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Myanmar has a total area of 678,500 square kilometers. Myanmar is bordered in the North-West by the Chittagong Division of Bangladesh, Indian states of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Its North and North-East border is with the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Yunnan of China. From South- East it is bound by Laos and Thailand. Myanmar has 1,930 km of contiguous coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Sea of Andaman on its South- West and the South, which forms one-quarter of its total perimeter. In the North, the Hengduan Mountains form the border with China. Many mountain ranges, such as the Rakhine Yoma, the Bago Yoma, the Shan Hills and the Tenasserim Hills exist within Myanmar.
Map-1: Myanmar with reference to Its Neighbours
The mountain chains divide Myanmar’s three river systems, which are the Irrawaddy, Salween, and Sittaungriver systems. Myanmar’s geopolitical and geostrategic position is very important for China and India, the two regional powers in East Asia and South Asia. Myanmar is the main connecting hub for South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia, and it is also connected with the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.
Myanmar is ethnically a highly diverse society. The government recognises 135 distinct ethnic groups. Racial discrimination against ethnic minorities is quite rampant in Myanmar.The main ethnicities are as tabulated below:-
|Ethnicity||Percentage of Population|
|Remainder include Kachin, Chin, Rohingya, Anglo Indians, Gurkhas and other ethnic minorities||3|
The inter-ethnic strife has been quite common in Myanmar for a long time. An attempt was made by Aung San to unify warring ethnicities into a unified State in 1947. What he negotiated with other ethnic leaders is referred as the Panglong Agreement. This agreement guaranteed the independence of Myanmar as a unified state. In 1947, Aung San became Deputy Chairman of the Executive Council of Myanmar, a transitional government. But in July 1947, political rivals assassinated Aung San.Notwithstanding that, on becoming independent on 04 Jan 1948, The geographical area that formed Myanmar or Burma as it was known then encompassed was what was decided during the Panglong Agreement.
Map-2: Areas of Internal Conflict
Source: CentreLeftRight – The information displayed is courtesy of documentation by the
Free Burma Rangers., CC BY-SA 4.0,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48610530 Inter-ethnic conflicts leading to insurgencies have been going on in Myanmar since the time of independence. The conflicts have largely been ethnic based, with several ethnic armed groups fighting Myanmar’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, for self-determination. Myanmar had been indifferent to the problems of ethnic minorities and has been using State apparatus to suppress them. It has brought the country to the brink of civil war.Despite numerous ceasefires and the creation of autonomous self-administered zones in 2008, many groups continue to call for independence, increased autonomy or the federalisation of the countries. The conflict is also the world’s longest ongoing civil war, having spanned more than seven decades. One of the important aspects which needs to be flagged is that the disturbed conditions in the country in general and border areas specifically makes it a fertile ground for foreign intervention in some form.
Diverse ethnic groups who have substantial numbers of kin in neighboring countries are also a cause of tension with neighbors. As such, vulnerable groups are likely to flee to neighboring countries such as India, especially given the lack of secure border controls.
One such set of oppressed people are Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine province. the Burmese Government does not recognize the Rohingya as a “national race” and stripped them of their citizenship underthe 1982 Citizenship Law, categorizing them as “Non-Nationals” or “Foreign Residents”. Rohingyas are running away from Myanmar to save themselves from persecution. Bangladesh struggles to accommodate 912,000 Rohingya, living as refugees in Cox’s Bazar; Myanmar border authorities are constructing a 200 km wire fence designed to deter illegal cross-border transit and tensions from the military build-up along border with Bangladesh in 2010. A sizable number of these Rohingyas are slipping into India also, and as such are a cause of concern for a number of states in India also. Myanmar also has a maritime boundary dispute with Bangladesh. Burmese forces are attempting to dig in to the largely autonomous Shan State to rout local militias tied to the drug trade, which prompts local residents to periodically flee into neighbouring Yunnan Province in China. A fence is also coming along the India-Burma international border at Manipur’s Moreh town to check illegal drug trafficking and movement of militants. Over 100,000 mostly Karen refugees and asylum seekers fleeing civil strife, political upheaval, and economic stagnation in Burma were living in remote camps in Thailand near the border as of May 2017
Army in Governance
Armed Forces known as the ‘Tatmadaw’, played an important role in gaining independence and it was under the Burmese Independence Army, Myanmar got its independence. As such, The Army in Myanmar had gained respect in independent Myanmar at the initial stage and was perceived as a protector of the country. The military claims itself as the founder of the Union of Burma, and the main force that held the country together during the civil war and also claimed that it has prevented the country from disintegrating.Myanmar has been under near absolute military control since gaining independence in 1948, and even in the wake of the 2008 democratic reforms, the Tatmadaw remained a driving force in domestic politics.
