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India Implemented A Look East Policy History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

India implemented a Look East Policy (LEP) in the early nineties, aimed at strengthening relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states. In keeping with its bid for a leadership role in Asia and beyond, India seeks greater integration with ASEAN and is striving to create an Asian Economic Community. Looking back, it can be said that the Policy has been moderately successful as India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, signed in 2009 (operationalised in 2010), has been a tangible outcome of India’s LEP.

Notwithstanding these positive developments, what are the prospects for India-ASEAN relations over the next 20 years? Undoubtedly, LEP has provided the foundation for rapid growth of India-ASEAN relations in the next 20 years. An objective analysis of the LEP has shown that its full potential has not yet been realised.

A major shortcoming in India’s LEP has been the absence of deep engagement with Myanmar, which is not only India’s neighbor, but also a gateway for India to ASEAN. The way India engages Myanmar in the future will greatly decide the success of India’s Look East Policy.

Statement of the Problem

LEP has been in existing for last two decades yet no major headway has been made so far. There are a few issues which need to be addressed to make this policy a success. Absence of deep engagement with Myanmar, which not only shares land border with India-but is also a gateway for India to ASEAN is one key issue. Closer engagement with Myanmar will give a boost to India’s LEP.

Another key impediment has been the relative lack of development in India’s North-East region. So far the Indian northeastern states are not a fully integral part of India’s LEP, it has to be seen as both a key driver and a staging post for the Policy.

To integrate the North East will require resolving the insurgency issues in the region to cater for India’s security concerns. Considerable progress has been made in this regard in recent years particularly with improvement in India-Bangladesh relations, which helped in slowing down the ULFA insurgency. Similarly, improving ties with Myanmar will help India in dealing with the Naga and Manipuri/Kuki insurgencies.

The North-East region has the potential to become a manufacturing hub for engaging Bangladesh, Myanmar and ASEAN in general. This would require better connectivity with Bangladesh & Myanmar to further connect with the ASEAN region and beyond. That would entail building infrastructure-roads, railway lines, river transport, airports, tourism infrastructure, border check-posts, educational and health infrastructure to name a few. Most of these issues are being addressed on priority basis. For instance policy on development of infrastructure and relations with Bangladesh is clearly laid out and followed. What remains to be viewed seriously is the policy with regards to Myanmar. Although a clear policy exists with regards to Myanmar, the challenge is the relations with the military regime which rules the country and the likelyhood of transition of the government to a democratic form.

The transition to democracy in Myanmar is a development of great significance for Indo-Myanmar relations. It will also impact the region as a whole. The civilian government which came to power in March 2011 under President Thein Sein, initiated political and economic reforms. This helped in reducing Myanmar’s isolation to the extent US and the European Union are also contemplating engagement with Myanmar. The geo-strategic location and natural resources, of Myanmar also gives it a major advantage.

The race for Myanmar has already begun. Given the dynamics of the region, India has waivered in its approach towards Myanmar and has lost out to competitiors such as China. This paper seeks to highlight the critical role of Myanmar in the look East policy and the approach India should adopt to engage it successfully.


It is important for India to engage Myanmar irrespective of the transition of the Governments adopting a realist approach to ensure success of Indian Look East Policy and ensure its own growth and security needs.


The study concentrates on identifying of exact role of Mayanmar for bolstering India’s Look East Policy, in light of its Socio-Eco and Geo-Pol importance, and suggest an appropriate approach philosophy for India to engage Myanmar continuously even during transition of governments.

Justification for the Study

The transition to democracy in Myanmar is a development of great significance for Indo-Myanmar relations. It will also impact the region as a whole. India implemented a Look East Policy (LEP) in the early nineties, aimed at strengthening relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states. In keeping with its bid for a leadership role in Asia and beyond, India seeks greater integration with ASEAN and is striving to create an Asian Economic Community. Looking back, it can be said that the Policy has been only moderately successful.

The international isolation of Myanmar put India behind China to exploit the region. Where India faltered was in its initial support to the democratic leaders of Myanmar thereby alienating the military rulers and then engaging the military junta since 1991 thereby alienating the democratic parties. This wavering Indian approach towards Myanmar since 1991 has had a negative impact on success of the Look East Policy. The study is aimed at identifying if realist approach is indeed the the way ahead.

Methods of Data Collection

The information and data for this dissertation will gathered through study of various books, military and civilian journals and newspapers. In addition the internet was utilized to gather information.

Chapters. The research paper will be covered in five chapters as under.

Chapter 1. Indian foreign policy & India’s Look East Policy.

