India to gain more

Myanmar is expected to witness a transformation in its political power structure from dictatorship to democracy by March 2016 after the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) recent electoral victory. The country is likely to evolve a political regime somewhere between a liberal and disciplined democracy. How would the new power structure in Yangon alter its external dynamics especially with New Delhi?

NLD leader Aung Suu Ki enjoys a special relationship with India, due to her deep association with the country. However, she does not seem to have forgiven the fact that New Delhi chose to cooperate with the military regime since 1990s. India never figured in her pre-election foreign tours on account of this policy; but she finally addressed the Ind-ian media in October 2015 at New Delhi.

During an interview Suu Ki described Prime Minister Narendra Modi as “rather reserved” but a likely ally in the progress of democracy in her country. She also said that Modi had “tremendous goodwill” towards her country “and to us as a movement for democracy.” She further said that India’s seven decades of democracy could serve as an inspiration to Myanmar.

At the state level, both the people of Myanmar and the military junta have enjoyed good relations with India. New Delhi has pragmatically pursued political, social and economic relations with the military regime even while it supported the democratic aspirations of Myanmar’s citizens. India offered political activists asylum on her soil and adopted a sympathetic position towards them. India therefore enjoys goodwill with the military leadership and the people of Myanmar.

Apart from the western world, India and China as Myanmar’s neighbours, have their interests in the resource rich country. As a result, New Delhi was able to secure assistance from Myanmar to combat insurgencies which wrack its North-East region as evident from the recent trans-border commando raid to neutralise NSCN(K) insurgents in Myanmar territory.
The India-Myanmar relations have over the last six decades experienced their share of highs and lows. Then prime ministers U Nu and Jawaharlal Nehru shared a common world view against colonialism and imperialism. Both leaders advocated Asian solidarity. The two neighbours participated in many meetings where they dazzled the audiences.

However, the bilateral relationship cooled when General Ne Win came to power through a military coup on March 2, 1962. Their ties soured further when Myanmar remained silent over the Chinese attack on India in October 1962. Not many countries objected to the manner in which Myanmar’s military generals systematically suppressed the opposition in 2007.

Even though Suu Ki became the beacon of hope for democracy in Myanmar, the pace of political reforms has been pathetically slow. But since she was released in 2010, the country has in principle welcomed democracy. The military junta allowed limited free elections, loosened restrictions on the media and freed most political prisoners.

The recent elections were therefore the most anticipated polls in Myanmar’s political history characterised by its military dictatorships which practice “disciplined democracy” where the military comprises a third of parliamentary seats along with elected representatives.

Myanmar assumes significance for India due to its geographic location which serves as a gateway into South East Asia in the context of India’s Look East policy initiated since 1991. More recently, Narendra Modi’s “Act East Policy” has further sustained the significance of Myanmar. 

India’s policy towards Myanmar has two distinct dimensions – strategic and economic – wherein the strategic strand has to do with China’s influence in Myanmar while the economic element entails exports to South East Asia.

Infra development
Towards this objective in 1994, India began to develop National Highway 39 which terminates at Myanmar with the twin objectives of tackling insurgency and promoting bilateral trade. Also in 2014, the Imphal airport at Manipur was upgraded to Tulihal International Airport to facilitate traffic from Myanmar into India for cultural events.

India is set to open a new four lane motorway for traders and tourists to drive from its eastern state of Assam into Myanmar, then Thailand and towards Cambodia as far as Vietnam. The new “trilateral highway” proposes to create a new economic zone which begins from Kolkata on the Bay of Bengal to Ho Chi Minh City on the South China Sea.

It will be a super highway to build the “Mekong-India Corridor” and link the world's second fastest growing market – India – with the new Asian Tiger economies of Indo-China. As a result, this new economic zone would bypass China, the world's fastest growing economy and thereby curtail Beijing’s influence in the region.

The military regime in Myanmar has been close to China so far due to ideological reasons. However, the process of democratisation of economic reforms may not please the Chinese -- but India will have more to gain from the progression of political reforms in Myanmar. 

For India to cope up with the contemporary world economic crisis as well as the challenges of an emerging Eurasian world order, it needs to deepen its linkages with the rest of Asia. To reach out to Myanmar would be a good start.

The Look East policy promotes regional economic integration and equity-based development which should spur democratisation in Myanmar. Today, the military junta realises the need to dilute its “disciplined democracy” that characterises the country’s current polity in favour of more liberal democracy that will accelerate economic growth.

(The writers are Assistant Professors who teach International Relations at Christ University, Bengaluru)
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