REFLECTIONS ON INDO-MYANMAR RELATIONS
V P MALIK
Northeastern states. The boundary straddles several ethnic tribes inhabiting
the area. At one time, this had prompted the British to make Myanmar-then
Burma-a part of India. Many of these tribes have fought or continue to fight with
governments on either side of the border.
Myanmar has land border with four other countries in South and
Southeast Asia, including China. One-third of its total perimeter of 1,930
km forms an uninterrupted coastline along the Bay of Bengal and Andaman
Sea. It straddles several busy shipping lanes. During the Second World War,
Japanese forces invaded Burma. They were able to reach up to Imphal and
Kohima on land, and were able to make their presence felt in the Bay of
with Myanmar are crucial for domestic security reasons and other aspects of
I will not go too far into the past of Indo Myanmar security relations. It is worth
noting that in the 17th century, several Meitei rulers from Manipur would raid
Burmese areas right up to the Irrawady River. And when the Mandalay Empire
under King Bodawpaya became strong, it annexed Manipur in 1814 and part of
Assam in 1817. It was the second largest empire in the Burmese history, but also
one with a long, ill-defined border with British India. The breadth of this empire,
however, was short lived. Burma lost Arakan, Manipur and Assam to the British
in the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824–26.
Burma was colonised by Britain following three Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824–
1885). In 1886, British made it a province of India. This arrangement lasted
until 1937 when they decided to administer it separately. Burma achieved its
independence from the British rule on 4 January 1948.
into a headlong dive when the latter came under the revolutionary council
headed by General Ne Win in early 1960s. His military rule and relentless
persecution of “resident aliens” (immigrant groups not recognised as citizens
of the Union of Burma) led to an exodus/expulsion of some 300,000 Burmese
Indians. The uneasy Indo Myanmar relations were exploited by secessionist
Naga, Manipuri and Mizo groups to establish safe, ethnic sanctuaries and
training camps in Myanmar, across the mountainous and heavily forested
porous border. Large gangs of Naga insurgents, in hundreds, would go to
large gang under Mowu Angami, returning from China was intercepted when
it entered India. At that time, there were no contacts between the Indian and
Myanmar armies except at the level of border posts. I was posted in Nagaland
in 1974, when the last large gang of Naga insurgents, attempting to go to
China through North Myanmar, was intercepted and stopped from crossing
A few important points need to be noted when we consider cross border
movement of insurgents along the Indo-Myanmar border. Primarily, the writ
of the Myanmar Government in North and West Myanmar, inhabited and
dominated by insurgent tribes, is weak. Myanmar armed forces (the Tatmadaw)
do not have the capacity to take pro-active military action (here and elsewhere) to
put down insurgencies in the manner the Indian armed forces can do. Secondly,
despite large scale deployment of regular and para military troops inside
Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, and better surveillance
along Indo-Myanmar border, it is extremely difficult to eliminate cross border
movement of small groups of secessionist elements. Thirdly, India and Myanmar
have traditionally allowed tribals from both sides to travel freely up to 16 km and
purchase necessities from local haats as per an old treaty. Lastly, the pernicious
Inner Line permit regime has now become an obstacle in proper integration of
Border States in our Northeast.
China-Myanmar Historical Relations
China and Myanmar have had several border disputes
dating long before the British annexation of Burma. The
last border dispute culminated in 1956, when
Liberation Army invaded northern Myanmar. That was
repulsed. A border agreement-along the extension of
McMahon Line-was reached in 1960, which enabled
substantial improvement in relations between the two
countries. In the absence of any other regional power,
Chinese influence in Myanmar increased substantially.
Many Sino-Burmese were influenced by the Cultural
Revolution in China and began to wear Mao badges. In June 1967, due to increasing
number of ethnic Chinese students supporting Mao by carrying the
from Chairman Mao books, large scale anti-Chinese riots broke out in Myanmar.
Shops and homes were ransacked and burned. The Chinese government berated
the Myanmar government and started a war of words but no other actions were
taken. The anti-Chinese riots continued till early 1970s.
After some time, China withdrew its support to the Communist Party of
exchange for greater access to Myanmar markets. The influx of Chinese arms
relied indirectly on Chinese complicity. As a result, the military junta of Myanmar
became even more reliant on China for their high level of power.
