February 13th, 2001 was marked as an indispensable day in the history of Indo-Myanmar relations where the then Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh initiated the proposal of the first ‘Indo- Myanmar Friendship Road’ or the ‘Indo Myanmar Thailand trilateral highway’ along with the former Construction Minister Saw Tun of Myanmar. This highway project which will be fully operational by 2016 has often been remarked as one of the most effective strategic moves by India to forge closer ties with Myanmar as well as enhance its own regional influence in the South East Asian continent countering the Chinese leadership. Over these years, Myanmar has been supportive in India’s struggle to counter insurgency in North East India, hence adding extra weightage to its strategic importance. Myanmar is the second largest neighboring country of India and maintains excellent economic, strategic and diplomatic ties.
Bilateral trade between both the countries has expanded significantly from US $ 12.4 million in 1980-81 to US $1070.88 million in 2010-11. Since its post globalization period, India has emerged as Myanmar’s fourth largest trading partner after Thailand, China and Singapore and second largest export market after Thailand. At the institutional level, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) has mutually agreed and signed many MoUs to review and set policy objectives for bilateral trade between both the countries. Rangoon has always been a centre point for New Delhi’s ‘Look East policy’ which was recently retitled as the ‘Act East policy’ by the present Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi during the East Asia Summit held in Myanmar.
The recent diplomatic meet of the Indian Prime Minister and Myanmar’s President at the East Asia Summit in Nay Pyi Taw in November’14 which they also called as meet of brother countries has reinstated Myanmar’s strategic importance for India’s new ‘Act East policy’.
Another important objective of this meet was to discuss future perspective of direct air links and the Indo Myanmar Thailand trilateral highway and the Kaladan multi modal transport project which is considered to be an industrial boom for both the countries.
Myanmar often has been sandwiched between the power struggle of India and China, which have both seemingly well established closer ties with Myanmar based on ‘strategic interests’. New Delhi’s prime interest has always been to avoid future Chinese naval influence in the Bay of Bengal which straddles Myanmar. However Beijing has assisted Myanmar in upgrading its naval defense capabilities and setting electronic listening ports along the Bay of Bengal, one of them reportedly said to be in a close proximity with an Indian defense facility. New Delhi also keeps a close watch over the Coco Islands in Myanmar, where Beijing has reportedly said to upgrade its radar and naval auxiliary facilities.
Amid of the present blooming ties between both the countries, one aspect which is still argued by international policy makers is the ‘pragmatic shift’ of Indian foreign policy towards Myanmar and its de facto military rulers. Being a country which itself gained independence after an era long British suppression and prioritized democratic values far ahead of strategic interests, India was vehemently criticized for all of sudden supporting the military regime in Myanmar to save its ‘national interests’.The Indian Embassy in Rangoon and the All India Radio have a vast history of supporting the pro democratic opposition groups and activists like the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi during the uprising in the late 80’s. It indeed has been a very reluctant ride for the policy makers in New Delhi from an era of idealism to the realm of realpolitik. This ‘pragmatic shift’ has been decreed by Myanmar’s pro democratic activists who accuse India of surrendering her ideals.
Having a huge influence of Buddhism in majority of the country, Myanmar is also culturally a very important region of the Indian Diaspora. The future of Indo-Myanmar ties depends on the approach of Indian foreign policy in handling an ally which is different in principles, non-believer of democratic values but strategically very important.