India-Myanmar Relations

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Context: Indian Delegation led by Foreign Secretary of India and the Army Chief visited Myanmar amid growing outreach.

Mains: GS II-India and its neighbourhood-relations

  • India shares a nearly 1600 km long terrestrial border with Myanmar and an extended maritime border also.
  • It shares an international boundary with the  Indian states of Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh. Besides, geographical proximity, the two also share ethnic, religious, and linguistic commonalities.
  • The relations between the two neighbours have witnessed many highs and lows.

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Historical Background of India and Myanmar Relationship
  • India has strong cultural affinities with Burma due to the spread of Buddhism into the region during the past.
  • These affinities further grew during the colonial period as India and Myanmar together endured imperialism.
  • Indian leaders also maintained close relations with it during the liberation struggle which was led by Aung San.
  • India established diplomatic ties with Myanmar in 1948 after it gained independence.
  • The ties however deteriorated after the overthrow of Democracy in Myanmar in 1962 as India condemned the military coup.
  • Incidentally, this was the amount when Myanmar went into the Chinese fold.
  • The relations further worsened during the late 1980s when Myanmar witnessed pro-democracy movements that were suppressed by the junta causing a mass influx of Burmese refugees into India.
  • Indo- Myanmar ties, however, witnessed a turnaround during the 1990s when India mooted the design East Policy with Myanmar emerging as key to the present policy posture by India.
  • Today, with an elected government in Myanmar, under Aung San Suu Kyi, Indo- Myanmar relations are at firmer stead.
Economic Relations
  • India is Burma's 4th largest trading partner after Thailand, China, and Singapore.
  • India is the second-largest export market for Burmese exports after Thailand.
  • India is also the seventh most important source of Burma's imports.
  • The bilateral trade stands at approximately US $1.6 billion in 2017-18.
  • The agriculture sector dominates the bilateral trade which comprises mostly of pulses and beans imports to India.
  • India is additionally the tenth largest investor in Myanmar.
  • India has substantial investments in Myanmar's oil and gas sector.
  • Indian export of pharmaceuticals, which enjoys a good reputation in Myanmar, stands at US$ 199.67 Million in 2018-19 which is about 40% of market share in Myanmar.
  • India and Myanmar have decided to work together to launch India’s RuPay Card in that country at the earliest and explore the creation of a digital payment gateway. 
Infrastructure and Connectivity
  • By 2001, BRO had constructed the Indo- Myanmar Friendship road to enhance connectivity between the 2 countries.
  • Also under construction is that the India-Myanmar Thailand Trilateral Highway that connects Guwahati in India with Mandalay and Yangoon in Myanmar and eventually culminates in Thailand.
  • Another connectivity project underway is that the Kaladan multi-modal Highway that connects Kolkata with Sittwe via sea and Sittwe with Myanmar via Kaladan river, thereby reducing transit time and costs.
  • These projects will help boost bilateral trade between the countries.

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Development Aid
  • India has committed $ 1.7 billion of aids and loans to Myanmar for infrastructure development which is inclusive of faculties and health care centres. This aid is a crucial tool for exercising 'soft power'.
Disaster relief
  • India has also assisted Myanmar in humanitarian relief operations following natural calamities like Cyclone Mora (2017), Komen (2015), etc aside from monetary support in rehabilitation and reconstruction.
  • India offered to help in capacity building in disaster risk mitigation as well as strengthening Myanmar's National Disaster Response Mechanism.
Cultural Cooperation
  • India has built on the cultural affinities shared with Myanmar by assisting in restoration work on Anand temple in Bagan. This gives India enormous goodwill.
  • A bust of Bal Gangadhar Tilak in Mandalay Jail is a symbolic gesture for a closer relationship and understanding of mutual existence.
Defence cooperation
  • India also aids Myanmar with military modernization. Myanmar has acquired rocket launchers, night-sight systems, radar, and engineering equipment from India.
  • The two neighbours also conducted joint Army exercises called IMBAX since 2017 and are conducting joint maritime patrols since 2013.
  • Besides, Myanmar has given India an assurance that it'll prevent the utilization of its territory for anti-India activities.
  • India and Myanmar have also agreed to cooperate militarily in order to help modernize Myanmar's military.
  • Indian and Myanmar troops carried out jointly Operation Sunrise and Operation Sunrise 2 in 2019 in their respective territories to destroy several insurgent camps.
  • In 2020, India gifted the Myanmar navy its first-ever submarine, a kilo class (INS Sindhuvir) attack submarine which has been refurbished and modernised by Hindustan Shipyard Limited.
  • As a part of India’s Medical or Drug Diplomacy a package of 3,000 vials of the antiviral Remdesivir given to assist Myanmar in its fight against the pandemic.
  • India has shown willingness to prioritise Myanmar in sharing Covid -19 vaccines, when available.
  • India's offer to provide medical radiation equipment “Bhabhatron-2” for the treatment of cancer patients. 
Energy Cooperation
  • In the context of energy security, India proposed to construct a petroleum refinery in Thanlyn region near Yangon. It would involve an investment of about $ 6 billion. 
  • India also provides power from Moreh in Manipur to Myanmar.
Institutional Mechanism

