Dialogue  July-September  2007, Volume 9  No. 1


Coming to Terms with Myanmar

Col R Hariharan (Retd.)*


Myanmar better known the world over as Burma, has attracted international attention during the last two decades for strategic security developments in the region and for the struggle of its population for restoring democracy against the ruling military regime.1 The rise of China as a major global economic power and the unlocking of India’s potential to grow as yet another global economic power are redefining international relationships in South and Southeast Asia. Myanmar is now viewed as a critical area of interest to both China and India. In this context it has also drawn the attention of the U.S. which is wary of the rapid rise of China to the status of a contending global power particularly in this part of Asia.

Myanmar has been under some form of military rule ever since its army chief Gen Ne Win seized power in a coup de’tat in 1962. Following the regime’s refusal to hand over power to a parliamentary government, elected in 1990, the U.S. and most of the western countries have slapped economic sanctions against the military regime. However, China ignoring the struggle for democracy has developed close political, military and economic relations with Myanmar. India which had earlier supported the peoples struggle has revised its policy; it has been vigorously promoting development of relations with the present regime in Myanmar.

India-Myanmar relations have a long history of substantive political, cultural, religious and social interaction. In particular the northeastern parts of India and Myanmar had very close relationship at various levels. Both countries share a Buddhist period of history with great intellectual interaction. During the British colonial period when the British completed the conquest of Burma, it formed part of British India till 1935. Till the end of the Second World War, Indian traders, professionals and administrators had followed the British to work in Burma. The Indian freedom movement inspired the freedom struggle in Burma. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Aung San, who spearheaded the Burmese freedom struggle, had built close personal relationship between them.

However for building enduring relations with Myanmar, India has to come to terms with on three important related factors that are central to Myanmar. These are: geo-strategic factor, Chinese influence, and the nature of the military regime.

Geo-strategic factor

India’s northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram share the 1,463 km border on their east with Myanmar. China on the northeast has 2185 km long border. Thailand’s 1,800 km long border runs along almost the entire eastern part of Myanmar except for narrow strip that borders Laos (235 km). Bangladesh has only 193 km long border with the Rakhine province of Myanmar. With two most populous and powerful nations - India and China dominating Myanmar, it is poised to become the cockpit of domination between the two Asian giants. While on the one hand, Myanmar serves as a strategic land bridge linking South, and Southeast Asia, and links Chinese mainland with the Bay of Bengal.

As a littoral of the Indian Ocean, Myanmar’s strategic value further increases. Its 1930 km long coastline dominates the eastern arch of the Bay of Bengal, leaning on to the Malacca Strait. Thus Myanmar provides China the shortest land and sea access to South Asia, just as it provides convenient external land and sea communication options to India’s landlocked northeastern states. Myanmar’s ocean boundaries are barely 30 km from the Andaman Islands increasing its maritime security potential for India.

Most of Myanmar’s mountain ranges and major river systems run north-south. This makes movement from India’s east to Myanmar against the grain of the country difficult and time consuming. At the same time it facilitates easier movement from the Chinese border in the northeast, and provides for natural flow of traffic. The Chinese have used this favourable terrain configuration to build road from the Chinese border to Mandalay in the heart of Myanmar and onward to the coast. As Myanmar provides the shortest access from mainland China to India’s eastern borders these developments have special strategic significance.

Both sides of the regions bordering Myanmar are mostly populated by ethnic communities with their own distinct ethnic, religious and linguistic identities from the rest of the countries. However, the majority Burmese population, who are Buddhists, lives in the fertile and more developed southern Myanmar with easier access from China. Thus the northern tribal regions of Myanmar have suffered neglect and remain under developed. This has given rise to a sense of alienation among ethnic tribes. Many of them had been waging relentless struggle to carve out their own independent domains. Notable among them are the Nagas, Kachins and Chins bordering India, Rohingiya Muslims bordering Bangladesh, Kachins and Shans bordering China, and Shans and Karens bordering Thailand. Thus ethnic militancy has always kept Mynamar’s internal situation unstable and affected democratic governance of the country.