Chapter 2. Myanmar: History and Internal Dynamics.

Chapter 3. Why Myanmar is critical & how India missed the bus for Myanmar?

Chapter 4. Need to engage Myanmar.

Chapter 5. Best option to engage Myanmar.



During the period of the Cold War India lead the non-alignment movement and thus played an isolated role in world politics. The international system after the breakdown of communism forced India to developed strong bilateral ties with its neighbouring countries as well as to global powers. Engaging international organizations became the need of the hour. The depressing economic state of India during the period forced India into strong economic liberalization in addition to revised Indian foreign policy.

The bipolar world has given way to a non-polar world in which several new powers have emerged. The centre of gravity of power is shifting towards the Asia- Pacific. The simultaneous rise of India and China is a development of great significance. The traditional concept of national security is being broadened gradually to include human security concerns, non-military issues like climate change, energy security, competition for scarce resources, food and water security, pandemics, migrations are few issues which are being considered.

Some major developments in the last few years are listed below:-

The monarchy in Nepal has disappeared.

LTTE has been militarily defeated.

General Musharraf has been ousted and compelled to live in exile in London.

A democratic government has been elected in Maldives.

Sheikh Hasina has come back with a more than three-fourths majority.

China has become India’s number one trading partner.

What does this change mean for India’s neighbourhood policy? While India’s Neighbourhood several new avenues for cooperation among countries of the region are likely to open up, fresh security challenges will also arise. Dominated by security concerns for the last six decades, India’s policy towards its neighbourhood will require a makeover in the light of the great political, economic and social changes that are taking place. The concept of national security emerged largely because of the arbitrary borders drawn by the British colonial masters. The solution to the many security issues facing India lies in resolving the cross-border issues like migrations, water sharing, transportation, trade, etc. Non-military concerns will need to be incorporated within a broader understanding of national security. The neighbourhood concerns will need to be integrated with India’s overall security and developmental policies. This will be a major challenge for India’s foreign and security policies in the coming decades. [1] 

The future cannot be predicted precisely. Our policy makers are alerted to think of such low probability but high impact scenarios and think of policy options in advance. Many such examples can be imagined. There are many challenges for India. [2] 

With regard to Pakistan, the question posed is: how will Pakistan’s internal situation pan out and how will it impact India?

With regard to China, it was important from the policy makers’ point of view to understand the impact of China’s rise on Sino-Indian relations.

Sri Lanka is embarking on the path of high economic growth. Hence the question being posed here is: Will this be sustainable, and how will it impact Indo- Sri Lanka relations?

Other questions being looked at in this study are: Is there anti-Indianism in Nepal? If so, how will it impact relations with India?

How climate change would impact migration from Bangladesh and how India would cope with it? Likewise, in the case of Maldives, the issue was climate change, its impact on the country and relations with India.

For Myanmar we need to develop relations by infrastructure development in India’s Northeastern states and Myanmar, the rising influence of China in the country and its implications for India. [3] 


To study the relations with Myanmar in isolation will be an exercise in futility. There is a need to study the influences of other nations on the Myanmar. China has already overtaken Japan to become the second largest economy in the world. However, China faces numerous internal challenges which raises uncertainties about its rise.

For India, the main consequence of China’s rise will be two-fold. First, India will have an unpredictable superpower at its borders. Cooperation and friendship with China cannot be taken for granted although that is the direction in which India’s policy should move. China has expressed its disapproval regarding the presence of Indian oil companies in the South China Sea. It has undertaken massive modernisation of infrastructure in Tibet and has constructed railway routes and airfields close to the borders with India. The intentions behind Chinese action vis-à-vis India in the last two years are not fully understood. The game changer within China could be a slowdown of economic growth leading up to internal instabilities and changes in foreign policy behaviour. Likewise, the exit of the Dalai Lama could usher in a new phase in Sino-Indian relations as the Tibet issue assumes greater salience.

Second, with the rise of China, its influence in South Asia will grow. This is already visible, particularly in Nepal, Pakistan and Myanmar. India will come under pressure to restructure its neighbourhood policy to ensure that India does not get drawn into an unsavory competition with China. The trajectory of Sino-Indian relations- will it be confrontationist or collaborative, or will it have an element of both? The answer will have a decisive influence in South Asia. [4] 


