By all accounts Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar, the first by an Indian Prime Minister in a quarter century, has teed off well. On Monday, 12 agreements—ranging from academic research to development of border areas —were signed. A new leaf, seemingly, has been turned in relations between the two countries.
That view of relations between the two countries is, however, misleading. Irrespective of who has governed Myanmar in the last 25 years, India has made efforts to keep relations on an even keel. These ties have been reciprocated.
For the past decade, if not earlier, India’s interests in Myanmar have been broadly identified as “strategic”, however loosely that term is interpreted. The two countries share a large and volatile border, one that has been used by insurgent groups on both sides to create problems for governments. Mutual realization of this problem paved the way for better relations. Then, India’s concerns about “encirclement” by China, too, led to competition for influence in Naypyidaw, something that was blamed, wrongly, for the longevity of “authoritarian” rule there. These concerns have abated, to an extent, of late.
Myanmar President Thein Sein. Photo: AP
Now, as Myanmar transits to democracy, there are opportunities for deepening ties. The 12 agreements reflect this change in perspective. Apart from government-to-government ties, the thrust now is people-centric. Trade, agriculture, relations between academic institutions in the two countries and transport links are the new areas of interest. The shift in emphasis is pragmatic.
Matters will not change all of a sudden in that country, but the trajectory of change is unmistakable. As the armed forces of the country step back and the leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, steps forward, the engagements of Myanmar with other countries are changing. Today, its big backers include the US and the European Union. It is tempting to conclude that Myanmar’s authoritarian friends are in retreat while democracies can step ahead. This will be a misleading conclusion for that is not how inter-state relations are managed. What can be safely said, however, is that there will be greater room henceforth for countries such as India to broaden their engagement with Myanmar. The question now is one of making the best of these opportunities.
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