Moreover, India’s northeastern states bordering Myanmar are not as well developed as Yunnan province of China bordering Myanmar in the northeast. This advantage has been fully exploited by China, which is promoting the development of Yunnan region jointly with Myanmar and Laos. The two-way border trade and commerce of Myanmar is qualitatively and quantitatively much higher with China than India.

Emergence of Myanmar

In 1947, Aung San became Deputy Chairman of the Executive Council, a transitory government prior to independence. However, political rivals assassinated Aung San and several cabinet members in July 1947. This was a grievous blow to the country which became independent on 4 January 1948, with U Nu as its first Prime Minister. Unlike other South Asian former British colonies, Burma did not join the Commonwealth. A parliamentary system of government with two chambers - a Chamber of Deputies and a Chamber of Nationalities –was adopted. 2

Burma’s democratic experience from 1948 to 62 was never a success. Political rivalry, factionalism, and corruption coupled with the ever growing ethnic and communist insurgencies made democratic rule ineffective. In 1962 General Ne Win seized power in a military coup d’état. He ruled Burma for nearly 26 years and with the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ as the basis for his policies resulting in bankruptcy of the once self sufficient country. In 1988, economic privation and galloping inflation fuelled by years of political oppression triggered widespread public agitation. On August 8, 1988, the military opened fire on demonstrators killing hundreds of youth. This uprising spearheaded by the students is known as 8888 Movement. Aung San’s daughter Aung San Suu Kyi movement for restoring democracy drew widespread support from the public. In the midst of this, Senior General Sawe Maung staged a coup d’état and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).

In a show of patriotic fervour the SLORC renamed Burma as Myanmar in 1989. Perhaps to ease the public pressure the SLORC decided to hold a free parliamentary election to the Pyithu Hluttaw (People’s Assembly). In 1990, elections were held for the first time in nearly 30 years. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 392 out of a total 485 seats. But the SLORC refused to step down and handover power to the elected government. Suu Kyi’s struggle for restoring democracy caught the imagination of the world and she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1991. Except for brief periods, she has been placed under house arrest since 1989. In an internal purge in 1992 Than Shwe overthrew Senior General Sawe Maung to become the head of state.

In a bid to ease international pressure, in 1992 SLORC announced plans to develop a new constitution through the National Convention (NC). The NC began with the first meeting on January 9, 1993. However, it has made little progress due to the non participation of the NLD and powerful Karen and Shan insurgent leaders who had protested against the continued incarceration of political leaders. In 1997, the SLORC was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Myanmar joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997.

The present military regime under Gen Than Shwe is assisted by Senior Gen Maung Aye. The regime changed the name of SLORC to the State Peace and Development Council. (SPDC). As Chairman of SPDC Than Shwe holds all key powers. Khin Nyunt, the third ranking man in the junta and the prime minister, was sacked on October 19, 2004 in an internal purge. However, Khin Nyunt during his tenure developed better rapport with Thailand and appeared more amenable to find a peaceful solution to the question of restoring democracy and ending ethnic insurgencies. In fact, he managed to get round 16 ethnic militant groups to lay down their arms and sign cease-fire agreements.3

The continued suppression of democracy and incarceration of Suu Kyi has drawn strong international criticism. The junta has been facing international isolation from 1989 onwards. Myanmar’s situation was referred to the UN Security Council for the first time in December 2005 for an informal consultation. The US led effort to discuss Myanmar in the UN Security Council this year was vetoed by both China and Russia. ASEAN has also stated its frustration with Myanmar’s government. It has formed the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus to address the lack of democratisation in Myanmar. Despite these efforts dramatic change in the country’s political situation remains unlikely due to support from major regional powers including India and China.

Chinese influence

China-Myanmar relations have a long history. Modern Myanmar’s relations with China can be divided conveniently into four periods: 1949-1961 democratic rule, 1962-1988 Ne Win rule, and 1989-to date: Than Shwe rule.

