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India - Myanmar Strategic Partnership: Indian Imperatives

Paper no. 197

by Dr. Subhash Kapila

India’s foreign policy approaches towards Myanmar from the 1960s to the early 1990s represent a classic case in which India’s strategic interests were given a go-by in pursuit of moralistic policies.  India during this time maintained that no effective relationship could be maintained with Myanmar because of Army rule and lack of democratic institutions. India’s postures towards her Eastern neighbour Myanmar contrasted sharply with those towards Pakistan, her Western neighbour.

This approach towards Myanmar was not the least due to the presence in India of a sizeable number of Burmese displaced political families and others with connections at the higher echelons of power.  Under such pressures, after 1988 when the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) took over Myanmar, the All India Radio carried anti-Myanmar broadcasts, souring relations between the two countries still further.  The anti-Myanmar broadcasts went along for a long time until the Foreign Ministry realised the damage that was being inflicted on Indo-Myanmar relations. Foreign policies are structured to further a nations national interests and strategic goals and not the personal pre-delictions of a few political leaders.  India’s national interests demanded that Myanmar should remain a friendly state on the Eastern flank, that it should not come in the Chinese strategic embrace, and that at a time when Myanmar was battling for its national security and survival, it should not be subjected to meaningless propaganda on democratic norms.

Instead of having a "constructive engagement" as other East Asian countries did, India’s policy only resulted in China making a strategic headway from about 1988 to 1992. India’s policies were all the more regrettable in that Myanmar even under Army rule and Chinese pressures did not allow anti-Indian activity from its soil.  North East insurgents in their gun-running used Myanmar territory in the last leg after landing surreptiously on the coast of Chittagong Hill Tracts.  This also could have been curtailed earlier on in case a political and strategic dialogue existed between the two countries.

Fortunately, when former PM Narasimha Rao initiated his ‘Look East’ policies, the long years of not nourishing the India-Myanmar links came into focus.  PM Narashimha Rao reversed India’s policies towards Myanmar and put initiatives into place to rebuild a viable relationship.

With the above process in place, it needs to be highlighted that an India-Myanmar strategic partnership is an imperative of India’s national interests.

Myanmar’s Strategic Importance for India

Geo-strategically, Myanmar’s importance for India arises from these factors:

* Myanmar is the second- largest of India’s neighbours and the largest on our Eastern flank.

* Myanmar provides the Eastern littoral of the Bay of Bengal.  An unfriendly Myanmar hosting foreign naval presence would be a grave threat to India’s security.

* Myanmar has a big border with China in the North, contiguous with the Sino- Indian disputed border.  Military analysts can gauge the various strategic complications that arise from such a configuration in case Myanmar is under unfriendly influence.

* Myanmar bridges South Asia and India with South-East Asia.  It also acts as a buffer between India’s North Eastern States and the Southern provinces of China.

Geo-politically, with a friendly Myanmar, India could add more substance to her ‘Look East’ policies of building up relationships with South East Asia, as Myanmar shares common borders with Laos and Thailand.  With no contentious issues looming over India-Myanmar relations, a viable strategic partnership is more easily achievable.  This can counter-act the negative image being propagated that India is unfriendly with her neighbours.

Geo-economically, Myanmar is rich in natural resources and has appreciable production of crude oil, and natural gas.  It has sizeable deposits of copper, lead, tin, tungsten, steel and gold.  Some of these especially crude oil and natural gas could be an attraction for India, being next door.

Myanmar Today - A Reality Check

SLORC gave way to a new designation SPDC (State Peace Development Council) in 1998, in terms of Army rule in Myanmar.  It perhaps reflects the priorities which the Myanmar senior military officers had set for themselves in terms of nation building, namely

* Priority I.  Law and Order Restoration.

* Priority II State Development.

A reality check on Myanmar Army’s achievements in restoration of law and order indicates:

* SLORC/SPDC have for the first time since the country’s independence established effective state control in Myanmar’s peripheral regions.

* Most of the major insurgencies against the State, today, stand neutralised or in the process of elimination.

* Narco-terrorism and drug smuggling are being tackled strongly in cooperation with UN agencies, in contrast to what is obtained today in Afghanistan under Taliban.

In terms of Myanmar’s reconstruction, development and economic progress, the following data extracted from Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies, publication "Regional Outlook: South East Asia 1995-1996" highlights the results that have flowed-in consequent to economic liberalisation and foreign investment liberalisation policies, initiated by SLORC / SPDC

* Negative growth of earlier years was reversed and a growth rate of 6% achieved from 1993 onwards.

* Exports grew by about 14% in 1993-1994.

* Appreciable growth rates achieved in important sectors.(Mining 21%; power 14%; manufacturing and processing 10.3% and financial 18.8% )

* Foreign oil companies have been given off-shore concessions.

