Myanmar’s leader and head of the National League for Democracy (NLD) Aung San Suu Kyi is all set to rule the country for the next five years. Her party won a decisive mandate yet again in the recently held elections. While, Suu Kyi and her government has had cordial relations with India, but what does the outcome mean in actual terms for New Delhi. The obvious questions that are being asked is will the NLD victory translate into strengthening existing bonds between both countries and create new alliances for strategic cooperation.
For India, Suu Kyi’s win is as good as a positive signal to better relationships, and greater opportunities for building on the platform which has been created between the two nations over time. Even though the Suu Kyi led government has maintained strong relations with China throughout its previous tenure, barring some hitches concerning specific Chinese investments, it has also cozied up to India on a number of fronts.
Besides, given the cost it has had to bear in keeping up with China as a ‘dependable ally’ in the past, India could certainly become a good alternative to sharpen and reshape its foreign policy. Myanmar has, of late, shown unfettered interest in engaging with India to help it become more independent in its foreign policy and build a strong defence infrastructure.
On the other hand, a democratically elected government under the leadership of Suu Kyi works well for India to help it to bolster its efforts to ensure that age old relationship with Myanmar which span several centuries and is deeply rooted in geographic, historical, cultural and economic linkages. It would also help to open up India’s northeast which has been a key development agenda under the ‘Act East’ policy.
India and Myanmar’s relationship officially got underway after the Treaty of Friendship was signed in 1951. Apart from the friendly neighbourly relations which India has had with Myanmar, it has continued to maintain cordial ties with the Tatmadaw or the Myanmar military.
The NLD-led Myanmar government has had, in the recent past, banked on India’s support whenever it has had to deal with sensitive issues. On the Rohingya issue for instance, the Narendra Modi-led Indian government has stood rock solid behind Suu Kyi and her decisions. India’s position on the issue has come at a great risk of upsetting some its own friends and allies in the west and Europe, but that fact that India has called for safe return of the Rohingyas to their homes in Rakhine cannot be questioned outright as that is ultimately what everyone wants. This has also helped to strike a balance when it comes to finding a solution to the issue as opposed to taking confrontationist positions which a number of countries in the West have done and the results have proven to be only counter-productive.
There are several other issues on which Suu Kyi has found the Modi administration on her side. These include Myanmar’s peace process between Government, Military and Ethnic Armed Groups which has found unequivocal support from New Delhi, as well as on defence and security issues. Myanmar has acknowledged the support that India has been extending to its defence sector, the latest being the supply of Russian-made Kilo submarines from Indian Navy, upgraded armaments. It goes without saying that the defence cooperation greatly benefits Myanmar as well as India which is looking to establish its footprints in the East and edge out China from wresting any advantage.
China though has made significant inroads with its China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) project as part of larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar in February 2020 was primarily aimed at augmenting its BRI plans and make some speedy strategic gains. As many as 33 proposals were signed between China and Myanmar during the visit.
However, the Chinese advances should not worry India too much as its relations with Myanmar are embedded in traditions, culture and a shared history. This was emphasised by Myanmar’s President U Win Myint during his visit to New Delhi in February this year. For the Burmese, relations with India is not just about the strengthening of government to government relations, but one that is connected to its culture and its most dominant religion Buddhism. This sense of historical ties has had scholars describing it as “ties that are eternally bound.”
Suu Kyi herself carries the legacy of having studied in India where her initial grooming on political movements and democracy had taken place and this makes the relationship all the more meaningful. It is expected that in her second term as the leader of her country Suu Kyi’s fondness for India would not fade and the camaraderie would translate into strategic advantage for both countries.
With as many as 350 seats in her party’s kitty from both the lower house and the upper house elections combined, she is well past the threshold needed to form the government. She may not need to align with the ethnic parties, but it is possible she would choose a few, especially from states and regions where she would need such parties to help push the peace agenda forward as well as help to develop these highly underdeveloped bordering States which are predominantly inhabited by ethnic communities.
India is keenly watching the post-election developments in Myanmar. Besides the trade, economic and defence ties, it has also successfully engaged with Naypyitaw in tackling cross border insurgency in its north east states that border Myanmar.
The gains from recent successes it has had in joint military operations against the Arakan Army (AA) along the Indo-Myanmar border are important to both countries. While the increasing conflict with the AA, which is supported by China, has made the Myanmar military bleed during the past two years, it has also threatened to reactivate insurgency along some of the 1468 km long land border densely forested areas that Myanmar shares with India’s Northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland.
For India, the joint operations with the Myanmar military through intelligence sharing and ground offensives have helped in destroying several military camps, leading to arrest of a number of militants. It has also helped to avert a rising threat from militant groups to launch attacks on the Kaladan Multi-Modal transit and transport project. This is among a series of projects which is important for India’s ambitious ‘Act East’ and ‘Neighbourhood First’ policies.
The two nations have of late shown immense interest in countering terrorist groups and the new administration in Myanmar would only benefit to keep India as a reliable partner in this endeavour. There have been concerns of a possible rise of Islamic terrorism in Myanmar, especially following the regrouping of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). There are also other fundamentalists groups which may have set their sights on the Indo-Myanmar border from where to carry out terror projects against both nations. Thus, this new found alliance between Myanmar and India on ways to counter terrorism is extremely significant.
The new administration under Suu Kyi would surely want to see peace return to Rakhine and for this it needs India’s assistance. The two sides had earlier had high level discussions on starting development projects in Rakhine. India has been especially eager to get an early advantage in Rakhine as Chinese investors have been trying every possible way, diplomatically and even covert ways to gain total access to the rich reserves of resources in Rakhine. China has already operationalized its Shwe gas pipeline project off the coast of Kyaukpyu town in the Bay of Bengal.
For now, its early days for the new government, and it remains how Suu Kyi in her second term and in her all powerful avatar as the State Counsellor succeeds in dealing with a more reliable India to help it regain its image in the international world as a growing democracy and also how it counter balances an aggressive China which would want to go full throttle to see its BRI plans through.
It will be a tightrope walk for her but one that certainly will find India by her side. India is keen on keeping its commitment to develop the region by exploring new avenues of cooperation and strengthen the partnership in the mutual interest of the two countries.