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Published on: Feb. 15, 2021, 7:58 p.m.
Time to step up the game in Myanmar
  • Illustration: Panju Ganguli

By Business India Editorial

India finds itself in a familiar situation after Myanmar reverted to military rule following a coup. With the West, led by the new US administration, pushing for sanctions against the country, and China finding itself on the horns of a dilemma, New Delhi may have the luxury of not coming out openly in favour of democracy and compromising its security and developmental interests. Reacting formally to the development, India has refrained from using the word ‘coup’ and stressed that the ‘rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld’. However, it may not be that bad for India in the days ahead; and China’s predicament is worse than that of India. The most curious headline about the coup came from an English article in China’s state news agency Xinhua. Calling it a ‘major cabinet reshuffle’, Beijing urged all parties to ‘properly handle their differences’ and ‘maintain political and social stability’.

The events unfolded in Myanmar on 1 February, just when the Union budget was being presented in Indian Parliament. Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) detained Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other senior political leaders of the ruling National League for Democracy party in Naypyitaw and slapped a ‘state of emergency’ for one year. For a long time now, our foreign office was considering Myanmar as India’s ‘bridgehead to Southeast Asia’. India is even building the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project, considered its gateway to Southeast Asia. Having components of waterways and roadways, the trans-border connectivity project for the north-eastern states is coming up under the Act East Policy. The waterways component of the project was completed in 2017, but the physical progress of the road component is lagging behind schedule. 

Another project India has completed in the insurgency-hit state of Rakhine in Myanmar is Sittwe deepwater port. The port is actually a part of the Kaladan multi-modal project. Once operational, it will link the land-locked Northeast to the Bay of Bengal through Mizoram. A special economic zone is to come up at Sittwe.

India has also undertaken the 1,360-km India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway. The project starts from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Bagan in Myanmar. India has agreed to help build two vital road sections – Kalewa-Yagyi of 120 km, and 69 bridges on the Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa (TKK).  

In the past, India and Myanmar troops have carried out joint operations to eliminate insurgents. They jointly conducted Operation Sunrise and Operation Sunrise 2 in 2019 in their respective territories to destroy several insurgent camps manned by northeast insurgents. Indian troops in turn have supported Myanmar in its efforts to combat Rohingya insurgent groups like the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and Aqa Mul Mujahideen (AMM). Indian intelligence agencies have found the ARSA and AMM to have links with terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taida and Jaish-e-Mohammed, as well as reported Rohingya terrorists fighting alongside Pakistani extremists in Kashmir. Some of the Arakan rebels also have links with Beijing.

Myanmar embarked on its democratic transition in 2011. India has continued cultivating both the civilian government and the military leadership – with this engagement taking on a renewed emphasis in recent years, as a way to counter China’s rising influence in Southeast Asia. In the past, questions on India’s engagement with a military-ruled state, long before Suu Kyi arrived on the scene, have always elicited the bland official response that there are various reasons for it and that it is important for India and Myanmar to remain engaged. Also, India follows a tradition of dealing with the government of the day which is in power and it is for the people of Myanmar to decide what kind of a government they want.

Yet, despite the cooperation, India’s bilateral trade stood at a mere $1.5 billion. In contrast, China’s trade with Myanmar runs into $12 billion. This is because of Beijing’s assiduous wooing of Suu Kyi that culminated in Xi Jinping visiting Myanmar in 2020. Some of the generals have business interests in Myanmar that have benefited from Chinese largesse. But the generals are also suspicious of Beijing’s role in supporting armed ethnic rebels in the country’s north.

Japan is another democratic country that has been cultivating Myanmar. A lot of Japanese companies have made inroads into the country and some have set up manufacturing facilities there, as the labour market is attractive and they can open up a new market for their products and services. This has led to speculation in Asian diplomatic circles that Washington may consult India and Japan before it firms up its response to the coup. New Delhi now needs to step up its game by promoting Indian business interests in Myanmar.

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