Myanmar’s geo-strategic location, as situated at the tri-junction of South Asia, South-east Asia and East Asia, enhances its strategic relevance to India. Myanmar also occupies a pivotal position in the strategies of China, Bangladesh and ASEAN countries. As Myanmar provides an alternative route through the sea to landlocked and under-developed North-eastern states, India is keen on furthering its bilateral relations with its neighbour. China’s increasing influence in Myanmar pose a potential security challenge to India which cannot be taken lightly. Myanmar’s hydropower and hydro-carbon potential have invited the attention and investment of various countries which enhances Indian prospects of entering into joint venture with foreign companies. Moreover investment in both the sectors is crucial for India’s increasing demand for energy security. Myanmar also holds the key to the ongoing insurgency in the North-east particularly Manipur and Nagaland. Several insurgents are believed to be operating from safe havens in the western provinces of Myanmar. [5] 

During its years of isolation, China’s influence in the country has grown while India’s engagement has reduced. Myanmar is also aware of the increasing Chinese influence and wants to avoid over-reliance on China by diversifying its defence procurements and other investments in infrastructure of high relevance. The military junta has cautiously adopted a policy which is rooted in the feeling of nationalism and identity which India needs to understand, especially the domestic determinants of Myanmar’s policy towards rest of the world in general and its neighbours in particular. [6] The next 20 years will see greater interaction between India and Myanmar. The political changes in Myanmar are slow but promising. In a marked departure from the past trends, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in November 2011 and in April 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi participated in the fledgling democratic process in Myanmar and won the by-elections to become a member of the national legislature. Myanmar is rich in natural resources and has a superb geo-strategic location. China has invested considerably and rapidly in Myanmar and there is a perception that it may seek to push India out of Myanmar.

The challenge before India in the next 20 years will be to ensure that it invests in Myanmar, contributes to its growth and draws it into the various regional cooperation projects. The development and connectivity of infrastructure projects between Northeast India and Myanmar is of critical importance. The game changing event that might occur in the not too distant future is the completion of the oil pipeline from the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar to China. India will have to deal with this situation. Myanmar will be more integrated with the world and its isolation will end. This will open up fresh avenues for Indo-Myanmar relations. [7] 


Global strategic and economic paradigms had changed with thecollapse of the Soviet Union. The Indian economy was growing at a mere 3 % due to protectionist and interventionist policies of the Govt. The nation faced balance of payments crisis and had to pledge 67 tons of gold as part of a bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Even though some of the IMF stipulations

were not implemented, Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao set into motion a slew of

economic reforms through his Finance Minister Manmohan Singh. India implemented a Look East Policy (LEP) aiming at strengthening relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states. Looking back, it can be said that the Policy has been moderately successful. India’s relations with ASEAN and its member states have developed significantly over the years. The India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, signed in 2009 and operationalised in 2010, has been a tangible outcome of India’s LEP. [8] 

On the one hand India has considerably increased its influence in the ASEAN by its gradual integration into the association. Recently, this has even led to the signature of a Free Trade Agreement. On the other hand, India’s membership of sub regional cooperation forums such as BIMSTEC and its close bilateral ties to several ASEAN member countries constitute two additional pillars of its Look East Strategy.

The key highlights of the LEP include [9] :-

India has summit-level relations with ASEAN, is a full dialogue partner in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and is a member of the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM+). The next India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit will be held in New Delhi in 2012.

India is a founding member of the East Asia Summit (EAS).

India and ASEAN have an FTA in operation.

India-ASEAN trade has been increasing in recent years at a fast rate. According to Government of India (GoI) data, India’s trade with ASEAN in 2010-11 was US$ 57.9 billion; of this, exports accounted for US$ 27.3 billion, and imports accounted for US$ 30.6 billion. Trade with ASEAN constitutes about 10 per cent of India’s global trade.

Indian investments in the ASEAN countries are increasing.

More and more Indian professionals are working in ASEAN countries.

ASEAN welcomes cultural engagement with India. As part of this, the international Nalanda University is being set up in Bihar. [10] 

While these are positive developments, what are the prospects for India-ASEAN relations over the next 20 years? Undoubtedly, the past two decades of LEP have provided the foundation for rapid growth of India-ASEAN relations in the next 20 years. Yet, a critical and objective analysis of the LEP would show that its full potential has not yet been realised. Some of the key issues where we have failed are listed below.

Connectivity between India and the ASEAN region is still poor.

The trade is below potential, especially if seen in comparison with ASEAN’s trade with China or Japan.

Investments in each others’ economies remain low.

People-to-people contacts remain at a low level. Visa restrictions continue to prevail, and tourism is below par.

BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral and Technical Cooperation) and MGC (Mekong-Ganga Cooperation) are performing much below their potential.

New areas of cooperation have not been tapped. India should invest in capacity building, strengthening of democratic institutions and engagement with civil society. The potential of cooperation in health, education and tourism also need to be utilised.

