During the budget speech by Finance Minister P Chidambaram, amidst all the figures and jargon that everyone was waiting for, he gave a few seconds to announce plans for building a larger road network in the North Eastern states of the country. The Finance Minister also announced the plan to connect the regional states with Myanmar (also still known as Burma by many) by road, a plan which has been in the pipeline for a long time.
The recent liberalisation of Myanmar, if you may call it that, came as a surprise to many. The sudden opening up by the Junta government invited both opportunity and scepticism. Why the sudden change? Why did no one see it coming? And is there a larger plan or motive behind the change? Many believe it’s nothing but the Junta leadership’s, in the capital Naypyidaw, genuine attempt to move out of international isolation. Seeing its neighbours prosper, and Asia move forward in general, would have been reason enough to liberalise.
India, on the other hand, has had good (and often criticised) relations with the Junta establishment. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the country in May last year signalled a strengthened bond between the two governments. He did a fine balancing act between engaging with the pro-democracy forces of the country and the military government, something that Delhi did not do very effectively in the past. India has committed a 12 point agreement with the country, and this includes a $500 million credit line, border area development, setting up of a technology institute in the country, establishing a rice bio-park (one of their biggest exports) and so on.
Post Manmohan Singh’s visit, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate championing the cause for a democratic Myanmar, visited Delhi. This is the city where she gained her education, and the place where she developed her political thinking. But New Delhi’s engagement with the Junta in the 1990s, brought upon ill-will between her and the country that shaped her political beliefs. Although she wished for larger engagement of India with the people of her country, she reminded Delhi that in the past it had strayed in the process of promoting democracy, in order to play short-sighted regional politik.
However, challenges remain in the region. Northern Myanmar is in a state of continuous upheaval as it becomes an insurgency zone with constant battles between the Burmese military and the Kachin Independence Army. China has mediated peace talks between the Junta and the Kachin rebels earlier this month. India, has also expressed its worries that the northern region of the country may be used by separatists operating in the North Eastern states as a refuge.
The challenges in dealing with the Junta are both unavoidable and crucial. Questions are still being raised about the way in which the country is utilising foreign aid and investments, and whether any foreign aid was used to arm its military against the Kachin in the north.
India’s investments in Myanmar can go a long way. With its liberalisation, India and China have been battling over the natural resources potential and the strategic relevance of the country. Although Myanmar has been close to Beijing, recent developments and decisions taken by the country’s leaders have made China lose its edge. In 2011, the country halted the construction of a $3.6 billion dam being constructed by China, which led to an angry reaction from Beijing, threatening legal action. This public discord against China was termed as unusual, as the country is Myanmar’s second biggest trade partner. The reason given for the discontinuation of the dam was that it was “against the will of the people,” a comment which got widespread praise from the West.
As Myanmar engages with the entire world to reap economic benefits, India too can economically gain from the country’s vast natural resources, including oil & gas. It is also a good opportunity for India to strengthen its strategic interests beginning from the Bay of Bengal up to the South China Sea.
The time is right for Delhi to show a more coherent and responsive initiative with at least one of its neighbours.