In the period of democratic rule, the emerging China found a friendly regime in Burma under Prime Minister U Nu. Independent Burma was one of the first countries to recognise the Peoples Republic of China in December 1949. The two countries signed the first trade agreement in 1954 and a boundary treaty in 1960. However, China’s active relations with Myanmar started after the visit of Foreign Minister Zhou En Lai in Jan 1961 when China agreed to provide £ 30 million interest free loan to Myanmar. In the same year, armies of both countries launched joint operations to evict Kuomintang troops who had occupied parts of Shan state in Myanmar.

After Ne Win seized power in 1962, the relations between the two countries took a nosedive when the cadres of Communist Party of Burma (CPB) sought refuge in China. For the next six years, Sino-Myanmar relations had troubled times with periodic persecution of ethnic Chinese and anti-Chinese riots in Myanmar. Between 1968 and 1973 Chinese gave full support to the CPB insurgents to fight the military junta successfully. The Chinese also provided similar aid to Kachin, Shan rebels and Naga militants during this period. The CPB organised a number of insurgent groups to operate jointly against the military regime. However, Ne Win’s China visit in 1975 somewhat eased the relations. It warmed up in 1979 when China signed a $ 63 million aid agreement for various projects in Myanmar.

The year 1988 was a turbulent period both in China with the Tian An Mien square agitation and the 8888 movement of students in Myanmar. Perhaps this generated some kindred spirit in the regimes in both the countries. In 1989, China formally advised CPB to retire in keeping with its revised policy to stop assisting insurgents of other countries. This crucial decision helped the military junta to end the Communist insurgency and cripple Kachin and Shan insurgencies to a large extent. The Chinese action was also timely in baling out the regime which was facing large public protest demonstrations against high inflation and collapse of the economy. Since then the relation between the two countries has been strengthened by liberal economic, military, and political assistance from China.

China utilized the window of opportunity that came up in 1988 when Myanmar was internationally isolated for crushing the people’s movement for democracy. Since then China has stepped up its influence through economic, military and development assistance. This has cushioned Myanmar against international sanctions by providing most of the military hardware and build up its army in strength and quality. Till recently almost 80 per cent of Myanmar’s defence equipment was of Chinese origin.4

The grateful military junta has now raised China to the status of ‘Elder Brother’. The Chinese have followed a policy of non interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs. China has taken full advantage of the distinct geographic, political and ethnic advantages it enjoys with Myanmar. It has cultivated the military regime in Myanmar for nearly two decades now to emerge as the single most important power with influence over the military regime.. Chinese illegal migration into in the under populated northern areas of Myanmar had been an unreported process for sometime now. Unlike ethnic Indian community, which had been languishing as second class citizens under Myanmar citizenship laws, China has managed the absorption of ethnic Chinese as citizens of Myanmar. China has considerable economic influence in a number of fields, including supply of electricity and trade and commerce.

China’s strategic objective appears to be to gain direct access to Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea through Myanmar bypassing the narrow Straits of Malacca. With this aim in view China had been underwriting the development roads from northern borders to south. China has proved time and again itself as a valuable ally internationally whenever efforts were made in the UN Security Council to discuss Myanmar.

This implies that as long as the military regime is in power China will continue to have an overriding influence in Myanmar regardless of India’s efforts to build a win-win relationship. In other words, as long as India and China have a peaceful and constructive relationship, India-Myanmar relations will flourish in the present political dispensation.

Understanding the military regime

Traditionally and qualitatively Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar army is known, is different from the armies of South Asian countries which trace their history as instruments of British colonial power. However, in Burma, the British used the more dependable Indian Army for security and did not create a large Burmese army. Even during the Second World War the few battalions and levies raised by the British were mostly of non-Burman tribes like the Kachins, Kayahs and Karens. On the outbreak of the World War a group of nationalist leaders under Aung San known as the ‘Thirty Comrades’ raised the Burma Independence Army. The BIA spearheaded Myanmar’s freedom struggle first against the British in collaboration with the Japanese invaders and later against the Japanese in support of the Allied armies. The Thirty Comrades had been deciding the political destiny of Burma. The first Prime Minister U Nu, Gen Ne Win, the Army Chief who seized power to establish the military rule in Burma and Kyaw Zaw, the chief of the Burmese Communist Party who waged 30 years of insurgent warfare were all members of this elite group of 30.

