Amid growing international condemnation towards simmering Rohingya crisis, Prime Minister Modi made a three-day long bilateral state visit to Myanmar from Sept 5th-7th. Earlier Modi visited Myanmar in November 2014 to attend the ASEAN summit and East Asia Summit at Nay Pyi Taw. Long overdue, Modi’s recently concluded visit is his first bilateral state visit. In fact, this is third such visit by an Indian Prime Minister in the last 25 years. Manmohan Singh visited Myanmar in 2012. Myanmar is the gateway to Southeast Asia and hence heart of India’s earlier “Look East” and now “Act East” Policy. Though India envisioned importance of vital ties with Myanmar, successive Indian leaderships failed to scale up bilateral ties and counter growing Chinese influence.
Even Myanmar observers contend that while India revitalized relations in the region under “Neighborhood First Policy”, its engagement with Myanmar has been inadequate. They observe that while Modi invited all neighboring countries for his swearing-in ceremony, Myanmar was missed out. India shares over 1600km long territorial boundary and maritime boundary of Bay of Bengal with Myanmar and hence has serious implications on security scenario of India’s North East.
Currently Myanmar is grappling sudden surge of violence like the one that erupted in 2012 which resulted in displacement of over 100,000 Rohingyas. With number of Rohingya’s fleeing the country having doubled, Myanmar government and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi are facing global condemnation for inept handling of the situation. Chorus has been growing against the harsh treatment meted out to Rohingya’s by Myanmar security forces that led to death of civilians and forced migration. Breaking her silence, Suu Kyi, State Councilor and foreign minister blamed “terrorists” and termed crisis as “a huge iceberg of misinformation”. An independent commission headed by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan was constituted to make recommendations to Myanmar government to ease the ethnic unrest in Rakhine state. Suu Kyi, welcomed the observations of the commission but conceded that it will be difficult to solve the issue that has been there since pre-colonial times in 18 months.
Modi’s visit to Myanmar comes at a time when Suu Kyi, is facing strong criticisms from several corners especially Muslim dominated countries. Almost at the same time, Indian Home Ministry has ordered expeditious deportation of 40,000 illegal Rohingya Muslims based on reports of intelligence agencies proclaiming them as posing grave threat to India’s security. Domestically, Muslim groups and NHRC has been mounting pressure on Indian government and challenged its decision in Supreme Court. But Modi, during bilateral talks, didn’t directly engage with Myanmar on Rohingya issue but expressed concern at various “incidents of terrorism and extremist-inspired violence”. Myanmar condemned terror attacks on Amarnath yatris and other terror attacks perpetrated across borders while India condemned terrorist attacks in northern Rakhine state wherein several security persons have lost their life. Both countries agreed that “terrorism violated human rights and there should, therefore be no glorification of terrorists as martyrs”. In a terse message, both countries called on “the international community to end selective and partial approaches to combatting terror” and stressed need for expeditious finalization of Comprehensive Convention of International Terrorism (CCIT) by the UN.
Interestingly, incriminating evidences to Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) that spearheads attacks against the security forces and Buddhists in Rakhine state have been receiving financial support and training from extremist groups including ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence). Reports of Indian intelligence agencies suggested the involvement of illegal Rohingyas in Bodh-Gaya blasts and Kashmir insurgency. In fact, while earlier regimes dismissed the massive guided settlement of illegal Rohingyas in Kashmir as conspiracy theories, ground reports now confirmed that Lashkar-e- Toiba has been using them to carry out terror operations in Kashmir.
Reciprocating Modi’s approach, Suu Kyi equated Rohingya issue in Rakhine state with India’s Kashmir insurgency. She said, “We have to think about how to differentiate between terrorists and innocent people. You in India are well-versed with this, because India has a large Muslim community and in place like Kashmir, where you face terrorism, the trouble of sorting out the terrorists from the innocent citizens and all those who are not involved in the terrorist movement at all, comes up”. She thanked Modi for his strong stand on terror and assured that “terror would not be allowed to take roots in her country”. Unlike in past, India refrained from joining chorus of Muslim countries and stayed away from criticizing Myanmar government. Ratcheting up engagement with Myanmar is extremely important for India for better border management. In 2015, Indian troops crossed the border to hunt down militants harboring in Myanmar. Further, Myanmar is negotiating with China and Russia to block any UNSC sanctions. India’s criticism would have pushed Myanmar into Chinese orbit. Incidentally, hours after Modi ended bilateral visit, India rejected the decision of the World Parliamentary Forum in Indonesia, the Bali Declaration that expressed concern over violence in Rakhine state.