I must also state that during this period, partly due to post-1962 China phobia
in India, and because large scale military invasions across international borders
India’s Shift to Realpolitik
isolation, and our own ideologically oriented foreign policies, Yangon drew closer
and training. China developed road communications and trade links from Yunnan
(China) into North Myanmar. That caused heavy influx of Chinese immigrants
(approximately 1.5 million) and their socio-economic influence reached right
to operate from their safe sanctuaries in Northwest Myanmar. Gun running and
drug traffic from the Golden Triangle into Northeast India by land and sea routes
seat and ideology took the front seat. As the only economic and defense hardware
partner, Beijing got a huge strategic and economic advantage over India.
The credit for changing the course of ethics based policy to realpolitik in
Indo-Myanmar relations goes to the governments of PV Narasimha Rao and Atal
Bihari Vajpayee. They realised that without diplomatic relations and cooperation
with Myanmar, it would be impossible to control insurgencies and bring about
neighborhood and Southeast Asia, our long term political and economic interests
too had established military to military contacts with Myanmar and began to
supply some arms and ammunition. These imperatives made it necessary to
realpolitik and change of attitude towards Yangon.
In March 1993, Foreign Secretary JN Dixit visited Yangon and signed a
bilateral agreement to control drug trafficking and border trade. A Memorandum
Border meetings between army personnel were encouraged and military visits
across the border were re-started at a low key.
In 1999, several proposals on Indo Myanmar cooperation were under
consideration but there was limited progress due to lack of political contacts.
Prime Minister Vajpayee and National Security Advisor (NSA) Brajesh Mishra
In November 1999, Ambassador Shyam Saran (later Foreign Secretary)
proposed to the Myanmar military government that l, then Chief of Army Staff
Maung Aye, then Vice Chairman, Government of Myanmar, Deputy C-in-C,
Armed Forces, and C-in-C, Myanmar Army. This would lead to my inviting
Maung Aye and some Myanmar ministers (mostly military officers) for a meeting
with ministers from India.
Initially, the Ministry of External Affairs suggested that this meeting be held
at Tamu-Moreh on the Myanmar-India border. I rejected such a border meeting
at the level of the Chiefs. After discussions with NSA, it was decided that I would
go with a small military delegation to Mandalay and after our meetings, bring the
On January 5, 2000, after canceling all engagements for the next four days,
I left for Imphal in an Air Force Avro aircraft along with a small tri service
delegation. Early next morning, after flying across the Chindwin River and
thick forested Chin Hills, we landed in Mandalay, the second largest city in
Myanmar on the eastern bank of the Irrawady River. We were received on the
red carpeted tarmac by Maung Aye and almost the entire Myanmarese cabinet
(mostly generals). Ambassador Shyam Saran and the Military Attache Colonel
Jasbir Singh were at hand. From the airport, Maung Aye escorted me personally
to an impressive guard of honour and then to the room allotted to me in the
Nanmyo Guest House.
Over the next 48 hours, besides a formal meeting, dinner, visit to nearby
military institutes (in Pyin Oo Lwin) and local sightseeing, I had several oneon-
one discussions with Maung Aye. We discussed the need to enlarge Indo-
Myanmar cooperation in the military field to include greater border contacts,
passing of real time information and coordinated operations against the
insurgents on both sides of the border. I also apprised him of the training
planning and implementation of the civil projects already accepted in principle
by our two countries and widening diplomatic exchanges were also discussed.
were keen on enlarging civil and military ties with India.
On January 8, our respective delegations in separate aircrafts flew to Shillong
via Guwahati. The Air Force gave a guard of honour to the visiting Vice Chairman
of Myanmar. Maung Aye and his delegation met Murasoli Maran, Union Minister
of Commerce and Industry and Kumaramanglam, Union Minister for Power, and
civil officials from several ministries who had flown in from New Delhi. After the
formal introductory meeting, Maung Aye and I withdrew to a bungalow where we
stayed together while the ministers and officials from both countries discussed
When Maung Aye left Shillong, I gave him a map marked with locations of
hostile Naga gangs in North Myanmar and asked him to get them raided by
Myanmar Army. A fortnight later, these camps were raided and destroyed. When
the insurgents attempted to run across the boundary into India, they were
ambushed by our troops and suffered more casualties.
In April 2000, I was invited by the Government of Myanmar; this time more
formally. The hosts gave us full opportunity to travel and meet officials and
people in different parts of Myanmar. I met Chairman, General Than Shwe
and other leaders. Our cooperation by this time had extended well beyond
projects, offer of seats in Indian technical and military institutions, participation
other diplomatic issues.
On this occasion, I also raised the issue of the much rumoured Chinese
surveillance base in Coco Island (just North of A & N group of islands in the Bay
of Bengal) to monitor Indian Naval as well as ISRO and DRDO missile and space
launch activities. This was firmly denied by Maung Aye. He offered me a visit to
the Coco Island, if I could.
