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.

Recent Development:

Myanmar Election: Impact on India's relation

  • Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi's first term as the first State Counsellor of Myanmar was turbulent, marked by the brutal crackdown of the ethnic Rohingyas in Rakhine state in 2017, that she received global criticism.
  • The crackdown led hundreds and thousands of Rohingyas to flee the region and seek refuge in other nations like Bangladesh, which is currently providing shelter to a majority of the Rohingya refugees. The crackdown is now a subject of a genocide investigation.
  • This was seen as a huge failure on Suu Kyi's part to make significant headway on the country’s myriad ethnic conflicts.
  • Myanmar had been subject to isolation and decay for nearly 50 years thanks to its strict military rule.
  • In fact, Suu Kyi herself spent years under house arrest before the power of the military generals began to loosen up and the first general elections were held in 2011, which were boycotted by Suu Kyi's party.
  • Her party contested and won a landslide victory in the 2015 Myanmar Elections, winning almost 86% of the seats.
  • However, Suu Kyi was prohibited from becoming the President because her late husband and children are foreign citizens. She then assumed the newly created role of State Counsellor, which is similar to the post of Prime Minister.
  • Despite winning a landslide victory, her government was required to govern with military involvement, especially in areas of security and defence.
  • The second general election that was held in Myanmar on 8 November 2020 since the end of its military rule in 2011 is hailed as “successful” effort in the “ongoing democratic transition” in the South Asian nation. 
Inching towards India
  • Chinese Influence:
    • NLD has defeated the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
    • The crushing defeat faced by many USDP candidates including senior (retired) army officers will also work in India’s favour.
    • That’s because many USDP leaders who had served in the Tatmadaw’ (as Myanmar’s military is known as) have close links with China and, had they been voted to power, would have furthered Beijing’s interests in Myanmar.
  • Tackling insurgency:
    • Various parties representing various ethnic groups of the country will join hands with the NLD in building a “federal democratic union”.
    • Many of these ethnic groups have been waging insurgencies for decades and have been battling the Tatmadaw. Some of these insurgent groups, like the Arakan Army, are backed by Beijing. The NLD’s outreach to them can pave the way for peace deals with the insurgents
    • Myanmar’s festering insurgencies also work in India’s favour. That’s because China will lose its influence over the insurgent groups once they lay down arms after a truce.
    • China has been using some of these insurgent groups as proxies against India. For instance, the Arakan Army has been working against the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project being promoted by India to facilitate easier transportation of goods to North East India.
    • Also, the rebel outfits of the Kachin, Karen and some other ethnic groups have been offering shelter to militants of India’s northeast. The Northeast militants receive arms and other support from China through the Myanmarese rebels who have been cultivated by China.
  • Rohingya repatriation
    • The issue of Muslim Rohingya population and rising Covid cases are some of the long-term challenges facing Myanmar’s new government now. 
    • The Rohingya repatriation in which ties with Bangladesh are also involved can prove to be a sticking point between India and Myanmar.
    • Following large-scale persecution there, millions of Rohingyas sought refuge in Bangladesh as well as in India. There are about 40,000 Rohingya refugees in India and 1 million in Bangladesh.
    • This is a big issue between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and India has offered to play a helpful role in that even as it has taken upon itself to ensure their safe return.
  • The NLD’s victory by a bigger margin this time will translate into a further recession of China’s influence over Myanmar and a stepping up of economic, military, strategic, cultural, educational and other engagements between India and Myanmar.

Recent Development:

Military Coup in Myanmar – China's role and impact on India foreign policy

  • Context:
    • Recently, Myanmar's military seized power of the Southeast Asian country in a coup– the third time in the nation’s history since its independence from British rule in 1948.
  • What's happening inside Myanmar?
    • In a television address, the army announced that power had been handed to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and that it was declaring a national state of emergency for one year.
    • The country's civilian leader Suu Kyi and several state ministers are being detained in the capital Naypyidaw.
    • The move comes after months of increasing friction between the civilian government and the powerful military, known as the Tatmadawover alleged election irregularities.
    • The two bodies have attempted to share power since the 2015 elections, Myanmar's first openly contested poll since the end of military rule.
    • That power-sharing relationship now appears to be over following Monday's coup.

