All eyes were on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar from September 5-7, 2017, during which he met with Myanmar President Htin Kyaw and state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, for more than one reason. Firstly, it followed his visit to China, where he had gone to attend the BRICS Summit in Xiamen from September 3-5. Second, the visits to both China and Myanmar came soon after the end of the two-and-a-half month Doklam standoff, which came to an end on August 28.
Both these points are important. On all his visits to China, he combined visits to East Asia and Southeast Asia, which send a clear message to China — while India may be behind China in terms of economic presence, it will not cede space easily and has its own interests in Southeast Asia. During his visit to China in 2015, he visited Korea and Mongolia. In 2016, he visited Vietnam on his way to the G20 Summit at Hangzhou. During his visit to Vietnam, a number of defense agreements were signed which caused discomfort to Beijing.
It would also be important to point out that India’s firm stand during the Doklam standoff has been appreciated by Japan as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members. The ASEAN members have been urging India to do more for a long time, and it would be fair to say that previous Indian governments have contributed their fair share in strengthening ties with Southeast Asia in the economic sphere.
It was not just the China factor which made this visit important, but also the complex domestic politics of Myanmar, where Aung San Suu Kyi is facing significant political challenges. The first of course is the mishandling of the Rohingya crisis. In recent days, well over 100,000 Muslims in Rakhine province have been forced to flee after Myanmar’s security forces accused the Rohingya of being responsible for attacks on police and army posts on August 25, 2017 and launched a severe crackdown. Large numbers of Rohingya, though estimates vary, have been murdered as well. The UN estimates that the number of Rohingya refugees seeking asylum could go up to as much as 300,000.
40,000 Rohingya refugees are presently in India, in states such as Jammu and Kashmir and Rajasthan, but the Indian government has taken a decision to deport them back. While Aung San Suu Kyi has been rightly lambasted for her handling of this issue, Modi did not want to ruffle feathers, though he did allude to the fact that this is a security challenge for the region. It would be pertinent to point out that one of India’s key infrastructure projects is the Kaladan Multi-Nodal Project, which seeks to connect Sittwe Port, the capital of Rakhine province, with India’s North East.
While Modi condemned the recent violence in Rakhine Province unequivocally, he also stated: “We hope that all stakeholders together can find a way out in which unity and territorial integrity of Myanmar is respected,” and hoped that “peace, justice, dignity and democratic values for all” can be achieved. While the Indian PM would have not wanted to embarrass Suu Kyi or weaken her position, this is a serious issue. Even Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is facing the heat because of the migration of Rohingya into Bangladesh: “Hosting a huge number of Myanmar nationals is a big burden for Bangladesh. We’ve given shelter to them only on a humanitarian ground.”
While Modi has tried to give space to Aung San Suu Kyi by not raising the Rohingya issue firmly, it remains to be seen as to whether she is in a position to prevent China’s increasing presence, in spite of increasing resentment.
Apart from examining the progress of connectivity projects, PM Modi also sought to utilize soft power during his visit. He visited Ananda Temple in the historic city of Bagan, the Mazaar (mausoleum) of Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, Kalibari Temple in Yangon, as well as the Shwedagon Pagoda. As in other places, efforts were made to reach out to Indians settled there. There was also a clear emphasis on capacity building. Memorandums of understanding signed included one between the Election Commission and Union Election of Myanmar, the national level electoral commission of Myanmar; the organization of cultural exchange programs for the period 2017-20; and the upgrading of a women’s police station.
If one were to look beyond the above points, there are a few takeaways: India needs to up its game on the delivery of projects which will help it enhance connectivity with Southeast Asia. A number of countries which are sympathetic to India have expressed frustration at the slow delivery of such projects. Some urgency has come into these, and allowing Japan to invest in Northeast India will not just send a message to China, but will also benefit these projects.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency has recently provided funding to a tune of Rs. 4,000 Crore for two projects, NH 54 and NH 51. NH 54 which connects Aizawl to Tuipang in Mizoram is important for the Kaladan Multi-Nodal Project. Recently, the Indian Cabinet approved the upgrading of NH 39 from Imphal to Moreh. This highway would not only give a boost to bilateral trade, but also reduce travel times between India and Myanmar. India has also begun to export petroleum products via this land route.
If one were to look at the area of soft power, it is important to encourage more tourists both ways. While encouraging greater people-to-people contact, PM Modi announced that Myanmar citizens who wish to visit India will be given gratis visas. India needs to ensure that there is a follow up on this. Apart from this, the number of Indians visiting Myanmar is far less than the potential given the historical linkages between both countries. The number of Indians visiting other Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand and Indonesia, is far more than Myanmar. More direct flights and road connectivity could help in this context.
As Myanmar’s economy booms, there is also likely to be a need for professionals. Visa regulations for Indian professionals should be eased out. As the presence of Indian companies is already on the rise, the presence of Indian professionals should be encouraged. State governments from not just Northeast India but other parts need to be encouraged to reach out to Myanmar, especially those which have a significant population within Myanmar’s Indian community. These include Tamil Nadu, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh.
In conclusion, while Modi has tried to give space to Aung San Suu Kyi by not raising the Rohingya issue firmly, it remains to be seen as to whether she is in a position to prevent China’s increasing presence, in spite of increasing resentment. Given the security ramifications of the Rohingya Issue, it is imperative that India takes up the issue more firmly since the ill treatment of innocent civilians is unacceptable for any liberal democracy. Apart from this, India needs to use its soft power more effectively.