India and Myanmar share close, strategic ties and President Ram Nath Kovind’s state visit to the eastern neighbour is an indicator of India’s strong support to the Myanmar government.
President reiterated that strong support in a speech at Nay Pyi Taw, when he “appreciated the reforms underway in Myanmar. We understand that this is a particularly challenging time for Myanmar. India is in full support of the objectives of the National Peace Process.”
India has built close ties with Myanmar ever since it reversed its stance of maintaining a cool, formal relationship with the military junta in Yangon (the capital of Burma as it was then called) in the early 1990s. But the National Democratic Alliance government was caught on the wrong foot between Myanmar and Bangladesh over the Rohingya issue last year when it viewed the Rohingya problem as a security issue rather than a humanitarian one.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was visiting Myanmar when the Rohingya crisis erupted and his initial response focused on the attacks on Myanmar security forces camps rather than the exodus of Rohingya refuges that followed the attacks. The Indian response seemed to favour the Myanmar narrative instead of the referring to the plight of the displaced Rohingyas and the influx of refugees in to Bangladesh.
Dhaka was dismayed at the Indian stance and the Modi government made amends with the Bangladesh government by quickly dispatching aid and humanitarian assistance for the Rohingya refugees who were living in pitiable conditions in camps near the Bangladesh border. As the only country that is a neighbour of both Bangladesh and Myanmar, India has had to play a balancing role on the Rohingya issue. In contrast, China backed the Myanmar government on the Rohingya issue, and has deftly maintained its increasing influence in Bangladesh by offering to mediate between the two governments and earmarking humanitarian assistance for Bangladesh.
India has taken the position that the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments have reached an agreement on the return of Rohingya refugees, and that agreement should be implemented as soon as possible. India also welcomed the Myanmar government’s decision to implement the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission. India has been giving humanitarian assistance to the Bangladesh government for the refugees and also building housing in the Rakhine province for the return of the refugees.
In 2017, India signed the Rakhine State Development Programme to build pre-fabricated housing units for the return of the displaced Rohingyas. India offered to build 250 houses as part of the first phase of the programme. About 50 housing units were handed over to the Myanmar government in a virtual ceremony in the presence of the Indian President.
There has been a regular exchange of high level visits with Myanmar in the past 18 months. Modi had visited Myanmar in September 2017, while Myanmar State Councilor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made a state visit to India in January 2018 for the Asean Commemorative summit, which was followed by a visit by External Affairs Minster Sushma Swaraj in May 2018.
Myanmar is an immediate neighbour with a land and sea border, which links India and the Southeast Asian region. India and Myanmar cooperate in Asean and the Bimstec regional forum. It is a key country in the ‘Neighbourhood First’ and also the ‘Act East’ policy that Modi had first announced during the India-Asean summit in Myanmar in 2014.
India and Myanmar have steadily strengthened their economic, political and strategic ties in the past half decade. As a measure of the growing comfort in the bilateral ties, Myanmar has offered visa on arrival facility for Indian tourists flying into the international airports at Nay Pyi Taw, Yangon and Mandalay.
Over the years, India has provided financial support and project grants of $1 billion to Myanmar and $750 million in lines of credit. But India-Myanmar trade is at a modest level of US $1.6 billion. Myanmar’s trade and investment policies have been evolving ever since it opened up its economy to foreign investment. Though Myanmar is attracting investment, Indian businessmen have been reluctant to venture into unfamiliar economic landscape in Myanmar. Indian investment in Myanmar is about $740 million.
China is the biggest investor in Myanmar, with a two-way China-Myanmar trade of $8 billion. China has signed a scaled down agreement for developing the deep sea port of Kyauk Phu in the Rakhine state. The Kyauk Phu port would link China’s Kunming province to the Bay of Bengal.
Indian projects are spread over difficult terrain and have run into long delays. The Kaladan Multimodal Project is to connect the Rakhine province to India’s northeastern states. The Sittwe port and the inland waterway have been built, but some linking projects are still under construction. During the President’s visit India has sought Myanmar’s support to expedite the remaining parts of the project.