Foreign policy may be occasionally influenced by idealism, but it is definitely shaped by self-interest. 

  • China's interest in Myanmar
    • China's reaction: 
      • A communist party that rules China, adopted an evasive and muted tone.
      • It neither condemned nor expressed any concern.
      • The CCP just said that reconciliation is needed between the civilian set-up and Myanmar military or Tatmadaw.
    • Strategic interests:
      • China has its own designs and wants to use Myanmar as another base in its ‘string of pearl’ strategy against India.
      • Through the string of pearls approach, China intends to encircle India by developing military bases in India’s neighboring countries and Myanmar has long been on China’s radar.
    • Economic:
      • Out of total direct foreign investment in Myanmar, China now accounts for over 25%.
      • As Myanmar’s second big investor after Singapore, China has invested $21.5 billion in Myanmar so far and accounts for one-third of all Myanmar trade.
      • Under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is funding and developing many big projects in Myanmar that can be used as military bases in the future.
      • These infrastructure projects have put Myanmar in a massive Chinese debt trap and account for over 40% of the current $10 billion national debt.
    • Political machinery:
      • Like in Nepal, where China maneuvered to install a pro-Beijing and anti-India group government, Myanmar is expected to witness the same thing with a military coup. 
        • Myanmar army chief Min Aung Hlaing had met Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi last month in Beijing, and the meeting has been tipped as the precursor to the military’s seizure of power. Calling Myanmar a brother, China praised Tatmadaw’s national revitalization efforts.
        • It was only after Min Aung Hlaing’s Beijing visit, Tatmadaw officials have indicated a possible coup in Myanmar.
    • Countering India's presence:
      • A pro-Beijing government in Myanmar means India’s gateway to the East is going to have a reduced Chinese, Japanese and American influence.
  • Impact on India's Foreign policy stance:
    • India's reaction:
      • India had expressed concern and said the rule of law and democratic process must be upheld.
    • Political & Straegic relation:
      • Despite Myanmar being ruled by a military junta over the years, India has developed close ties and shares a good relationship with Tatmadaw.
      • Last year, despite facing a shortage of its own, India handed over INS Sindhuvir, a submarine, to the Myanmar Navy.
      • Tatmadaw responded well to Indian overtures and even allowed India to conduct counter-interagency operations against Indian insurgent groups in Myanmar border areas.
      • The Tatmadaw has also been critical of China in recent months, accusing Beijing of providing support to certain insurgent groups in the country, including the Arakan Army in Rakhine state, which the Tatmadaw has been fighting.
    • Economic:
      • India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, the Kaladan Multi-modal transit transport network, and the planned Special Economic Zone at the Sittwe deep-water port.
      • India was the largest supplier of weapons and other military equipment to Myanmar in 2019, the last year for which records are available in the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database.
      • Tatmadaw bout military hardware worth $100 million from India that year while it spent only $47 million on Chinese military equipment the same year. This is significant because China has been the largest supplier of weapons to the Southeast Asian country over the decades.
  • Conclusion:
    • In a nutshell, Myanmar’s economy is largely dependent on China, and with a pro-Beijing government in place, Myanmar may well fall finally into the Chinese debt trap by allowing China-funded BRI projects that Myanmar has to repay.
    • If that happens, Myanmar will be reduced to a mere economic minnow of its largest trading partner China, and a hostile neighbor for India’s geopolitical interests.
    • Xi Jinping was the first Chinese leader to visit Myanmar in January 2020. And within a year, China it seems, has a clear advantage over India when it comes to bilateral relations and influence over Myanmar.
    • While the coup will invite international condemnation, not much will change for India as it has built ties with the Tatmadaw over the years.

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