Known as Burma while under British colonial rule, the country we now know as Myanmar has a beautiful story of culture, history and times gone by that has often been unheard. Starting in 1824, the British began the process of annexing Burma as part of British India. During WWII, the Japanese expelled the British from Burma and attempted to co-opt Burmese political support by offering nominal independence. General Aung San, who had originally sided with the Japanese, led an uprising against them and went on to guide the country to independence in 1948.
The culture of Myanmar has been heavily influenced by Buddhism and the Mon people. The Burmese language is very age-oriented. The use of honorifics before personal names is the norm, and just like in India, Elders are spoken to in a more respectful manner and a special vocabulary exists for speaking to Buddhist monks. Burmese society operates on ana, a characteristic or feeling that has no English equivalent. It is characterized by a hesitation or reluctance to perform an action based on the fear that it will offend someone or cause someone to become embarrassed. Also, there is the concept of hpon, which translates to “power”. It is used as an explanation for the varying degrees of ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender differences between people in a society. Hpon refers to the cumulative result of past deeds, an idea that power or social position comes from merit earned in previous lives. Age is still considered synonymous with experience and wisdom. Parents and teachers are second only to the Three Jewels, together making up the Five Boundless Beneficence, and are paid obeisance at special times of the year. Traditional Burmese folklore considers love to be destiny, as the Hindu god Brahma writes one’s destiny in love on a child’s brow when he or she is six days old, called na hpuza. Dowries are typically unheard of, and arranged marriages are not a custom. Burmese literature is traditionally famous and has been greatly influenced by Buddhism, notably the Jataka Tales.
British colonialization left its impact on India and Myanmar’s age old relationship, both positively and negatively. This relationship can be traced back to centuries. People of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram have been linked to ethnic groups in western Myanmar through kinship, language and religion from time immemorial. Through ancient and medieval times, interactions thrived exceeding the border region. Hindu influences, Buddhism and Islam travelled from Indian shores to reach the souls of Burmese people. Goods, ideas and people flowed both ways during pre-colonial times.
Things changed during British colonialisation when Burma was administered from Calcutta and Delhi for five decades, until its separation from India in 1937. Indians transported to Burma contributed to its modernization, but their role as mediators of imperialism generated tension and strife at people’s level. As neighbouring countries, however, India and Burma remained close, with leaders of their freedom struggles forging bonds as comrades. Attainment of independence, by India in August 1947 and Burma in January 1948, led to a new era in their relations.
The past decades saw a regular dialogue at the highest levels. Shared perceptions and plans for further cooperation took shape in the statements issued after high-level bilateral visits such as that of President Abdul Kalam (2006), Vice Chairman SPDC Maung Aye (2008), Vice President Hamid Ansari (2009), Chairman SPDC Than Shwe ( 2004 and 2010), President Thein Sein (2011), ex Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (2012) and most recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2014). The two governments have also been on the same page in regard to forging regional and sub regional cooperation. On numerous multilateral issues, the two countries maintain a common position, based on shared views. They favour a strong United Nations as a key factor in tackling global challenges and advocate UN reform. Myanmar has been consistently appreciative of India’s deepening engagement with Asean, particularly its assistance to CLMV countries. Further, convergence in developmental domain has driven both countries’ towards strengthening sub-regional cooperation through BIMSTEC and MGC, and considering proposals under BCIM.
Current celebrations mark more than two decades of India-Asean engagement, Myanmar’s chair of Asean in 2014, Asean’s deadline to establish Economic Community in 2015, and Myanmar’s next general elections in 2015 will combine to ensure that India-Myanmar relations receive far greater attention than before. Thus this period is likely to be of transformational importance. The need of the hour is to enhance awareness among the public and realise the high stakes involved in a revitalised relationship. Relationships like these take time to build and strengthen, specially those which happen to be mutually beneficial. At a time when things are looking good from both ends, it is best to be hopeful.