In 1958, post a split within the AFPFL, U Nu the then Prime Minister of Myanmar invited the military to form a caretaker government.
During 1958-60, the caretaker government under General Ne Win remained in power.After the election in 1960, U Nu’s party formed a civilian government. However it failed to improve the situation due to political infighting and rise in insurgencies leading to a threat to Nation’s integrity. This led to a coup on 02 mar 1960 under General Ne Win. After the coup, the military government suspended the constitution, and appointed a Union Revolutionary Council (RC) to govern Myanmar by decree.This state of direct military rule continued up to 1974. In 1974 an army led party called as Burma Socialist Programme Party was formed, which continued to rule till 1988 in the form of a . ‘Constitutional Dictatorship’.In 2011, the military juntawas officially dissolved, following a 2010 general election, and a nominally civilian government was installed.
On 01 February 2021 Armed Forces staged a coup, following a general election which Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD party had won by a landslide. The Tatmadaw had backed the opposition, who were demanding a rerun of the vote, claiming widespread fraud.The election commission said there was no evidence to support these claims and as such refused to accede to opposition’s demand.Tatmadaw detained State Counsellor Aung San SUU Kyi, President Win Myint and other government leaders. They then proceeded to take control of the government, and instituted a one-year state of emergency, with Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Min Aung Hlaing, as the leader of the country and taking charge as the Chairman of the State Administrative Council.
The protests over the coup have been the largest since the so-called Saffron Revolution in 2007, when thousands of monks rose up against the military regime.Protesters include teachers, lawyers, students, bank officers and government workers.
A large number countries including USA, UK and EU have condemned the military takeover and subsequent crackdown. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused the security forces of a “Reign of Terror”. The US, UK and European Union have all responded with sanctions on military officials. India expressed deep concern over the turn of events. It is significant to note that China blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the coup. The country has previously opposed international intervention in Myanmar. On 08 June 2021 Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Myanmar counterpart Wunna Maung Lwin when they met in China’s Chongqing, that China’s friendly policy towards Myanmar was not affected by changes to Myanmar’s domestic and external situation The response of China to evolving situation in Myanmar is a clear indication that she is sensing an opportunity to come back in the driver’s seat in Myanmar because now with the Western World imposing sanctions against Military Junta there would be limited options available to Military regime in Myanmar except to get cosy to China.
Dimensions Sino- Myanmar Relations
Evolving Relationship– Burma was the first non-Communist country to recognize the Communist-led People’s Republic of China (PRC) after its Transformation from the Republic of China to PRC in 1949. China and Burma signed a Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Non-aggression on June 29, 1954, based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (PANCHSHEEL). However, Burma maintained a neutralist foreign policy in the 1950s and 1960s. Anti-Chinese riots In 1967 and the consequent expulsion of Chinese communities from Burma generated mutual hostility between the two countries. Relations began to improve significantly in the 1970s. On August 5, 1988 China signed a major trade agreement, legalizing cross-border trading and began supplying considerably military aid. Following the violent repression of pro-democracy protests in 1988, facing growing international condemnation and pressure, Myanmar tried to build a strong relationship with China; and as is china’s wont, it came with a price, in terms of increased Chinese influence.
Strategic Interest of China in Myanmar– Myanmar is connected with the two corridors of China’s ambitious projects, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM). Presently Chinese ships have to navigate at the Malacca Strait, especially in the case of fuel oil imports and exports to global markets, which are, both times consuming and also vulnerable to Indian influence in Andaman Sea in general and Malacca Strait in particular. Therefore use of Kyaukpyu port in Rakhine State will reduce Chinese dependence on Strait of Malacca besides saving time.China is providing extensive aid and help to develop industries and infrastructure in Myanmar and aims to be the chief beneficiary from cultivating Myanmar’s extensive oil and natural gas reserves.
