India-Myanmar Relations Over the Years
September 2022, volume 46, No 9

Myanmar gained Independence on 4th January 1948, less than five months after India.  For both countries, therefore, this year marks the 75th year of Independence. Even before its Independence, Myanmar, then called as Burma, was a province of the British Empire in India and was ruled from Delhi till 1937 when it was made into a separate entity directly administered from London. While that factor did not really engender closer ties between the two independent neighbours, their relations have traversed a long way during the subsequent years. These have however not been without hiccups from time to time. And these hiccups arose more due to developments in Myanmar. In retrospect, the decade of 2010 when Myanmar showed greater promise of a transition to democracy perhaps witnessed the most fruitful relations between the two countries.

Two broad elements defined the relationship during the initial years after Independence when they were both fledgling democracies. One was the warm friendship between the two Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and U Nu that contributed to close consultations and frequent exchange of visits. The second, a restraining factor, at least at the popular level, was the treatment meted out to Indians in Burma who had been brought in by the British in various capacities during the colonial period and who were seen by the Burmans as foreigners notwithstanding that several of them had become residents for a generation or more. Starting from the 1930s onwards, measures taken towards discriminating against the Indians resulted in waves of them returning back to their homeland and resettling.

The military takeover by General Ne Win in 1962 and his harsh and quixotic rule for the next 26 years, marked by what was billed as ‘Burmese way to socialism’ saw the country also withdrawing into a shell internationally, espousing its version of neutrality and quitting the nonaligned movement. Poor economic policies led to the intrinsically resource rich country ending up weak economically. Indian and Burmese leaders did exchange some visits and the two countries also signed the Land Border Agreement in 1967 and the Maritime Border Agreement in 1986. But beyond them, there were no notable outcomes. The decision by General Ne Win early during his rule to nationalize enterprises in 1963 also dealt a severe blow to several Indian businesses still left in the country and led to another round of exodus.

The democracy movement led by students and Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988 did initially appear to offer change and hope. Democratically held elections in 1990 resulted in a resounding win for the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Suu Kyi. But even before the new government could take office, the military intervened in what became two more decades of military rule, led eventually by General Than Shwe who took over in 1992. Initially, India took a fairly strong line supporting the democratic movement when several of the movement’s leaders including Suu Kyi had been put under house arrest. This led to a cooling off of ties with the military regime. But this policy underestimated the durability of the regime and soon a correction was needed.

Two further elements entered India’s calculus at this stage. China that had hitherto had a difficult relationship with Myanmar began to develop cosier ties with the regime helping with arms supplies and facilitating truce arrangements between the Myanmar military and certain rebel ethnic groups of Myanmar near the China border. Secondly, the need to tackle some of India’s own ethnic rebel groups that had been taking shelter across the border in Myanmar, which also drew support from China, acquired greater focus. Security imperatives required India to enhance its engagement with Myanmar and thus began a two-track approach from 1994 onwards that focused on engaging with the ruling dispensation on the one hand, while also showing some support for democratic forces and its leaders. As the military regime lengthened and Myanmar’s dependence on China appeared to grow, India’s engagement track acquired greater importance.

India’s substantial economic and technical cooperation programme received impetus during this period. The Tamu-Kalay/Kalewa India-Myanmar Friendship Road in Myanmar across Manipur State was constructed by India as grant assistance and inaugurated in 2002. Institutes for imparting English language skills, entrepreneurship development, industrial skills training and computer education were set up.  Plans were also made to construct the Kaladan River cum Road Corridor Project that would provide an alternative route for supplies to reach from Kolkata to Mizoram through the Sittwe port in Myanmar. Similarly, the trilateral highway that would extend the friendship road further to link up to Mandalay and then further to Thailand was also conceived during this period with feasibility reports prepared. Further, Indian companies ONGC and GAIL were permitted to acquire a share in the Shwe gas project off Myanmar’s coast.

