Myanmar and India seek to build closer ties
The neighbouring countries have gone to great lengths in order to depict President U Htin Kyaw’s recent visit as a cementing of ties.
INDIA and Myanmar have gone to great lengths to paint President U Htin Kyaw’s recent four-day visit as a historic cementing of bilateral ties. The neighbouring countries’ relations, long overshadowed by China’s more aggressive overtures, have forged ahead under the National League for Democracy-led administration.
U Htin Kyaw, First Lady Daw Su Su Lwin and a delegation of ministry officials were received with much fanfare when they accepted Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s invitation on August 27.
Superficially, the visit appeared little more than a series of photo opportunities along with a highlights tour of religious and cultural sites, punctuated at the end by the inking of minor memoranda of understanding. The trip nevertheless dominated Myanmar state media headlines on each of the four days.
“U Htin Kyaw is on a four-day visit to India seeking support in the ongoing rebuilding efforts in Myanmar. Myanmar wants India to step up its role in several sectors ranging from infrastructure and education to healthcare and energy,” The Global New Light of Myanmar said of the visit on August 30.
A joint statement, produced after meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, reads like a 30-point back-scratching to-do list.
“According to Myanmar’s geographic location and international strategic plan, there are four priority countries: India, China, Japan and America. Among these countries, India has collaborated the least with Myanmar in the past. That’s why State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi sent President U Htin Kyaw to show the intention that Myanmar considers the development of India-Myanmar ties as important,” said political analyst U Than Soe Naing.
Much of the joint statement issued at the conclusion of the trip addresses a mutual resolve to protect the 1640-kilometre (1020-mile) shared border, and to “fight the scourge of terrorism and insurgent activity”.
Just weeks before the visit, there were reports that insurgent groups based in northeastern Indian states had used Myanmar as a launchpad for attacks against India, and in retaliation the India Army had crossed into Myanmar to target a rebel military camp.
“Both sides reiterated their commitment to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the other and to continue practising the policy of not allowing any insurgent groups to use their soil for hostile activities against the other side,” the statement said.
It added, “The Indian leadership also expressed support to the national reconciliation and peace process of the government of Myanmar under the ‘21st-century Panglong Conference’.”
While the visit concluded just one day before the launch of Myanmar’s key peace talks, India is not typically considered one the foremost international players in the peace process, and none of the armed groups that concerns India is part of the negotiations.
But the visit also came just after State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s own overtures to China, which maintains close ties with Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic armed group, the United Wa State Army. The UWSA refused to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement last year, along with other major armed groups, leaving Myanmar government and military officials convinced that China was behind the boycott.
“[China’s] actions are seen to be driven by both a concern over a rise in smuggling and an attempt to grab a stake in building roads and railways in northern Myanmar. Recognising that Myanmar must be mindful of China’s clout with rebels and its economic muscle, India is looking to present itself as an ally whose interests are truly in synergy with Myanmar in areas of security and development,” said Udai Bhanu Singh, a senior research associate at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses.
While Myanmar’s relations with India are often depicted as a foil to Sino ties, historian U Thant Myint-U noted that it would benefit the neighbours to mine the untapped potential of a more nuanced collaboration.
“There doesn’t need to be a new ‘Great Game’ over Myanmar. Myanmar doesn’t need to choose between India and China and instead should seek to be the best of friends with both countries. This will be to the advantage of the entire region,” he said.
“Few relationships are as important for Myanmar as with India. Myanmar-India relations hold tremendous potential in practically all fields, from security to trade to education to culture,” he added.
During the trip, U Htin Kyaw signed four MoUs with India’s president on traditional medicine, renewable energy, construction of bridges connecting the two countries and updating the Kalaywa-Yagyi road.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi plans to visit India later this year to attend a regional summit for BIMSTEC, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.
President U Htin Kyaw (centre) inspects the guard of honour during a ceremonial reception at the presidential palace in New Delhi on August 29.