Myanmar is one of India’s strategic neighbour and shares 1640 km lomg border with north-eastern states of Nagaland and Manipur. India has “historical ties and traditional bonds of friendship and cooperation” with Myanmar Five Bs are the base of India-Myanmar relations – Buddhism, Business, Bollywood, Bharatnatyam and Burma teak India attaches its partnership with Myanmar in accordance with its ‘Neighborhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policies
Why Myanmar is important for India
- The strategic location of Myanmar is beneficial for India’s economic engagement as well as physical and social connectivity.
- For India, Myanmar is key in linking South Asia to Southeast Asia and it becomes the focal point for New Delhi’s regional outreach.
- To connect and develop India’s Northeast
India’s primary interests in Myanmar
- To build an economic and security relationship that prevent Myanmar from slipping into the orbit of China.
- Ensure the Myanmar military’s cooperation in preventing Northeastern militants, most notably Naga insurgents, from using Myanmar as a safe haven.
- Support the country’s transition into a full-fledged federal democracy.
- Ameliorate the plight of the Rohingyas as well as ensure the tense relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar do not spiral out of control.
- Bilateral trade between the two countries has, for long, remained at around $2 billion.
- Chinese, Singaporean, Korean, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese businesses have actively seized business opportunities in Myanmar.
- Pulses form the single largest item in Myanmar’s limited export basket.
- ndian businesses could invest in the power, steel, automobiles and even textile sectors in Myanmar.
- India and Myanmar have been trying to strengthen their defense ties over the past few years.
- Over 200 Myanmar military officers have been trained in the medical, airforce and navy fields in India.
- Myanmar has acquired rocket launchers, night vision systems, radar and engineering equipment, including $37.9 million worth of torpedoes, from India.
The 11th-century Ananda Temple in Myanmar was damaged during an earthquake last year and is being renovated with India’s assistance.
People to people ties are the strength of India-Myanmar relations
No other country has committed as much in grant-in-aid to Myanmar as India. These include:
- Kaladan multi-modal corridor
- Repair of 69 bridges on the Tamu-Kalewa road
- Construction of the 120-km Kalewa-Yargyi corridor d. Rhi-Tiddim road in the Chin state bordering Mizoram.
- Unfortunately, the projects have not been completed in time. As a result, India has not got due credit.
India’s assistance in Capacity Building
- Capacity building has been accorded priority, with several new institutions set up for agricultural education, information technology and industrial training that have benefited Myanmar youth immensely.
- Myanmar Institute of Information Technology set up in Mandalay with the collaboration of IIIT Bangalore has been a success with all its graduates finding ready employment.
- The Advanced Centre for Agriculture Research and Education set up in collaboration with India’s ICAR is a fine example of pooling research efforts on pulses and oilseeds.
- India has also proposed to build a petroleum refinery in Myanmar. This is an indication of Myanmar’s growing significance in India.
- With the expansion of training facilities and supply of defence equipment needed by the Myanmar military, India has consistently strengthened defence ties.
- India’s timely help of medicines and equipment to fight the corona pandemic.
- A number of Indian companies have also set up operations in Myanmar, including oil and gas players like the ONGC Videsh and GAIL.
- India has also agreed to train Myanmar army officers and allow them to study at military academies in India.
Concerns / Challenges
- India suffers from an image of being unable in making its presence felt on the ground.
- The inauguration of the liaison office of the Embassy of India in Naypyidaw may seem a routine diplomatic activity.
- However, establishing a permanent presence in the capital does matter.
- The Indian government is concerned about Rohingya immigrants in the country
- Around 40,000 Rohingyas are said to be staying illegally in India.
- Negotiations on the deportation of Rohingya to Myanmar are a point of contention.
- For India, the balancing act between Bangladesh and Myanmar remains one of the keys to its overall approach to the Rohingya issue.
- Economic cooperation has developed, but it still stays at a sub-optimal level.
- A significant part of India’s Kaladan multimodal project (KMMTTP) passes through the Rakhine state. There is delay in the completion of the project.
- Lack of basic infrastructure and low trading volume at the Indian border.
- The India Intelligence Agency stated that the smuggling of light arms, drugs and counterfeit currencies have been spotted along the border.
