangladesh.

4] Integrated defence zones

  • To make ineffective the strike capability of the insurgent groups there is a need to create “integrated defence zones”.
  •  These should be jointly manned by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar army) and the Indian Army/Assam Rifles
  • To enthuse dynamism and empower the Assam Rifles, there is a need to retain its current structure of being officered by the Indian Army, as it ensures systemic command and control.
  • This force needs to be mandated to undertake intelligence operations for greater transparency of the events within Myanmar and further the national strategy.


The Act East policy is intertwined with India’s Northeast policy. Let not the dismal scenario of Myanmar impede our vision for the actualisation of our ambitious Act East to go East, as alternates exist. To that end, there is a need to ensure the continued economic development of Northeastern states.


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