Trade Relations– Bilateral trade between China and Myanmar exceeded $1.4 billion in 2007. It was one of the chief partners of the Myanmar regime in early part of 21st century in the projects to renovate and expand the Sittwe seaport and has received rights to develop and exploit natural gas reserves in the Arakan region.China had offered loans and credit to the military regime, as well as economic aid and investments for the construction of dams, bridges, roads and ports as well as for industrial projects.China extensively aided the construction of strategic roads along the Irrawaddy River trade route linking Yunnan province to the Bay of Bengal. Chinese firms have been involved in the construction of oil and gas pipelines stretching 2,380 km from Myanmar’s Rakhine State to China’s Yunnan Province.China National Offshore Oil Corporation and the China National Petroleum Corporation hold important contracts on upgrading Burmese oilfields and refineries and sharing of production.Petro China is in process of building a major gas pipeline from the A-1 Shwe oil field off the coast of the Rakhine State leading to Yunnan, accessing and exploiting an estimated 2.88 to 3.56 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. A proposed Sino-Myanmar Oil Pipeline off the western coast of Myanmar may permit China to import oil from the, bypassing the Strait of Malacca. There had also been some protests against China. China Power Investment Corporation’s investment of $ 3.6 billion in Myitsone hydropower station on the Irrawaddy River was suspended in October 2011 by the Burmese government due to local residents’ concern about the adverse human/ environmental impact and also the perception that the power would be exported to Yunnan province in China. In January 2020, during his visit to Nay Pyi Taw (Capital of Myanmar) the Chinese President Xi Jinping promoted the practical cooperation under the framework of the One Belt One Road to achieve results at an early date and benefit Myanmar’s people, with a $100 billion economic corridor connecting the Yunnan province with oil and gas fields in Rakhine.It is significant to note that while Myanmar does under $2 billion of trade with India, it does over $12 billion of trade with China.
Military Aid and Strategic Relationship– China is the most important supplier of military aid (Myanmar imports 60% of her arms from China.) and maintains extensive strategic and military cooperation with Myanmar. Since 1989, China has been supplying Arms/ Armament and providing training to Myanmar’s Army/ Navy/ Air Force personnel. In a QPQ China got access to Myanmar’s ports and naval installations which provide China with strategic influence in the Bay of Bengal and in a wider sense in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). China has developed a deep-water port at Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal, thus getting a foot hold there.It has also built certain infrastructure for naval/ air operation and electronic surveillance at Great Coco Island located just 18 kilometres from the Landfall Island in the North Andaman. This facility not only provides China a capability to monitor India’s military activities but can be used as a launch pad to threaten North AndamanChina has also assisted in constructing a naval base at Sittwe, which can be used for threatening India’s Eastern sea Board and also Indian facilities located North west of it in Odisha and west Bengal. Beijing has also funded road construction linking Yangon and Sittwe, thus providing the shortest route to the Indian Ocean from southern China (Yunnan). However post 2011 the Chinese support to Myanmar reduced substantially. Between 1988 and 2013, China accounted for an enormous 42% of the foreign investment flowing into Myanmar. Chinese investment in Myanmar has increased rapidly over the last two decades making Beijing the largest investor in the country. In turn, Myanmar features prominently in China’s trade calculus as well. It provides the impoverished provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou with a ready market for their commodities and is a key source of timber and gems for China.
Attempts of Myanmar to Diversify to the Consternation of China– In recent years, Myanmar has moved from total dependence on China to and has attempted to diversify. She has been working to develop strategic and commercial relations with India. She is also improving bilateral relations with Japan and ASEAN Countries. However, it is still quite limited as compared to China’s political and economic influence in Myanmar. Signs of fraying Sino-Myanmar relations were quite visible by 2018, when China condemned Myanmar’s government after violence in northern Myanmar erupted, which was initiated by Chinese backed militia Ta’ang National Liberation Army which is seeking more autonomy.
Myanmar in Debt Trap and its Implication– It is true that by August 2018, it had started emerging that Myanmar was getting sucked into China’s ‘Debt Trap’ due to projects getting executed by China. However, Myanmar’s government continued with the Chinese loans and programs, causing wide spread public concern in Myanmar. No wonder Myanmar has been coerced into siding with China when in July 2019, UN ambassadors from 50 countries, including Myanmar, had signed a joint letter to the UNHRC defending China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.
