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Myanmar is as much a neighbour of India as other countries in our subcontinent. Whether India pays the same attention to Myanmar as it does to Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives or even Afghanistan, is a question. It is not neglecting Myanmar, of course. New Delhi provides development aid and is involved in projects there. India’s religious and cultural connections with the country are deep, but the level of engagement with Myanmar does not match the one it has with the others.

India has a 1,643-km border with Myanmar, shared by four of our Northeastern states viz. Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. Ethnic groups straddle the border. It has seen insurgencies in Northeastern states, and some of these insurgents have bases in adjacent areas in Myanmar. India has sought cooperation from the Myanmar army to deal with these anti-Indian elements, but whether the Myanmar army, itself combating domestic ethnic insurgencies, is genuine in claiming that they do not fully control these elements is open to question. For the army, it may be a question of priorities or a degree of laissez-faire. On occasion, India has carried out operations against these elements, which is always a sensitive matter.

Modi Government’s Focus On Northeast

The Modi government has paid sustained attention to Northeastern states in order to integrate them more firmly into the Indian Union. The economic development of these states has been high on its agenda. Land access to them is only through the Siliguri corridor, and thus, to overcome geographical handicaps, the process of establishing transit links to them through Bangladesh is being pushed. The strategy of linking these states to markets in Southeast Asia through connectivity projects via Myanmar has been an Indian objective. The country has welcomed Japanese cooperation in developing Northeastern states. The sustained political attention being paid to these states by the Modi government should have normally meant much closer attention to developments in Myanmar, with which the stability and prosperity of the Northeast region is substantially linked. But this has not happened to a sufficient extent.

China’s penetration of Myanmar is a major challenge to India. It is treating Myanmar as its backyard. It has created an economic corridor through the country, with gas and oil pipelines, that links China’s Yunnan province to the Bay of Bengal. Through the Chinese-built Kyaukphyu, port oil from West Asia is already being pumped to Yunnan. Chinese submarines have been spotted at the Thit Poke Taung Naval Base in Myanmar. China will continue to expand its presence in the country.

China has used the domestic insurgencies in Myanmar (the Shans, Chins, Kachins, Rakhine, Karens, etc.), the sanctions imposed on the country by the US and Europe, and its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council that can offer some diplomatic protection to Myanmar, to entrench itself in the country by extracting concessions from the military regime. With the current situation, when the Myanmar army is on the back foot and the ethnic insurgents are gaining ground, China has ensured that its interests are protected, even though anti-Chinese sentiment in the Myanmar military establishment and the public is not absent. The Russians too, who are apparently seen more positively than the Chinese, have been trying to increase their presence in Myanmar.

Concerns About Myanmar’s Stability

There is rising concern that Myanmar could well get balkanised, with the possibility of some ethnic groups rejecting the central authority and declaring their “independence”. Even in the main Bamar ethnic group (68% of the population), the Army is losing some support. The Army is encircled in some areas. It does not have the numbers to roll back the insurgencies. There is a real possibility of a collapse of the central authority. India seems to be still seeking a clearer understanding of what the bottom line of the army is, as well as that of the rebels. But then, the one institution that has dominated the country for decades is the army, and therefore, its capacity to recover power cannot be ruled out. It is a fast-moving situation with inadequate clarity. Whatever happens in the future, instability in Myanmar suits China as it can maintain its hold over it as the most influential external sector with major strategic interests in the country.

Myanmar’s balkanisation is, of course, not in India’s interest, but stability is. India needs to take more interest in Myanmar and engage it more closely. Despite India’s growing interest in its diaspora, the two million-strong Indian community in Myanmar has not been given enough recognition. Our basic policy has been to deal with the Myanmar military.

Maritime Security

The China factor is another strong reason for a heightened Indian engagement with Myanmar. India is deeply concerned about maritime security in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese threat in the neighbourhood is increasing, be it in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Maldives. The Indo-Pacific concept, the Quad and naval exercises such as the Malabar Exercise, have a maritime security dimension relating to China’s increasingly robust maritime posture in the Indo-Pacific region.

China’s entry into the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar has hitherto not got enough attention from India’s partners. Apparently, of late, our dialogue with the US and others about developments in Myanmar has intensified.

Myanmar Can Learn From India

India could well be a model for knitting together Myanmar’s hugely diverse population. Myanmar could cull lessons from the Indian Constitution on power sharing between the Centre and the states and the space provided by our Constitution for regional identities, languages, culture, and so on. Myanmar actually wants India to play a bigger role. The India model is considered relevant. At some stage, India could consider holding a workshop on federalism and constitutional democracy.

Appointing a Special Envoy to Myanmar may also be a useful first step. The ASEAN as well as the UN Secretary General have Special Envoys. Our ambassador to Myanmar has limitations because of his official position in terms of establishing contact with all the opposition elements, including the leaders of armed groups. The Special Envoy, appointed in consultation with the Myanmar government with an understanding of what his remit would be, will give us a more comprehensive picture of the ground situation, the goals of the insurgent ethnic groups and what the most acceptable basis for resolving the internal conflict could be. Whatever else, this will mark India’s enhanced interest in Myanmar as a neighbour, its desire to promote stability there, and its commitment to becoming a more credible counterweight to Chinese influence as a neighbour, which is vital for India’s Act East policy.

(Kanwal Sibal was Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France, and Russia, and Deputy Chief Of Mission in Washington.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author. 

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