- Beijing is investing in projects to improve the Sittwe–Kunming route.
- Momentum of the Belt and Road Initiative may end India’s East Act Policy like Obama’s pivot to Asia.
- Both sides share a long maritime boundary and land border, which has led to concerns around transnational issues.
- Strengthening existing cooperation in areas of security and counter-terrorism, trade and investment, infrastructure and energy, and culture
- Boosting cooperation in areas like training and capacity-building of Myanmar’s military.
- Implementing the recommendations of Kofi Annan Advisory Commission report on Rohingya refugee issue.
- India can help in improving the socio-economic conditions in the Rakhine state and also create employment opportunities.
- The two countries must start negotiating for the smooth movement of goods and vehicles
- With Myanmar’s government emphasising higher education and vocational training, more Indianassisted institutions can be setup in the country
- Border trade need to become more formalised with single-window clearances and easier currency arrangements.
- The border haats can energise exchange of local produce.
- Cross- border bus services can promote people-to-people connectivity.
- Cross-border trade in services can be boosted in sectors like medicine, diagnostics, education and training for which there is a large market.
- All this will mean that the Northeast will gain from the Act East policy.
Military seizes power in Myanmar coup:
Context of the issue:
Myanmar’s powerful military chief had raised doubts about last year’s election results even before the polls were held.
“We are in a situation where we need to be cautious about the outcome,” he told the local media before the November 8 elections.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) swept the polls by winning almost 80% of the vote, while the Army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) suffered a humiliating defeat.
The USDP did not accept the result. The military backed the USDP’s allegations of fraud, without offering any evidence.
Brief Background: Why the transition failed?
- The political climate in the junta-led Myanmar started changing around 2010. In 2008, the military had written a new Constitution that made sure the Generals’ interests would be protected even if there is a transition.
- Than Shwe, who had been ruling the country since 1992, shook up the power structure, promoted young soldiers who were loyal to him and conducted elections under the new Constitution.
- The NLD, which had not recognised the Constitution, boycotted the 2010 election, which the USDP won.
- In the next five years, the Army loosened its grip on the government and society. Political prisoners, including Ms. Suu Kyi, were released. Media censorship was eased.
- S. President Barack Obama visited Myanmar in 2012, signalling a thaw in relations between Myanmar and the U.S. Ms. Suu Kyi’s party also changed its earlier position and accepted the Army-written Constitution.
- The NLD won the 2015 election, the country’s first free and fair election participated by multiple parties, and formed the government, raising hopes that the country is on its way to full transition to democracy.
- But the 2008 Constitution has enough clauses to prevent such a change. According to the Constitution, the President must have military experience and the President himself, his spouse or children “shall not be subject of a foreign power or citizen of a foreign country”. Ms. Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British citizens, cannot become President.
- The Constitution also mandates that the Defence and Interior Ministries would be controlled by the military.
- Also, 25% of the total seats in Parliament (166 out of the 664-member house) are reserved for the military, giving it a veto over any move to change the Constitution.
- So even when the Army allowed power to be transferred to an elected government, it made sure that it would continue to drive defence and internal security policies, and that the USDP, its political vehicle, has an edge over other parties in elections with the reserved seats in Parliament. But the Generals wanted more.
What has happened now, and why?
- The military is now back in charge and has declared a year-long state of emergency.
- It seized control following a general election which Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won by a landslide.
- The armed forces had backed the opposition, who were demanding a rerun of the vote, claiming widespread fraud.
- They declared a state of emergency for a year, and took power in their hands.
- The election commission said there was no evidence to support these claims. The coup was staged as a new session of parliament was set to open.
- Ms Suu Kyi is thought to be under house arrest. Several charges have been filed against her, including breaching import and export laws and possession of unlawful communication devices. Many other NLD officials have also been detained.
- Myanmar, which started a fragile transition to democracy 10 years ago after decades of brutal military dictatorship, is back in the hands of the Generals.
What has the international reaction been?
- The UK, EU and Australia are among those to have condemned the military takeover.
- UN Secretary-General António Guterres said it was a “serious blow to democratic reforms”.
- US President Joe Biden has threatened to reinstate sanctions. But not everyone has reacted in this way.
