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India's Emerging Relations with Myanmar: Challenges and Prospects

November 19, 2010
By Centre for Land Warfare Studies


A Round-table discussion on “India’s Emerging Relations with Myanmar: Challenges and Prospects” was held at CLAWS on 19 November 2010. Dr Marie Lall, South Asia Specialist at the University of London and Associate Fellow, Chatham House delivered a talk on the subject.

Opening Remarks: Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd), Director CLAWS

India shares a 1643 Km long border with Myanmar. Post ‘Op Golden Bird’ carried out jointly by the armies of India and Myanmar in 1995, the Nagas agreed to a cease-fire. Since then the situation in Nagaland has largely remained peaceful, however Manipur continues to be under the throes of internecine conflict between several militant groups. In these circumstances engaging the military junta in Myanmar is in India’s national interest to deny sanctuary to the insurgent outfits operating from there. Myanmar is the gateway to Southeast Asia and India should positively engage the junta in order to exchange leverages with them.

Dr Marie Lall

Indo-Myanmar relations underwent a radical shift after the NDA government changed India’s foreign policy on Myanmar. The main issues governing Indo-Myanmar relations today are: North-east and the border, economic factors, the China factor and energy security. Both the countries have carried out joint operations against the insurgents and to curb the drug trade. There is a limited border trade between the two sides. However there is no change in China’s balancing influence on Myanmar and in the area of energy security. The Indo-Myanmar annual  trade in 2009-10 is worth USD 1.9 Bn.

Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari visited Myanmar in February 2009 which was followed by a visit by General Than Shwe to Delhi in July 2010.

Indo-Myanmar Cooperation

There is greater cooperation in countering terrorism and organised crime between the two countries. Myanmar has taken action against Indian insurgent groups which are based in its territory. However for Myanmar the real issue lies in the East with its border with Thailand and China.

Infrastructure Development Projects

India is providing assistance in the building of the Sittwe Port in Myanmar and jointly developing the Kalewa-Kale-Tamu road for trade. India is also assisting in the restoration of the Ananda Temple at Bagan.

Border trade and economy

There is a marked difference in Myanmar’s border trade with Thailand in the east and China to the north with that of India in its west. The issues of greater connectivity and infrastructure development along with cooperation with ethnic minority groups including political parties is a keen aspect in Myanmar’s border trade with China in Shan and Kachin state and with Thailand in Karen state. Myanmar presently maintains cease-fire agreements with at least 18 insurgent groups especially in the north. 

Chinese text books, infrastructure development and a high standard of living have impacted on the economic scene in Shan state. A large number of people cross over to work in the industrial hubs of China. Chinese currency is widely acceptable within the border states of Myanmar. China has also achieved a high degree of cooperation with ethnic groups in the Northern states.

China’s positive influence and peace on its border with Myanmar has stabilised trade. A soft visa policy (for Kachins to work in China), and in education, currency along with an open border policy has benefitted both sides. Active conflict zones have been transformed into commercial hubs. There is greater company to company trade between the two countries and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce plays an important role in the bi-lateral trade. There is a strong support for the Chinese Diaspora in Myanmar. It also allows China to assert more influence in Myanmar. China aims at exploring the rich natural resource base including gas reserves in Myanmar. However, its attempts at land grab in the north has worried the Myanmar government. A large quantity of jade and ruby are exported to China. China is building a gas pipeline to Kunming (capital of China’s Yunnan province) from Myanmar which passes through difficult terrain.

A similar story of infrastructural development has transformed the economic conditions in Myanmar’s border with Thailand. However Myanmar’s trade with India continues to be driven by large company agreements compared to China’s realistic economic policies involving the people at large. Agreements between India and Myanmar has been signed for the development of the Sittwe port, rail link and trans-Asia highway. There is a general degree of ambivalence in India on securing energy cooperation with Myanmar. There is a lack of coordination in issues relating to routes, etc. India should be more active in tapping into the gas reserves in Myanmar. Perhaps India needs to emulate China’s open border policy to enhance trans-border influence.

Issues of democracy and elections

There is a need to understand the role of the military, ethnic minorities, and that of the third force in Myanmar. There is a split in the opposition which prevents a necessary convergence and a strong opposition. There is a split in the NDF and NLD is no longer the only opposition. Religious heads cannot stand or vote in elections. However, in the North, Myanmar has allowed Muslim clerics to vote and stand for elections to ensure a captive vote bank for pro-regime parties. Etnic parties with minority have done well in elections.

A small middle class and low levels of education are problem areas. Governance and building of institutions is a major challenge to Myanmar today. The influence of Aung San Suu Kyi has declined and her release probably has only symbolic value. The army is a stakeholder in governance. This is true of most countries stretching from Pakistan to Vietnam (with the exception of India). India needs to recognise this reality and have a more coordinated strategy towards Myanmar.


• Diaspora is often a double-edged sword. It may or may not have a positive influence in a country. Myanmar has also witnessed anti-India and anti-China riots.

• Security does not necessarily improve with open borders. India cannot have open borders with Myanmar as insurgent groups operating in the North-east transit through the border stretch. However with the right policies both sides can bring more security for the settled population on both sides. Population density is greater in China’s border with Myanmar than with India. There is an agreement of free movement in a zone of 20 km on both sides of the Indo-Myanmar border. Common religious affiliations and cross-border marriages bind people on both sides of the border.

• India should develop trade which would benefit local communities on either side of the border. The list of items in which trade can be carried out (about 2240 items) should be done away with.

• Kachin state is restricted and closed in Myanmar. Access for foreign people is difficult to gauge the real conditions there.

• 25 % of the government in Myanmar is comprised of the army. The structure of the government is a problem.

• The question of Myanmar acquiring Nuclear capabilities is an ambiguous one. There is no visible evidence to suggest that Myanmar is progressing towards the Nuclear path although there were skeptical reports about the presence of North Korean contractors in the country.

• Myanmar is an open country and not as restricted as North Korea. The two cannot be compared.

Closing Remarks: Maj Gen Dhruv Katoch, SM, VSM (Retd), Additional Director, CLAWS

The impact on India’s foreign policy with regard to the countries in the East beginning with Myanmar will be tremendous in the years to come. India’s ‘Look East’ policy requires a greater push especially with respect to Myanmar. The connect between the communities residing on both sides of the Indo-Myanmar border should be exploited to build greater economic cooperation and development in India’s North-east. 

(Report compiled by Rohit Singh, Research Assistant, CLAWS)

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