On my return, I apprised Prime Minister Vajpayee that notwithstanding
national or international unpopularity, Myanmar military regime is likely
to remain in the saddle for many years. China had gained marked socioeconomic
influence, particularly in North and Northeast Myanmar. Unless
we make efforts, this influence will extend to the West of Irrawady River and
in the South. The Myanmar Government was keen to improve relations with
India in the fields of economic development and technology, which ought to
The Nuclear Threat
In 2007, Russia and Myanmar signed a controversial
Nuclear Research Centre deal. According to some reports,
this Centre was to comprise ‘a 10MW light-water reactor
working on 20 per cent enriched uranium-235, an activation
analysis laboratory, a medical isotope production
laboratory, silicon doping system, nuclear waste treatment
more reports in 2009 that Myanmar, with assistance from
North Korea, was working to develop nuclear weapons by 2014. This became a
major cause of concern for the world, particularly in India. Later, these reports
which had originated from two high-ranking defectors settled in Australia were
found to be baseless. Incidentally, Myanmar is a member of the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since 1957, and a signatory of the nuclear nonproliferation
pact since 1992. The military junta had informed the IAEA in
September 2000 of its intention to construct the Research Centre.
There have been many important political developments in Myanmar in the last
military rule and carried out a number of reforms like the release of political
prisoners and relaxation of media restrictions. After recent by-elections, pro
democracy leader Suu Kyi and her party leaders have joined the Parliament,
although that continues to be dominated by the military. This shift, I believe, is
Now, when leaders from US, UK, France and Australia are making a beeline to
Naypyidaw and inclined to lift sanctions imposed by them earlier, India has
an advantage and a huge opportunity to move into high gear dynamics of its
The new government has been able to negotiate ceasefire agreements
with most insurgent groups. The fact that talks with various groups include a
political dialogue and not just operational issues, is certainly a big step forward.
It addresses the issue of an inclusive political architecture. As yet, it is difficult
to visualise that the insurgent groups who for ages have been indulging in drug
cultivation and traffic, will give up the practice very soon. The inclusive political
structure, however, would be helpful.
The biggest challenge facing Myanmar on the political front is its 2008
constitution. The provisions of the constitution allow 25 percent military nominees in the bicameral parliament at the centre and elected houses in the regions/states.
The army-backed ruling party USDP, led by Thein Sein, himself a former military general, is populated with ex-army officers who resigned to join the party before
the 2011 election. The Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) nominates the Defence, Home, and Border Affairs ministers. The Myanmar President can also declare an
emergency by following a procedure constitutionally laid down and the C-in-C
can take over both executive and judicial powers.
opportunities for all. Two important political challenges are (a) absorption of
tribal and communal minorities, and (b) civilian empowerment. As I write this
paper (June 2012), it is evident that the Thein Sein Government has not yet
been able to fully control sectarian violence between the Buddhists and Bengali
speaking Rhongya Muslims in Rakhine State. Its version of democracy, so far, is a
the inclusive democratic movement is not reversed. It also needs to be noted that
Aung San Suu Kyi is being practical. She has skirted the whole issue with tact.
Any precipitate action against the generals can reverse the political progress and
The current round of sanctions on Myanmar, lifted or suspended, provides
enough opportunity for economic activity to surge. The country has already
displayed the courage not to sink any deeper into a Chinese orbit. Considering
the fact that President Thein Sein must had to battle the hardliners, the road
Myanmar in lifting of sanctions can become a major opportunity for establishing
a lasting political, economic and social relationship. India can help Myanmar in
political reforms and a sustainable constitutional order. That would be helpful not
for Myanmar but also for the Northeast regional stability. Besides, a democratic,
independent minded Myanmar is more likely to lean towards India than China.
worth $3.5 billion. In 2011, China invested $13.5 billion in Myanmar, largely in
infrastructure, mining, energy and manufacturing sectors. It has started work on
twin oil and natural gas pipelines, stretching 1060 km from Kyaukpyu Port in the
Bay of Bengal to Kunming, capital of Yunnan. These pipelines will allow China to
bring home fuel supplies from the Middle East and Africa without taking the long
route via the Straits of Malacca. Recently, the government has suspended China
backed $3.6 billion Myitsone dam hydel power project on the Irrawady River in
Kachin State, which was to supply power to Yunnan. Some such political actions
indicate that Myanmar does not wish to be over dependent on China and is ready
to do business with others.
by India e.g. natural gas, minerals, and pulses. Myanmar has 2.54 trillion cubic
sectors like educational, telecom and healthcare systems. That can enable
binding relationship that can change the economic character of Northeastern
India. There is little chance of India becoming an alternative to China in
and South to strengthen bilateral relations through ‘trade and investment links,
development of border areas, improving connectivity and building capacity and
steady stream of high level civil and military visits from both sides has enhanced
the dialogue and trust, and also created mutually beneficial opportunities.
