SINCE Independence India has tended to neglect its east, within and outside the national boundaries. In the west, despite irrational hostility towards us, we have maintained a comprehensive diplomatic dialogue with Pakistan’s military dictators. In the east, we shied away from meaningful diplomatic dialogue with Myanmar ever since its Generals took charge of the nation nearly six decades ago. In fact, despite our historical relations, a 1600-km-long undisputed common boundary and several geo-strategic interests, India became a persistent critic of the military rule in Myanmar until the mid-1990s.
Due to ideologicpolitic policies followed during this period, Yangon drew close to Beijing for political and economic support and for military weapons, equipment and training. China developed road communications and trade links from Yunnan (China) to North Myanmar which caused heavy influx of Chinese immigrants (approximately 1.5 million) and their economic influence right up to the Irrawady River. Secessionist gangs from India’s Northeast were able to establish and operate from their safe sanctuaries in North Myanmar. Gunrunning and drug traffic from the Golden Triangle into Northeast had increased substantially.
The credit for changing the course of the ethics-based policy to realpolitic in Indo-Myanmar relations goes to the governments of Prime Ministers PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. They realised that without proper diplomatic relations and cooperation with Myanmar, it would be impossible to control insurgencies and bring about stability in our Northeastern states. Besides, shifting the balance of power and the growing influence of China in India’s immediate eastern neighborhood and Southeast Asia, our long-term political and economic interests required a “Look East” policy.
Myanmar was seen as a natural bridge to Southeast Asia. These imperatives made it necessary to engage with the military regime in Myanmar. It was not principle but realpolitik that guided New Delhi’s changed attitude towards Yangon.
In March 1993, Foreign Secretary JN Dixit visited Yangon and signed a bilateral agreement to control drug trafficking and border trade. A Memorandum of Understanding to maintain border tranquility was signed in 1994. Military visits were started at a low key. The real shift and a new momentum in India-Myanmar relations, however, came after the Vajpayee government assumed power.
In 1999, several proposals on India-Myanmar cooperation were under consideration, but there was no progress due to the lack of political contacts. Prime Minister Vajpayee and National Security Adviser (NSA) Brajesh Mishra then decided to utilise military diplomacy to supplement India’s foreign policy objectives.
In November 1999, Ambassador Shyam Saran (later Foreign Secretary) proposed to the military government in Myanmar that l, then Chief of Army Staff, have a “quiet” meeting with General Maung Aye, Vice-Chairman, Government of Myanmar, Deputy C-in-C, Armed Forces, and C-in-C, Myanmar Army. This could then lead to my inviting Maung Aye and senior military officers in charge of relevant ministries for a meeting with Union ministers in India.
Initially, our Ministry of External Affairs suggested that this meeting should be held at Tamu-Moreh on the Myanmar-India border. I rejected such a border meeting at the level of the Chiefs. After discussions with the NSA, it was agreed that I would go with a small military delegation to Mandalay and after our meetings, bring the Myanmarese delegation to Shillong.
On January 5, 2000, after canceling all engagements for the next four days, I left for Imphal in an Air Force Avro aircraft along with a small tri-service delegation. Early next morning, after flying across the Chindwin River and thick forested Chin Hills, we landed in Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar on the eastern bank of the Irrawady. We were received on the red-carpeted tarmac by Maung Aye and almost the entire Myanmarese Cabinet (mostly Generals). Ambassador Shyam Saran and the Military Attache Colonel Jasbir Singh were at hand. From the airport, Maung Aye escorted me personally to an impressive guard of honour and then to the room allotted to me in Nanmyo Guest House.
Over the next 48 hours, besides a formal meeting, dinner, a visit to the nearby military institutes (in Pyin Oo Lwin) and local sightseeing, I had several one-on-one discussions with Maung Aye. We discussed the need to enlarge India-Myanmar cooperation in the military field to include greater border contacts, passing of real-time information and coordinated operations against the insurgents on both sides of the border. I also apprised him of the training programmes and non-lethal equipment that we could offer. The need to expedite planning and implementation of the civil projects already accepted in principle by our two countries and widening diplomatic exchanges were also discussed.
Maung Aye and his colleagues never spoke about China but quite apparently were keen on enlarging civil and military ties with India. I also managed a surprise visit to the local market to look for the Chinese influence and to buy a pair of ruby earrings for my wife.
On January 8, our respective delegations, in separate aircraft, flew to Shillong via Gauhati. The Air Force gave the guard of honour to the visiting Vice-Chairman of Myanmar. Maung Aye and his delegation met Murasoli Maran, Union Minister of Commerce and Industry, and Kumaramanglam, Union Minister for Power and civil officials from several ministries who had flown in from New Delhi. After a formal introductory meeting, Maung Aye and I withdrew to the bungalow where we were put up together while the ministers and officials from our countries started discussions on the development of road and trade links and hydro-power projects in Myanmar.
When Maung Aye left Shillong with his delegation next day, I gave him a map marked with locations of hostile Naga gangs in North Myanmar. A fortnight later, these locations were raided and destroyed by the Myanmar Army. When the hostile elements attempted to run across the boundary into India, they were ambushed by our troops and suffered further casualties.
In April 2000, I was invited by the Government of Myanmar, this time more formally, to visit historical places and civil and military institutions in different parts of the country. To keep the momentum going, an India-Myanmar Foreign Secretary-level meeting was held in August 2000. Political exchanges increased substantially. This, it was hoped, would lead to greater and more practical and meaningful cooperation in the economic and security fields.
It is a matter of regret that these efforts have started floundering lately due to political inhibitions, diplomatic neglect and attempts to align ourselves with US and European Union human rights and environmental policies. While India has been slow in establishing political and economic foothold, China has managed to gain access to Myanmar’s waterways, harbours and territorial waters and dominate its important jade and gems trade in North Myanmar. Myanmar is getting drawn into China’s orbit more and more.
It needs to be reiterated that strategy and diplomacy in international relations are based not on sentiments but the art of the possible and the advancement of national interests. Kautilya had stated, “When the interests of the country are involved, ethics are a burdensome irrelevance.”
The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff
Courtesy: The Tribune, 21 June 2011
(The views expressed in the article are that of the author and do not represent the views of the editorial committee or the centre for land warfare studies)