* Tourism has registered a big increase spurring modernisation of airports and construction boom in hotel industry.

* ASEAN countries, Japan and South Korea are investing heavily in Myanmar.

The above has been achieved despite various embargoes in place.  In other words, it indicates Myanmar’s resilience and that it is not a ‘failing state’ like Pakistan.

Politically, ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea are interacting with Myanmar and so also India. It no longer stands isolated and withdrawn.  Its economic potential is an inducement for those directly bordering on the country.

Perhaps the military regime, more confident of itself, may move towards genuine talks with Aung San Suu Kyi.

India-Myanmar Strategic Partnership: The Avenues of Approach

The China Factor

India’s indifference to Myanmar in the decades indicated, created a vacuum enabling China to step in and exploit the situation for strategic reasons.  Myanmar in 1988-89 required sizeable military supplies to secure the country’s peripheries, which due to being isolated from the West, could have only come from India or China.  Since India was on her "democratic auto-pilot", China appeared as the benefactor.  But the moot question for determination is as to who embraced who? Beyond doubt, it was China which attempted strategically embracing Myanmar.  Gen. Maung Aye, during his recent visit to India emphatically declared that Myanmar will not allow its territory to be used for any hostile activities directed against India.  In light of this re-assurance, India has many avenues to approach the desired goal of an enduring strategic partnership.

Political Co-operation

Major areas of political co-operation to further each others national interests which can be considered are:

* ASEAN and its associated forums provide both countries a fora to politically advance each others interests by close co-ordination of initiatives and proposals.

* India can be a facilitator of ending Western mis-perceptions of Myanmar and assist in the latter’s re-incorporation in the global political mainstream.

* Myanmar can further India’s interests in the effective materialisation of the new regional groupings like the Mekong-Ganga Co-operation and BIMSTECH.

* India and Myanmar can attempt coordination of actions in the United Nations.  Myanmar could support India’s candidature for permanent membership of UN Security Council.

Economic Co-operation

India’s national security interests demand the emergence of an economically strong and modernised Myanmar. Myanmar is rich in natural resources but industrially still under-developed.  It needs intermediate levels of technologies to build up its industrial base.  India is in a position to provide it in a big way.  India should assist both by governmental aid and Indian private investment in the following fields:

* Agro-tech and forestry based industries.

* Metallurgical industries.

* Oil and gas exploration.

* Automobile and two wheeler industry.

* Communications development i.e. airports, railway lines and roads, especially those which can interface or assist in the opening up of India’s North-Eastern states e.g. Manipur, Nagaland etc.

* IT education and infrastructure.

* Hotel industry and tourism.

Economic co-operation with Myanmar and interfacing with Myanmar can speed up economic development of India’s North-Eastern states as Myanmar provides the shortest links to South East Asian markets by air, land and sea.

Defence Co-operation

Myanmar’s Armed Forces spear-headed the country’s freedom movement, have secured the country’s periphery and put the nation on the road to economic development. Even when civilian politicians are handed power by the Myanmar Army, they would still be a power behind the throne. This needs to be understood and factored in India’s strategic calculations and defence co-operation so architectured.  India can build defence co-operation with Myanmar by:

* Nurturing direct military to military contacts at the highest level.

* Extends arms sales and arms aid to meet Myanmar’s armaments needs.

* Assist Myanmar in establishment of their indigenous defence production infrastructure.

* Special emphasis on naval co-operation to incorporate development of ports on the Bay of Bengal littoral, training facilities in India and assistance in ship-building.

* Co-ordination in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism.

* Professional and technical training facilities in India.

India’s defence co-operation with Myanmar should be so structured that it generates perceptions in Myanmar that India can emerge as a long-term and assured source of her defence needs without any political coercion or other limitation.

The avenues of co-operation suggested above would provide an over-arching frame-work for what can eventually take shape - a long-term strategic partnership, which could mutually serve each country’s national interests and security needs.


Long years of non-alignment did not in any way serve India’s national security interests and needs.  Collective security groupings are not the order of day though the future does portend that the regional economic groupings would ultimately don security colours too, if nothing else in terms of conflict resolution or conflict management.  Strategic partnerships do provide intermediate solutions, especially when they are bi-lateral in nature and incorporate economic co-operation and assistance in a major way.

In India’s quest for strategic partnerships, Myanmar acquires top priority being a vital geo-strategic entity on her Eastern flank and sharing a long border with China.  Myanmar’s providing the major Eastern littoral to the Bay of Bengal imparts added strategic significance to India’s naval strategies.  Myanmar has not permitted China to turn it into a strategic de-stablising entity for India, like Pakistan.  India should therefore make a determined effort to forge a strategic partnership with Myanmar.

06. 02. 2001