Matters also appeared to acquire more salience on the political front with exchanges of visits by President Abdul Kalam to Myanmar in 2006 and by General Than Shwe in 2004, apart from visits at other levels. Dialogues and visits also got featured at the military level. As the Myanmar military regime still remained substantially isolated globally, engagement with India must have helped. From Myanmar’s perspective, a degree of balance vis-à-vis China was also important even as it depended on the Chinese veto at the UN Security Council to escape condemnatory actions particularly after the saffron uprising in 2008.

There was welcome relief worldwide when Than Shwe decided to hang up his boots and elections were held in the year 2010 in a controlled manner under a new Constitution adopted in 2008 that was intended to usher in a ‘disciplined democracy’ with the military having a 25% reservation of parliamentary seats. The NLD led by Suu Kyi who was still under house arrest did not participate in these elections which were won by the newly formed Union Social Development Party (USDP) that comprised mostly retired generals and other senior military officers who had shed their military uniforms and had become civilian candidates just before the elections. While there was much scepticism about the results and widespread criticism internationally about the elections, India took a more constructive stance and hoped that this will mark a transition towards a return to democracy. Suu Kyi was also released soon after the elections and the former Prime Minister Thein Sein, a General in Than Shwe’s regime, became the new President of the country beginning April 2011.

The five years of Thein Sein’s government saw opening up on several fronts. These included the release of political prisoners, greater media freedom, ushering in of economic reforms and launch of a peace process with the ethnic rebel groups. Suu Kyi could return to political activity and the NLD soon sprang to life and decided to participate in the by-elections held for 40 odd seats in April 2012. The elections conducted then, which were widely witnessed by the  international media and election observers, including from India, were mostly free and fair and the NLD candidates, including Suu Kyi herself, won handsomely in virtually every contested constituency. Myanmar suddenly became a sought-after nation with many western countries that had no resident diplomatic representation opening embassies or others upgrading them. Suu Kyi was permitted to travel to global capitals where she was received with warmth and accolades. Foreign investors began to make a beeline. Soon economic indicators began ticking up with expert predictions that Myanmar could leave behind its LDC status and emerge with a middle-income profile. The only country that received some setback in its relations during this period was China that had to contend with the unilateral suspension of the mega Myitsone Hydroelectric Project by the Thein Sein administration on environmental grounds.

Relations with India too prospered on various fronts. State visits by President Thein Sein in October 2011 and by PM Dr. Manmohan Singh in May 2012, the latter by a Prime Minister of India to Myanmar after 25 years, significantly contributed in this regard. Suu Kyi also visited India in November 2012 and delivered the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial lecture. These were in addition to exchange of visits of several other delegations including by Chiefs of the Armed Forces, Speakers of national assemblies and Cabinet Ministers. India showed support and encouragement to the path-breaking reform measures taken by Myanmar towards greater democratization and national reconciliation. Bilaterally, a host of new initiatives were taken, apart from reinforcing ongoing ones, in many areas including connectivity, power and energy, trade and investment, development cooperation projects, defense supplies, culture and people-to-people relations. A line of credit for US$ 500 mn was also extended by India to Myanmar for development-related projects.

A similar politically conducive environment prevailed for promoting bilateral relations during the subsequent five-year period of the NLD government that was de facto headed by Suu Kyi even as she was designated as the State Councilor. She was accorded a state visit to India in October 2016 that took place just a couple of months after the then Myanmar President Htin Kyaw’s visit. PM Modi also returned the visit the following year when he was warmly welcomed.  The western world however began to distance itself again from Myanmar during this period, principally because of the manner of the treatment of the Rohingya people in Myanmar that resulted in hundreds of thousands of the Rohingyas fleeing as refugees to Bangladesh. Suu Kyi chose to go along with the Myanmar military that was involved in these actions. She did constitute an Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State led by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that came out with a number of recommendations, but these were ignored eventually. When Gambia took the matter to the International Court of Justice, Suu Kyi herself led the Myanmar delegation to defend the country; international efforts to repatriate these refugees in Bangladesh back to Myanmar made little progress.

