Indian Premier Visits Burma for Trade, Other Talks

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Sunday will become the first Indian prime minister in 25 years to visit Myanmar, on a three-day trip that is expected to boost bilateral trade, energy cooperation and connectivity and seek to improve communications between the two countries.

Singh is scheduled to visit the Burmese President Thein Sein in the country’s seat of government at Naypyidaw as well as to see opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, also known as Rangoon. He joins a growing string of foreign dignitaries from around the globe beating a path to Myanmar’s door. Those have included the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Prime Minister David Cameron and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Significantly, no visit has yet been scheduled by a top Chinese leader. Singh gets there first.

Singh’s visit is thus especially interesting in terms of the rivalry for regional primacy between China and India. Myanmar, lying between the two Asian giants, has drawn closer to China as its closest ally as the world in previous decades turned away from the junta that throttled the country. China has been rewarded as the recipient of considerable Burmese natural resources, particularly natural gas from the Bay of Bengal, which is to be piped across the country to the Chinese state of Kunming, as well as a wide variety of other natural resources from gems to timber.

India had originally backed the pro-democracy movement headed by Suu Kyi. But as China’s power has grown in the region and Beijing clasped Myanmar ever tighter into its sphere of influence, India decided it must to begin to abandon the pro-democracy movement if it was to maintain influence in the country. It in turn sought to placate the generals, escorting its then leader, Gen. Than Shwe, around to several sites on a state visit to India.

As Asia Sentinel reported in 2007, a steady parade of senior officials and high-ranking military officers including Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee trooped to Rangoon and Naypyidaw to offer military equipment, training and cooperation aimed at spurring the Burmese junta to take action against ethnic insurgents using the country as a safe haven for attacks on Indian border units, to the dismay of human rights activists.

India also won the right to build a US$120 million Kaladan Multi-Modal Project in the port of Sittwe, situated in the Bay of Bengal, in 2008. That project, which has remained stalled, includes dredging 158 km of the Kaladan River between Sittwe and the Burmese city of Paletwa in Chin State as well as construction of a 129-km highway between Paletwa and the border of India’s Mizoram state. The project is being piloted and funded by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. Although these projects were signed in 2008, they have yet to get underway.

Also, just as the world’s media were delivering pictures of the massive protests against the Burmese junta in the so-called Saffron rebellion, Murli Deora, India’s then petroleum minister, visited Yangon to sign three bilateral agreements for deep exploration in oil blocks by India’s state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC), which pledged to invest nearly US$150 million for gas exploration in Burma’s Rakhaine coastal region.

As J. Mohan Malik pointed out in a paper on regional security, “Nowhere is this contest for regional hegemony between China and India more evident than in Myanmar, which occupies a critical strategic position between the two countries. China has been building up Burmese naval facilities on the Bay of Bengal, possibly for use by the Chinese military. Indian strategists, Malik writes, “now see China as constituting a threat to the east as well as the North.”

Singh could find a receptive audience in Naypyidaw. As civilian government has increasingly taken hold in the Burmese capital, the government has taken pains to seek to take a more neutral stance and to move out of China’s embrace. Conspicuously, the government sent its new defense minister to Vietnam on his first visit outside the country, instead of to China. In March, two Burmese destroyers docked at a Vietnamese port in Danang for a three-day visit. The government also stunned the Chinese by abandoning the US$3.6 billion Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River last September, which had been expected to supply 80 percent of its hydroelectric power to China.

The Indian prime minister is expected to seek to portray India as an independent and dependable ally and to push Myanmar to continue its commitment to an independent foreign policy and to try to restart a clutch of stalled projects including the Kaladan multi-modal project, a trans-Asia highway scheme and a hydroelectric power project at Tamanthi.

Indian civil groups, parliamentarians and exile Burmese, who are believed to number 50,000 to 100,000 in the Northeastern states of Mizoram and Manipur, with another 4,000-odd living in New Delhi, are urging the Indian premier to advocate for a true democratic transition in Myanmar as well as to pursue a stronger and pro-people bilateral relationship with the evolving democratic regime.

Dr Alana Golmei of Burma Centre Delhi argues that the issue of ethnic nationalities in Burma remains a serious concern and must be made a priority while engaging with Burmese regime in order to secure a durable political settlement.

Golmei added in a telephone interview with Asia Sentinel that, “Dr Singh should also push the Thein Sein for an end to atrocities targeting ethnic communities like Kachin, Arakanese and Rohingya people. Moreover the issue of northeast Indian militants, who are reportedly hiding in the jungles of northern Burma, should also be dealt with amicably by New Delhi for its own strategic interest.”

Burmese pro-democracy forces in India have also expressed excitement about the visit. Tint Swe, an exiled member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy said Burma is “in need of India’s vibrant democratic practices, good education including Information and Technology and healthcare as well investment in people-friendly sectors. Till political and fundamental changes in Burma are assured, we will have to be taking refuge in India. For that we sincerely appreciate the government and the people of India. However, we really want to go back to Burma and for that your visit will be a decisive factor for our future.”