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India’s Myanmar Approach: Some General Observations

By: Sampa Kundu

My recent visit to Manipur was designed with hopes to have more knowledge and expectations to acquire more information for my doctoral thesis on BIMSTEC and Indo-Myanmar relations with special reference to Northeast India. The experience that I have gathered is not only memorable, but has come up with more questions with no answers and clues.

This article is a description of what I have seen and what I have understood in my 5 days tour to Imphal and Moreh. It is a narrative of people’s expectations living on the border between India and Myanmar, mainly based on my formal and informal interaction with them. But before starting with that, it is important to have a background of India’s approach to Southeast Asia in general and Myanmar in particular and Northeast India’s stake in that.

India’s fluctuating relationship with Myanmar is a known fact. The brotherly relationship between India and Burma during the time U Nu and Jawaharlal Nehru started getting disappeared after Burma went under military dictatorship in 1962. The worst situation happened after the student uprising of 1988 in Burma. Burma was then governed by the State Law and Order Restoration Council which had its supreme power in the country. During that time, India conveyed her full support to the pro-democratic movement in Burma (or Myanmar as it was renamed in 1989). The most exciting twist came in the decade of 1990s when India adopted its famous Look East Policy to re-discover her relations with Southeast Asian neighbours including Myanmar. And, for the first time, Northeast came into the picture as a part of Look East Policy to serve as the missing land link between India and Southeast Asia. Northeast has been started to be termed as a ‘gateway to Southeast Asia’. According to one scholar whom I met in Imphal, “It had been a natural gateway to Southeast Asia during the ore-colonial and colonial eras, but the situation changed after 1947 when political boundary was drawn. Unfortunately, the Government of India has awakened a bit late to exploit the Northeast as a natural corridor to Southeast Asia; the efforts must have started long ago”. In fact, there was a time when the Indian leaders were not very enthusiastic about Southeast Asia. But the end of Cold War brought some changes in the Asian political scenario. These changes included the formation of Southeast Asia as giant collective under the umbrella of ASEAN, growing influence of China in Southeast Asia and emergence of regionalism as an overwhelming response to globalization. All these factors led India to isolation in the region. Till then India was not part to any of the regional initiatives in the region except SAARC. India wanted to break this isolation. In addition, India wanted to taste the fruit of regionalism and had a desire to have ASEAN as a friend. All these factors finally led India to Look East Policy (LEP) and India started to seek membership in different forums of ASEAN. The formation of Bay of Bengal Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in 1997 was visualized by Thailand, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to cooperate with each other in various issues. Later, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan joined the grouping. It can be said that for India, BIMSTEC is another response or challenge to the ongoing ASEAN movement to establish her own space in the region.

While embarking on its LEP, India expressed its aspiration to have friends among the ruling Junta in Myanmar mainly as a strategy of cross-border counter-insurgency operations along Northeast India. Four states of Northeast India share common border with Myanmar and the thick forests of Myanmar provide a good shelter to the insurgents of Northeast India along the border. Since then, both governments have launched many counter-insurgency operations to tackle the issue of insurgency. There are some other reasons why India wants to have Myanmar in its friends list. Government argues that access to Myanmar’s land routes would open India to Southeast Asia which would be helpful for trade and commerce and especially be benefiting the Northeast India. That is why, India has started a number of transport and communications projects with Myanmar recently. The second argument is based on access to Myanmar’s oil and gas fields. The Northeastern people have no problem with India’s involvement in joint operations with Myanmar against the insurgents and so far are India’s shares in Myanmar’s oil and gas fields are concerned. But the debate is about ‘using’ Northeast India as a mere transit point in India’s trade with Southeast Asia, be it Myanmar or any other country. The people strongly argue that enhanced roads, railways and trade and commerce with others would not at all benefit the local people staying in Northeast India. The first and foremost argument is that Government of India eyes on an enhanced Indo-Myanmar bilateral border trade via Moreh. But involvement of the local people/or their representatives in the planning and implementation process is much below the satisfactory level. It is actually adding up to the regional disparity to which Northeast is already vulnerable. The well-established traders and industrialists from other parts of the country may benefit from the open and free trade, not the local people. Secondly, the local and small scale industries have not been given any priority while trading with Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries is concerned. Therefore, it is apprehended that transport and communication networks like Trans-Asian Highway or Trans-Asian railway will further displace local people from their livelihood by creating access to Northeast India. The third argument is connected to China. Mostly people agree that China’s influence in entire Southeast Asia including Myanmar is so strong that India will have to be more prompt in action and pragmatic in thinking while designing a plan for Northeast India. One member of Border Trade and Chamber of Commerce member whom I met, said that Chinese people are very swift in their action and they do not spend much time in planning, while the scenario is completely different for the Indian officials. This often creates blockages in trade between India and Myanmar. India should give some relaxation in paper work while dealing with traders of Myanmar as they are week in documentation. Fourthly, The Northeast region has been made dependent on funds and grants provided by the central government. The local resource development lacks serious setbacks with no real investments in the region. This dependency syndrome could be seen anywhere in the Northeast. In such a condition, whatever improvements have been dreamt for the Northeast through the trade and commerce between Southeast and India would not be sustainable in nature and would not help the region in alleviating its deficiencies in real terms.

As I have mentioned earlier, security has been a priority issue for the Government of India while designing its relations with Myanmar and it requires the goodwill of the Myanmarese generals as a per-condition of all operations against the insurgents. Similarly, the people of Northeast should be convinced about the benevolence of the central government while planning for their future and development. The deficit of trust should be reduced to the minimum and it could be done through ensuring involvement of the local people in the process. It is the only expectation of the Northeastern and that it should be heard. It will also generate more awareness on government policies in the region, otherwise, initiatives like BIMSTEC would remain on paper and people would not be able to receive their advantages.


i. Personal Interview with the author dated July 24, 2011, Imphal.

ii. Personal Interview with the author dated July 24, 2011, Imphal.

Special Note:

Acknowledging Prof. P. Singh, Manipur University; Prof. K. I. Singh, M.U.; Mr. Patheja, BTCCM; Mr.. Kishore Singh; Mr.. Indra Kumar and Mr. Noni Meetei for their excellent ideas shared with the author.