ASEAN counties are not yet comfortable with the idea of enhancing cooperation in defence and security areas due to the China factor.

Cooperation on counter-terrorism has not reached a critical mass.

Flagship projects like the Nalanda University have made slow progress. [11] 



A mystical country, as it is, in order to a develop relations with the country we need to have a clear understanding of the Myanmar’s history and the historical connection with our country. The trade, religious connection and the power struggles of the earlier dynasties will have impact on our relations with the country. More important to note is that traditionally there were no invasions to Burma from India as compared to the Northern and the eastern neighbours. Major expansions of Burmese kingdoms were towards the west i.e. into India. Certain suspicion against the Indians may be existing in the Myanmar due to the Chettiar effect being covered in this chapter. Burma has been getting support from the Communist Chinese since long which has an effect on the psyche of the people. Let us explore the history of Burma.


The Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu entered the Irrawaddy valley from present-day Yunnan, in the 2nd century BCE, and went on to found city states throughout the Irrawaddy valley. During this period, Burma was part of an overland trade route from China to India. Trade with India brought Buddhism from southern India. By the 4th century, many in the Irrawaddy valley had converted to Buddhism. Of the many city-states, the largest and most important was Sri Ksetra, southeast of modern Prome (Pyay).

It was a long-lasting civilization that lasted nearly a millennium to early 9th century until a new group of “swift horsemen” from the north, the Mranma (Burmans) entered the upper Irrawaddy valley. In the early 9th century, the Pyu city states of Upper Burma came under constant attacks by the Nanzhao Kingdom in present-day Yunnan. By the 13th century, the Pyu had assumed the Burman ethnicity. The histories/legends of the Pyu were also incorporated to those of the Burmans. [12] 

Trade with India during the Mon Kingdom also continued through the 6th century. The Mon practiced Theravada Buddhism. The kingdoms were prosperous from trade. The Kingdom of Thaton is thought to be the kingdom of Suvarnabhumi (or Golden Land), referred to by the tradesmen of Indian Ocean. Trade with India to including the Cholan dynasty also continued for many years.

There was a turbulent era in between with splitting up of the kingdoms. However the later kingdoms carried out expansion by conquering Ava in 1555, nearer Shan states (1557), Lan Na (1558), Manipur (1560), Farther/Trans-Salween Shan states (1562-1563), Siam (1564, 1569) and Lan Xang (1574), and bringing much of western and central mainland Southeast Asia under his rule.

A new dynasty rose in Shwebo, which was highly militaristic dynasty went on to create the largest Burmese empire under the Konbaung. By 1759 Konbaung forces had reunited all of Burma to include Manipur and marginalized the Mon-led Hanthawaddy dynasty once and for all. They also drove out the European powers who provided arms to Hanthawaddy, i.e. the French from Thanlyin and the English from Negrais.

Westward Expansion and Wars With British Empire

Subsequently the rulers conquered Arakan in 1784, Manipur in 1813 and Assam in 1817-1819, leading to a long ill-defined border with British India. Bodawpaya’s successor King Bagyidaw was left to put down British instigated rebellions in Manipur in 1819 and Assam in 1821-1822. Cross-border raids by rebels from the British protected territories and counter-cross-border raids by the Burmese led to the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826). [13] 

First Anglo-Burmese War was the longest and most expensive war in British Indian history ended in a decisive British victory. Burma ceded all of Bodawpaya’s western acquisitions (Arakan, Manipur and Assam) plus Tenasserim. Burma was crushed for years by repaying a large indemnity of one million pounds (then US$5 million). By 1852, the British seized the Pegu province in the Second Anglo-Burmese War and alarmed by the consolidation of French Indochina, annexed the remainder of the country in the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885, and sent the last Burmese king Thibaw and his family to exile in India.

British Empire: Indian Connection

Burma was made a province of Britain India in 1886 with the capital at Rangoon. However resistance continued in northern Burma until 1890. The British suppressed the resistance by systematic destruction of villages and appointing of new officials to finally halt all guerrilla activity. The major fallout of the British rule was that demand for Burmese rice grew in Europe for which farmers were forced to convert new land for cultivation, by borrowing money from Indian moneylenders called Chettiars at high interest rates and they often lost their land and livestock. Most jobs also went to Indian labourers. At times villages became outlawed as they resorted to ‘dacoity’ (armed robbery). While the Burmese economy grew, all the power and wealth remained in the hands of several British firms, Anglo-Burmese and migrants from India. The civil service was largely staffed by the Anglo-Burmese community and Indians and Burmese were excluded almost entirely from military service. Though the country prospered, the Burmese people failed to reap the rewards. [14] Throughout colonial rule through the mid-1960s, the Anglo-Burmese were to dominate the country, causing discontent among the local populace.

