The National League
for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi assumed power in Myanmar in March,
2016. The NLD had handsomely won the elections in November 2015,
notwithstanding the huge obstacles placed in its path by the military. Suu Kyi herself
could not assume the role of the country's president because of a constitutional
provision debarring her from doing so. She hence anointed her loyal aide and
confidant U Htin Kyaw to this high position.
official contact with the NLD government was established when External Affairs
Minister Sushma Swaraj paid a one-day visit to Naypyidaw on 22nd August 2016 where
she met Suu Kyi as well as President Kyaw. Conversely, Chinese Foreign Minister
Wang Yi had travelled to Naypyidaw on 05 April 2016 - within a week of
assumption of power by the NLD - to establish contact with the new government.
President Kyaw chose
India as the destination of his first foreign visit as president. This visit
took place from 27-30 August 2016. This underscores the importance Myanmar
attaches to relations with India. At the same time it should be noted that Suu
Kyi, whose official position is State Counsellor and Foreign Minister but who
is the de facto leader of the country,
chose China to be the first country of her visit - notwithstanding China's
collaboration with the military government when she was under house arrest. When
she was under house arrest, Suu Kyi was highly critical of Chinese actions.
After assuming power, virtues of realpolitik
appear to have caught up with her and she seems to have realised the need
to mend fences with Beijing.
Domestic peace and
security, as well as economic development appear to be the basic determinants of
Suu Kyi's reach out to China. She is now scheduled to visit India
in October for the BRICS-BIMSTEC Summit outreach during which she will meet Indian
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other world leaders.
Despite the delay in
reaching out to Myanmar, India can quickly make up for lost time by working
assiduously and with dedication to strengthen the partnership. Both countries share
a heritage of religious, linguistic, cultural and ethnic ties.
President Kyaw's tour
provided a valuable opportunity to both countries to have a comprehensive dialogue
on all issues of mutual interest and concern.
The most important
message conveyed to President Kyaw was by Prime Minister Modi, who in his
statement said, ‘’at every step of the way, 1.25 billion people of India will
stand by you - both as partners and as friends.’’ This message was both in
context of bilateral ties as well as in the regional context of providing counterpoise
to China's increasing influence in Myanmar's affairs, which often makes
Myanmarese citizens and leaders wary and nervous.
During the wide-ranging
talks between the two leaders, particular focus was accorded to security along the
1640-kilometer long land border shared by the countries. Insurgents from Indian
states often seek refuge in Myanmar's jungles to launch strikes against Indian civilians
and security forces. With Myanmar’s cooperation, India is effectively dealing
with this menace. No less than President Kyaw reassured Swaraj of Naypyidaw's support
to New Delhi in ensuring security during her visit and stated that Myanmar will
not allow its territory to be used for attacks against India. This commitment was
reiterated during President Kyaw’s visit to New Delhi as well.
Myanmar is the spring
board for providing connectivity to India’s northeastern states with the ASEAN countries.
It therefore plays a critical role not only in ensuring stability and security
of northeast India but also in its economic development and progress.
Two of the four agreements
signed during the visit - the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and the
upgradation of the road segment between Kalewa and Yagyi; and the completion of
the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project by December 2016 - relate to improving
connectivity. Both countries expressed
their resolve to strengthen maritime security cooperation in the Bay of Bengal.
Myanmar represents the pivot around which the success of India's 'Act East
Policy' - launched by Modi in Naypyidaw in November 2014 - revolves. It was
decided to strengthen engagement in economic and commercial cooperation
including agriculture, banking, power and energy, and trade in pulses. Both
countries agreed to expand cooperation in oil exploration and hydrocarbon
pipeline construction by Indian companies.
India offered to
share its experience in creating institutions as well as policies to deal with
relations between the Centre, states and regions as well as ethnic and
religious minorities. India expressed support for Myanmar's national
reconciliation and peace process under the Panglong Conference. It was decided
to give further impetus to development cooperation including capacity building,
education, healthcare and infrastructure. Promoting cultural cooperation and
academic exchanges was accorded significant emphasis.
Enhancing ties with
India can help Myanmar to counterbalance China's influence and also develop its
economy by using Indian investment, expertise and capacity. Transition to a
civilian government in Myanmar has given greater strategic space to India. The
message President Kyaw takes back from New Delhi is that India stands ready to
support Myanmar in every possible way on its march to security, reconciliation
and prosperity. As Prime Minister Modi said, "A bright future for Myanmar
is not just your objective. It is also our aspiration."