New Delhi and Myanmar: Nascent Friendship

Vijay Sakhuja

Several new developments point to the fact that New Delhi is undeterred by any pressures from the western world and has followed an independent foreign policy, driven more by realpolitik and less by the moral high ground of democracy, to engage the military regime in Myanmar. New Delhi has thus made great friends in Myanmar.

Significantly, the relationship now covers a wide spectrum of issues including energy, trade, counter terrorism and defence. What is perhaps more significant is that both Myanmar and India see this as an opportunity to keep issues such as democracy and human rights aside and build good neighbourly relations. For India, this strategy fits well into its Look East policy that is making steady headway in all dimensions of international relations.

New Delhi decided to revive the past relationship (1948-1962) between Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and U Nu that was instrumental in early political and diplomatic ties between two countries. India had provided Burma with military and economic assistance during this period but in 1962 the then military leader General Ne Win sided with China during the India–China war and had ordered all Indian to leave the country. After a hiatus of nearly three decades, Indo - Myanmar relations witnessed a major shift during Narshima Rao's regime. There were at least three reasons for the shift in India's policy towards Myanmar: (a) Contain China, (b) Check insurgency, drug trafficking, and smuggling in India's northeastern states, and (c) The Look East policy.

Recently, New Delhi announced its plans to invest about Rs. 850 crores over the next three years to develop infrastructure for growth of regional trade. Apart from the grandiose plan of networking road connectivity, a regular bus service from Imphal to Mandalay and air cargo service between Imphal and Burmese cities is also in the offing. Perhaps, of greater interest to India is the bourgeoning energy cooperation that involves both exploration and sale including transportation through ships and pipelines. This is a significant development keeping in mind that crude oil and natural gas production in India over the last four years of the current Five-Year Plan has been almost stagnant at around 33 million metric tonne, while gas production was about 31-32 billion cubic meters (bcm).

Energy experts point that Myanmar is sitting over a gas lake that has the potential to provide the much needed energy requirements of Asia, in particular that of India and China. It is estimated that Myanmar has 300 billion cubic meters (bcm) gas reserves and India is engaged in drawing out routes of pipelines to transport this gas to its Northeast hinterland that remain poorly developed. Petroleum giants like Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) and the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) are actively engaged in exploration activities.

Security and military cooperation between India and Myanmar is indeed noteworthy. In 1994, India and Myanmar signed an agreement for maintenance of peace and tranquility in the border areas under which home secretaries of both countries meet once a year while joint secretaries hold sectoral meetings every six months. Some Northeast insurgent groups from Manipur and Nagaland are reported to operate from Myanmar and in the past insurgents had killed Assam Rifles personnel. Besides flushing them out, there are pressing issues like drug trafficking and smuggling and curtailing activities of hostile elements along the India-Myanmar border. New Delhi would like Yangon to provide assistance in capturing these groups as also to rein in their activities like Bhutan who launched 'Operation All Clear' to flush out ULFA militants nearly three years ago.

On the politico-military front, Defence Secretary Shekhar Dutt finalised negotiations in Yangon to supply it varied military hardware in return for the military junta's cooperation in flushing out separatist groups like United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) that have long used Myanmar's dense jungles as a sanctuary. As part of this initiative, the Indian Navy transferred two BN-2 'Defender' Islander maritime surveillance aircraft and deck-based air-defence guns and varied surveillance equipment to Myanmar. In the past, the Indian army transferred some 75/24 Howitzers, Armoured Personal Carriers (APC) , 105-mm light artillery guns, mortars and offered indigenously designed Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH); Delhi also wants to conduct joint military operations against north-eastern militant groups along the 1,643-km-long Myanmar frontier. In the maritime domain, the two sides have made substantial progress. Indian naval ships have on regular basis made port calls to Myanmar ports and Myanmar has participated in "Milan 2003", a naval exercise involving India and several South-East Asian countries.

However, there still remain concerns in New Delhi about the robust military cooperation between Yangon and Beijing. The Myanmar military inventory today includes fighter aircraft, radar and radio equipment, surface-to-air missiles, rocket launchers and naval ships of Chinese origin. China has also built strategic infrastructure that includes roads, communications and intelligence networks, as well as military facilities that may be used in support of the PLA Navy’s surge into the Indian Ocean. Also, there are several Chinese built electronic intelligence systems in Myanmar, particularly, the maritime reconnaissance and electronic intelligence system at the Great Coco Island in the Bay of Bengal to monitor Indian naval activity in the Andaman Islands and maritime traffic in Malacca Strait. These concerns will need to be addressed by the military Junta in Myanmar to build greater trust and confidence between the two neighbours.

Author Note
Dr. Vijay Sakhuja is Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Institute of South East Asian Studies, Singapore.