- China blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the coup. The country, which has previously opposed international intervention in Myanmar, urged all sides to “resolve differences”. Its Xinhua news agency described the changes as a “cabinet reshuffle”.
- Neighbours including Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines, have said it is an “internal matter”.
India expresses ‘deep concern’ over military coup in Myanmar:
- India expressed “deep concern” over the reports of an unfolding military coup in Myanmar.
- India’s official response came hours after the Myanmar military declared a state of emergency in the Southeast Asian country and detained State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
- We have noted the developments in Myanmar with deep concern. India has always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar.
- We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld. We are monitoring the situation closely.
- India had shown commitment to build robust relationship with Myanmar over the past two decades which intensified after the democratic process began in 2011.
- On January 22, India sent 15 lakh doses of the Covishield vaccine to assist Myanmar in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
- On October 15, 2020, India announced the handing over of a kilo-class submarine INS Sindhuvir to the Myanmar navy. The Indian gift is the first submarine for the Myanmar navy.
- However, civil-military tension in Myanmar had been increasing since the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy led by Ms. Suu Kyi over reports of electoral fraud.
- Myanmar’s newly elected Parliament was expected to meet on Monday but the military junta moved in the early hours and declared the state of emergency.
- The NLD rule in Myanmar coincided with the military campaign against the Rohingya refugees of the Rakhine province which led to the displacement of at least one million ethnic Rohingya citizens of Myanmar who have taken refuge in Bangladesh and other countries.
Way Ahead: What’s next?
The Army says it has declared an emergency as the NLD government failed to act on its complaints on voter fraud.
It has promised elections, without offering any time frame. But the NLD has called for protests against the coup.
The U.S., which under President Obama helped the transition, has reacted harshly. India has expressed “deep concern”.
But if China’s response is any indication, the Generals won’t face any heat from Beijing. This means, they could circumvent pressure from the U.S., even economic sanctions, by moving closer to China, which is already making huge investments in Myanmar.
Ms. Suu Kyi had tried to buy peace with the Generals in her first term, especially on the Rohingya issue.
She defended the Army crackdown on the Rohingya, which UN investigators said was executed with “genocidal intent”. But the Generals were still not pleased.
But Suu Kyi’s popularity and an energised NLD that was in power for five years would be an impediment for them. And their own unpopularity, a burden
Implications for India:
For India, the return to military rule by Myanmar’s Tatmadaw (Army) and the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and the political leadership of the National League of Democracy (NLD) are a repeat of events 30 years ago.
What lies ahead for India?
India’s reaction is likely to be different this time. India does care about democracy in Myanmar, but that’s a luxury it knows it will not be able to afford for the time being. Why? Because,
- India’s security relationship with the Myanmar military has become extremely close, and it would be difficult to “burn bridges” with them given their assistance in securing the North East frontiers from insurgent groups.
- Changed image of Ms. Suu Kyi herself: Her image as a democracy icon and Nobel peace laureate has been damaged by her time in office, where she failed to push back the military, and even defended the Army’s pogrom against Rohingya in Rakhine State in 2015.
- Benefits for China: A harsh reaction from India, on the lines of that from the U.S., which has threatened action against those responsible for the “coup” unless they revoke the military’s takeover, would only benefit China.
- Apart from strategic concerns, India has cultivated several infrastructure and development projects with Myanmar, which it sees as the “gateway to the East” and ASEAN countries (For example: India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport network, as well as a plan for a Special Economic Zone at the Sittwe deep-water port).
- Besides, India still hopes to help resolve the issue of Rohingya refugees that fled to Bangladesh, while some still live in India, and will want to continue to engage the Myanmar government on that.
Myanmar’s military Constitution:
It was the military that drafted the 2008 Constitution, and put it to a questionable referendum in April that year.
- The Constitution was the military’s “roadmap to democracy”, which it had been forced to adopt under increasing pressure from the west.
- It was also due to its own realisation that opening up Myanmar to the outside world was now no longer an option but a dire economic necessity.
- But the military made sure to safeguard in the Constitution its own role and supremacy in national affairs.
- Under its provisions, the military reserves for itself 25 per cent of seats in both Houses of Parliament, to which it appoints serving military officials.
- Also, a political party which is a proxy for the military contests elections.