India’s response to these developments was however, not like that of the western countries. With several Rohingya refugees also making their way to India, India’s response, as it evolved over this entire period, was fourfold. India condemned the initial terrorist actions of the ARSA Rohingya group resulting in the loss of life of some Myanmar security forces. But it also expressed its deep concern about the situation in the Rakhine State and the outflow of refugees. It further urged that the situation in the Rakhine State be handled with restraint and maturity, focusing on the welfare of civilian populations alongside those of the security forces.  Secondly, India also took a tough stance on the entry and stay of Rohingya refugees in India and there were pronouncements that they would be returned to where they came from. Third, India extended some relief assistance for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh under ‘Operation Insaniyat’ to support the humanitarian efforts of the latter. Fourth, India did try and use its engagement with Myanmar in quietly persuading the country to take the refugees back and announced some measures for the development of the Rakhine region in Myanmar including construction of prefabricated housing to meet the needs of the returning people.

India had to keep in view two aspects. Firstly, it was getting some assistance from the Myanmar military in dealing with the Indian ethnic rebels taking shelter in Myanmar. Secondly the Chinese by now were back into enhancing engagement with Myanmar and were developing closer ties with the NLD government. Suu Kyi herself made several visits to China during this period and President Xi Jinping also visited Myanmar in January 2020. China strove hard to get the China Myanmar Economic Corridor proposals pushed through during this period and to consolidate its participation in the Kyaukphyu Port related projects. The Kyaukphyu Port was already connected through cross country pipelines to the Yunnan province of China for transporting natural gas and crude secured from the Gulf and other sources.

India’s overall engagement with Myanmar therefore continued to expand during the NLD government as reflected in the joint statement released after PM Narendra Modi’s state visit to the country in September 2017, covering again a whole range of areas from security-related issues to trade and investment, power and infrastructure, technical cooperation and culture. In comparison with India’s exports at the beginning of the decade in 2011-12, when they were US$ 545 mn, they doubled to US$ 1.2 bn in 2018-19 and they also diversified to include pharmaceuticals, buffalo meat, cotton yarn, machinery, electrical machinery, vehicles including tractors and parts, certain steel items and soyabean meal.

The number of Indian companies that had set up offices in Myanmar also grew including some of India’s large business groups. An India-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce was established in 2017. CII also got active and hosted an Enterprise India show in Yangon in December 2018. The Myanmar Institute of Information Technology, a full-fledged university set up as a centre for excellence in Mandalay with India’s assistance started its undergraduate and post-graduate programmes. An advanced centre for agricultural research, offering masters and doctoral research programme set up in Yezin in Myanmar under the Bilateral Development Cooperation Programme was inaugurated by former President Ramnath Kovind when he visited Myanmar in December 2018.

It was also unique that in early October 2020, despite the COVID precautions in place in both countries, the then Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla and the Chief of Indian Army General MM Naravane jointly visited Myanmar that included calls on Suu Kyi and other senior functionaries. Considering the flurry of visits that took place from China during that year and the increasing rebel activities of the Arakan Army in Myanmar, apart from COVID related health emergencies at that time, it was perhaps an effort to indicate India’s support towards Myanmar’s security and autonomous development at a time when there were jockeying pressures for strategic projects. It could also have been aimed at showing India’s support and encouragement to Myanmar at a time when it was heading for elections that were to be held in November 2020.

All these have however changed somewhat with the Myanmar military taking over the reins of power once again on 1st February 2021, based on allegedly fraudulent elections, just as the newly elected members of the Myanmar Parliament were to take oath and form a new government led by the NLD after it won the General Elections held in November 2020. The Chief of the armed forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (MAH) declared himself the Prime Minister and is administering the country through a State Administration Council set up by him. Meanwhile, the opposition set up a shadow National Unity Government (NUG) comprising 27 Ministers in May 2021 drawn from not only the NLD but also some of the ethnic groups. The NUG came up with its own idea of a federal constitution and a federal army. Since September 2021 the NUG has also declared a ‘people’s defensive war’ against the regime. All this has again taken the country back, with the military now facing armed resistance from civilians-turned-activists with some going underground or joining local militias termed ‘people’s defense forces’.