The Burmese society’s exposure to western values had been limited even during the British colonial period. In India the British rule brought in English education and created an administrative system manned by locals. Many of them provided the leadership for the freedom struggle. This did not happen in Burma. Even before Burma became independent Aung San was brutally massacred along with most of the thirty comrades in a political conspiracy. So after Myanmar became free in 1948, for next 14 years the multi party democracy in action was disastrous. Corruption, groupism, warlordism and inept political leadership gave rise to political instability and encouraged the spread of powerful ethnic insurgencies particularly of Karnes, Shans and Kachins as well as Communists.

When the democratic experiment miserably failed, in 1962 the army under Gen Ne Win took upon itself to provide ‘stability and security’ to the country. Even after the exit of Ne Win in 1988, the military regime has managed to hold on to power. Twenty six years of Ne Win’s rule with the Burmese way to socialism as the ideology has resulted in state ownership of all enterprises, with the armed forces having a strangle hold on everyday life of the people. Rudimentary democracy introduced under the tutelage of the Tatmadaw was a single party rule that was a handmaiden of the military masters.

Thus the Tatmadaw unlike the apolitical Indian Army feels it has a legitimate role in ensuring stability and security in the country, if necessary outside the control of political masters. This feeling of the armed forces seeking a perpetual role in power is the main road block in evolving a democratic constitution. This is likely to be a permanent feature in Burma for many years to come.

The Tatmadaw, is Southeast Asia’s second largest conventional force, estimated at over 400,000 troops. It has more than doubled in size since the SPDC took power in 1989. It has around 340 infantry battalions (Tat Yin) including 266 light infantry battalions employed in counter insurgency operations. These units are grouped under 13 Regional Military Commands (equal to Corps in Indian army) which in turn are grouped under Bureaus of Special Operations (equal to Field Army Group). Myanmar tank fleet comprises of 139 Soviet-designed T 72Ss and around 600 Chinese built main battle tanks of different models. Myanmar has the second largest fleet of tanks in the region next to Vietnam. In May 2003, a leading Ukrainian arms exporter was reported to have inked a contract with Burma worth US $500 million, to supply Myanmar with components for assembling 1,000 BTR-3U light armored personnel carriers over the next ten years.

The Air Force (Tatmadaw Lei) and the Navy (Tatmadaw Yay) are small but efforts are on to modernize them. They have been mostly employed in supportive role for counter insurgency operations. Ending its isolation for the first time ever, Myanmar built missile corvette UMS Anawyahta participated in Milan 2006 exercise off Andamans along with Indian Navy in January 2006. It was described as a smart ship.

The Tatmadaw is considered an effective force in combating insurgency as is evident from its ability to successfully handle nearly 45 insurgent groups during the last three decades. However, it is considered as having little experience in conducting conventional operations. The quality of its weapons repair and maintenance are suspect. Its inventory of assorted weapons of large vintage and origin is likely to make battle field logistics a major problem.

Military regime’s strategy to stay in power

The end of the cold war, the ushering in of global economic liberalisation and the shift of China’s ambitions from the regional to a global arena, have compelled Myanmar regime to look for ways to come to terms with the changing environment, particularly in South East Asia, without loosening its hold on power.5 The need for this became urgent following the international outcry when the junta crushed the democratic aspirations of the people after the 1990 elections. Despite international sanctions, political agitations, internal and international protests, armed action and all most near unanimous international media hostility and criticism, the regime has successfully weathered the storm for nearly 20 years. The regime appears to have evolved a working strategy for survival. The threats to the regime come from three quarters: movement for restoring democracy, ethnic insurgency and international community. Its survival strategy had been aimed at tackling these three sources of threat.

In order to handle international community better, the military junta shed its traditional xenophobia of Ne Win vintage and embarked upon a strategy of building relationships particularly with its neighbours. This reworked strategy aims to reduce the noise of international clamour for restoration of democracy by improving its economic and trading relations.