In 1920 the first university students strike marked the commencement of Burmese freedom struggle. The second university students strike in 1936 was triggered by the expulsion of Aung San [15] and Ko Nu, leaders of the Rangoon University Students Union (RUSU), for refusing to reveal the name of the author who had written an article in their university magazine, making a scathing attack on one of the senior university officials which spread to Mandalay leading to the formation of the All Burma Students Union (ABSU). Aung San and Nu subsequently joined the Thakin movement progressing from student to national politics.

The British separated Burma from India in 1937 and granted the colony a new constitution calling for a fully elected assembly, but this proved to be a divisive issue as some Burmese felt that this was a ploy to exclude them from any further Indian reforms whereas other Burmese saw any action that removed Burma from the control of India to be a positive step.

Independent Burma

In the first few years of Burmese independence saw many insurgencies by the Red Flag Communists led by Thakin Soe, the White Flag Communists led by Thakin Than Tun, the Yèbaw Hpyu (White-band PVO) led by Bo La Yaung, army rebels calling themselves the Revolutionary Burma Army (RBA Arakanese Muslims or the Mujahid and the Karen National Union (KNU).

But for the early years of accepting foreign assistance for rebuilding the country in these early years, Burma rejected most foreign aid, refused to join the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) or support the Bandung Conference of 1955. This was primarily due to continued American support for the Chinese Nationalist military presence in Burma. Burma generally chose to be impartial in world affairs and was one of the first countries in the world to recognize Israel and the People’s Republic of China.


The relations between India and Myanmar remained mostly strained during this period due to General Ne Win’s isolation policy. During this period Myanmar refused the membership to Commonwealth and withdrew its membership from NAM. [16] The complex internal rifts were further worsened with the military coup. The pro Chinese approach and anti USSR stance of Myanmar further irritated India. [17] 

Continuing in the series of ups and downs a young staff officer called Captain Ohn Kyaw Myint conspired with a few fellow officers in 1976 to assassinate Ne Win and San Yu, but the plot was uncovered and the officer tried and hanged. [18] Later In 1978, a military operation was conducted against the Rohingya Muslims in Arakan, called the King Dragon operation, causing 250,000 refugees to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. [19] 

Crisis and 1988 Uprising

Ne Win retired as president in 1981, but remained in power as Chairman of the BSPP until his sudden unexpected announcement to step down on 23 July 1988. In the 1980s, the economy began to grow as the government relaxed restrictions on foreign aid, but by the late 1980s falling commodity prices and rising debt led to an economic crisis. This led to economic reforms in 1987-88 that relaxed socialist controls and encouraged foreign investment. In September 1987, Burma’s de facto ruler U Ne Win suddenly canceled certain currency notes which caused a great down-turn in the economy and wiping out the savings of the vast majority of people. The main reason for the cancellation of these notes was superstition on U Ne Win’s part, as he considered the number nine his lucky number-he only allowed 45 and 90 kyat notes, because these were divisible by nine. [20] 

Hundred students and civilians resorted to widespread protests and demonstrations in March and June 1988. The armed forces, under the nominal command of General Saw Maung then staged a coup on 08 August and imposed martial law under the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) with Saw Maung as chairman and prime minister.

Way to Democracy

This period saw a strong democratic movement under the leadership of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi. India supported her party National League for democracy by supporting Ms Ki and providing safe haven to the Anti SLORC activists in India. After her house arrest in 1990 India appealed to the military junta to release her, thus irritating the junta. Further in 1990 India released a Burmese national accused of hijacking a Thai airliner. Some of the major irritants for the military junta are listed below [21] :-

In Jul 1992 the Myanmar opposition party was permitted to open office in India.

Open criticism of the Military Junta.

Setting up bases for the Mayanmarese refugees in Indian territory.

Permission for use of Indian All India Radio by Mr U Nu, for pro democratic messages and appeals.

The Indian stance and world opinion forced Myanmar to tilt towards China and made the Myanmarese leadership highly anti India.

Post 1991

In 1991 India initiated its Look East Policy which marked a clear shift towards Myanmar. By this policy India had had shelved its high idealism in favour of pragmatism driven by its national interests. Few major efforts during the initial years are listed below.

Visit by Foreign Secretary Mr JN Dixit in 1993.

Signing of MoU border trade and controlling of drug trafficking.

MoU to maintain Border Tranquility.

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