November 28, 2015 1:03:13 am
The Aung San Suu Kyi-led NLD party’s decisive victory in the recent Myanmar elections holds the promise of far-reaching changes in India’s important, if relatively neglected, eastern neighbour. It also has the potential of opening up a new and positive chapter in India-Myanmar relations. Rajiv Bhatia’s book, India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours is timely; it offers significant insights into the transformative processes underway in Myanmar and the direction in which India-Myanmar ties may evolve. On the former, he correctly notes, “The change arose from within, from the political elite’s careful assessment that the SPDC approach had run the ship of the economy aground…” (pg 39) and consequently, the military realised that a compromise with Suu Kyi was required. On her part, Suu Kyi too retreated from an insistence on adhering to full democratic functioning.
Bhatia has excellent credentials to survey India’s long and historic relations with Myanmar. A professional diplomat with a scholarly bent of mind, he served as India’s ambassador to the country and also spent many years in dealing with Myanmar in the ministry of external affairs. More importantly, Bhatia developed an enduring interest in the country and its people. He brings all the experience he gained over his over two decade-long association with the country and its people to his writing.
Bhatia competently surveys inter alia the impact of Hinduism and Buddhism in the making of Myanmar, the sporadic contacts between India and Myanmar prior to the establishment of British colonialism in both countries, the migration of Indians to Myanmar in the British period and the Burmese response to them, and relations between the two countries after independence during the U Nu and Ne Win years. However, what receives detailed attention is the period since the collapse of the Ne Win regime in 1988 to the present, especially after the elections of 2010.This gives the book greater contemporary relevance. The insider account of the change in Indian policy from one of total support for democratic forces to pragmatic and gradual engagement with the military government is revealing.
There is a significant security dimension to the bilateral relationship. This lies in the context of the insurgency problems in the north-eastern states. Bhatia touches on this aspect in different sections of the book. He notes (pg 101) that in the early 1990s “experts believed that it could not be tackled without cooperation from Myanmar’s security forces”. This holds true today. It would have been useful, however, if Bhatia had given a detailed account of common Indo-Myanmar ethnic groups, their relationships, the linkages of the Indian insurgent groups in Myanmar, the arms supplies trails and the cooperation periodically received from the Myanmar authorities.
Of particular interest is the chapter that examines Indian and Chinese roles in Myanmar and the country’s responses to both. China is entrenched in Myanmar and while its salience may go down in the diarchy period it will remain a most significant external factor because it can cause “instability”. India is looked upon as a benign power but not a full balancer to China.
As Bhatia notes, the book seeks to interest many audiences: academics, policy makers, diplomats, business leaders and young scholars. This approach provides both for strength and weakness. The former because it allows the author to traverse a wide area and combine analysis with policy prescriptions to pursue all-round mutual interests. However, it also leads to the temptation to make loose inferences, to which diplomats and businessmen occasionally succumb. Bhatia’s personal observations, for instance, on the traits of the Burmese (pg 21), would fall in that category.
All in all, Bhatia has written a fine resource book on India-Myanmar ties.
India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours
Author: Rajiv Bhatia
Publisher: Routledge India
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