With Myanmar President U Htin Kyaw arriving on a four-day visit to India from Saturday on the heels of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s day-long visit to that country on Monday, Yangon is seeking to find some kind of a balance in its ties between two large neighbours, India and China.
This will be the first presidential visit from Myanmar after Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) assumed power in March this year.
Suu Kyi, who spent a considerable part of her early life in India and was educated at Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi, however chose to make Beijing her first port of call after she became the country’s State Counsellor and foreign minister. She was in Beijing last week.
After the NLD assumed power, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval visited Myanmar as a special envoy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 16, and Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Nirmala Sitharaman earlier led a high-level business delegation to the eastern neighbour for the India-Myanmar Business Conclave on May 18-20.
Last month, Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh held a meeting with Suu Kyi on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Laos.
According to Rajiv Bhatia, a former Indian ambassador to Myanmar, two factors have to be watched during President Htin’s upcoming visit. “One is the agenda and outcome of the visit,” he said. “The other is Myanmar’s balancing of ties with China, India, Japan and Asean.”
According to K. Yhome, Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think tank and the author of “Myanmar: Can the Generals Resist Change?”, Suu Kyi’s visit was aimed at balancing ties with the new government trying to reduce its dependence on China.
“They (Myanmar) are also trying to engage with more important powers like the US,” he said.
Suu Kyi is scheduled to visit Washington next month at the invitation of US President Barack Obama who had met her during his visit to Myanmar in 2014 for that year’s Asean summit.
But at the same time, Yhome said that India figured prominently in the regional geopolitical dynamics of the eastern neighbour. “President Htin’s visit is a regional geopolitical calculation of the Myanmar government,” he said.
According to Khin Zaw Win, Director of the Tampadipa Institute that works on policy advocacy and capacity-building in Myanmar, New Delhi has been slow in engaging with Nay Pyi Taw, the country’s administrative capital, in the wake of the new dispensation.
“India should act fast in implementing these projects according to its Act East Policy while keeping in mind the benefits for the people of Myanmar,” Win told IANS over phone from Yangon. “You must ensure that you do not make the same mistakes as in the case of Chinese-funded projects,” he said.
He said Chinese projects, like the $3.6-billion Myitsone Dam at the source of the Irrawady river, were started without proper consultations, resulting in a lot of people getting displaced.
Major Indian infrastructure projects underway are the trilateral highway connecting Moreh in Manipur with Mae Sot in Thailand through Myanmar, the Kaladan multi-modal transport project connecting Mizoram with Myanmar’s Sittwe port and the Rih-Tedim road in Myanmar across Mizoram.
“It is unfortunate that the infrastructure projects have been delayed for long,” said Yhome. “But since the Modi government came to power, there has been a renewed push to implement these projects,” he added.
According to Bhatia, security along the international border between India’s northeast and Myanmar is also an important issue for New Delhi.
During Sushma Swaraj’s visit this week, both sides agreed to make efforts to ensure peace and security along the long, shared border. The Myanmar leadership asured Swaraj that activities of anti-India insurgent groups targeting the Northeast would not be countenanced from its territory.
“Now we have to see if their (Myanmar’s) action matches their words,” Bhatia said.
India and Myanmar have old historical, ethnic, social and religious ties, besides sharing a long land border and maritime boundary. It is also seen as a gateway to the Asean nations and beyond.
Many Indian companies have invested in Myanmar’s energy sector and also set up plants there, especially in the automobile industry. Its natural resources and large reserves of oil and gas are of great interest to China as well, which sees it as a strategic window on India and has invested in big infrastructure projects.