Personal encounters, at times, have the power to draw one’s attention to events in far-flung lands. The news of a military coup in Myanmar in February this year reignited the memory of my personal encounters and an attempt to make sense of the event and its implications for India.
Anyone familiar with Mumbai suburbs knows about the magnificent Golden Pagoda at Gorai. The local tour guide at the centre informs visitors about the founder of the Vipassana Kendra and his promise to his guru in Myanmar to take back the technique of Vipassana to India as a mark of Myanmar’s gratitude towards India. But the Vipassana founder in his own style paid a tribute to Myanmar for preserving this Indian technique for over 2,000 year by constructing the golden pagodas in the traditional Myanmar interlocking style.
Then, few Indians know that the last King of Burma was exiled to the maritime city of Ratnagiri in Konkan by the British. The city still houses the tomb of King Thibaw Min and has a palace which is being developed as a tourist spot. Historian Sudha Shah’s book, The King in Exile: The Fall of The Royal Family of Burma documents this history in detail.
The cultural ties between India and Myanmar are as old as the those between India and China. The co-existence has been largely peaceful. Ties have endured well into contemporary times at many levels but have been oscillating between cold and warm. Even though India, for most part after Independence, had military dictatorships on the east and west fronts, Myanmar has never interfered in India’s domestic political space.
The above narrative may prompt a casual observer to conclude that long cultural ties and the trauma of British rule should have bound the two countries into a deeper engagement after their respective independence in 1947 and 1948. However, this was not the case.
The British rule left the Burmese antagonistic towards India because the British used Indians to administer Burma and Indian businessmen virtually dominated the economic sphere.
David Rudner in his paper Banker's Trust and the Culture of Banking among the Nattukottai Chettiars of Colonial South would note that the amount of capital invested by the Chettiars was more than the total British capital invested in Burma. Today, the word Chettiars is treated as a gali in Myanmar.
For the period 1947-1962, the engagement between the two countries, though warm, was confined to the higher echelons of political leadership. This was abruptly jolted by a military coup leading to a strain in ties, which continued till 1988. The only instance when Yangon looked favourably disposed towards Delhi during this period was when it recognised Bangladesh after the 1972 war.
However, after 1988, there were attempts to revive ties and prime minister (PM) Rajiv Gandhi took the proposal to Yangon to join the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), at the same time pressing for democracy following the 1990 elections. However, Myanmar joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, the pragmatic PM Narshimha Rao recognised that the ‘Look East’ policy of which Myanmar was an inseparable part, had to be based on practical ground reality. Although bilateral relationship was always viewed through the prism of the India-China-Myanmar triangle, security concerns in the North East had considerable sway since 1991 in Delhi’s calculations.
Common security concerns on both sides led to renewed engagement in the period 1992-2010 which culminated into a visit by PM Dr Manmohan Singh to Myanmar in 2012.
With the change of guard in 2014, it is difficult to fathom how the policy set on a roll by Narsimha Rao adjusts to the demands of ‘Act East policy’ (AEP). It is not clear why Delhi chose not to invite Myanmar at the 2014 swearing-in ceremony, considering its vital strategic and security importance in the AEP.
PM Narendra Modi paid a visit to Naypyidaw in 2016 and 2017 after the 2015 election that brought a civilian government in Myanmar. However, it is unclear why now the government chooses to abstain from vote on the Myanmar resolution of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) after the coup in 2021.
This brief synopsis throws up some important points to ponder. First, despite the undercurrent for democracy in Myanmar, Indian’s soft power—being the largest democracy—has not achieved much strategic goals and has been reluctant to support the cause.
Second, in the context of wider Indo-Pacific space, Myanmar is a frontier territory as it will witness geopolitical contestation from all superpowers such as US, China and India. Division of Myanmar’s population on religious lines complicates the situation further. Any loss of space will have its implications for global equilibrium. Currently, India is unable to take sides, which runs the risk that it may lose influence in the larger game in future.
Third, when the world was unipolar, the premise on which PM Narsimha Rao rolled out the ‘Look East’ policy, no more holds good under Act East Policy-AEP. The Indo-Pacific is now a contest between two systems—democratic versus State controlled—where technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) will decide the balance of power.
Unlike in the past, when Naypyidaw attempted to balance between the two Asian giants, its ability to attempt the same will get difficult in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing hard power projection by China against India and the US. If China succeeds in deploying its surveillance technology, the region will be firmly slide under Chinese sphere of influence.
Fourthly, the common denominator in the history of both the countries is the role of Japan. During World War II, the Burmese Independence Army joined hands with the Japanese forces to oust the British from Burma. Had Indian history acknowledged the role of Subhash Chandra Bose and the Japanese assistance to the Indian National Army (INA), and its influence on the Lion Gate mutiny in Mumbai, which convinced the British that it would be difficult to command the Indian forces and eventually led to British withdrawal, perhaps Myanmar’s perception of India could have been on a different ground. There are long-term costs of propagating biased history.
In a nutshell, what has happened in Myanmar is of high strategic importance to India. It is somewhat strange that, while India’s foreign policy is focused on Acting East, the public is virtually fixated to the West. It will be good if the general public and the intelligentsia come to terms with the fact that Myanmar is a contestation with high stakes and deserves much greater attention.
(The author is an economist in the banking system. The views are personal)