India-Myanmar Defence Convergences: Facilitating Cooperation and Stability

 By Gitanjali Sinha Roy

The position of Myanmar in India’s foreign and strategic policy holds great importance as both the countries share a land boundary of 1643kms and also a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. Myanmar is a cardinal point of cooperation as it is in line with India’s “Act East Policy” and “Neighbourhood First Policy”. Since 2017, both India and Myanmar reviewed the security situation and ensured the special realized the need for enhancing bilateral ties with respect to defence cooperation. India-Myanmar defence relations reached at the apex stage when in July 2019, India and Myanmar signed a Defence Cooperation Agreement aimed at boosting military engagement. On 4-5 October 2020, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General MM Naravane, PVSM, AVSM, SM, VSM, ADC, and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Myanmar and paved the way to analyse the opportunities and aimed for continuous progress in bilateral relations. Therefore, this article aims to trace the importance of the India-Myanmar Defense Convergences in order to facilitate cooperation and stability.

In May 2012, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh initiated an era of deeper engagement especially in the bilateral economic relations between India and Myanmar, and this was followed by the visit of Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid and Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne in November and December 2012. A K Anthony, the then Defence Minister and the then Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne visited Myanmar in January 2013. On 21-22 January 2013, the Raksha Mantri led a high-level delegation to Myanmar consisting of the Defence Secretary, Vice Chief of Naval Staff, and the GOC Eastern Command where they discussed the bilateral cooperation in defense with the C-in-C Vice Senior General Minister Aung Hlaing and Defence Minister Lt. Gen Wai Lwin. The aim of the discussion was to set cooperation in the military and help modernise Myanmar’s military.[1] In 2014, the defence cooperation was strengthened as there was the training of the defence personnel from Myanmar and special training in English was imparted by the Indian trainers at the Defence Service Academy of Myanmar.[2]On 16 July 2015, the first meeting between India and Myanmar was held for a Joint Consultative Commission and here they discussed the development of cooperation, security and defense matters.[3]On 17-21 October 2016, the 9th Regional Border Committee Meeting with Myanmar was held in Imphal and the 2nd Army-to-Army Staff talks were held from 5-7 January 2017.[4]

Major developments took place in 2017 when the Chief of Army Staff (Indian Army) Gen Bipin Rawat visited Myanmar from 28-31 May 2017 and discussed on enhancing the wider scope of defence relations and as a goodwill gesture 10 ambulances, 15 sniffer dogs and 4 English language labs were gifted to Myanmar. From May to August 2017, two Indian mobile training teams conducted United Nation Peacekeeping Training for Myanmar Army to assist in the planning, preparation, and deployment for their UN Mission.[5] This was also followed by a number of visits and paved the way for the Technical Agreement for the exchange of White Shipping information and agreed to work on the enhancement of maritime domain awareness. In November 2017, the first edition of Indo-Myanmar Table Top Exercise (TTX) ExIMBAX-17 was held. On 26-27 November 2017, a 35 member Myanmar delegation led by the Deputy Commandant of National Defence College, Myanmar visited India. As part of the defence cooperation, India provided Myanmar with logistic support in various field like Bailey Bridges. In December 2017, a four-week tailor-made training capsule in Low-Intensity Counter-Offensive was conducted for 35 personnel of the Myanmar Army at the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School, Vairengte.[6]  In 2018, significant changes were observed in defence cooperation that were observed wherein the Joint India-Myanmar Naval Exercise ‘IMCOR’, Indian Navy-Myanmar Navy (MN) Bilateral Exercise ‘IN-MN BILAT’ and the India-Myanmar Joint Army Exercise (IMBAX) was held.[7] In March 2019, the 4th India-Myanmar Army to Army Staff Talks was held in Myanmar. In May 2019, the armies of India and Myanmar carried out a three-week-long “coordinated flushing out” of the militant groups actively operating along the Indo-Myanmar border. In July 2019, an MoU on Defence Cooperation was signed between India and Myanmar. The MoU was aimed at enhancing the overall defence cooperation, including the advancement of training Myanmar defense personnel in India.[8] In September 2019, another MoU was signed on Maritime Security Cooperation which paved the way to conduct the first meeting of the Joint Working Group and exchanged data on “white shipping”.[9]