Feb 2021 Coup and its Aftermath– In February 2021, the Myanmar Armed Forces staged a coup d’état. Among others, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was removed from power. The coup caused widespread outrage internally as well as world over. On February 3, China and Russia vetoed the UNSC resolution condemning the military for fear of additional economic sanctions. While China initially downplayed the military coup as “a major cabinet reshuffle”, it later expressed concern over the 12-month emergency declared by military leader Min Aung Hlaing, demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. On 16 February 2021, in reaction to protesters outside the Chinese embassy in Yangon, blaming China for the coup d’état, the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai said that the current development in Myanmar isnot instigated/supported by China. However certain events at ground level could not support this argument, because while post-coup administration denied permission to an Indian Air Craft to land, which was carrying vaccines, but allowed a Chinese aircraft carrying seafood.However such assurances could not help to cool down the temper of people and a number of cases of vandalism, looting and putting to fire some of the assets came to light.Nonetheless, Chinese factories in the country were set ablaze as Burmese protesters did not trust China’s response, leaving 39 people dead on March 15; later Chinese embassy in Myanmar responded by condemning the arson attacks, but was ridiculed by the protesters for not offering any sympathy to the protest movement.In mid-March of 2021, it became clear that China-Myanmar relations had seriously been frayed due to ongoing civil unrest and military rule, jeopardizing Chinese investments in the country. In another report, it was stated that Myanmar’s junta is trying to improve relations with the United States through the employment of a former Israeli military intelligence official. According to the source, Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader since 2016, had grown too close to China for the generals’ liking. China has not supported military rule in Myanmar and attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully without foreign interference.Despite these statements, China has been, alongside Russia, frequently vetoing any UN resolutions condemning the increasing brutality of the Burmese military junta for fear of additional sanctions that would hurt the region economically, which was believed due to China’s vast economic interests in the country, being the second largest investor in Myanmar. To further assuage the hurt feelings of public in Myanmar, whom China considers an important cog in design for economic domination and finding an alternative to ‘Malacca Dilemma’, on 03 May China sent 500,000 vaccines to combat the COVID-19 Pandemic.
India Myanmar Relations
Traditional Relation Stretching to Modern Times– India-Myanmar relations are rooted in shared historical, ethnic, cultural and religious ties. As the land of Lord Buddha, India is a country of pilgrimage for the people of Myanmar. India and Myanmar relations have stood the test of time. The geographical proximity of the two countries has helped develop and sustain cordial relations and facilitated people-to- people contact. India and Myanmar share a long land border of over 1624 km and a maritime boundary of 725 km in the Bay of Bengal. A large population of Indian origin (according to some estimates about 2.5 million) lives in Myanmar. India and Myanmar signed a Treaty of Friendship in 1951.India and Burma were close allies in the Non-Aligned movement of the 1950s but following Myanmar’s silence during the Indo-Chinese conflict of 1962, the countries maintained a relationship characterised by “stagnancy bordering on the margins of cordiality” for the next two decades.The visit of the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 laid the foundations for a stronger relationship between India and Myanmar. The strategic location of Myanmar is beneficial for India’s economic engagement as well as physical and social connectivity. It hopes to connect and develop India’s much neglected Northeast (border with North east is 1624 km). In the past, the visibility of India has been lacking in this region in comparison to China. However, with the current wave of projects, the nation is bouncing back.
Institutional Mechanisms- for facilitating regular dialogue on a range of issues of bilateral interest have also been established. During 2002, the Indian Consulate General in Mandalay was re-opened and the Consulate General of Myanmar was set up in Kolkata. On Trade front the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) entered into an MoU in February, 2000. In 2004, an Agreement on setting up of a Joint Task Force between Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) and Confederation of India Industry was signed. The mechanism of the Joint Trade Committee (JTC), chaired by the respective Commerce Ministers, has been effective in reviewing and setting policy objectives for bilateral trade between the two countries.