It managed to divide international community by increased participation in regional linkages like ASEAN. India’s look east policy and development of close economic links with ASEAN, particularly Thailand, has coincided with the military junta’s desire to reduce its over dependence on China. India’s growing desire to assert itself in the east has resulted in cementing the trilateral relations between India-Myanmar-Thailand in an integrated fashion. Participation of Myanmar in international economic cooperation initiatives like BIMSTEC [the Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation] and the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation has softened the adverse image of the military regime in the eyes of its neighbours. The regime has also leveraged Myanmar’s oil resources against the energy quest of South and Southeast Asian nations to its advantage. Japan and Korea have also invested heavily in Myanmar. Thus it has managed to reduce the impact of economic sanctions and embargos imposed by the U.S. and the E.U. by creating a network of powerful nations like Japan, India and ASEAN apart from China, which have opted for ‘constructive cooperation’. This has helped the regime to divide and weaken the anti-Myanmar junta lobby in the U.N. 

By building better working relationship with India, Bangladesh and Thailand the regime managed to curb the activities of some ethnic and pro-democracy movements launched from safe havens in these countries. India has taken action to curb the activities of Kachin and Chin insurgency groups which had taken refuge in India while the Rohingiya groups in Bangladesh and the Shan and Karen insurgents in Thailand are also coming under pressure, as part of their developing relations with Myanmar.

As it developed closer relations with countries of the region, the regime has discouraged the active intervention of the U.N. and some of the global organizations critical of the regime. While this might damage the reputation of the regime, it has enabled it to keep out international organizations from probing its functioning.  China has been useful in warding off international action against the military regime both within and outside the UN. China along with Russia exercised a rare double veto to prevent Myanmar from being discussed in the UN Security Council early this year.

India’s policy perceptions

Gen Ne Win, who ruled Myanmar from 1962 to 1988, was essentially a xenophobic leader. His rule was characterised by “correct but not close relations” between India and Myanmar, in the words of JN Dixit, India’s former Foreign Secretary. 6 India’s reservations about the Myanmar military regime’s suppression of the peoples’ movement for democracy from 1988 onwards and the incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi soured the relationship between 1989 and 1992. India provided sanctuary and financial assistance to fleeing pro-democracy activists and honoured Suu Kyi with a Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1995. The military regime became suspicious of India ganging up with the West against the regime.

Since then the successive Indian Governments, under the prime ministership of Atal Bihari Vajapayee as well his successor Dr Manmohan Singh, have taken a series of measures to build a more broad based relation with Myanmar to address issues relating to including defence, trade and commerce, energy sector, developmental assistance and confidence building with the top level. 7 India’s policy perceptions on Myanmar started changing from 1991.

A few pragmatic considerations appear to have shaped India’s Myanmar policy since 1992 when India embarked upon the ‘Look East Policy’ to develop closer ties with the nations of Southeast Asia.8

While addressing the Harvard University in 2003, India’s Foreing Minister Yashwant Sinha haa explained

         1.    As part of the Look East Policy, India has been building closer relations with ASEAN region. There was reciprocal interest from ASEAN also to strengthen their relations with India. In October 2004, India signed an agreement ‘the ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity’ with ASEAN. India has also signed a free trade agreement with Thailand.

                Following the admission of Myanmar as a member of the ASEAN in 1997, progressing India’s relations with Myanmar is in keeping with the building of overall linkages with the ASEAN.

         2.    Myanmar has an abundance of gas resources, waiting to be exploited. India’s energy needs are rising phenomenally as the country’s economic growth is rising rapidly. It would be logical for India to build better relations with Myanmar to get piece of the energy pie.

         3.    Boxed in three sides by international borders and with a tenuous land link with the mainland, the seven northeastern states have remained stagnant in their development. This has given rise to a feeling of alienation among sections of the population from the rest of India providing a fertile ground for the growth of a number of ethnic insurgencies. Development of this region would end this feeling of isolation. However, at present the region suffers from limited communication with the rest of India and other countries. Providing faster and cheaper transit outlets through Myanmar would contribute directly to the development projects in the region.