Deaths from violence continue to mount with the toll now reportedly exceeding 2000 with also a huge number under house arrest or detention. Suu Kyi herself and along with the ousted President Win Myint, and various other senior figures in the NLD and their supporters, have been facing multiple charges and legal proceedings with harsh sentences being handed down.

While India has refrained from sharply criticizing the military takeover, it has expressed its interest in Myanmar’s return to democracy at the earliest, the release of detainees and prisoners, the resolution of issues through dialogue and the complete cessation of all violence. India has also fully backed the ASEAN initiative, put together in the form of a five-point consensus, towards cessation of violence and making progress through dialogue among all parties involved. While the ASEAN is making efforts, including its unprecedented decision to suspend Myanmar military representation in ASEAN related meetings conducted at political levels, there is not much evidence that the military is willing to allow the ASEAN initiative involving dialogue with all including Suu Kyi to move forward. Rather the execution of four political activists, including a former lawmaker, on grounds of ‘aiding terrorism’ in July 2022, has given disturbing signals and invited wide criticism including from the ASEAN which has termed it ‘highly reprehensible’. India too has noted the development with deep concern.

It is far from clear how the situation will develop in the coming months. Three possibilities exist. One could be that the ASEAN assisted by the international community manages to foster a dialogue between the military and the NUG elements and helps chart a way forward. This may seem far-fetched at this stage particularly because of the wide chasm between the military and the NUG which are both adopting fight-to-win strategies, and there is complete lack of mutual trust. The military could also be emboldened to hold out by the support it is receiving from Russia (the Russian FM Lavrov was in Myanmar on 4th August this year) and the increasing engagement seen with the regime by China whose Foreign Minister Wang Yi was also in Myanmar in July. But if the rest of ASEAN remain reasonably united at this stage in pressurizing Myanmar, it could have an influence.

Second, the military regime may carry out its own plan of conducting an election in August 2023 through the Election Commission constituted by it. It can well be expected that NLD which is being continually discredited by the military will be kept out of the elections. The NUG parties including the NLD have in any case made clear their opposition to such new elections demanding that the Parliament elected and annulled in 2020/2021 be restored. Such elections if proceeded with by the military could be an attempt to enable the military backed USDP to win a majority of seats as happened in 2010. And Min Aung Hlaing could be elected President in that case. But whether he can succeed to re-enact a Thein Sein era is far from certain.

The third possibility is of course, the continuation of military rule over an extended period citing the emergency situation in the country. That would mark a repeat of the Than Shwe era.

Myanmar has experienced each of the forgoing possibilities in some form in recent history. But none of them may come about or be sustained this time easily. All this remains a cause for concern for India since it has already been faced with spillover impact in the form of civilians fleeing the Chin state of Myanmar to cross over to Mizoram. Indian rebels sheltering in Myanmar could also use the disturbances there to advantage as was seen in the killings of Col. Tripathi of Assam Rifles and his family in Manipur’s Churachandpur district in November 2021. India’s development projects like the Kaladan Project or the trilateral highway stand little chance of making headway if the unrest prevails.

For India, there is much at stake for peace and stability to return to Myanmar. Notwithstanding its consistent support for an inclusive and democratic process to evolve and strengthen in Myanmar, it will have to continue to calibrate its level of engagement with whatever is the ruling dispensation in the country considering India’s own national interests. The continued scope and depth of bilateral relations will accordingly get determined.


VS Seshadri is former Ambassador to Myanmar and presently a Senior Fellow at the Delhi Policy Group.