Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar marked 70 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Over the last 25 years, New Delhi has shifted uncomfortably in a bid to square a complicated relationship. On the side of high principle and Aung San Suu Kyi to begin with, New Delhi next wooed the Myanmar junta which had imprisoned her for nearly two decades.
After Suu Kyi was released and Myanmar transitioned to democracy, India had to make another shift. While Suu Kyi is now the super-president and de facto foreign minister in her role as State Counsellor, the Myanmar army continues to play a huge overt role in domestic and foreign policy, but the generals are more comfortable doing business with China. That influence is visible in mega Chinese investments such as an already operational oil and gas pipeline from Myanmar to China, port projects, Myanmar-China railway projects, mining, hydropower projects among others.
Indian reflexes have been much slower despite the big talk about Look East. The Kaladan multi-modal project to connect Northeastern states to the rest of India via Myanmar is still to be completed, contracts for the remaining work on an ambitious trilateral highway connecting Moreh in Manipur to Thailand through Myanmar are yet to be awarded, and despite the passage of five years, the offtake of the $500 credit line for development projects given in 2012 is sluggish.
But cultural diplomacy has become an important arm of India’s outreach in the neighbourhood. During PM Modi’s visit, perhaps the most significant agreement was India’s offer to assist in the restoration and conservation of 92 ancient pagodas and structures in the ancient city of Bagan through the Archaeological Suvey of India. The two countries have finalised an MoU on this. India also announced free visas to Myanmar citizens.
With the political and military establishment in Myanmar more or less on the same page on the Rohingya question, PM Modi’s reiteration of the Rohingya as primarily a security issue rather than a human rights issue of a stateless and persecuted minority, must have been a welcome respite to both sides of the Myanmarese leadership, beleaguered as they are by the blunt international criticism on this front.
Modi condemned the “terrorist” incidents in the Rakhine, and voiced praise for military operations there, becoming the first country to do so, even though it is this that sends the Rohingya fleeing across the border to Bangladesh and to India. The joint statement notes that the problem in Rakhine is also one of lack of economic development, and India has promised assistance. It is no surprise that the main problem in the Rakhine, the deprivation of citizenship to the Rohingya, found no mention in the statement.