         4.    For nearly six decades, India had been fighting a number of ethnic insurgencies in the northeastern states that had stunted their development. Operations against some of the insurgent groups like the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) have not been wholly successful because they operate from sanctuaries across the border in Myanmar. Better and faster communication access and denial of safe havens to insurgents in Myanmar could put an end to such insurgencies.

In keeping with this policy, India has been focusing on giving substance to India-Myanmar relationship with specific actions. To build high level contacts with the leaders of the military regime. Sr Gen Than Shwe, Myanmar’s head of state, visited India in October 2004. President APJ Abdul Kalam visited Yangon in March 2006. There had been a number of visits of ministers, and chiefs of armed forces from both countries. There had been regular meetings at the ministerial level also to monitor the progress of various projects involving India in Myanmar.

To improve connectivity with Myanmar, India has taken up a number of road and port construction projects. India has constructed the 160-km Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road in Myanmar from Manipur border. It is also assisting in the proposed trilateral highway project to connect Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Bagan in Myanmar. India’s Kaladan multi-modal transit transport facility is aimed at improving linkage between Indian ports on the eastern seaboard and Sittwe port in Myanmar. This would enable transportation by river transport and road to Mizoram providing an alternate route for transport of goods to northeast India. A proposal to build a rail link from Jiribaum in Assam to Hanoi in Vietnam through Myanmar is also on the cards. 

India is slowly becoming a regular supplier of arms to Myanmar, joining the ranks of China, Russia and Ukraine. Initially, India had supplied low tech arms and armaments, including 105 mm guns, T-55 tanks, light helicopters, transport planes, artillery ammunition and some naval craft. However, there had been a progressive upgradation of these exports. All the three chiefs of India’s armed forces have visited Myanmar for building better rapport. India’s latest defence aid package includes counterinsurgency helicopters, avionics upgrades for Myanmar air force’s Russian and Chinese-made fighter planes, and naval surveillance aircraft. 

India’s trade with Myanmar is growing at a fast clip. It is fourth largest trading partner with its investment reaching   $35.08 million last year. In 2006-2007, India-Myanmar trade was estimated at $ 650 million falling short of the target of $ one billion. (In 2004-2005, China-Myanmar trade was $1.145 billion as against India’s figure of $ 341.40 million in 2004-05.) India is taking steps such as extending airlines, land and sea routes

India’s policy of building closer relations with the military regime in Myanmar has drawn flak both at home and abroad. This was considered a betrayal of India’s ethos. During a recent visit to Myanmar on January 19, 2007, India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee made clear the country’s “hands off” policy to the struggle for restoration of democracy going on in Myanmar. He said that India had to deal with governments “as they exist ... We are not interested in exporting our own ideology. We are a democracy and we would like democracy to flourish everywhere. But this is for every country to decide for itself.”

Though pragmatism rather than principles appear to have overtaken Indian policy makers in perceived national interest, there are a number of imponderables that are likely to be encountered in implementing the present policy of engagement with Myanmar’s military regime.

More than a decade since India embarked upon improving its relations with Myanmar, the military regime’s performance in respect of India had been falling far short of its promises. Specifically, it is yet to launch sizeable military operations against the Naga, ULFA and other Manipuri insurgent groups who have established camps in Myanmar in areas bordering India. Similarly, Myanmar’s part of communication development within its territory to link up with India had been slow in coming up. As far as the natural gas contracts are concerned China had been treated clearly with special consideration. This could be the regime’s latent suspicion about India’s attitude towards the Myanmar political refugees who have been staying in India for over a decade. India’s arms supply to Myanmar had not been as substantive as China. Moreover, Chinese influence is overwhelming at the social, commercial and political levels, which is not the case with India. Thus in all likelihood China will always have an upper hand with the military regime, regardless of the growth of India-Myanmar relations.


Myanmar has a great strategic significance for both India and China. Its geographical location bordering India, China and Thailand for most part makes it a land bridge linking South Asia with South East Asia.

