Senior General Than Shwe, Myanmar’s military ruler, must be a contented man as he heads back home. In India for a state visit this week, the general managed to collect millions of dollars in grants for infrastructure projects in his country. These were no doubt accompanied by a few benign words from the donor on democracy and freedom, but not enough to spoil the general’s mood.
Indeed, Myanmar has much to gain by continuing its engagement with India. In comparison, India has got little of what it wanted from its neighbour. As has been said on these pages earlier, China has steadily outpaced India in securing influence and resources in Myanmar.
This is not to quibble with India’s attitude. Despite Myanmar’s internal problems, the need for a realist policy towards it continues to supersede concerns about the nature of statehood in that country.
Consider what India stands to gain: Its shared border with Myanmar in the North-East means security agreements with that country can help root out ethnic insurgencies in the region, while trade ties with it will encourage economic activity that can redress decades of inattention to that corner of India. This is not to mention Myanmar’s energy resources, which India cannot afford to overlook.
These bilateral efforts are important for India in the larger Asian framework. For one, firmer relations with Myanmar can give India better access to the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations: The resultant economic flows will better establish India’s position in the region. More importantly, a friendly Myanmar can be a crucial buffer state at a time when Chinese influence is threatening to surround India on at least three sides.
Incidentally, China’s involvement with Myanmar stems from political sympathy: The rise of the junta in Yangon in 1988 and the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 made the two countries natural partners in the face of heavy international criticism. To counter those ties and build India’s own sphere of influence will mean not just investment in Myanmar, but also dedicated policy coordination, which has been lacking in the past. But to alienate that country based on unit-level analysis of statehood would only strengthen its alliance with China, perhaps even other nations of suspect state credibilities, and severely weaken India’s position in Asia.
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