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Introduction To Indo Myanmar Relations History Essay

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Myanmar is geographically situated at the tri-junction of East, South and South East Asia, with its northern borders touching Bangladesh, China and the sensitive eastern frontiers of India. It is the second largest neighbour of India, the largest on the eastern borders.

An important country on the rim of the Bay of Bengal, Myanmar is spread across India's south-eastern trade routes. While India and Myanmar share a land border of 1640 kilometres and a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal, the latter has a lengthy border with China in the north which is in close proximity with the Sino-Indian disputed border. This geographical closeness of China causes the Indo-Burmese relations to be placed on a pedestal of strategic importance. Understandably, a hostile Myanmar playing host to foreign navy poses a threat to Indian security.

Childhood Friends Subsequently Estranged

Following its independence from Great Britain in 1948, Myanmar played a major role in the emerging Asian solidarity. Having been a staunch supporter of Burmese independence allowed India to foster strong diplomatic relations with Myanmar at an early stage. Additionally, Myanmar, having been a province of India, had a sizeable Indian community that provided substance to the relationship. Both the countries enjoyed cultural links, flourishing trade and commerce and common interests in regional affairs. Consequently, Myanmar was provided with vital Indian support in its struggle against regional insurgencies.

The souring of India's relations with Myanmar was precipitated in 1962 by the overthrow of Democracy and the establishment of military control in Myanmar. The subsequent period of intense xenophobia and insularity pushed Myanmar into near isolation. India, echoing the predominant sentiments of the world, condemned the suppression of democracy which led to them severing ties with India. The military government went to the extent to order the expulsion of the Indian community situated in Myanmar. Thus, while Myanmar increasingly isolated itself from the rest of the world including India, only China continued to retain its close links with Myanmar.

In 1988, Indo-Burmese relations took a turn for the worse with the military regime's repression of the pro-democracy agitations. India, much to the displeasure of Myanmar, had opened its doors to the refugees who had fled the brutal military crackdown, and saw a large scale influx of Burmese refugees.

Idealism to Realism: Factors Causing the Shift

There was a conspicuous shift in India's stance towards Myanmar, one that was attributed to the evolution of Indian foreign policy from Nehruvian idealism to realism. In the context of Indo-Burmese relations, it is believed that the idealist phase lasted for about three decades following 1962, during which India had very little to do with Myanmar which existed under a self-imposed isolationism. Subsequently in 1988, India was forced to reconsider its relations with its neighbour following the uprising and the influx of refugees into north-east Indian camps. However, the idealist phase lingered on between 1988 and 1992 as the Indian policy vacillated between adopting a pro-democracy stand and continuing with diplomatic isolation.

The year 1993 witnessed a new dawn in the history of Indo-Burmese relations with the Indian Government taking a clear stand and making attempts to overcome the bad blood brewing between the two nations. India had shifted from an idealist or moralistic foreign policy to a realistic or pragmatic one, and the "Look East" Policy was the main driving force behind this shift. Indeed, it was the new Look East Policy that led to the realisation that isolating and ignoring a strategic neighbour such as Myanmar was not an option and that there was a need to establish close links with Myanmar. Myanmar was to be profitably utilised as a natural land bridge linking South and Southeast Asia with India.

In addition to the Look East Policy, this attempt was motivated by the rising consciousness in India of a need to counter the growing influence of China. In the years of India's diplomatic neglect towards Myanmar, China had successfully filled the diplomatic vacuum by forging and strengthening its ties with the military regime of Myanmar. China's extensive military cooperation, contribution in developing Burmese infrastructure, intelligence facilities and industries, supplying of military hardware and modernising naval bases allowed China to from strong relations with the country. China had also developed a strategically important Burmese seaport and naval base located close to Kolkata. India, therefore, felt an urgent need to ensure its national security by fostering congenial relations with Myanmar.

It is believed, however, that the decisive shift towards realism occurred post-1998 when India began to view Myanmar as a land and sea bridge towards the Asian region. Thus, a reconstruction of India's foreign policy aimed at greater engagement with Myanmar involved a decision by India not to interfere in the internal affairs of the country, instead to engage its military regime in efforts towards economic cooperation.

The Burmese Government, under economic and political sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, did not entertain hopes of obtaining any aid from those quarters. Further, although Myanmar had been admitted into ASEAN, its prospects of receiving any major economic help were bleak. China had undertaken some significant infrastructure development projects in Myanmar; however, to singlehandedly satisfy Myanmar's foreign aid and investment requirements was beyond China's capabilities. Therefore, it was believed a helping hand offered by India would be welcomed by the Burmese Government.

Similarly, India's policy of increased engagement was based on the reasoning that it was better to engage Myanmar than to ostracise it. Myanmar being India's gateway to ASEAN, India was determined to engage the region.

International Loss of Face

India's decision to deal with Myanmar's military regime did not escape international criticism. In what had drawn overwhelming international condemnation, India treaded cautiously in establishing its stand on the anti-government protests that Myanmar witnessed in 2007. The Indian Government declared that it had no intention of interfering in Myanmar's internal affairs and that the Burmese people would have to achieve democracy themselves. Such a response had drawn flak from all quarters and was perceived as having weakened India's credentials as a leading democratic nation. Therefore, while India's relationship with Myanmar was burgeoning, the rest of the world felt that it was India's economic and military support to Myanmar that made the military regime's survival possible, especially in the face of international sanctions.

Although China had been conspicuously silent on the issue, the international community appeared to be excusing China on the justification that China itself being a "dictatorship" would necessarily support another. India was not as lucky and its soft approach was attacked as being an attempt to tap on the trade potential with and influence over the energy-rich Myanmar. It was also felt, and correctly so, that like China, India was keen on exploiting Myanmar's huge oil and gas resources.

Conclusion and Future Course of Action

Although India's interests in the long run would be better served with democracy in Myanmar, under the present circumstances, the strategic and security considerations outweigh India's concern for democracy in Myanmar. Despite India's improving relations with China, the Chinese stronghold over Myanmar is of significant concern. Similarly, it is in Myanmar's interests to have an alternative source in India for its economic betterment.

India should not reverse its policy of doing business with the military regime in Myanmar as such a pullback would amount to repeating a blunder and would allow China to get further ahead. Already India is unable to match what China can offer to Myanmar - in terms of military equipment supplies and the use of the veto in Myanmar's favour at the Security Council.

Western criticisms of India's Myanmar policy appear to be unfair as it is India that shares borders with Myanmar, while the nations imposing sanctions against Myanmar do not. Moreover, their present and potential economic investment in Myanmar cannot compare to India's. India must not succumb to international pressure, and continue building ties with Myanmar. After all, if India were to do business only with democracies, it would be very difficult for it to find suitable partners in its neighbourhood.


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