Myanmar is critical to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of connectivity with and strategic outreach to South East Asian. New Delhi acts with purpose to keep China’s interests in check.
On February 1, the military junta launched a coup in Myanmar, overturning a decade-long experiment with democracy and overthrowing the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. This has been met with widespread protests in that country and much bloodshed as security forces have cracked down brutally on pro-democracy activists.
Unlike the West, which has condemned the coup in Myanmar and thrown its lot with the pro-democracy protesters, India has adopted a nuanced stand that is likely to serve the interests of the free world better in the long run.
India has called for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar and condemned the violence there. But it has chosen to remain engaged with the junta in order to protect its eastern flank from insurgencies (some of them tacitly backed by China).
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Myanmar is important for India because of the geographic, historical, cultural and economic linkages/ties that span centuries as well as for the overall development of North-Eastern Indian states.
A retired Indian diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity told India Global Business: “India cannot just turn its back and walk away from Myanmar. First, it’s our backyard and what happens there has a direct bearing on our North East. Then, even though no one will say so on record, India is competing with China for influence in that country. It is important to realise that any space vacated by New Delhi will be filled up only too eagerly by Beijing and pose a serious threat to India's security.”
In a sign of the diplomatic and military importance of Myanmar in the Modi government’s foreign policy matrix, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh V Shringla visited the country last October accompanied by Army Chief M.M. Naravane, a rare instance of the Indian military being involved in a diplomatic outreach to another country.
Then, about 100 Indian companies have invested over $1.2 billion in Myanmar. According to the EXIM Bank of India, these include big names such as Tata Motors, Sun Pharmaceuticals, Century Ply, Zydus Pharmaceuticals, ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL), Jubilant Oil and Gas, Cadila Healthcare, RITES, Sonalika Tractors, Apollo and AMRI, among several others.
India had announced during Shringla’s visit that it would invest $6 billion in a petroleum refinery in Thanlyn region near Yangon. Then, India has also provided about $1.7 billion in development assistance to Myanmar.
Then, in keeping with Indian Prime Minister’s Act East Policy and his vision of making the remote North East of the country the gateway to South-East Asia for increased trade and people-to-people contact, India has invested in, among other projects, in the deep sea Sittwe port in the capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine province and the multi-modal Kaladan transport project. Thus, Myanmar is a critical transit point to South-East Asia.
There is also the 3,660 km long Moreh (India)-Bagan (Myanmar)-Mae Sot (Thailand) highways that will provide the first seamless overland route between India and South East Asia. This is critical for Modi’s vision of increasing engagement with the ASEAN region.
“India, thus, has very substantive economic, strategic and security stakes in the developments in Myanmar. The West is being myopic in its reaction to the coup in Myanmar. It has hardly any skin in the game there. But India has to keep the bigger picture in mind. China will be more than willing to fill in the slack if India shows the slightest signs of hesitation,” the diplomat quoted above said.
At the same time, India has to be mindful of the aspirations of the citizens of Myanmar, its principled support for democracy and its long-standing relationship with jailed Myanmar leader Aung Sung Suu Kyi.
As the beacon of democracy in the region, India, thus, has great stakes involved in this mini-Great Game that is playing out on its eastern doorstep.
These are early days and India has made its opening moves. To borrow a term from chess, the middle game is about to begin.