Cooperation in Disaster Management-Following the cataclysmic cyclone ‘Nargis’ which hit Myanmar in May 2008, India responded immediately with relief materials and offers of assistance. India also provided assistance of US $1 million for humanitarian relief and rehabilitation in the areas affected by the severe earthquake in Shan State in March 2011. Help entailed, besides outright grant, reconstruction of schools. India responded promptly and effectively in rendering assistance after natural disaster in Myanmar such as the earthquake in Shan state (2010) Cyclone Mora (2017), and Komen (2015). India offered to help in capacity building in Disaster Risk Mitigation as well as strengthening Myanmar’s National Disaster Response Mechanism.
Infrastructure Projects-The Government of India is actively involved in a number of projects in both infrastructure as well as non-infrastructure sectors. Some of the important projects are; upgradation and resurfacing of the 160 km. long Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road; construction (completed) ( this road will not only connect NE of India to Myanmar but will connect South Asia to South East Asia in broader sense.) and upgradation of the Rhi-Tiddim Road in Myanmar; India and Myanmar have agreed to a 4-lane, 3200 km triangular highway connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand (project is in progress). The route, which is expected to have completed during 2016, runs from India’s North-Eastern states into Myanmar, where over 1,600 km of roads were built or improved.The route begins from Guwahati and connects to Mandalay in Myanmar, thereafter to Yangoon and then to Mae Sot in Thailand enroute to Bangkok. India is undertaking two sections of the Trilateral Highway namely, (i) construction of Kalewa-Yagyi road section in Myanmar, and (ii) construction of 69 bridges on the Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa (TKK) road section in Myanmar. It is planned that the Guwahati- Mandalay section will get extended to Cambodia and Vietnam under Mekong- ganga Cooperation within the framework of Asian Highway network. Aim of this road network is to develop a new economic zone from Kolkata to Ho Chi Minh City (Old Saigon) in Vietnam on South China Sea.The Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project; This project will connect the seaport of Kolkata to Sittwe in Myanmar by sea. It will also link Sittwe to Lashio in Myanmar via Kaladan river boat route and then Lashio to Mizoram by road. India is also developing As part of its policy for the Indian Ocean called Security and Growth for Allin the Region, the Sittwe port in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which is meant to be India’s answer to the Chinese-fronted Kyaukpyu port, which is intended to cement China’s geostrategic footprint in Rakhine. The project was scheduled to be completed by 2014 but still certain portion of road is left to be completed. The problem area is around Paletwa and along the Kaladan river as this area is troubled by ‘Chin conflict’, Rohingya conflict and militant groups such as Arakan Army and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. An ADSL project for high speed data link in 32 Myanmar cities (already completed). ONGC Videsh Ltd. (OVL), GAIL and ESSAR are participants in the energy sector in Myanmar. M/s RITES is involved in development of the rail transportation system and in supply of railway coaches, locos and parts. In September 2008, Ministry of Electric Power-1 (MoEP-1) and NHPC signed an agreement for development of the Tamanthi and Shwezaye Hydro-Electric Power project in Chindwin River valley and NHPC submitted the updated DPR on Tamanthi and is working on the DPR on the Shwezaye project. A heavy turbo-truck assembly plant set up in Myanmar by TATA Motors with GOI financial assistance was inaugurated on December 31, 2010. An India-Myanmar Industrial Training Centre has been set up by HMT(I) in Myanmar with the assistance of GOI in Pakokku, a second centre is being set up in Myingyan, while the Myanmar-India Centre for English Language (MICELT), a Myanmar-India Entrepreneurship Development Centre (MIEDC) and an India-Myanmar Centre for Enhancement of IT Skills (IMCEITS) are all operational. Other projects include revamp of the Ananda Temple in Bagan, upgradation of the Yangon Children’s Hospital and Sittwe General Hospital, erection of disaster proof rice silos etc.
Bilateral Trade-India is Myanmar’s 4th largest trading partner after Thailand, China and Singapore. The Indian government has worked to extend air, land and sea routes to strengthen trade links with Myanmar and establish a gas pipeline. The areas of cooperation are agriculture, telecommunication, IT, steel, food processing, oil, natural gas and hydrocarbons. The trade has expanded significantly from US$ 12.4 million in 1980-81 to US$ 1070.88 million in 2010-11. A Bilateral Investment Promotion Agreement (BIPA) and a Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement (DTAA) were also signed in 2008. India and Myanmar are both signatory to the India-ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement, which was signed in August 2009. Myanmar is also a beneficiary country under India’s Duty Free Tariff Preference Scheme for LDCs.India and Myanmar signed a border trade agreement in 1994 and have three operational border trade points in Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland on the 1643 km long border.
