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India’s relation with Burma (Myanmar) is not something new since it goes to few hundred years back if you look at from historical stand point; nevertheless, from foreign policy stance, India as a neighbor sharing border of about 1600 KMs with Myanmar has been some what floundering, if I may say so, because of reversing support after 1990 elections; probably the foreign policy establishment might have thought that they may loose some strategic and economic grounds to the Chinese who were busy at that point of time in establishing partnership.

Most recently in December 2012, President Thein Sein was here in New Delhi to participate in ASEAN India Commemorative Summit and it came after Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Naypyitaw to expedite the bilateral connections and also to greet their political reforms agenda proposed by quasi-democratic government which still has significant presence of uniformed men from their armed forces. Although Indian PM Singh’s trip came long after US, Britain etc. it is noteworthy in the sense that ‘better now, than later’ approach given the massive  economic and strategic interests from across the globe and most notably Chinese aggression in that part of the world.

As many in the west and geopolitical circle argues, Myanmar should swiftly move towards democratization by removing remaining military presence from the parliament and most notably, open up the economy for lucrative opportunities and export of  natural resources, allow foreign investments for setting up businesses, trade agreements etc.; In that context, India also shouldn’t be simply sitting down and watching what others are doing there rather it should move swiftly towards by taking multiple strategic things into consideration in parallel not as a emerging regional power but as a friendly neighbor.

As a first step to walk towards that direction, India should indeed be cautious on expecting a normalcy and full-fledged democratic activities since there may be shared hidden interests among uniformed men who are still occupying seats inside their parliament. Also, India must and maintain develop more communication channels with all possible stake holders ranging from political opposition to armed forces to businesses without pinching the existing diplomatic setup but by diversifying its school of thoughts to other strategic areas as well.

It must encourage and help them to establish a set of vibrant democratic institutions which may pave a way for the smooth political transition prior to their general elections which are expected to be held in 2015. Needless to say, those political contacts must be refreshed occasionally and most importantly India must ensure that the diplomatic engagements happen frequently.

Almost at the end of December 2012, Myanmar launched air strikes on KIA who is their rebel group controlling parts of Kachin and fighting for a separate state which shares its border with China. It shows that Myanmar moves ahead on controlling them and the existing the ceasefire agreement got broken. Meanwhile, many news reports noted that Naypyitaw is looking India’s help on engaging with Kachin rebels and also India looking for help from it’s counterpart to deal with illegal immigrants especially on controlling insurgence in its north-eastern border areas. In view of that, India should continue to pursue its diplomatic approach cautiously and see if any potential opportunities in resolving the Myanmar’s internal matters like Kachin state independence, violence on minority groups in Rakhine state etc. and in any case, ensuring the continuity in supporting human resettlements and giving necessary relief for affected people in those areas.

With respect to Chinese influence in Myanmar, its not as upright as many perceived rather if you look at the key developments like dam construction project by Chinese state-run corporations at Myitsone on the Ayeyarwady River was stopped by President Thein Sein after there was an uproar from locals and civil society groups that most of the electricity generated by the project planned to be pumped to China’s neighboring Yunnan Province and not only that, it may be the source for serious impacts including environmental degradation, massive displacement of locals, loss of fishing activities etc. Also, Chinese way of dealing with protests against Monywa Copper Project which was followed by a crackdown had not gone well among locals and various rights groups.

Now with Japan and South Korea gets into the picture with huge investments on developing physical infrastructure and ports, it’s time for India to stop being hibernators by watching those activities rather it needs to take efficient steps which should in a way to encourage it’s own entrepreneurs,  business groups to engage with Myanmar and explore opportunities in knowledge-intensive sectors like tele-medicine networks, information technology, biotechnology, e-governance which are distinctive in addition to the existing work of building an advanced center for agricultural research at the University of Agriculture in Yezin in the capital city.

Finally, on India’s look east  policy and ASEAN India strategic lines, its imminent to consider the possibility of expediting not only the decisions on building road/rail links connectivity in addition to increase in more direct flights, encourage cultural ties, tourism activities between both countries but also start implementing it on the ground. Also, to ensure bilateral ties continue to focus in the areas like strengthening borders, maritime engagement, natural disaster management, education which would immensely help the north eastern parts of India and in the long run, needless to say that both the governments should work towards winning hearts of the people and that’s the only best way to keep our relationships sustain in the forthcoming decades.

Last updated: January 12, 2013 – 8:24 AM IST