India is involved in a host of infrastructure and energy projects in Myanmar.
It has built a 160 km long Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyoa Road across the Manipur
border. It is building a 1200 MW hydel project on Chindwin River. Besides, it
has provided high speed data link to many cities. Indian firms are working to
Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project and the Rhi-Tiddim projects (on
the anvil), when completed, will have a major economic impact in the region. It
transportation dependency on the security sensitive Siliguri corridor.
In early 2012, Myanmar was part of a 14-nation joint naval exercise with India
in the Bay of Bengal aimed at combating piracy and terrorism. As you are aware,
the stability of Malacca Straits remains a key concern for the economies of Asia-
Pacific including India and Myanmar. China too remains worried about the US
naval presence in the region. It views its trans-Burma Shwe pipeline project as a
possible solution to its Malacca dilemma.
Quite rightly, this was stated in the joint statement issued after Manmohan
commitment to fight the scourge of terrorism and insurgent activity in all its
either country would not be allowed to be used for ‘activities inimical to the other
including for training, sanctuary and other operation by terrorists and insurgent
meetings, actionable information sharing, joint patrolling (when necessary) and
cooperation on border management. Economic and social development in the
region will pay security dividends for India as well as Myanmar.
Tatmadaw, comprise the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force with a
total strength of 488,000. The country ranks twelfth in the world for its number of
from China, Russia and Ukraine. As already stated, due to limited capacity,
the Myanmar government is unable to take major military action against large
number of tribal insurgents. It has been able to negotiate ceasefire agreements
with most groups. Its negotiations with various groups address the issue of an
inclusive political architecture. The inclusive political structure would be helpful
Through interdependent social and economic relations we need to make
influence in this region.
India and Myanmar should enhance cooperation in maritime security,
particularly in combating piracy, terrorism, gun running and for security of
arrangements and training. India, being the largest nation in the region, can take
establishments. This would help check further expansion of Chinese maritime
activities in the Bay of Bengal.
Considering that the ASEAN counties are not very comfortable with the idea of
enhanced cooperation in defence and security due to the China factor, India and
Myanmar can coordinate their approaches on the issue of cooperation in ASEAN
(India has summit level relations), ASEAN Regional Forum, members of the
ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM+), BIMSTEC and SAARC (Myanmar
has an observer status). India and Myanmar have now signed agreements for
cooperation between Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies
and Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) and Institute of for Defence Studies
and Analyses Strategic (IDSA). Both countries will get ample opportunities to
exchange views on strategic affairs. India also needs to share its experience in
strengthening democratic and multi-ethnic institutions in Myanmar, as we are
doing in Afghanistan.
India should look into the following areas to enhance relations with Myanmar
and for regional economic prosperity:
Upgrade security relations between the two countries through strategic
dialogues, border management and enhanced cooperation in aerospace and
maritime security. international acceptability grants and soft loans. This can be utilised to build infrastructure in Myanmar and enhancing connectivity between India, Myanmar and Thailand. A highlevel mechanism of officials can be set up to focus on greater connectivity Enhance people-to-people contacts through easy transportation (bus
services), liberalisation of educational and cultural cooperation, development
of border areas including tourism infrastructure.
Establishing Joint Economic Commission to take a comprehensive view of
bilateral economic relationship. A forum comprising businessmen on both
sides can be set up to increase Indian investments in minerals, energy, and
agriculture sectors in Myanmar.
Share experience in strengthening democratic and multi-ethnic institutions
in Myanmar, as we are doing in Afghanistan.
Since Independence, India has tended to neglect its East, within and outside
its national boundaries. In the West, despite irrational hostility towards us,
military dictators. In the East, in spite of historical and cultural relations and
important geo-strategic interests; India shied away from a substantive dialogue
with military rulers. It needs to be reiterated that strategy and diplomacy in
international relations is based not on sentiments but the art of possibility and
the advancement of national interests. Kautilya had stated “When the interests
of the country are involved, ethics are a burdensome irrelevance”. India is now
on the right side of history and pragmatism displayed in the 1990s may bear fruit
and reduce the gap between realpolitik and sentiment. Another lesson that India
has learnt from this experience is the utility of military diplomacy to supplement
our foreign policy endeavors.