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India’s Myanmar opportunity: An ambassador writes

POSTED ON 25 NOVEMBER 2015

wasbir hussain
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CDPS & VISITING FELLOW, IPCS

Book name: India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours
Publisher: Routledge pp. 257
Book author: Rajiv Bhatia
Amount: Rs 895

The title may not be fancy but Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia’s book, India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours, far exceeds expectations. It has not only turned out to be a defining book on India-Myanmar relations, it also offers a rich narrative on the shared history of the two southeast Asian neighbours, and Myanmar’s shaking off of its colonial past and evolution as a nation-state. The transformations in Myanmar from democratic rule to brute military dictatorships, and then to a pro-reform quasi-military form of governance system have been well detailed. And, of course, while recording or analysing the blow-hot-blow-cold ties between the two nations, the author brilliantly factors in different dimensions of the China angle to say that New Delhi’s Myanmar policy must be fine-tuned keeping in mind the fact that Naypitaw will always try and be close to Beijing as well, pursuing, perhaps, a policy of equi-closeness for both India and China.

Aside from history and culture, more specifically Buddhism, the two nations gained independence from Britain almost simultaneously—Burma becoming free a little over four months after India. Burma’s national hero General Aung San maintained close relations with Jawaharlal Nehru during the years of negotiations for independence. When Burma’s first Prime Minister U Nu faced an ‘existentialist crisis’ in April 1949, within less than a year of gaining independence, as Communist and ethnic Karen guerrillas were closing in, he turned to India for assistance. Nehru ordered shipment of weapons to Burma and the Communist advance was repelled. The author notes that India got ‘annoyed’ in 1956 when Rangoon, after concluding negotiations on the Sino-Burma boundary question, suggested India could use that model to resolve its boundary dispute with China.

U Nu’s tenure was marked by political instability and restiveness among the ethnic minorities. He was ousted in a military coup by General Ne Win in 1962 who ruled Myanmar for over quarter of a century. Ne Win institutionalised military dictatorship that changed the way neighbours like India started looking at Myanmar. India’s reverses during the 1962 war with China made Ne Win adopt a neutral stance, perhaps because China appeared militarily stronger. The Enterprise Nationalisation Law that Ne Win brought about caused havoc among the Indian community, leading to an exodus.

The period after Ne Win’s voluntary exist in 1988 has been described by the author as the ‘Transition’ phase that saw people getting restive with the military rule. The military rulers decided to break away from Ne Win’s model of governance and allowed political parties to be formed. When the elections finally took place in May 1990 after three decades, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 392 of the 492 seats in the National Assembly. The military changed its posture, rejected the verdict and put Suu Kyi and others under house arrest. This is when India, as the world’s largest democracy, had to take a stand.

The military’s action in not letting the NLD form the government resulted in calls within India to recall its ambassador. Ambassador Bhatia rightly says that it was during this period when India and the West were ‘riding on the democracy bandwagon’, the field was left open for China to deepen and strengthen its ties with the military regime. New Delhi perhaps thought the military regime’s tenure would be short-lived, but it took about two years for South Block to realize they were there to stay for long. The author, then joint secretary in the ministry of external affairs, was among those who believed it was important to engage with the military regime in Myanmar even while lending support to the democratic forces in the country. This ‘two-track policy’, as the author puts it, was given the stamp of approval by the then Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao. It also came to be described by India’s foreign policy mandarins as the ‘constructive engagement policy.’ It paid off.

For Myanmar, India and China are ‘natural partners’, but it also became clear that sections within the country’s ruling establishment were unhappy with the over-dependence on China. Things were complex, to say the least, because New Delhi could still be trying to find an answer to the following question — can Myanmar be India’s strategic partner with China around? The answer was provided by President Thein Sein himself when he said in Beijing, as the author quotes: “Both our closest neighbours China and India have played a significant role in Myanmar’s economic development and it is our firm belief that these two neighbours will continue to be our strategic partners in the years ahead.” The fact of the matter is New Delhi should calibrate a Myanmar policy where it could be a strategic partner with Naypitaw even with China enjoying a similar status. In this context, the chapter in the book titled ‘India-Myanmar-China triangle’ becomes extremely relevant.

Ambassador Bhatia has provided useful recommendations and he is more than qualified to do so because, apart from being India’s envoy to Myanmar and handling the country in the MEA earlier, he has done considerable research on the relations between the two countries while writing this book, something that comes out in the chapters.

But, he could have avoided reproducing so many extracts from newspaper articles and editorials and instead presented more anecdotes drawn from his stay and extensive travels in Myanmar. Whatever he has thrown in, including the dinner invitation extended to him and Mrs Bhatia by Myanmar’s Foreign Minister and his wife within days of his taking over as India’s ambassador, indicates the importance Naypitaw lends to New Delhi.

With the latest election results in Myanmar, things may take a new direction once again. Well, what the author must have found it most difficult in the course of writing this book was to withhold or dilute key information — juicy in media parlance — that he must have been privy too as India’s envoy in Myanmar!

(Courtesy: The Asian Age)