Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi started off his eleven-day foreign tour on the 11th of November, with his first stop being Myanmar. The Prime Minister landed in a special aircraft and was honoured with a traditional ceremonial welcome. He stayed at Nay Pyi Taw, the capital, where he met with Myanmar’s President, U Thein Sein. They had bilateral talks and the focus remained on extending engagement in the areas of culture and commerce between the two countries. They discussed issues such as cooperation in the hydrocarbon sector, as well as the need for more cultural contacts, including sending Myanmarese students to India. The possibility of investing in special economic zones in Myanmar was also raised. Modi stressed on the expansion of infrastructure and developing the tourism potential in the area.
The Prime Minister was in Myanmar to attend the 12th ASEAN-India Summit. Among the many issues on the anvil at the meeting was the review of an ambitious connectivity project to develop a 3,200-km highway linking India, Myanmar and Thailand that was originally envisaged to be completed by end-2017, and is now expected to be completed in 2018. India and the 10-nation ASEAN bloc hope to merge the connectivity plans with this highway project. With the bloc’s plan to float an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by the end of 2015, the free trade pact in services and investment signed in September between India and the ASEAN is expected to help the bilateral trade climb to $100 billion by 2015, from $71.6 billion in 2012.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region, which is home to around 600 million people and accounts for $2.5 trillion GDP, is significant for India economically and strategically and is the main target for implementing India’s ‘Look East’ and now ‘Act East’ policy.
Historically India and Myanmar have had close and cordial relations which were anchored by deep cultural linkages. India-Myanmar relations are rooted in shared economic, historical, ethnic, cultural and religious ties. These ties have only strengthened in recent times.
On the 13th, the Prime Minister proposed SSARC-specific benefits like polio eradication and a dedicated regional satellite to Myanmar. In his brief address, Modi spoke about India’s initiative to launch this satellite and said that Myanmar will also benefit from it in sectors like health, tele-medicine and education. He used the forum provided to air India’s concerns about China’s stand on the South China Sea and called for all parties in the region to adhere to international rules and norms. When it came down to the question of terrorism, Narendra Modi emphasized that India supported the East Asia Summit Declaration on the Islamic state and stressed the need for international partnership against all terrorism. He also noted that linkages between terrorism and religion should not be drawn.
He also met Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who previously studied in India and whose mother was a former ambassador to India. Miss Suu Kyi mentioned that she considered India her “second home”. Myanmar is in the midst of a national debate, on whether to allow Miss Suu Kyi, Chairperson and General Secretary of the National League for Democracy, to contest the 2015 parliamentary elections, which she is barred from at present due to a provision in the constitution.
All said and done, a comprehensive framework for sustainable partnership with Myanmar is key to establishing India as one of the foremost partners of Myanmar. India’s involvement with the country will not just benefit them, but also other countries in the region. Their strategic importance will only grow in the future making it crucial for India to lay the groundwork for healthy and indispensable ties with the nation. The need for space with China will also have to be factored in as a major challenge which India will need to tackle in order to make sure that it does not fall behind in the race to harness the prospective potential, both economic and strategic which Myanmar has to offer. Thus far, Modi’s message has been well received in Southeast Asia and back at home. From here on, we only have to see how well this message is executed.