Indian Diaspora- The origin of the Indian community in Myanmar is traced back to the mid-19th century with the advent of the British rule in Lower Burma in 1852. The two cities of Myanmar namely, Yangon (former Rangoon) and Mandalay had a dominating presence of Indians in various fields such as civil services, education, trade & commerce during the British rule. According to 1983 official census of Myanmar the number of PIOs in Myanmar is 428,428 and the estimated number of stateless PIOs is to be 250,000. A large number of the Indian community (nearly 150,000) live in Bago (Zeyawaddy & Kyautaga) and Tanintharyi Regions and Mon State and are primarily engaged in farming. The NRI families in Myanmar mainly live in Yangon and are engaged in export- import business or are employees of MNCs based in India, Singapore and Thailand.
Relations with Myanmar: An attempt to Hedge China– India move to forge close relations with Myanmar had always been motivated by a desire to counter China’s attempt to assume the role of regional leader.Concerns have increased in India over China’s extensive military involvement in the developing ports, naval, intelligence facilities and industries, specifically the upgradation of a naval base in Sittwe and developing facilities at Great Coco Island. India’s engagement with the Myanmar military junta has helped, initially to address the Military Regime’s international isolation ( up to 2011) and thereafter helping Myanmar to reduce its dependence on China. Some of the areas identified for cooperation are counter drug trafficking operations and counter insurgencies. Myanmar and India are both members of BIMSTEC and Mekong- Ganga Cooperation with a view to help India to enhance its reach in the South East Asian Nations. In her pursuit to befriend Myanmar India was hesitant in reacting to the 2007 Myanmar Anti- Government protests of 2007. India also declared that it had no intention of interfering in Myanmar’s internal affairs and that the people of Myanmar themselves had to choose the system of governance themselves. Again during Northern Rakhine State clashes during 2016-17 India declined to criticize Myanmar government’s treatment of Rohingyas. India further announced her plans to deport Rohingya refugees, who are illegal immigrants in India. Although their case of deportation is pending in Indian Courts on humanitarian grounds but the government appears to be determined to act against them because it is the appreciation of the Indian intelligence agencies that many of the Rohingyas are conspiring with Pakistani terrorist organisations and cause violence in India.
Military Cooperation-India and Myanmar have also agreed to cooperate militarily, including export of Arms, in order to help modernize Myanmar’s military. The gifting of a Kilo class Submarine in 2020 is a step in this direction. Both the countries are cooperating/ conducting Joint in Anti Insurgency Operations like Operation ‘Sun Shine’ against Rohingyas and other insurgent groups. It is the appreciation of Indian intelligence agencies that insurgent groups representing Rohingyas are getting support from Pakistan.
Insurgency and Drug Running-The North East states of India have been affected by insurgencies since independence. Several of these insurgent groups are based within Myanmar’s borders and from there they operate. Also the porous border is used for smuggling of narcotics into India. In this regard it has been reported that China has also been accused of supporting militancy across the Indo-Burmese border for decades, most notably following an incident in November 2020, in which a large cache of weapons was seized in the Shan state by the Tatmadaw. The subsequent investigation revealed that the weapons were smuggled across China, with the intention of reaching terrorist factions operating in Myanmar. Investigations have also found that rebel leaders in Myanmar have been trained on Chinese soil and have procured arms from China. While China has been a cause of trouble along LAC and it is Pakistan which is a casus belli for India along LC. At least there is one border along the Myanmar where with the cooperation of the Myanmar army, Indian Army has been able to ensure that its Eastern front avoids succumbing to the destabilising influence of China. Here the Indian army in conjunction with the Tatmadaw, conducts joint operations as Myanmar and India had signed an MoU on defence cooperation in 2019. In 2020, the Myanmar military handed over a group of 22 insurgents active in Assam to the Indian government. The operation, gave a message that “insurgents acting against India would not be allowed to operate within Myanmar. India on her part has also assisted the Tatmadaw in fighting the Arakan Army in the Rakhine (it has been reported that almost 12 camps of Arakan Army have been destroyed in joint operations) and Chin states. These joint operations have helped to ensure decline in the insurgencies.