Cooperation between India and Myanmar in the regional/Sub-regional Context

  • ASEAN:
    • Myanmar became a member of ASEAN in July 1997. As the only ASEAN country which shares a land border with India, Myanmar is a bridge between India and ASEAN.
    • A few proposals for cooperation have been implemented and some are under discussions with Myanmar within the framework of ASEAN’s IAI programme. 
    • Myanmar became a member of BIMSTEC in December 1997.
    • Myanmar is a signatory to the BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement. Myanmar is the lead country for the energy sector.
    • Myanmar trades mostly with Thailand and India in the BIMSTEC region.
    • Myanmar’s major exports to India are agricultural products like beans, pulses and maize and forest products such as teak and hardwoods. Its imports from India include chemical products, pharmaceuticals, electrical appliances and transport equipment.
    • The 13th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting was held in Myanmar in January 2011.
  • Mekong Ganga Cooperation:
    • Myanmar is a member of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) since its inception in November 2000.
    • MGC is an initiative by six countries – India and five ASEAN countries namely, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam – for cooperation in the fields of tourism, education, culture, transport and communication.
    • The chairmanship of MGC is assumed by member countries in alphabetical order.
  • SAARC:
    • Myanmar was given the status of observer in SAARC in August 2008. 
Rohingya Issue
  • India showed diplomatic fine balancing by abstaining from voting against Myanmar during the Bali declaration and also condemned the terrorist attacks in Rakhine district led by ARSA.
 “Why India and Myanmar are significant for each other?”
  • Gateway to the East
    • Myanmar is that the only ASEAN member that shares its borders with India and thus provides an opportunity for deepening ties with south-east Asian nations under the design East and Act East policies.
  • Regional Cooperation
    • Myanmar may be a key component of India s ambitions at bridging South Asia and South-East Asia through BIMSTEC which brings together 21% of the world's population and features a combined GDP of nearly $2.5 trillion. BIMSTEC also offers an alternate to SAARC which has been held back thanks to strains in Indo- Pakistan ties.
  • Security in North East
    • Cooperation with Myanmar is crucial for controlling insurgency in North-Eastern states.
    • Besides, the porous borders provide fertile grounds for gangland that's human trafficking, drugs peddling and smuggling of arms and ammunition.
    • These are often checked only with the collaborative effort between India and Myanmar.
  • Energy security
    • Myanmar has rich reserves of oil and natural gas. Since India imports nearly 80% of its fuel, Myanmar is important for India.
    • Myanmar is potentially an important partner in the energy sector as future offshore gas finds can be piped to India. India currently has a JWG on Oil and Gas and JSC & JWG on Power cooperation.
  • Food security
    • Import of pulses and beans from Myanmar is significant in making sure food security in India.
  • Counterbalancing China
    • India must increase its presence in Myanmar so on the counter the growing Chinese dominance within the region. Myanmar thus has strategic significance for India.
India Myanmar Relations Challenges
  • Trade:
    • Bilateral trade between the 2 countries remains far below potential.
    • A major reason for this is often the movement of infrastructure projects at snail space. Notably, India's project implementation capacity is very lacklustre.
    • India imposed restrictions on the import of pulses so as to enhance price realization for Indian farmers. This decision didn't go down well with the Myanmarese government because it impacted Myanmar s exports to India.
  • Security:
    • Rohingya Influx India hosts nearly 40,000 Rohingya Muslims who are denied citizenship in Myanmar and who sought refuge in India so as to flee religious persecution.
    • But India faces a tremendous burden on its resources on account of refugees and also apprehends a security threat from radicalized Rohingya youth.
    • As a result, India pushes for the repatriation of refugees back to Myanmar.
    • Conflict in Rakhine state is central to several connectivity projects currently underway between India and Myanmar like the Kaladan Multi-modal highway.
    • Conflict within the region has slowed the progress of such projects. This does not augur well for bilateral trade.
  • China factor:
    • Growing Chinese presence Myanmar agreed to be a neighbourhood of the Belt and Road Initiative and has also welcomed Chinese investments in various infrastructure projects including port projects like Kyaukpyu port.
    • This has made India apprehensive as a growing Chinese presence in India's neighbourhood spells strategic concerns.
Way Ahead
  • India shares many common concerns with Myanmar that range from socio-economic development, similar ecological and climatic concerns, shared concerns over insurgency and regional peace, and preserving sovereignty in light of growing Chinese assertiveness.
  • These offer tremendous scope for cooperation. India must seize this chance and expedite the work on ongoing projects while at an equivalent time exercising soft power through constructive aid and cultural exchange.
  • While India-Myanmar shares trade relations in many areas, but post-COVID-19 they can expand their trade relations further in areas such as pharmaceuticals, healthcare, transport, food processing, steel, renewable energy, communication, education and others which can help both the countries to revive and generate employment.
  • Given the sub-optimal performance vis a vis trade and investment, there is tremendous potential and optimism to expand the same.

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