India Needs to Seize the Initiative in Myanmar
Brig Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF

Forthcoming visit of Prime Minister to Myanmar after a gap of 25 years is an historic opportunity to seize the initiative in a country which has been described by many strategic thinkers as the lynchpin of our ‘Look East Policy’.

Myanmar is an important nation of the ASEAN that is strategically located between India, China and the rest of the ASEAN nations. This year we are celebrating two decades of our ‘Look East Policy’ and a series of events have been planned that will culminate in the India-ASEAN summit at the end of 2012.

Indianeeds to support the process of reconciliation between the Establishment and the democratic parties and leaders as National League for Democracy (c) and AungSuuKyi. India had been insisting on SuuKyi for long that there was a need for compromise. Thus India sees positive developments which to an extent are perceived to be Delhi’s initiatives though much of the diplomacy was conducted in the back rooms rather than upfront unlike the case with the US or EU countries.

Indianeeds to continue of this policy of seeking reconciliation between the two poles of Myanmar’s politics the Army and NLD to find a middle ground. Such a process has fructified in the form of the TheinSein led establishment and the parliament.

The election of SuuKyi to the parliament and her decision to join the parliament ending the controversy over taking oath based on the 2008 Constitution is a mature step that would in fact lead to greater popularity of the NLD Party amongst the people. This is despite the factthat some within the Party may see this as a compromise with the military dominated parliament and government. But recognizing the reality that there was no way the army would allow a change in the constitution and any attempt to have the same through voting would not work with 25 percent seats with serving army personnel and others with the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the NLD’s decision was quite pragmatic.

It is hoped that this positive outcome between the principal protagonists in the country would lead to concessions from the West on the sanctions and on the economic front.

India needs to sustain its engagement with SuuKyi building upon her old association with New Delhi, where she has been a college student. Thus an invitation has been extended by India to AungSuuKyi for a visit to New Delhi. While India had been some sort of a supporter of the military junta (for strategic reasons) there were lines open to AungSuuKyi.

However, of late there have been difficulties on the security front. India’s main concerns are related to how Myanmar deals with the militant groups operating in the North East of the country. On this front there are some disturbing developments which may need some ironing out.

On April 8, Myanmar’s local government in Sagaing signed an agreement with Y. Wangtin Naga of NSCN (Khaplang) who is a Konyak from Mon district of Nagaland in India. The five-point ceasefire agreement with Myanmar government by Wangtin and six others of the NSCN (Khaplang) was signed by the Sagaing region minister for security and border affairs, Col KyiNaing. Sagaing Chief Minister U Tha Aye was present during the signing.

Khaplang group is the first militant group to sign a pact with both India and Myanmar. The five points of the truce include cessation of armed conflict with the Myanmar army, opening of a liaison office by NSCN (K) at Khamti for further talks, coordination among both sides for carrying arms beyond their agreed jurisdiction, free movement of unarmed NSCN cadres within Myanmar and holding of sustained negotiations.

This, however, has raised a number of complications. The ceasefire between Government of India and NSCN(K) was due for extension but has been kept on hold as NSCN (K) signed a ceasefire on April 12 with Myanmar keeping the Indian government in the dark. Apparently there has been lack of communications between the Indian and the Myanmar government despite a high level coordination meet held recently in Nay Pyi Taw attended by India’s Home Secretary Mr R K Singh. It is not clear so far if the agreement with the( K) has been made with the approval of the central government in Nay Pyi Taw as the local governments and military authorities in Myanmar have the authority to work out such agreements on their own as well.

There is thus an obvious disconnect here at two levels the Indian and Myanmar government and Indian government and the NSCN (K). Therefore India cannot be happy for being left out of the loop and apparently has taken up these issues with the Myanmar government. Internally this may also complicate management of Naga militancy which is fraught with internecine conflicts.

More over a cease fire with the NSCN (K) will only provide the group a leeway to conduct anti India activities in Myanmar with links with other intelligence agencies including the Chinese from Yunnan. Thus security issues need discussion during our Prime Minister’s visit.

There is also a need to be cautiously optimistic about the improvement in Myanmar’s relations with the West. The Western political leaders will have to meet some harsh realities of the Myanmar political and economic spectrum. The present period in the words of some is a, “honey moon,” period between the West and Myanmar. Once this period is over and the two come to discussing the brass tacks, Indiacould play a far more important role as a facilitator. Though presently the West feels that it can go on its own there are many challenges that might arise.

With the entry of the West, there is a possibility that there would be a more level playing field. India would be able to use the strong political and diplomatic linkages with the government and business community to advantage with greater opportunities coming from opening of the economy to competition. It could also provide the local expertise to Western government and companies thus Indian entities could become lead service providers in some respects. Geographic location certainly helps India in exploiting its proximity.

Evidently, the engagement with Myanmar has to be broad based that would include political, defence &security, economy, trade, IT, education, religious and cultural issues. Yet, engagement in the spheres of trade, economy, energy and security remain the most important elements of strengthening our relationship with Myanmar. In the security arena the immediate focus needs to be on the militant groups operating across the border and how they can be brought under control. Further, our ‘Look East Policy’ would be of no avail unless we have an intense engagement with Myanmar in political, economic, strategic and security fields. It is time that we enhanced our presence and engagement with Myanmar and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s forthcoming visit is a good opportunity to secure mutual interests and solidify Indo-Myanmar relationship.

Published Date: 26th May 2012

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