In February 2020, the Vice-Senior General Soe Win, the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services (Myanmar) had visited India for the DefExpo 2020.[10]In May 2020, Myanmar handed over 22 cadres of Indian insurgent groups and aimed for the maintenance of security and stability at their borders.[11] During the visit of the Chief of Army Staff (India) and the Foreign Secretary to Myanmar, both the countries agreed by overcoming the COVID-19 challenges, whereby, India planned to share with Myanmar the vaccines, when available and also as a goodwill gesture presented 3000 vials of Remdesivir to Myanmar. The operationalisation of the Sittwe Port in early 2012 was a key point of discussion and India announced a US$2 million grant for the construction of the border haat Bridge at Byanyu/Sarsichauk. They also took up fresh initiatives like the up-gradation of the Yamethin Women’s Police Academy. Also, in the realm of defence and security, the Army of Myanmar has been instrumental in cracking down and ending the remnants of insurgencies in India’s Northeast which was greatly appreciated by India.[12]

The importance of Myanmar should be seen from four perspectives:

First, Myanmar is of vital importance to India especially with respect to India’s northeast. India also needs to make sure that Myanmar isn’t influenced by China in order to avoid any issue in its the Northeast States. A large number of infrastructural projects are being constructed by India in Southeast Asian nations like the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project.

Second, the regional perspective is important as Myanmar is India’s bridge to the Southeast region and India has been actively working with the ASEAN and the BIMSTEC countries on multiple projects like India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway. Myanmar, for years, has been under the military rule and the fight for democracy is ongoing. Therefore, it would be better for India to have a country with an elected democratic government in order to maintain stability in its neighborhood. Therefore, India’s support to Myanmar’s claim for democracy is vital.

Third, the defence and security perspective whereby the Army of Myanmar has been able to hand over Indian insurgents, and Myanmar is also helping India in its fight against insurgency, drug, and arms trafficking. Also, previously the Junta rule in Myanmar got an immense amount of support from China and Pakistan in the form of money, training, arms, and ammunition, which in turn were directed to create unrest in India’s Northeast, so as to keep India engaged domestically, which would benefit China and Pakistan. This is a genuine cause of concern for India and so, India must continuously try to maintain stable and peaceful relations with Myanmar and also help the Myanmar Army with defence and counter-insurgency training, equipment, and support in joint exercises against terror groups.

Fourth, the international perspective whereby Myanmar is aware of “China’s arm-twisting and bullying” and recently pointed fingers at China for helping and arming the insurgent groups with sophisticated weapons and sought the support of the international community for their cooperation to suppress these groups. Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing opined that terrorist organisations which were active in Myanmar were backed by ‘strong forces’ and this reference to the strong forces can be widely understood to be directed at Myanmar’s northern neighbour, China. India being Myanmar’s neighbour should help and support Myanmar for a greater regional and international cause and this recent visit clearly supported this cause of facilitating cooperation and stability between India and Myanmar.

End Notes

[1] Ministry of External Affairs. 2013. “India-Myanmar Relations”. Accessed on 11 October 2020

[2] Ministry of Defense. 2015. “Annual Report 2014-2015”.pp.162. Accessed on 11 October 2020

[3] Ministry of External Affairs. 2017. “India-Myanmar Relations”, August 2017. Accessed on 11 October 2020.

[4] Ministry of Defense.2017. Annual Report 2016-2017”. Accessed on 11 October 2020

[5] Ministry of Defense. 2018.” Annual Report 2017-18”. pp.169. Accessed on 11 October 2020

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ministry of Defense. 2018. “Annual Report 2018-2019”. Accessed on 11 October 2020

[8] “India, Myanmar sign defense cooperation agreement”, The Economic Times dated 29 July 2019. on 12 October 2020

[9] Ministry of External Affairs. 2020. “India-Myanmar Joint Statement during the State Visit of the President of Myanmar to India” dated February 26-29, 2020. Accessed on 12 October 2020

[10] Ministry of External Affairs. 2020. “India-Myanmar-Bilateral Brief”. Accessed on 11 October 2020

[11]Shubhajit Roy. 2020. “India gives Myanmar Remdesivir drug, talks security along border”, The Indian Express dated 6 October 2020. Accessed on 9 October 2020

[12] Sidharth Sibal. 2020. “India assures Myanmar on COVID-19 vaccine, speeding up infrastructure projects”, DNA dated 5 October 2020. Accessed on 12 October 2020