Indian-Burmese Ties: New Delhi Woos a Nation No Longer a Pariah

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Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, left, and Burmese President Thein Sein during their meeting in Naypyidaw, Burma, on May 28, 2012

India on Monday extended $500 million in credit to Burma, one of a total of 12 new agreements Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed during a historic visit to the country, which is officially known as Myanmar. The pacts will, among other things, improve air services between the neighbors and help build community and health centers along their 1,600-km border. Both sides hailed the visit as a step toward better relations. Before leaving for Myanmar, Singh had said “India attaches the highest importance to its relations with Myanmar.” And on Monday, at a banquet hosted in his honor by Burma’s new civilian President Thein Sein, Singh called India and Myanmar “natural partners linked by geography and history” and said there were many areas where the two can enhance cooperation to benefit each other.

Cozy relations with Burma’s rulers has been a key part of India’s reinvigorated “Look East” policy. Departing from years of high-minded but politically ineffectual moralizing, New Delhi has sought to boost economic and commercial ties with a host of its eastern neighbors, no matter their politics. India had long been something of a champion (or, at least, a source of vague support) for Burma’s beleaguered pro-democracy movement — Nobel laureate and Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi went to university in New Delhi — but India’s fitful modernization and economic liberalization meant that new imperatives had to trump old dogma. India, to the dismay of many struggling against Burma’s then military rulers, asserted it didn’t want to meddle in the country’s internal matters; investment, deepening trade ties and contracts for Indian oil companies would soon follow.

(MORE: Amid Charges of ‘Policy Paralysis,’ India’s Government Defends Its Record)

Singh arrived at a moment when Burma is undergoing a political transformation, with the shadowy junta receding to the background and a nominally democratic government emerging in its place. Suu Kyi, now a politician in parliament, embarked on her first trip outside Burma after almost 24 years of house arrest and isolation at home. New Delhi sees an opportunity not only to boost ties with the existing regime, but to mend its relations with Burma’s long-standing pro-democracy forces; Indian support will now target aiding Burma’s democratization process, including training its parliamentarians. (It’s the sort of assistance Burma’s other major regional backer, China, could never provide.) Burmese President Thein Sein, one of the architects of Burma’s recent reforms, visited India in October last year. Months later, Burma’s speaker of its lower house of parliament, U Shwe Mann, went to study India’s parliamentary practices. In a joint statement, released on Monday, India said it was ready “to extend all necessary assistance in accelerating the country’s democratic transition and developing the capacity of democratic institutions such as the parliament, National Human Rights Commission and the media.”

The two countries are bound by centuries of cultural ties — over old trade routes, Buddhism and Hinduism went into the land that is now Burma from India by the 7th century. Beginning in 1885, Burma was ruled as a province contiguous to Britain’s colonial possessions in India. Following Burmese independence in 1948 (a year after India’s), strong ties remained. In the 1950s, India was the largest customer of Burmese rice. But, following the military junta’s brutal crackdown on democracy protesters and its dismissal of elections results in 1990, India openly snubbed the generals and sponsored a U.N. resolution in 1992, condemning the military junta for human-rights violations.

(MORE: Burma’s Fledgling Parliament Tries to Get Up to Speed)

New Delhi was singing from a different song sheet soon enough. By 2008, the countries agreed to cooperate on a 6,500-sq-m port in Sittwe, a Burmese city on the Bay of Bengal, which is being built by India’s Essar Group. The project is expected to bolster trade by allowing businesses in India’s eastern metropolis of Kolkata to ferry goods to Burma. Cross-border trade between India and Burma currently stands at $1.4 billion, up 30% from last year and is expected to touch $2 billion in the coming two years. A statement from India’s industry body, the Confederation of Indian Industry, earlier said Burma “occupies a critical geostrategic position in the world. It is a meeting point of South Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia. India sees it as a gateway to [the rest of the region].”

However, India is not the only customer now lining up at Burma’s stall. Countries like China and Singapore have been investing in Burma for years and the West is now also keen. Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar announcing an easing of U.S. sanctions on investment in Burma. In April, the E.U. too suspended most of its sanctions for a year in a bid to encourage the various political reforms in country. “Now other countries are coming in,” says Medha Chaturvedi, an Indo-Burma analyst at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, a New Delhi-based think tank. “If India doesn’t step up, it’s going to be left behind in the resource race and the race for engagement with Burma.”

To keep up, India needs to make good on its promises of infrastructure development in Burma. India-backed projects that have been planned years ago, like the slow-moving Sittwe port project, a highway between India’s remote northeast and the Burmese city of Mandalay and a rail link to Hanoi, are still in gestation. Experts say bureaucratic hurdles are to blame for this delay. “I have been to the Burma-China and the Burma-Thailand border. Both are very developed and despite the ethnic tension and sometimes even active conflict, trade is booming and the infrastructure has been developed,” says Marie Lall, a reader in education policy and South Asian studies at the Institute of Education, University of London. “Only on the Indian border, nothing seems to have moved.”

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