Over the last two decades the Chinese have built very close economic, political, military and developmental relations with Myanmar. Myanmar’s role in providing China a shorter access route to Indian Ocean and South Asia is going to be crucial in the strategic scene of South Asia. The Chinese have used the geophysical advantage they enjoy to gain access to Myanmar’s mineral and natural gas resources. Following a policy of non-interference in internal affairs of the country, China has become the ‘elder brother’ of the military regime. As the main supplier of arms to Myanmar, China has helped the military junta in power to beat the western sanctions and double the army strength. China’s studied indifference to the suppression of the struggle for democracy going on under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi since 1990 has undoubtedly emboldened the military regime to resist both internal and international pressure to change.

India has embarked on a policy of building closer relations with Myanmar to counter the Chinese influence and facilitate the growth of trade and commerce with ASEAN as part of its look east policy. It is financing road and port development projects in Myanmar which would improve connectivity of India’s north eastern states and help their development. India has also been selectively arming Myanmar despite the military regime’s dismal record in human rights and governance. With a friendly regime in Myanmar, India hopes to evict Indian insurgent groups from sanctuaries in Myanmar. The military regime has welcomed these efforts to broaden its relationship with India and ASEAN countries in the interest of its own strategic security. 

India’s current Myanmar policy appears to be largely copying the methods adopted by the Chinese. However, India as the largest functional democracy has a larger role to play in encouraging the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. Considering this, India’s relationship should aim at building better economic and developmental relations with the military regime while exploring all avenues to help the military regime and the democratic forces evolve a viable solution to build a democratic society. Sacrificing India’s fraternal relations with Myanmar’s democratic forces by itself is unlikely to increase India’s influence as the military regime is using the competing interests of India and China to its own advantage. 

Apart from the lead it has gained in Myanmar, internationally China has greater economic, political, and military clout than India in helping out the military regime. Given this advantage, India is unlikely to replace China’s position as the most influential country in Myanmar under the military regime.   

In the absence of Aung San Kyi’s leadership, the struggle for democracy in Myanmar has become immobile. Understanding this, the military regime is unlikely to release Aung San Suu Kyi unless it gains a face saving role for the Tatmadaw in any future democratic set up. 

As Myanmar’s ties with India and ASEAN countries grow and economic liberalisation touches the younger generation of military officers, we can expect a desire for change among armed forces. Similarly, the student movement holds the potential to take over a leadership role for political rapprochement with the military regime. When these developments come through perhaps there is a scope for evolving a democratic society though different from the western concepts but meeting Myanmar’s needs. India and China are indispensable in enabling this process that could stabilize the society in their strategic neighbourhood.

Thus in the interest of India’s strategic security, helping the creation of a stable and democratic regime in Myanmar should be India’s long term policy rather than mere economic goals.


      1   In this paper for the sake of uniformity the name Myanmar is used even though it was officially adopted by the military junta only in 1989 except in the historical period prior to the change of name. The democratic polity has refused to recognise the change in name.

      2   Based upon background given by World Institute for Asian Studies.


      3   For an interesting analysis of the internal purge of Khin Nyunt see Col R Hariharan, “Burma: Why the prime minister was sacked”, 2004, South Asia Analysis Group, at http://www.saag.org/papers12/paper1150.html

      4   However, in the last six years Myanmar has diversified its defence procurement to India, Russia, Ukraine and Czech Republic.

      5   This part is largely based on the author’s paper “Myanmar: Military regime’s strategies to stay in power” 2005 available at


      6   Dixit JN, My South Block Years pp 165, UBS Publishers, New-Delhi 1996

     7.   Sarath Kumara, Burma visit highlights India’s “Look East” strategy,2005 http://www.wsws.org/articles/2005/apr2005/indi-a06.shtml

     8. While addressing the Harvard University in 2003, India’s foreign Minister, Yashwant Sinha has explained Look East Policy as: “In the past, India’s engagement with much of Asia, including South East and East Asia, was built on an idealistic conception of Asian brotherhood, based on shared experiences of colonialism and of cultural ties. The rhythm of the region today is determined, however, as much by trade, investment and production as by history and culture. That is what motivates our decade-old ‘Look East’ policy.” Sarath Kumara, Burma visit highlights India’s “Look East” strategy.


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