Within a week of the Myanmar visit by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, the President of Myanmar Htin Kyaw is on a four-day state visit to India. Accompanied by a strong delegation of ministers and senior officers, President Htin Kyaw will meet President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. During her 22 August visit, Sushma Swaraj was accompanied by Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar. It was the first high-level visit involving India’s External Affairs Minister after Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the November 2015 elections and the government came to power on 30 March 2016, bringing to an end the half-a-century old rule of the Tatmadaw (military).
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Myanmar in 2014 to attend the ASEAN-India summit and the 9th East Asia Summit, he is yet to pay a bilateral visit to Myanmar. Nevertheless, Myanmar President Htin Kyaw is slated to visit India soon. It is highly probable that Prime Minister Modi will have bilateral meeting with his Myanmarese counterpart on the sidelines of the ASEAN-India summit in Laos next month. Apart from Sushma Swaraj, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had paid a visit to Myanmar in June 2016 as a special envoy of PM Modi. Also, a high-level 25-member business delegation was led by the Minister of State for Commerce and Industry, Nirmala Sitharaman for India-Myanmar Business Conclave in Yangon in May 2016.
During her visit, Sushma Swaraj discussed issues of mutual concern and interest with President Htin Kyaw and Foreign Minister and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. The purpose of Swaraj’s day-long visit was threefold: first, it was aimed at giving a much-needed boost to India-Myanmar bilateral relationship. Bilateral relations were also discussed at length during the 15th India-Myanmar Foreign Office Consultations held on 9 August 2016. Second, as reported by the MEA, the visit was also a kind of outreach activity for the upcoming BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit, which is to be held in Goa in October 2016, and the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) meeting. Third, the visit was aimed at ensuring cross-border cooperation from Myanmar in countering insurgency in the northeastern states, as also along the India-Myanmar border. In fact, during the visit, the Myanmarese side stated, “Myanmar would not allow the country’s territory to be used by anti-India militants”. India, on its part, has offered to provide “all help” to Myanmar in its democratic institution building and socio-economic growth.
While there are no contentious issues between India and Myanmar, the “spark” in the relationship seems to be missing. India’s approach, in particular, has not been proactive despite the fact that like other immediate neighbours such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan, Myanmar too shares a long boundary with India. Myanmar deserves to be a part of PM Modi’s “neighbourhood first” policy.
Though Swaraj’s Myanmar visit has no direct links with Suu Kyi’s China visit, as high-level visits are planned well in advance, Indian diplomatic overtures to Myanmar were reflected in a poor light when Suu Kyi chose China for her maiden overseas visit to a non-ASEAN country. On the invitation from the Chinese Communist Party, she paid a five-day long visit to China from 17August. The fact that Suu Kyi’s China visit is also her first overseas trip to a non-ASEAN country since taking office, demonstrates that Myanmar values its relations with China despite the Myitsone dam and Letpadaung copper mine issues, and China’s alleged support to certain rebel groups in Myanmar. Under the U-Thein Sein government, issues such as suspension of the Myitsone dam affected bilateral ties. Clearly, Myanmar’s new government is focusing on improving relations with China.
It is important to note that within a week since the NLD government came to power in March 2016, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Nay Pyi Taw on 5 April. China is one of the most important sources of foreign direct investment to Myanmar. This is particularly important when Myanmar is striving to get past decades of domestic turmoil and ethnic unrest, and is in dire need of investments for its development. More importantly, Myanmar understands that without Chinese support, its attempts towards ethnic reconciliation are not likely to be a success. Thus, China’s support is needed to make the 21st century Panglong Conference a success. During her Beijing visit, Suu Kyi herself stated, “I do believe that as a good neighbour China will do everything possible to promote our peace process”.
It is high time for the Indian leadership to focus on giving a fillip to relations with Myanmar. India shares a long border of more than 1,640 km with Myanmar. The two countries share both land and maritime boundaries with each other. In fact, Myanmar is the only ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member country with which India shares a land border. Therefore, it is considered as India’s gateway to Southeast Asia and beyond. Myanmar needs to be at the centre of India’s Act East Policy. That the importance of Myanmar for the security of Northeast cannot be overlooked is known to both foreign policy mandarins and pundits in India.
Suu Kyi’s China visit was an attempt to bring relations back on track, as Myanmar is fully aware of the pitfalls of an annoyed China and its consequences for Myanmar’s domestic and economic future. But Myanmar cannot afford to overlook its relations with India either, though only for positive reasons. India-Myanmar cultural and ethnic linkages as well as Suu Kyi’s personal bond with New Delhi will not allow Myanmar to overlook relations with India. Though India’s relations with Myanmar are moving in the right direction, the pace is awfully slow. Htin Kyaw’s visit and the exchanges between the leadership of the two countries have the potential to give a boost to India-Myanmar ties and plug the gaps in the bilateral relationship. The onus lies on India to engage Myanmar constructively and bring more warmth in the relationship.
Rahul Mishra is Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not represent the views of ICWA.