India has substantially revved up its engagement with Myanmar through Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). This momentum was sustained by high-profile official visits of President U Htin Kyaw, State Counsellor Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief of defence forces Min Aung Hlaing. As of now, India’s commitment to Myanmar’s development stands at over $2 billion much higher assistance offered by other countries. India is now expediting the construction of much delayed Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport project and India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway. Both countries have now agreed to deepen defence and maritime cooperation, focus on humanitarian assistance, disaster management. Unlike China, India has offered assistance to Myanmar for setting centers for industrial training, enhancement of skills, capacity building, entrepreneurship development, agriculture research, English language training and planetarium. Both countries believed that the socio-economic development can alleviate situation of the Rakhine state and India offered assistance for its inclusive development. Myanmar government invited Indian companies to participate in exploration and production of petrol and petroleum products.
Bilateral trade currently stands at $2.2 billion with huge potential to grow. Countries now called for removing trade barriers to boost up trade. To improve people to people relations, a connectivity agreement was concluded to start a bus service from Imphal to Mandalay. India and Myanmar signed 11 agreements which includes MoU between election commissions of India and Myanmar, cultural exchange program, cooperation between press councils, establishment of MIIT (Myanmar Institute of Information Technology), medical products regulation, upgradation of women’s police training centers. India agreed to give national gratis visa in all categories except e-visa. As a friendly gesture India granted special pardon to 40 Myanmar nationals and negotiated land border agreement.
Besides, official engagements, Modi visited places of historical, religious and cultural significance at Bagan and Yangon. Believed to be built around 1105 by King Kyanzittha, Modi paid visit to one the oldest temples of Myanmar, Ananda temple. It is an iconic symbol of amalgamation of Mon and Indian architecture. After the temple suffered damages due to earthquakes of 1975 and 2015, India allocated $3 million to a project undertaken by Archeological Survey of India for restoration and repair. Later Modi addressed Indian diaspora at packed Thuwunna stadium in Yangon. Greeting Indian origin people in Burmese and Tamil, he hailed the contributions of the Burmese towards India’s independence movement, recalled Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauz at Burma and apprised them of the latest developments in India. Modi paid homage to General Aung San at Martyrs Mausoleum and visited Bogyoke Aung San Museum accompanied by Suu Kyi. He performed puja at Kalibari temple at Yangon maintained, controlled, and built by Tamil migrants in 1871. Modi also visited the dargah of Bahudur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor who was exiled to Rangoon after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Prime Minister wrapped up his bilateral state trip with a visit to the most sacred Buddhist shrine, Shwedagon Pagoda.
Plans of reinvigorating ties with Myanmar has been on cards, boosting credence to this ambitious project, Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh made his first foreign visit to Myanmar. Speaking at the conference on International Peace and Environmental Protection, he referred to Myanmar as “Brahmadesh” and reiterated that “both countries are united in mind and spirit by a common approach to religion”. He divulged India’s plans of developing a Buddhist circuit.
Making up for the years of neglect, Modi invoked all exemplar paradigms at his behest to strengthen strategic ties with Myanmar. By cherishing, reiterating centuries old historical and cultural connect between India and Myanmar Modi vivacious soft diplomacy reignited regional bonding. Instead of getting carried away by the western narrative of violation of human rights, Modi skirted Rohingya issue, offered developmental assistance, pledged to expand and expedite infrastructure projects and above all offered firm support in fight against terrorism. Through diligent recalibration of India’s Myanmar policy, Modi meticulously balanced India’s geopolitical, security concerns and prevented Myanmar from slipping into Chinese orbit.
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