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Indian President's Visit to Myanmar

Dr. Udai Bhanu Singh is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 09, 2006

    President APJ Abdul Kalam began his three day (March 8-10, 2006) state visit to Myanmar on March 8 at the invitation of Sr General Than Shwe who himself had visited India in October 2004. The visit began on International Women's Day: whether this was a mere coincidence or carried any hidden symbolism (to draw attention to the continued house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi) is open to interpretation. However, one thing is certain. The first visit by an Indian head of state to this Southeast Asian nation shows that New Delhi attaches great importance to this geopolitically crucial country irrespective of the kind of political system it currently has.

    During his visit President Kalam is expected to visit Yangon University, Shwe Dagon Pagoda, and the memorial (mazaar) to the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, besides seeing Bagan and Mandalay. Myanmar has had a steady stream of high level visits from India. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi paid a visit in 1987. India's three service chiefs who have held office at different times have deemed it important to visit Myanmar. The Indian Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat's visit to Myanmar in November 2003 was an important landmark. There were equally significant visits by the Indian External Affairs Minister at different times (Jaswant Singh in April 2002, and Natwar Singh in March 2005). Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, who had served as India's Ambassador to Myanmar, paid a visit in October 2004. He has described the current visit of the President as a very important visit to a very important neighbour. The then Home Secretary NN Vohra had visited Myanmar in 1994 and the process was continued by his successors right upto VK Duggal in October 2005.

    Viewed from Myanmar's perspective, its objective is clearly to attain greater integration with the international community and greater manoeuvrability in its foreign relation (which would in a sense be an extension of its earlier emphasis on nonalignment).This explains its urge to have a vibrant relationship with China, which country Myanmar Prime Minister Soe Win visited between February 14 and 18, 2006). Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono paid a visit to Myanmar on March 1-2, 2006. During this visit, Indonesia's foreign minister, Hassan Wirajuda who accompanied the President, offered to share his country's expereince in transition to democracy. The Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar is waiting in the wings to visit Myanmar.

    When US President Bush came to India recently, he did criticise Myanmar's human rights record in his speech but what is significant is that Myanmar did not find a mention in India's joint declaration with the United States. From India's standpoint, the objectives it views as signifcant are: energy requirements, infrastructure projects, counter-insurgency, counter-narcotics policy, development of the northeast, and promotion of the Look East policy.

    There seems to be an urgency to India's need to import natural gas from an offshore block close to the Arakan coast of Myanmar in which the Gas Autority of India Limited (GAIL) and ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) have stakes. India and Myanamar are expected to sign an agreement on gas supply from Myanmar's Arakan coast. Following Bangladeshi recalcitrance over this issue, India is left with only two options - a (far more expensive) pipeline bypassing Bangladesh through India's northeastern states, or shipping the gas by converting it into LNG. The latter appears to be a viable option and could be finally adopted. Keeping in view India's rapidly growing import dependence for energy (to keep pace with the requirements of GDP growth) it is worth taking Myanmar seriously as a source of energy.

    The Kaladan multi-modal transport project is also expected to get a boost with the President's visit. A multi-modal transport from Mizoram to Sitwe could provide "an alternative outlet to the sea for Northeast India in addition to transit through Chittagong" or through the Siliguri neck and Assam.

    Following the successful operation in Bhutan against militant outfits in December 2003, similar hopes were expressed for the Indo-Myanmar border. Talks held during General Joginder Jaswant Singh's visit in November 2005 covered security along the Indo-Myanmar border. During his October 2004 visit to India, Sr Gen Than Shwe had assured India that it would not allow insurgents to operate from the territory of Myanmar. Following that visit the armies of the two sides cooperated in counter-insurgency operations along the border in November 2004. India's Home Secretary VK Duggal visited Myanmar for the eleventh round of talks between Home Secretaries of the two countries, during which an agreement was reached on co-operation in tackling insurgents, arms smuggling drugs, etc. on October 14, 2005.

    India's trade with Myanmar has steadily increased after border trade was opened at Moreh-Tamu in April 1995 and was targeted at $1 billion this year. India is among Myanmar's top export destinations. But as relations between the two countries deepen, co-operation in other areas like human resource development, education and biotechnology will need to be emphasized.

    Military-to-military contacts between India and Myanmar have grown. The Indian Army Chief's visit in November 2005 was followed by the visit of India's Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash in January 2006. In February 2005 the Myanmar Chief of Naval Staff Vice Admiral Soe Thein visited India. Two Indian warships, guided missile destroyer INS Ranjit and the missile corvette INS Kuthar, visited Yangon to participate in some basic exercises with the Myanmar Navy between December 22 and 26, 2005. A corvette of the Myanmar Navy participated in the multi-nation exercise Milan-06 off the Andaman coast (January 9-14, 2006).

    A strong and stable Myanmar is in India's interest and it is equally in India's interest to promote agriculture on which Myanmar deeply depends. During his visit President Kalam is expected to discuss the setting up of a ground station in Myanmar which would receive relevant data for better crop management from Indian satellites.

    From the Indian point of view, a stable Myanmar is a good in itself and must not be construed as illustrative of Indian rivalry with China. If economics is the prime mover behind India's Look East policy, the economic transformation of India's eastern neighbour could play a very powerful role in its political transformation to a more democratic regime. The process may be gradual but if Myanmar is helped along in this process by neighbouring ASEAN States (including Indonesia which has an experience in this regard) and India, the results may be more enduring and least disruptive.