Home >politics >policy >Sushma Swaraj to visit Myanmar on Monday

New Delhi: Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj will visit Myanmar on Monday, in the first high-level visit to the eastern neighbour following the swearing-in of Myanmar’s first democratic government, led by National League for Democracy (NLD), in 50 years.

It comes as Myanmar is rescripting ties with giant northern neighbour and India’s strategic rival China, given that ties had soured following the cancellation in 2011 of a multi-billion dollar hydel project in Myanmar that was to supply power to China.

During her one-day visit, Swaraj will call on Myanmar president U. Htin Kyaw, besides holding talks with Myanmar’s freedom icon Aung San Suu Kyi who is the state counsellor and foreign minister of Myanmar in the new government.

Recent exchanges between India and the NLD government which took office in March include a visit by national security advisor Ajit Doval as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s special envoy on 16 June. Minister of state for commerce Nirmala Sitharaman also visited Myanmar heading a business delegation in May.

“Myanmar is an important neighbour for India for many reasons. For one, there is the security aspect," said an Indian official referring to India’s concerns vis-a-vis militants operating in its northeast taking shelter in Myanmar. This was seen as the main reason why India, which backed Aung San Suu Kyi in her fight for democracy till the early 1990s, switched tracks and began engaging the military regime in Myanmar that had annulled the election results of 1990 and took power in the country despite the NLD winning the polls convincingly. Suu Kyi, who was put under house arrest for many years, called India’s action “disappointing" when freed in 2011.

Swaraj’s visit will happen coincidentally after a day after a report in The Indian Express newspaper on Sunday said Indian troops had entered Myanmar territory in search of militants belonging to the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) Khaplang faction. India had signed a peace accord with a second NSCN faction in August last year. The military action, however, seems to signal that Myanmar is likely to continue to be sensitive to Indian security concerns despite a change in government.

“Myanmar is also important as it is a bridge between India and Southeast Asia. India is looking at Bangladesh and Myanmar as key partners in its plans to connect with South east Asia," said the official cited above, who did not wish to be named. India is constructing the Asian Trilateral Highway to connect India’s northeast to Thailand and beyond through Myanmar. It is to be completed next year and is expected to figure in talks between Swaraj and her Myanmarese interlocutors.

According to the ministry of external affairs, “discussions (during Swaraj’s visit) are expected to focus on the rich bilateral content of the relationship as well as plans for the upcoming BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit in India, building on the discussions during the Foreign Office Consultations held in New Delhi."

India plans to invite leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation or BIMSTEC—a group of countries in South Asia and South East Asia that include Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal—for the annual Brics (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) summit that India is hosting in Goa in October. During her visit, Swaraj is expected to hand over the invitation for the Outreach Summit to Myanmar’s President.

“India and Myanmar share close relations with a robust development cooperation program in areas such as Agriculture, IT, Human Resource Development, Infrastructure Development, Culture etc. The visit re-affirms India’s commitment to heighten partnership with Myanmar in the areas of priority by the new government of Myanmar," ministry of external affairs spokesman Vikas Swarup told reporters in New Delhi.

The Indian minister’s visit also follows a five-day visit by Suu Kyi to Beijing last week during which the two countries agreed to rework ties, singed by the cancellation of the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project by the previous government led by President Thein Sein in 2011.

Soon after taking office, Suu Kyi announced that her major goal was to end seven decades of civil war with ethnic minorities in Myanmar who have links with China. Last week, three of these groups said they would join a peace conference Suu Kyi is to convene shortly.

A recent report in the New York Times noted that after many years of encouraging the rebel groups, China now wanted to end the fighting in Myanmar because the lawlessness created had allowed illegal jade and timber trade to flourish, cutting down legitimate commerce between China’s southern border and Myanmar. China is also planning to build roads and railways across northern Myanmar to the Bay of Bengal. The connectivity links would supplement recently built energy pipelines that would bolster trade from the Middle East by avoiding the South China Sea, the report said, adding China also has other projects in mind to knit Myanmar into its orbit.

Given Suu Kyi’s goals of peace at home, India should not make much of the fact that one of her first visits abroad was to China, said S.D. Muni, a former professor from the New Delhi based Jawaharlal Nehru University. Both countries have been vying for influence in Myanmar for decades. “We have reasonably good cooperation with Myanmar which we can build on. The visit by Sushma Swaraj will show that we are not neglecting Myanmar," Muni said.

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