Strategic Importance of Myanmar for India- China’s growing presence in Myanmar is of great concern to India and several other Asian states such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, who fear an heightened Chinese naval presence near the Straits of Malacca and in the Indian Ocean.Myanmar is geopolitically significant to India as it stands at the centre of the India-Southeast Asia geography. Its significance also lies in the fact that it is a country that sits at the interaction of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act east’ policy.Myanmar is an essential element in India’s practice of regional diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific and serves as a land bridge to connect South Asia and Southeast Asia.
Implications of Coup of 03 Feb 2021 on India- Myanmar is facing severe economic challenges and public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to military rule. The coup has attracted strong reactions and the threat of sanctions from the United States and the West. This could lead to unique political realignments in Myanmar. These sanctions are likely to further weaken Myanmar and a weak Myanmar may get drawn closer to China, which will not be in the interest of India. With Ang San Suu Kyi in custody the Rohingya issue may get pushed to back burner and that retard the Indian efforts to deport Rohingyas from India. India has condemned the violence and called for restoration of peace but has taken the same line as China and Russia that is not speaking against Tatmadaw. While it is in India’s interest to follow a policy of ‘Hands Off’ in the happenings of Myanmar but keeping quiet about the coup may dent India’s image of Champion of democracy. It can be seen that India till 1992 followed a policy which was based on idealism but in recent times she has deviated and has been following a more pragmatic policy where idealism has given way to national interest. Especially since 1998, when it started engaging with Tatmadaw and now is ready to work with whoever is in power in Myanmar. In this regard it is of consequence that an analysis of the developments of events in last few years would point to a fact that Myanmar Army over a period of time has developed a rapport with India. Conduct of China is responsible for this state because Tatmadaw has been suspicious of Chinese intentions. One of the contributory factor had been China’s support to Communist factions in Myanmar. Another one was reneging of China from the construction of the dam project on Irrawaddy River which they had agreed for earlier. China on the other hand found a far more willing partner in Ang San Suu Kyi. It may be noted that the Tatmadaw had always been suspicious of foreign powers, including, China. On the other hand, China had a record of engagement with the National League for Democracy (NLD) of Ang San Suu Kyi. It supported the NLD in the aftermath of the Rohingya crisis and signed the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor agreement while Myanmar was under NLD rule. With these developments, probably India is likely to get benefitted from military rule in Myanmar.
Issues Related to Indo-Myanmar-border is not only characterised by insurgencies, but also by delicate national sentiment. After Independence, the British carved a series of arbitrary boundaries between India and Myanmar, relegating several communities on either side of the border to ethnic minority status and dividing populations with common heritage and cultural histories. Groups like the Chins of Myanmar and the Mizos of Mizoram share strong ethnic ties, as do the Nagas living on both sides of the border. In recognition of these connections, India and Myanmar formed a unique arrangement called the Free Movement Regime (currently suspended due to COVID-19) which allows residents to go up to 16 km on the other side of the border and stay there for 14 days without a visa. People from Myanmar regularly visit India for work and medical care, and children cross the border unrestricted to attend school. This free movement is determined by trade and security considerations. It needs to be noted that Indian States of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland, are impacted due to coup as a number of their kin are fleeing from Myanmar despite border being sealed. Hard line approach of not allowing these Myanmar citizens to enter India may not work because of their emotional connect with Indian citizens in these states. The CM of Mizoram has already expressed his dissatisfaction in a letter to the PM, with the approach of the GoI. The influx of refugees include even some policemen, who refused to open fire at activists opposing military rule, whom Myanmar govt is demanding to be repatriated. The GoI has not heeded to the demand of Military Junta of the Myanmar probably in difference to the sentiments of the locals. In the past, India saw refugees from Myanmar, including thousands of Rohingya Muslims, seeking asylum within its borders. Following a greenlight from the Supreme Court, most of them were subsequently deported. However, following the coup, citizens in the North East have indicated a willingness to shield fleeing individuals from central authorities.
The Growing Relations between India and Myanmar–
- Recent High-level Visits– These visits and attempts to complete long-pending projects have breathed in fresh life into bilateral relations. The recent visit of India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh V. Shringla and Army Chief Gen M.M. Naravane in October 2020 has been received quite well. It was reported that the visitors had handed over to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi a consignment of drugs to treat COVID-19. In addition, India also announced the import of 150,000 tonnes of pulses from Myanmar till March 2021, and also a grant of $2 million for building a bridge at Byanyu-Sarsichauk in Chin state to ramp up economic connectivity between the north-eastern Indian State of Mizoram and Myanmar. Moreover, the Indian side proposed construction of a $ 6 billion petroleum refinery in Thanlyn area, near Yangon. The visit was meant to reaffirm India’s commitment to bilateral relations through connectivity projects in Sittwe, joint production of Covid drugs and handling the issue of displaced Rohingyas in Bangladesh. The two sides also discussed coastal-shipping agreement that will allow Indian ships to reach Mizoram via Sittwe Port on the Bay of Bengal and through the Kaladan river multimodal link. India has been developing the bordering areas under the India-Myanmar Border Area Development. During the end of August 2020, the latter has handed over $5 million for the third year of the agreement for the development of roads and bridges and schools. The bilateral relations witnessed new heights with the signing of the military agreement. More importantly, India has also agreed to train Myanmar army officers and allow them to study at military academies in India.
- Rohingya Problem– India has also laid emphasis on the socio-economic development of the Rakhine province to create enough economic incentive for the displaced Rohingyas to return from the camps at Bangladesh. Myanmar and India have also agreed to expedite the implementation of a set of 12 projects under the second phase of the Rakhine State Development Programme and to further strengthen their development cooperation. This includes setting up a skills training centre, upgradation of agricultural mechanisation, etc.
Cultural Diplomacy– Basically besides bolly wood it is the congruity of Buddhism needs to be exploited. This approach may help India to build better relations with many other countries of South East Asia and Sri Lanka where Buddhism is the dominant religion
Improving Connectivity– Improving connectivity to Myanmar is key to better relations with the Myanmar and also for a better economic integration with not only Myanmar but also with other South East Asian countries through Myanmar. It is therefore essential that all infrastructural projects which are running behind schedule like Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project or Trilateral road project should be expeditiously completed.
Resolution of Rohingya Issue– Rohingyas are waging war against the State in Myanmar, Bangladesh is facing the brunt of refugee load and India is grappling with the illegal Rohingyas in a number of States like West Bengal, J&K and many others. Their presence is impacting the local demographic balance. Simultaneously it is. A human problem. It is therefore important that India in conjunction with other stake holders tries to find solution to this problem in a manner that an amicable solution is found, which is implementable and acceptable to all.
Cooperation at Multilateral Forums– Both Myanmar and India are members of BIMSTEC. Myanmar is a member of ASEAN whose India is a Sectoral Partner and also a member of ARF. Likewise India is member of SAARC, where Myanmar is an observer. Cooperation in these for a will be mutually beneficial for both countries.
Myanmar is an important Cog in the security matrix of India from East. Also Myanmar is India’s gateway to South east Asia. The traditional relations between the two countries need to be not only preserved but nurtured. The geography and Buddhism connects the two countries. It has always been India’s endeavour to support its neighbours economically and ensure their sovereignty and as part of her ‘Act East’ policy India remains committed to support Myanmar to achieve her aspirations. However there is an elephant in the room; China. Whose geopolitical and geo-economic interests are in conflict with the interests of India. Therefore China will continue her efforts to undermine India’s national interests. Therefore India will have to use its comprehensive national power to hedge against the design of China with a view to deal with the challenge posed by China
Bogyoke Aung San was a Burmese politician, independence activist and a revolutionary. He was the founder of the Myanmar Armed Forces and is considered the Father of the Nation of Modern-day Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi is his daughter.
Panchsheel: It was coined by the first PM of India Sri Jawahar Lal Nehru. It entailed:The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, known as the Panchsheel Treaty: Non-interference in others internal affairs and respect for each other’s territorial, unity, integrity, and sovereignty (from Sanskrit, panch: five, sheel: virtues), are a set of principles to govern relations between states.
Author – Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi, AVSM, VSM (Retd) is a retired Indian Army General Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, NE, Andman Nikobar on various appointments at Command and Army HQs. . He is Vice Chairman of Think Tank, “STRIVE”, after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals, and think tanks.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the STRIVE.